When the space shuttle Atlantis crew left the orbiting space station on Sept. 17 and returned to earth, they left behind thousands of pounds of food, clothing, and other items for the next space travelers. This follows a method of providing supplies for travelers called "caching," a method used by travelers for thousands of years.
In early November, American astronaut William Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev will launch into space and move into the space station as its first long-term residents. The food left by the Atlantis crew will be all they have to sustain them until the next supply ship arrives. That's something they have in common with fellow explorers from hundreds of years ago: no grocery stores, restaurants, or drive-through windows along the way.
If you and your family wanted to drive to Cape Canaveral (Fla.) to watch a shuttle launch, you might pack a few snacks and drinks in the car. But even if the trip took days, you wouldn't worry about where to find food. Stores and cafes would be available at practically every freeway exit.
When Sir Alexander Mackenzie set off from Fort Chippewa in Canada to find a route to the Pacific Ocean in 1793, there weren't any roads, let alone cafes. He and his group had to hunt, fish, or harvest their food along the way. And they took a lot of supplies with them to help out.
THE EXPLORER'S 'MEATLOAF'
One item they carried has been a popular "traveling food" for thousands of years. They carried bags of pemmican received in trade from native tribes. Pemmican is made by drying or smoking meat and then pounding it into powder. It is mixed with hot fat, cooled, and then cut into cakes. Buffalo or deer meat was often used by natives throughout North America. Sometimes berries were added to sweeten the taste. Pemmican lasts for years, so it was very helpful on long trips. Peoples in South Africa make something similar, calling it tasajo.
You may have tried something like it on your own trips, if you've ever bought beef jerky. South American natives made charqui by dipping meat in brine (salt water), then drying it. Travelers often pounded it between stones to soften it before boiling and eating it. The jerky in the term beef jerky comes from the term charqui.
Many of the foods eaten on the space station are dried, so that they will last longer. Some are freeze-dried - cooled quickly to freeze the water, then heated in a vacuum so the water evaporates without melting. Then water is added when it's time to eat them. Pioneers and explorers couldn't freeze-dry their food, but they did have their own form of a bouillon cube. A concentrated stock made from meat trimmings was dried to a near-solid state. It could keep for years. To make a bowl of soup, a piece was broken off and placed in hot water. Nineteenth-century travelers called it "pocket soup."
American pioneers and explorers often traveled with dried cornmeal pancakes called "johnnycakes." For space travelers, cakes, cookies, and bread present problems because of their crumbs. One small crumb allowed to float free in a weightless environment can drift into an instrument panel and cause problems. Anything that might produce crumbs has to be carefully eaten or moistened to reduce the number of crumbs.
Much of the food on the space station is stored and eaten in plastic pouches. If it is freeze-dried, water is squirted into the pouch to rehydrate the food. Then it can be sucked out or eaten with a spoon. Early astronauts didn't have a lot of variety in their diets, but since then space food has covered a lot of ground. Now astronauts eat a lot of the same foods in space that they eat at home: tuna fish, fruits, vegetables, peanut butter, pudding, applesauce, steaks, soups, and casseroles.
Some foods, such as candy, peanuts, and granola bars, are stored and eaten just like at home. Others are freeze-dried or packed in pouches. Cans aren't often taken on space trips, because of their weight and because they take up a lot of space in the trash. Plastic pouches can easily be stuffed in a trash bag after use. Then the next supply ship can take the garbage back to earth with them.
Alexander Mackenzie couldn't use cans on his trip in 1793, either. Canning hadn't been invented yet. The explorers in his party carried 90-pound bags of pemmican, along with other supplies like corn and rice. They hunted and fished for food along the way, also eating wild licorice roots and various berries when they could find them.
They also "cached" food, leaving provisions buried or under piles of rocks along the way. They could pick these up for use during the return trip. When he reached the Pacific Coast on July 22, 1793, Mackenzie became the first European to travel from coast to coast across North America. (Lewis and Clark would travel from coast to coast below the Canadian border 12 years later, reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1805.)
When the first residents of the space station move in this November, they will use the cache of food stores left by the Atlantis crew. They'll be able to look out a window and see at one time every part of Canada that Mackenzie spent months crossing. But they'll also be depending for their survival on food-storage techniques developed and improved by travelers throughout the ages.
If you'd like to download a virtual tour of the space station, you can go to: spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/vtour/.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society