The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman

What is space travel like? This is what most of us think when we look up in the sky on a starry night. Going to space is a question that has haunted mankind since time immemorial while looking at the stars. Back in the ‘60s, every child had dreams of becoming an astronaut one day. I did. It was the space exploration years, the fierce rivalry between U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts was on our agenda. I remember gazing deep into the starry night on an Aegean beach, as if I would be able to see a thing, when Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first step in the moon. As kids, we were star-struck, or better to say space struck. We had extraterrestrial dreams.

Apparently, the same was true for the Dutch astronaut André Kuipers. Born in 1958, only a year older than me, he was one of those kids who looked up in the sky and dreamt. Last week Kuipers visited Istanbul as part of the NASA Space Exhibition, and I had the opportunity to meet and talk with him and listen to his story as someone who has fulfilled his childhood dream. It was three space books his grandmother gave as a gift that ignited his love for space travel. Although he had little chance as a Dutch citizen, he finally achieved his ambition of being part of the International Space Station (ISS) mission, and went to space twice, staying up there for a total of 204 days. It is totally just to call him the real “Flying Dutchman,” the name given to the legendary ghost ship sailor that flew up to the sky in the storm. When we met Kuipers over lunch, the core of our talk was daily life in space, what the food was like while he had his first taste of Turkish cuisine.
When in space, the body clock of a person is confused in terms of days and nights. Since there is no sunrise and sunset, there is no concept of day and night. Therefore, the body clock and time perception of the astronaut can be confused. When I ask how they set their meal times, Kuipers says they set the time according to the working shifts of the base on earth. working, exercising, eating and resting times are set by the base, and they spend the day accordingly. If they weren’t told it is an eating break, it was easy for them to forget the meal. He says that due to the upward movement of body fluids in a gravity-free environment, the balance of the body is a bit changed, and at times space sickness, nausea, nasal congestion can result in loss of appetite. At that point, the next question is inevitable, how palatable is space food? Can it be that the joy of eating is not there and totally lost with the unappetizing look of food and drinks filled in plastic pouches?

It is obvious that it is not possible to set a proper table, eat from a plate and drink from a glass in space. Everything is eaten in bags, in some cases from cans, with long-handled spoons, or through straws, sometimes tweezer-like chopsticks. Your essential cutlery becomes scissors to cut the pouches. If you want to add salt and pepper, forget it! It is dangerous, not for your own health but for all the equipment around. Since there is no gravity, small particles, powdered spices, granules and crumbs can fly through the air and get into the machines, posing a serious danger to the system. Therefore, such flavor additions can only be injected into the food with a syringe in solution form. Drinks are also sucked out of the bags, and forget about fizzy drinks, they will end up in a foamy mass, in a true mess actually. When I ask about the tastes, Kuipers says that sharper flavors are sought in space. There may be a loss of sense of smell due to nasal congestion, and it becomes difficult to smell foods because everything is in bags. He says, they usually ate alone in their own units during breakfast time, but tried to get together at dinner time. Sometimes, there were mutual invitations for a dinner party offering each other foods from their own rations, aka unwanted food that they are fed up with. The most enjoyable part of these invitations was tasting each other’s food as everyone seemed to be tired of eating a repetitive diet. He adds that astronauts of different nationalities had different dishes and that he did not choose Dutch dishes in particular, but requested Old Amsterdam cheese. While in space, he missed most the tastes of his childhood and the traditional Dutch meat stew his mother made. “It’s weird because we don’t normally make this dish at our own home anymore,” he says.

Life in space is observed as a wonderful journey with an endless space view in the background. Not true! In most times, astronauts are living in a box, constantly working and fulfilling endless duties. Kuipers says he missed nature the most, when in space. Fortunately, one of his missions was to conduct a study on sprouting seeds in space, that could hopefully pave the way for agriculture in space. The “Seeds in Space” project, aiming to sprout and grow seeds in space, was interestingly carried out in collaboration with around 60,000 children in the world. The seeds germinated in space were simultaneously germinated both in dark and lightless environments in the world and also in daylight, and the germination and growth processes of the seeds were monitored both by Kuipers in space and by the children participating in the project on earth, and the differences in growing seeds in space and on earth were observed.

Fresh greens, vegetables and fruits are among the foods to be missed most in space. Kuipers says that the arugula grown in a space environment proved to be unexpectedly delicious. The technology used to grow food in space, involving pink lights replacing sunshine, using soil-free hydroponic or aeroponic agriculture are also applied on earth. Countries with limited agricultural lands, such as the Netherlands and Israel, have developed this technology for many years now and initiated vertical farming practices. Such technologies are envisioned as sustainable models in big cities, especially meeting the demand for a year-round supply of salad greens, aromatic herbs, vegetables and certain fruits. Growing perishable greens close to our neighborhood is an important step to reduce the carbon footprint, especially in comparison to transporting them from afar, grown with high-water consuming agriculture. It is also a plus that the products that are grown without any pesticides and isolated from all kinds of pollution, dust and soil are edible without washing. As a matter of fact, salads grown with space technology may soon decorate our tables in Istanbul, too. Plant Factory, which is a completely local initiative in our country, started its indoor vertical farming practices in Istanbul with a completely similar technology. They are catering to restaurants only these days, but it will be soon possible to taste space-age greens in our home kitchens. So the food up there might be the food down here in the future

Fork of the week:

What Turkish food is eligible for space? Of course, I did not bid farewell to Kuipers without having him taste some Turkish food. He liked the strained lentil soup we tasted, comparing it to the famous Dutch pea soup, surely the right choice for space. He swept his Ali Nazik kebab plate clean. Complaining that grilled steak in space lost its quality in terms of texture, becoming a sort of a paté, rather than remaining chewable, he commented that small meat morsels of the kebab might be more suitable and the mixture of roasted eggplant and yogurt under the kebab could easily be included in the space menus. Unfortunately, baklava that he loves so much probably won’t stand a chance in space; its crispiness will be lost and could be crushed when vacuumed. He did not even touch the carrot and beet hummus on the table. He obviously likened them to pureed space dishes, not whetting his appetite at all. He enthusiastically noted down the names of some Turkish restaurants, kebabs and steakhouses I recommended in Amsterdam, namely Ali Ocakbaşı, Mr Meat Steakhouse and Snob, and said he would try them as soon as he returned.

Aylin Öney Tan,