A warm tortilla with butter is comforting in the same way a grilled cheese is. Using that logic, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that tortillas instantly became popular on NASA space missions in the 1980s.
But did you know that Taco Bell had something to do with it?
The story goes like this: Individual astronauts choose foods for themselves from a set menu to last the duration of each space mission. There’s limited space in the fresh food locker for things like bread, apples, citrus fruit, and other similar items that stay good for reasonable periods of time without requiring processing or refrigeration.
While shelf-stable bread isn’t a new thing, bread caused a bigger problem for astronauts: crumbs. Those little suckers get everywhere. In space, crumbs getting into your equipment is not just annoying; it’s potentially dangerous.
Enter Mexican scientist Rodolfo Neri Vela. Latino Magazine reports that in 1985, he requested tortillas for his mission—and inadvertently changed the way NASA astronauts eat their food forever.
You can think of NASA missions (and the International Space Station) as being like an adult version of the school cafeteria. People talk, people learn—and most importantly, people share and trade food. Vela’s tortillas were an instant hit.
Plain old bread never had a chance.
The initial tortillas were provided to the Johnson Space Center by local restaurant Tierra Luna Mexican Grill, according to Culturemap Houston. Coincidentally, the place was owned by Adela Hernandez—astronaut Jose Hernandez’ wife. Those were great tortillas, but fresh tortillas don’t stay good very long.
ISS Food System manager Vickie Kloeris told CNET that no local tortilla makers were making tortillas that fit NASA’s specific microbiological needs. What else could they do but take matters into their own hands?
NASA then tinkered with making their own shelf-stable tortillas, which they engineered to stay good for up to six months. Unfortunately, The Astronaut’s Cookbook details how they started to get bitter toward the end, so NASA realized that it needed a better tortilla option.
Enter Taco Bell. In the 1990s, the company introduced its own extended shelf life tortillas. The magic part: those Taco Bell tortillas can last up to an entire year with no bitterness or degradation.
NASA recognized the solution to their tortilla problem, and started using those same tortillas for extended-duration missions—like those on the International Space Station. (For the record, The Astronaut’s Cookbook says that they still use less extreme tortillas for shorter missions.)
But what about missions that last longer than 12 months?
For future missions, such as those planned to Mars, NASA still wants tortillas on board. Amazingly enough, future astronauts may be growing their own wheat, milling it, and making tortillas themselves. The Astronaut’s Cookbook talks about experiments with specific high-yield strains of wheat that will allow both tortillas and bread to be made in space—though that means they’ll need a special oven, as well as a mill to make the flour. (And what about crumbs? We’d imagine flour would be even worse in scientific equipment. Maybe an entire clean room setup will be in order?)