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Foooood iiiiin Spaaaaace: The Curious Case of the Contraband Corned Beef

In 1965, Command Pilot Gus Grissom and Pilot John Young successfully piloted the Gemini 3 spacecraft on a four-hour and forty-three-minute mission into Earth’s orbit, completed a handful of tests of the craft’s capabilities and returned safely to solid ground. Afterwards, their actions during the mission were the subject of a Congressional House Subcommittee hearing and both Congress and the NASA brass gave Young strongly worded reprimands.

What went wrong? It all starts with snacks.

Tubes and Cubes

Food is essential to voyages of exploration, especially in outer space. Space travel has a significant effect on the human body – bone density decreases, muscles waste, red blood cells are lost, etc. – so good nutrition is incredibly important to keep astronauts healthy and functioning. Today we think of “space food” as Tang, food sticks, dehydrated ice cream and other fun, appealing items, but in the early days of the manned space flight, the culture was driven by the military and the food was approached in a certain utilitarian fashion.

In the development of space foods – some of the earliest of which were adapted from items designed for earthbound use in high-altitude, high-speed scenarios by fighter jet pilots – minimal weight and bulk and long-term preservation in extreme conditions were prioritized above flavor, texture and presentation. While astronauts’ enjoyment of the food was supposed to be factored into the creation and selection of food items, their feedback was often brushed aside.

The USA and USSR both started off using puréed foods in aluminum tubes for space flights. The food could be eaten through a polystyrene extension tube connected to the astronaut or cosmonauts’ helmets. Both countries used a wide variety of foods in these containers, including John Glenn's first orbital meal: applesauce. Astronauts had their tubes complemented by bite-sized compressed food cubes, created to address scientists’ concerns about free-floating crumbs that couldn’t easily be cleaned up and might damage equipment, clog vents or be inhaled by the astronauts. Flavors included bacon, cheese and crackers, peanut butter and fruitcake, but it appears most astronauts didn’t notice a difference in flavor from one cube to the next.

Soviet cosmonauts, meanwhile, rounded out their meals with fresh items like bread, salami, jelly, roast veal, apples, oranges and caviar. Scientists there had the same concerns about crumbs, but instead of putting effort and money into mission-appropriate food, they concentrated on methods and equipment for cleaning the crumbs up. Red Menace 1, America 0.

Stowaway Sandwich

When Gemini 3 was ready to launch, both the space race and the space food situation were pretty unappetizing. If JFK wanted a man on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had plenty of work to do, and each flight and each mission had to achieve certain goals to move the whole operation toward that end. One of the jobs the Gemini 3 crew was tasked with was testing some food tubes and some new specially packaged fresh items. Scientists wanted to know for future flights how the packaging fared and how well the crew could work and eat at the same time. Grissom and Young were given several food tubes and sealed packs containing fresh hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and applesauce.

Knowing that Grissom often complained of the “dehydrated delicacies concocted by NASA nutritionists,” Walter Schirra, an astronaut who had acquired a reputation as a joker, decided that the Gemini crew would have a little something extra to munch on while in orbit. The day of the launch, he went to Wolfie's Restaurant, a deli not far from the space center, and bought a corned beef on rye sandwich. He brought the sandwich back to the base and slipped it Young, who proceeded to hide it in his pocket smuggle it on board the craft.

About an hour and 45 minutes into the flight, Young pulled the sandwich from his pocket and handed it to his surprised Commander, provoking the following exchange.

Grissom: What is it?

Young: Corn beef sandwich.

Grissom: Where did that come from?

Young: I brought it with me. Let's see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

Grissom: Yes, it's breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.

Young: Is it?

Young: It was a thought, anyway.

Grissom: Yep.

Young: Not a very good one.

Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.

Young: Want some chicken leg?

Grissom: No, you can handle that.

A Crumby Reaction

In all, the astronauts spent about 30 seconds talking about the sandwich and only ten seconds of that time tasting it before it began to fall apart in the absence of gravity and Grissom tucked it away. The half-minute incident created a good deal of fallout, though.

Congress, responsible for NASA's budget grant, wasn’t too amused with the idea that highly trained and supposedly highly disciplined astronauts felt that a practical joke was appropriate and/or funny on an expensive and high-profile space mission.

Schirra, Grissom and especially Young received a full dressing-down from Congress and the press, despite their senior technical managers coming to their defense. The Associate Administrator of the Office of Manned Spaceflight was quick to tell Congress that, “there was no detriment to the experimental program that was carried on, nor was there any detriment to the actual carrying out of the mission because of the ingestion of the sandwich.”

In the end, though, NASA’s then-Administrator James Webb sided with Congress instead of his pilots and Young was officially reprimanded. The incident didn’t do much to damage the astronauts’ careers – Young served in the Apollo Program, landed on the moon during Apollo 16 and later piloted the Shuttle; Schirra flew several more missions; Grissom flew on the first Apollo mission was scheduled to fly on the first Apollo mission, but died during a pre-launch test and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor – but it did prompt a flurry of regulations governing what could and could not be consumed in space.

After the corned beef boldly went where no sandwich had gone before, NASA only allowed officially sanctioned food on spacecraft and the days of astronauts packing their own lunches were over.

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Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help
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iStock

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

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Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

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