When Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli shot into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Discovery last week, he took along all the food he'd need for the two-week journey.
But after throwing an Italian food party on arrival at the space station for nine other orbiting astronauts, Nespoli has settled down to a nearly non-Italian diet: Spicy Cajun dish, seafood gumbo, green beans and mushrooms, rice pilaf, strawberries, trail mix, Mexican fajitas, chicken strips in salsa, and Chinese teriyaki chicken.
The only concessions to his homeland are minestrone and macaroni, which was dressed up in the American style with cheese. It seems Nespoli's international space experience in the US, Russia and elsewhere has given him a true international palate.
Then there are the tortillas, the ever-present tortillas.
The tortillas, traditional Mexican flat bread, are a staple of Nespoli's diet, and he is to eat them in nearly every lunch and dinner, NASA menus show.
Americans associate tortillas with tacos. But for astronauts they prove a popular and practical alternative to bread, leaving little mess to float around in the weightless rooms of the International Space Station.
"Tortillas are a very popular item for our crew since it is a form of 'bread' which is easy to eat and does not create crumbs," NASA spokesman Bill Jeffs said.
Advances have been made in the way foods are stored for space, but much of it is still dehydrated, making it a far cry from your local trattoria.
"Our pasta items are mostly thermo-stabilized and hence would be close in texture to a canned pasta item," Jeffs explains. "Hence, it would not taste fresh."
Still, he says he doesn't know why the crew's lone Italian chose the menu items he did.
Crew members test their food options months in advance of their launch date and then make choices about what they want to eat, generally repeating meals several times on each flight. The meals are then evaluated by a nutritionist.
Fruits, nuts and cookies are served in their traditional forms, but other items must be packaged for transport into space. Some foods, such as soup, scrambled eggs and shrimp cocktail have the water removed from them and can be re-hydrated aboard the shuttle. Others such as fish come in traditional cans or containers like those available at a super market and are heat-processed to destroy microorganisms.
Astronauts just add water and heat up the necessary foods.
Now, back to the arrival feast. Nespoli, who hails from Brianza, north of Milan, offered a fine taste of his homeland to his crewmates last week, after arriving at the space station.
They sat down to what sounds like a fabulous meal sent by providers in Italy: crema di olive, pate pomodori secchi, parmigiano reggiano, provolone piccante, freouli con peperoni dolci, ricci di mandorle and praline al cioccolato con caffe.
Nespoli has come a long way since he was drafted in 1977 at age 19 into the Italian army, where he spent eight years working as a parachute instructor and a special forces operator assigned to the United Nations peacekeeping force in Beirut from 1982 to 1984.
After military service, Nespoli pursued university training as an engineer, specialized in equipment used by the Italian Space Agency's tethered satellite system, then moved into astronaut training. He can now add host of the first full-scale Italian meal in space to his resume.
The Discovery shuttle is scheduled to return to Earth on Tuesday. Nespoli accompanied the delivery of the important Italian-constructed Harmony module, which will help expand the space station to accommodate European and Japanese laboratories and living space.