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Scientists develop ‘space kimchi’ for astronauts

Apr 25,2006

Packets of space kimchi. provided by the center

When Korea's astronauts are circling the globe, what are they supposed to eat?
Space kimchi, of course.
No, that’s not a joke. "Space kimchi” was given its first public display on Thursday at the Nuclear Research and Development Festival in Seoul. The kimchi was invented by a research team at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute led by the scientist Byun Myung-woo, which used gamma rays and electro-radiation along with a special combination of freezing and heating methods to sterilize and pack the nation’s favorite food.
The scientists have been working with researchers at the Institute of Biomedical Problems, a state research facility in Russia that conducts biomedical support of space flights, both independently and jointly with foreign countries. They hope to launch the kimchi in space in 2008, when Korea’s first astronaut boards the Russian spacecraft Soyuz.
“Astronauts suffer failing digestive and intestinal functions because of a lack of fiber in their diet while in space. Kimchi is abundant in fiber,” Mr. Byun said.
Asked whether the team plans to make space rice to go with the kimchi, the scientists said the development of space kimchi was more “symbolic.”
“Koreans don’t have to eat kimchi in space and it is a globally-acknowledged Korean food, so it is a good opportunity to promote Korea. Other countries probably didn’t feel like they had to spend the money developing space food because the United States and Russia already did it, but if Korea is going to begin space exploration we thought that some oriental food should be on the menu, and developed the kimchi in line of our studies of atomic energy, which we use to sterilize all sorts of things, including food and cosmetics,” said Lee Ju-woon, a senior researcher on the team.
The research team has received 100 million won ($105,700) in funding last year and this year ― half of it was from the CJ group, a major food producer, and half from the government. The project, however, was not initiated by the government.
Scientists explained that the kimchi was fermented and then rid of its micro-organisms through doses of radiation. The kimchi was then packaged in a half-dried state. The scientists also claimed that the various ingredients used to make the kimchi would not float around separately in zero gravity.
The kimchi that is to be presented to Russian space authorities later this year will be the same kind that was on display at the atomic energy expo, only with improved packaging. According to Mr. Lee, the kimchi looks, tastes, and even smells the same as any regular fermented cabbage.
“When we met with Russian scientists last year, they saw the kimchi and showed a very positive response to our development. The problem now is that the kimchi has to meet the strict standards that the Russians have for space food. We’re going to give them the kimchi after we’re sure we meet all aspects of the standards,” Mr. Lee said.
In addition to acceptance from Russian space authorities, the scientists are also hoping to get a patent for their technology. Irradiation on its own is not a new technology and has been used with food before. However, the scientists are using a combination of irradiation, chilling, heating, and a special packaging method, the details of which are important in maintaining a state of kimchi that they claim is “very similar to fresh kimchi.”
If Russian authorities accept kimchi as a “space food,” Korea will be the third country, after the United States and Russia, to produce its own astro-vittles. Scientists noted, however, that the procedures would not be easy. Last year, the Japanese noodle maker Nissin Food developed “instant space ramen” in cooperation with the Japanese aerospace authorities to celebrate the Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi’s trip aboard the U.S. spaceship Discovery, but the ramen did not meet NASA’s standards for space food. It is up to the country launching the spaceship to decide what food goes into space, which is why Korea is seeking approval of Russian authorities.
The project to produce the first Korean astronaut is a separate, government-initiated plan. According to the Science Ministry, a four-phase screening of a select 300 people will begin in July; two final candidates chosen by the end of the year will train from next January to March, 2008.
The two selected candidates are scheduled to go into space in April, 2008 and are to stay at the International Space Station to conduct scientific experiments. Korea was planning to have secured a seat on the Russian spacecraft next year, but had to wait another year because the loss of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia in 2003 and problems with the spaceship Discovery led NASA to solely on the Russians for delivering cargo and astronauts to the station.


by Wohn Dong-hee


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