Food for Thought
Tortillas in space: How a Tex-Mex favorite became a NASA staple
It’s been wild down in Clear Lake lately, with all the Shuttle-brating going on. Sure, it’s just a replica, but we were politically robbed — robbed I say! — of a real shuttle. Now the idiots up north can’t even take care of the real one.
But I digress. What I really want to talk about are tortillas. In space.
One thing missing from the shuttle partying in Clear Lake/Seabrook/Weber was the kind of partying that used to go on at Tierra Luna Mexican Grill.
“It was just a great little place right outside the JSC gates,” says Charlie Justiz, an aviation specialist and science fiction writer (Specific Impulse, in stores now!) who spent three decades as a NASA pilot. He’s the guy who flew the 747 that the shuttles were strapped atop as they headed to Florida.
Tierra Luna, besides being right next to the JSC compound (that’s Johnson Space Center, you know how those NASA peeps are about acronyms), was a cool place for astronauts to hang out because it was owned by Adela Hernandez, wife of astronaut Jose Hernandez. He’d sometimes hang out there and wait tables with his wife and other family members.
The restaurant isn’t there any more; the Hernandez family closed it and relocated to California after he retired from NASA in 2010. He’s currently running for the 10th congressional district there. But even though Tierra Luna is gone, the NASA community still has a fondness for Tex-Mex. So much so that tortillas are a staple for space travel.
In "¡Ask a Mexican!" columnist Gustavo Arellano’s new book on the rise of Mexican food in America, Taco USA (available in stores now! No, I’m not getting a kickback for this. I just like that phrase) he starts with astronauts Hernandez and Danny Olivas eating breakfast burritos in space in 2009 on the International Space Station. That would be the ISS in NASA-speak.
(Quick aside about NASA acronyms: When Justiz and his wife Dayna Steele were expecting their first son, the NASA culture nicknamed the in-utero baby DACK. As in Dayna and Charlie’s Kid. It stuck and to this day the boy’s name is Dack.)
"Picture trying to make a sandwich with two slices of bread. In space, you’d need three hands to do it. Tortillas work great and are a favorite with the astronauts."
“Sure they taste great,” says Justiz. “But that’s not the reason tortillas are in space. It’s because bread has crumbs and tortillas don’t. You can’t have crumbs floating around and clogging up air vents. We’ve been sending them up for decades to the ISS and on the shuttles. We used to get them from a little tortilla place near El Paso.”
According to NASA’s website, tortillas have been in space since the 1980s but are now specially designed to last longer:
“Picture trying to make a sandwich with two slices of bread. In space, you’d need three hands to do it. Tortillas work great and are a favorite with the astronauts. On the ISS, they still taste good after being stored for up to 18 months! Add some picante sauce and hot sauce and you’ve created fajitas, one of the astronauts’ favorite meals.”
In fact, in 2000 University of Houston faculty Dr. Clinton L. Rappole, Dr. Elena Vittadini and Dr. Yael Vodovotz started a study to develop extended-life tortillas for long-duration space missions. I'm not sure, but I think this might be the first collaboration between the aerospace engineering and hotel and restaurant management departments. It’s a little dry but you can read about it here.
Anyway, having tortillas in space is tasty, nutritious, safe and gives one a sense of home.
Much better than those tasteless freeze-dried packs of food-like stuff NASA started out with. Plus with a tortilla the eating possibilities are endless. Wrap your eggs, meat, and even peanut butter into one and eat while you float around doing your work.
Here on earth we are even wrapping tortillas around other Tex-Mex staples. Have you seen Taco Bell’s new Beefy Nacho Burrito? “Bite into crunchy nacho chips, covered in warm nacho cheese sauce, delicious 100% real seasoned beef, and cool reduced-fat sour cream, all wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla for maximum portability.”
Hmmmm. Frankly I think I’d rather try one from the ISS.