Saturday, December 25, 2004

open the pantry door, hal

This is an older article about the International Space Station food shortage--since 9 December, the Progress has successfully docked at the ISS, with its 2.5 tons of food, water, oxygen, and fuel. But I put it up because it makes an interesting point about how the Russians reacted to the shortage, versus the Americans.

If the station's supply falls to 45 days' worth or less, the crew must be evacuated. Which is why everyone got their knickers in a twist when Astronaut Michael Foale and Cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri revealed they only had enough food left to make it through January, and they're just halfway through a six-month tour of duty. I have to admit that my first mental picture was of two men in a Jules Verne-styled ship, with big rivets around the portholes framing their desperately gaunt faces.

What interests me isn't that the men went through the food so fast, although from what I've heard about how food tastes in space, I'm surprised they ate so much. A friend of mine who used to design menus for an airline explains that at high altitudes, our sense of taste is depressed, so food has to be more strongly flavored to compensate. There are other considerations as well.

But that's not what gets me. What gets me is that the Russians on the ground perceived that there was enough food left that it wasn't a crisis situation. It just wasn't the crew's "favorite meals." Whereas the Americans on the ground were all worked up.

I really think this says something about our respective cultures. My friend Oleg said an interesting thing a few years ago when I asked him what the strangest part of moving to California from Russia in the '80s had been. We were in a supermarket in Los Angeles. Without hesitation, he looked around and said, this. All this food. Could the ground crews' different reactions stem directly from their experience--or lack thereof--of privation?

I mean, there are times when I feel like I don't have any food, and I feel bad for myself. Yet if I look in the cupboard, there's, oh, cornbread mix, cans of soup, cereal, dried fruit, oatmeal...and the fridge has olives, eight kinds of fruit preserves, condiments, half a bag of frozen peas. They may not all be my favorites. I may have picked all the apricots and prunes out of the dried fruit mix and now all I have left are the dried pears and apples, which I don't find as groovy. But I don't need to evacuate my particular Spaceship. I'm just so accustomed to plenty that I'm not seeing clearly.