Here's the thing about space food. While it might seem exotic to people here on Earth — to people who live in some relative proximity to a farm or a grocery store — space food is awesome only in the sense that it is eaten in space. Otherwise, the stuff is not at all awesome. Space food tends to be dry. Or else slimy. Or else just weird: different enough from the product it's trying to emulate that it serves only as a sad reminder of what it is not. Space food — when actually consumed, rather than bought at a gift shop — is pretty horrendous.
This is compounded by an unfortunate circumstance of space life: Microgravity affects humans' taste buds, making it hard for astronauts to taste flavors in their food even when those flavors are technically present and technically delicious. Without gravity to pull blood toward the feet, especially during the first few days in space, "your head sort of inflates like someone is squeezing the bottom of a balloon," explains current astronaut Chris Hadfield. The results are clogged sinuses and the hindered flavor reception that comes with them. "It's kind of like having a cold; you're kind of stuffy,'' Charles Bourland, formerly NASA's manager for space station food, puts it.
So NASA has teams dedicated to imagining, and then manufacturing, foods that will prove maximally nutritious and minimally disgusting to the men and women who must eat them. Over the years, via cube and tube and bar and powder and dehydration and rehydration, space agency scientists have found ways to make things like steak and apple sauce and peanut butter cookies suited to the many vagaries of space. They have developed a veritable cornucopia of freeze-dried, vacuum-packed, crumb-reducing, and morale-boosting delicacies.
And yet, for all that work, there is one culinary product that has proven, year in and year out, a particular favorite of extra-terrestrial diners: shrimp cocktail.
Yep, shrimp cocktail. The mainstay of 1950s haute cuisine, not so much fanned in a goblet as rehydrated in a pouch. The best space food that space food technology has yet developed — sorry, Tang — is, apparently, cooked shrimp, shells and tails removed, swimming in a tomato-esque sauce.
Edward White, manning the Gemini 4 mission in 1965, declared the shrimp cocktail to be his favorite meal among NASA's offerings of spaghetti, pot roast, and butterscotch pudding. Gemini 7 astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell also feasted on shrimp cocktail. "Shrimp cocktail" was Chris Hadfield's quick answer when asked about his favorite space food. Endeavor astronaut Jim Reilly loved the stuff — and so did his fellow cosmonauts, docked to the shuttle on the space station Mir. Reilly would regularly mix up bags of the treat and take them to over to his comrades, under the logic that "meals can make or break an environment."
Oh, and let's not forget the shuttle astronaut Bill Gregory, who in 1995 ate 48 straight space meals accompanied by shrimp cocktail. Respect.
Perhaps the most vocal fan of space shrimp, though, has been astronaut Story Musgrave. The six-time shuttle flier was known to eat the stuff for every meal — yep, even for breakfast. And Musgrave, in turn, became a kind of shrimp evangelist for fellow astronauts, Gregory among them. "I caught on to shrimp cocktail really early," Musgrave explained of his mentorship. "And now I encourage other people to add it to their menus so they don't eat mine." (As one news article rather ominously summed up Musgrave's advice to shuttle rookies: Put shrimp cocktail on their menus or "they'd be sorry.")
So why the popularity of the cosmic crustaceans — a dish whose particular flavors and textures, no offense to shrimp or to cocktails, would seem uniquely ill-suited to space?
It comes down, as so many things do, to the sauce. A sauce that, Charles Bourland put it, "has a pretty good bite." Spicy foods aren't just refreshingly tastable in space; they also seem to "wake up" the taste buds for the Swedish meatballs and the mashed potatoes and the other food that might follow them. That means that condiments like salsa and Tabasco and even barbeque sauce are mainstays in the dining area of the International Space Station (and that human existence yielded the numinous circumstance that is Sriracha in Space). Shrimp cocktail, for its part, is "a very tangy meal," Bill Gregory explained of his high-flying Shrimp Fest. So the "shrimp" aspect of "shrimp cocktail" is, it turns out, simply a side dish — a gloppy little garnish to the food the astronauts are really after: the cocktail sauce. And the spice that comes with it. "The horseradish sauce has a really strong, sharp flavor that survives rehydration," Hadfield noted.
It a) has flavor and b) survives rehydration. Not bad, all in all, for space food.