Space food has a complex history, beginning with a few tasty tubes of pureed meat, and later branching out into a dining hall of multinational cuisine. Despite the advances in food science and growth of menu options in space, there’s one surprising dish that’s been there (almost) since the beginning: shrimp cocktail. For decades, the retro-fancy appetizer has been an unexpected staple of space dining.
History of Shrimp Cocktail in Space
The Gemini missions featured major improvements in cuisines from the previous Mercury missions, due mainly to superior packaging options. Bye-bye squeeze tubes, hello freeze-drying. This allowed a greater diversity in options; astronauts could now enjoy dishes like pot roast, chicken and vegetables, spaghetti, and yes, shrimp cocktail.1 Since then, it’s been featured on just about every mission, and now, on the ISS.
Gemini 4 (1965) commander Edward White named shrimp cocktail as his favorite space dish, beating out the pot roast and butterscotch pudding. Since then, multiple astronauts have declared it as their favorite. On his first visit to space, Endeavor shuttle crew member Jim Reilly took several bags for cosmonauts aboard the Mir station. Story Musgrave, veteran of Skylab and all five shuttle missions, told fellow crew members “they’d be sorry” if they didn’t add it to their personalized menus.2 Musgrave himself reported eating shrimp cocktail for every meal, including breakfast.
The greatest shrimp cocktail evangelist, however, would have to be Endeavor’s Bill Gregory. On the 1995 shuttle mission, Gregory planned to eat shrimp cocktail with every single meal over the course of Endeavor’s 15.5 day flight, for a total of 48 bowls of the hors d’oeuvre.3 Shrimp-mania continues on modern missions. According to Vicky Kloeris, former manager of the ISS Food System, it remains the most requested meal on the station.4 But why?
The Secret Sauce
According to crew members, it’s not necessarily the shrimp itself that sets their taste buds ablaze – it’s the sauce. The tangy, spicy, glorious horseradish sauce. Due to microgravity, astronauts experience a fluid shift that causes a cold-like, congested feeling. The stuffiness and diminished smell leads to changes in taste, with normal favorites not being nearly as flavorful, or even unpalatable.
Michele Perchonok of NASA’s food science program describes the phenomenon as “the Charlie Brown phase, because their faces have gotten more round.”5 The fluid shift is pervasive enough to give some astronauts a cartoonish appearance. Although some say the congestion diminishes after several days, it does return intermittently.
Many crew members find that their requested personalized foods no longer hold the same appeal while in space. Spices and seasonings become the new gold standard. Cravings increase for more extreme flavors, like spiciness, sourness, and sweetness. In 2002, ISS astronaut Peggy Whitson jokingly blocked the Atlantis shuttle crew from entering until they assured her they’d brought a sufficient supply of hot sauce and salsa.6
How it’s Served
Unlike at fancy dinner parties of yore, space-shrimp is not artistically fanned out along the rim of a martini glass. The shrimp has its tails removed and is cooked in a small amount of red, tomato-like sauce, and then freeze-dried. The horseradish sauce is powdered. Despite the less-than-luxurious serving methods, ISS astronauts say that sharing favorite foods together has enormous psychological benefits and helps space feel a little more like home. Next up, escargot?
1. Food for Space Flight. NASA. February 26, 2004. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Food_for_Space_Flight.html / 2. Christensen J. Houston, we have a potluck. CNN. November 2, 1998. http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9811/02/shuttle.food/ / 3. Borenstein S. In space, 48 bowls of shrimp cocktail sort of make sense. Orlando Sentinel. March 9, 1995. https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1995-03-09-9503090077-story.html / 4. Sunseri G. Heavenly and Delicious. ABC News. December 11, 2006. https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=2717508&page=1 / 5. Palca J. Why astronauts crave tabasco sauce. NPR, All Things Considered. February 23, 2012. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/02/23/147294191/why-astronauts-crave-tabasco-sauce / 6. Romanoff J. When it comes to living in space, it’s a matter of taste. Space and Physics. March 10, 2009. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/taste-changes-in-space/