The cold, dark vacuum of space is hardly amenable to subtle flavors.
Astronauts are under a whole host of physical pressures after they've left the comfort of their home planet, and taste is one of the first senses affected. The absence of gravity can wreak havoc on body fluids and leave one with the feeling of a constant head cold.
"Astronauts lose taste when they're in space, because of the fluid shifts in their bodies," said Alli Westover, NASA project engineer. "All the fluids shift up – you get puffy face and it's more difficult to taste and smell in the same way."
That means that any food sent up to space has to pack some pretty bold flavors if it's not going to taste like mush to astronauts. Combined with the specific requirements of packaging food for an interstellar journey, this factor makes creating palatable space food daunting for even the most accomplished chefs.
Six students from the Cherry Creek School District were happy to take up that challenge in this year's NASA high school culinary competition. The contest, part of broader NASA's HUNCH (High schools United with NASA to Create Hardware) program, includes student chefs from across the country, all working to create a tasty and transportable meal for astronauts. The winners of the annual competition will have their original culinary creation processed by the Johnson Space Center Food Lab and sent to the International Space Station for astronaut consumption.
For the second year in a row, Cherry Creek Schools is one of the only districts representing Colorado in the nationwide competition. Last year, Grandview's team was among the top 10 in the nation; students made the trip to Houston to formally present their dishes to judges at the Johnson Space Center.
"We had a personal badged and guided tour of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, which was incredible. We had the red carpet treatment," said Mary Anderson, STEM teacher at Eastridge Elementary School and director of the district's NASA HUNCH culinary program. "It's a life-changing experience for these kids … One of the students had never been on a plane before and said she was going to be telling her great-grandchildren about the experience."
Though the Grandview team didn't win the top spot last year, their inclusion in the top 10 secured their recipe a spot in NASA's official Astronaut Quarantine Cookbook. The experience also left Anderson and her team members with the desire to keep working and competing. This year, teams from Grandview and Smoky Hill high schools created dishes for the Colorado preliminary taste test held Feb. 27 at Lakewood. Finalists will be announced later this spring.
The three students on the Smoky Hill team prepared a mini polenta potato and olive muffin, while the three students from Grandview presented self-encapsulated mini-quiches with bacon, pepperjack cheese and jalapeno. The CCSD students worked alongside culinary professionals and students from Warren Tech in one of the technical school's professional kitchens, an onsite trial that came after months of hard work.
Both CCSD teams worked to meet the precise standards of competition, which fuses science and art in true STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) fashion. In addition to preparing the meal, teams had to formulate technical research papers and create in-depth video presentations.
"Our ideal dish is going to have to be easily processible for space flight. We're looking for something that's going to be unique and that's going to have a lot of flavor," said Westover, who serves as the program manager for the NASA HUNCH culinary competition. "We have a lot of students who didn't even realize that culinary science could be a part of the space program. It's opened up doors for them."
That much was clear in the responses of students on both the Smoky Hill and Grandview team. Maya Johnson, a senior at Grandview, competed in the HUNCH program for the second year in a row. A self-professed artist whose future plans are rooted solidly in creative pursuits, Johnson said working on the HUNCH contest offered her valuable lessons in both science and professional teamwork.
"It was a lot of studying and education about how the astronauts work and operate in space," Johnson said. "There's a lot that goes into the packaging of the food and how they taste it."
C.J. Weidner, a junior at Smoky Hill High School, also found access to a different world through the HUNCH program. Weidner's expertise and interest is rooted solidly in the world of engineering, and he plans to attend the Colorado School of Mines after graduating high school. While the technical and scientific aspects of the HUNCH project came naturally, the culinary artistry of the experience was a revelation.
"I never cooked anything other than microwave food before this," Weidner said. "Now, I'm a lot better."
The students who competed in the NASA HUNCH culinary contest are:
From Smoky Hill High School:
From Grandview High School:
UPDATE, 3/12/2018 -- The Grandview team of Eva Reish, Maya Johnson and Thandi Saunders won the Colorado competition and has made the Top 10. They will travel to the Johnson Space Center in Houston later this year to compete for the top spot. Congratulations to these student chefs and scientists!!!