At a space food conference in Cologne, German astronaut Ewald talked to DW about the challenges of eating in outer space, what he missed the most – and what makes rice dishes so treacherous.
DW: Mr. Ewald, can you describe your space food experience?
Reinhold Ewald: I was aboard the MIR station for 19 days. During this time we had a strict metabolic regime. That means all the ingredients of the space food that I was eating had been measured before. I had undergone a couple of pre-launch weeks where I ate pretty much what I would eat in space and we repeated that after the landing, so that in effect, we could separate the effects of microgravity on my body from the normal life I would live on-board the space station.
So you're telling me that you were the experiment.
I was indeed the guinea-pig for this experiment. And I put in a lot of time and diligence so that I'd fulfill the requirements. The results were pretty good – no one could dispute that there was something happening, for example with the sodium levels in my body.
How did space food taste in the 1990s when you were on the MIR space station?
We were already the lucky ones because we had a mixture of US-provided food and Russian food. I have to say: doing the bachelor's cooking on-board the space station you tend to minimize the amount of effort you have to put into it.
There the Russian food was clearly the favorite. I had a mixture, but I saw that my colleagues liked the potluck approach that the Russians had, with mixing potatoes, meat and vegetables all in one can. When you opened it you had a full meal, rather than having many separate things that you had to prepare separately by either diluting it with hot water or cooking it on an electrical stove.
What was your favorite meal?
My favorite meal is definitely dessert. There were not enough desserts on board to meet my needs, like fruit salad. The Russians also had a nice kind of cottage cheese in a roll-up tube that you had to empty into your mouth. Sometimes you develop unexpected food favorites and then you try to maximize consumptions of those.
Can you tell me about the rice experience?
That's a laugh for all the space veterans when a first-time flier comes up to the station.
You open a can of Russian chicken on rice, for example, and you're not expecting any difficulties there. You start eating it and the first rice corn starts floating away from the can. OK, fine, you grab it with your other hand and try to put it back into the can. But with the hand holding the can you do an involuntary counter-movement, which sends ten or 20 rice corns into space. They're floating away and then you give up and see the laughter of your veteran colleagues who are saying 'Just let it float.'
There's a constant suction of air in the space station. All this debris that comes from uneducated eating gets into the filters of the ventilators and on Saturdays, we have a clean-up day and then it's gone.
There's a joke that astronauts and cosmonauts have about eating in space…
It comes from when American astronaut Michael Foale was training in Star City [in Russia]. He took the exam on food and they are very exact about telling you what food you are not allowed to eat: food that has surpassed its best-before date, food that has been damaged, food where there are kinks in the can.
Foale knew all these answers, but he wanted to pull the instructor's leg. His reply was 'You're not allowed to eat the food of the commander!' That brought him the highest points – they were humorous enough to accept his answer.
So for the upcoming Horizons mission, that would mean you can eat anything you want, but don't touch [German astronaut] Alexander Gerst's food?
Absolutely. Stay out of the bonus food containers for Alexander Gerst.
Reinhold Ewald, a German ESA-astronaut, spent three weeks in space aboard the Russian MIR station in 1997.