While astronauts clearly get a kick out of taking advantage of zero gravity and eating M&Ms like Pac-Man eating Pac-Dots, what they want the most isn't candy. According to recent reports from NPR and ABC News, the men and women who boldly go where few have gone before constantly reach for a hot pepper or a tube of hot sauce to spice up their space meals.
The reason for this marked craving for spice is not entirely clear, but NASA food scientists believe it may be caused by the effects of weightlessness on our bodies. On Earth, gravity pulls our body's fluids downwards. In zero-gravity space, however, the fluids “go everywhere, including to your head,” NASA food scientist Michele Perchonok tells NPR. That in turn causes astronauts to lose their sense of smell and feel like they have a cold or are otherwise congested. And just like when we have a cold, they need to have something Chung King– or Jitlada-level spicy to compensate for their loss of taste and smell.
For that same reason, horseradish also is popular with astronauts. According to ABC News, the horseradish that comes with NASA-approved freeze-dried shrimp not only makes the shrimp edible — the shrimp apparently tastes like “cardboard” — it also helps clear out the astronauts' sinuses. Maybe they should also start packing kimchi in their lunchboxes, which the first South Korean astronaut was lucky enough to have when he launched into orbit in 2008.
In addition to these spicy sauces, NASA is researching other foods that would be ideal in outer space. The Cornell/University of Hawaii Mars Analogue Mission and Food Study, for example, will go to Hawaii in 2013 to simulate the environment of a hypothetical Martian base camp, with various spices and foods in mock Martian pantries for volunteers to test. The project's goal is to identify possible meals for future intergalactic dining menus, when and if we decide to conquer the final frontier. One red planet and hot sauce at a time.