While the Malaysians struggle with the issues of Islamic prayer in orbit, the Koreans have a more serious issue: how do we take our national comfort food with us?
Kimchi – the Final Frontier
April 2008 will see the first kimchi in space when Korea’s first astronaut journeys to the final frontier. With the help of cutting-edge technology, the national delicacy acclaimed for its taste as much as its healthful properties will become “space food.”
Space kimchi is being developed jointly by a team in the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute led by Dr. Byun Myung-woo and domestic food maker CJ. It looks much the same as the kimchi Koreans eat every day. Those who have tried it say it has zest and makes them feel much the same as the terrestrial variety, while the color is also similar. But a look through the microscope reveals the difference in the micro-organisms that help ferment the vegetables. The U.S. and Russia put top priority on safety when they approve space food, all of which is thoroughly sterilized. If living micro-organisms were to mutate into killer germs in space, the reasoning goes, there would be no way to prevent them from wreaking havoc among the astronauts.
Heating food kills the micro-organisms, but in the case of kimchi, that would produce kimchi stew. To address the problem, KAERI used cobalt-60 gamma rays, which attack and disconnect DNA or enzymes of bacteria and thus prevent them from multiplying. Radiation has been used for various space foods since it was first used to sterilize the ham that went up in Apollo 17 in 1972.
In zero gravity, the air does not move and astronauts cannot smell, so their sense of taste, too, is dramatically reduced. Space kimchi is expected to be of great help in stimulating astronauts’ appetite with its zest and spices. In addition, it is effective in promoting the intestinal functions, which tend to be somewhat sluggish in space, with abundant fiber.
After being irradiated, the kimchi is deprived of all the gas, but the possibility remains that the juice will squirt out when it is opened just as soda does in a low-pressure environment. There would be kimchi juice all over the ship. For that reason, CJ has developed special packaging for space kimchi.
KAERI concluded an agreement with the NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Center to develop space food last year. The institute is to sign another agreement with the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of Russia this August to conduct safety tests for space kimchi. If kimchi successfully goes into space in 2008, there is a good chance it will remain on the outer-space menu for U.S. and Russian astronauts, and before you know it, Korea’s national dish will have conquered a new dimension.