What do you eat in space?

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by Mark Burgess on October 8, 2009

Oliver Walter-Greenhorn (right) prepares his space question with ARISS volunteer Lori McFarlane. Photo courtesy Hunter McFarlane

Oliver Walter-Greenhorn (right) prepares his space question with ARISS volunteer Lori McFarlane. Photo courtesy Hunter McFarlane

Few 12-year-old boys get to ask an astronaut a question in space. Fewer still get to ask a millionaire space tourist and owner of the world’s most famous circus a question in space.

Suffice to say that Wakefield’s Oliver Walter-Greenhorn joined some highly exclusive company Oct. 3 when he joined more than a dozen other Ottawa-area Scouts chosen to communicate with the astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS).

“It was pretty awesome that he got there that day,” Walter-Greenhorn said of Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte’s timely arrival. Only two others of the 18 asked their questions to Laliberte.

Walter-Greenhorn, an 11-year-old Wakefield Elementary student, was one of the few Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec Scouts whose question was selected to be put to Dr. Robert Thirsk and his celebrity friend at the ISS, even if its delivery came with a caveat.

The question he submitted and that was selected asked astronauts to describe a day on the space station, but the one he read – which turned out to have been written by his younger brother, Thomas – was about a typical meal in space.

It seems the switch was made on account of limited time: the ISS orbits the earth 17 times in 24 hours, so the Scouts only had about an 8.5 minute window to get their 18 questions answered while the station was within range. No time for describing a typical day in space.

Instead, Walter-Greenhorn learned about canned and plastic-wrapped foods and, most interestingly, how astronauts make their juice. A machine that purifies sweat and urine fills a plastic bag containing crystals and – voila – refreshments are served.

Fellow Scout Devon Lefebvre-Heath, a 12-year-old St. Mike’s student who was one of a couple hundred in attendance at Kanata’s Ron Maslin Playhouse theatre where the event took place, was most struck by the casual hazards of a space meal.

“You can’t burp in space,” he said. “There’s no gravity to keep all the chunks down.”

Walter-Greenhorn was also impressed by the astronauts’ renaissance man attributes. Sure they had to know how to fix computers and stuff, “but just as important – toilets,” he said.

Dr. Thirsk likely inspired a generation of Scouts by telling them that he and probably half of the astronauts he knows were former Scouts, but Walter-Greenhorn was unmoved.

“I want to be an architect,” he said.

The event was organized by Scouts Canada and Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS), a volunteer program meant to inspire students to pursue scientific careers. In addition to the Q&A, the audience was treated to a video tour of the space station.