The following is a reprint
John's Bathroom Reader
Plunges Into the Universe.
Throughout history, intrepid adventurers and successful armies of conquest
have marched on their stomachs. The wagon trains and cattle drives that
opened the American frontier would have stalled without Cookie and his
chuck wagon. Camp cooks have always ruled their little kingdoms, be they
isolated lumber camps, mine operations, or construction projects.
All of which NASA researchers took into consideration as they prepared
to breach the frontiers of space.
for the early Mercury astronauts, Buck Rogers and Isaac Asimov had more
influence on their meals than Martha Stewart might have.
The menu consisted of unidentified snacks: cubes textured like dog biscuits,
freeze-dried powders as appetizing as Mojave Desert dust, and tubes of
glutinous matter resembling toothpaste but not nearly as flavorful. The
cubes crumbled, the powders wouldn't dissolve, and those tubes - they
were the first to go. Fit fare for Martians, maybe, but not for humans.
NAME THAT FOOD
astronauts had it better. Packaging improved. The ever-adventurous food
scientists at NASA now dared to identify the food for their astronauts
- for example, shrimp, chicken, applesauce.
This was one step for mankind, but still a long way from the real thing.
Maybe that's why astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich
aboard a Gemini flight in 1965. Gus Grissom ate it, but Young was officially
reprimanded (the first astronaut to be reprimanded for anything).
THE AGE OF TANG
Tang ad from 1971
Grissom may have washed down that sandwich with a swig of Tang. Pillsbury/General
Foods had been trying unsuccessfully to foist the powdered orange drink
on a highly suspecting public for three years. But once Tang qualified
for the space program, sales shot up. Everybody wanted to try the "drink
of the astronauts."
THE END OF HIGH-FLYING HASH
As the Apollo program went into orbit, NASA's faith in the skills of
their astronauts improved. This time it actually provided them with spoons
- another leap forward. But special containers had to be designed to overcome
the near-weightlessness of the cabin. Nobody wanted their pea soup stuck
to the ceiling any more than they wanted to have to chase after shrimp
that had floated off their dinner tray. Another boon was hot water to
rehydrate those powders; that meant fewer lumps and better flavor. Still,
no one in orbit was getting fat.
PLEASE PASS THE POTATOES
Skylab food heating and serving tray with food, drink, and utensils. The
tray contained heating elements for preparing the individual food packets.
Skylab, launched in 1973, changed everything - it had an actual dining
area, with a table and chairs (that diners had to strap themselves to).
Utensils now included not only a knife, fork, and spoon, but also a pair
of scissors for opening food packets. A refrigerator and a freezer completed
the homelike atmosphere. With things looking up on the equipment side,
the food side got better, too. Astronauts could now select from 72 items.
They seemed to have everything but a maître d' and a decent wine
EATING LIKE EARTHLINGS
Given the confined dining space, an astronaut's food choices were more
contingent on the development of packaging, preparation, and serving equipment
than on available foods. The concoctions were already available. Earthbound,
we've got egg substitutes, hamburger extenders, chocolate bars without
cocoa, artificially flavored and colored fruit, and so on. In space, so
do the astronauts - but they've had to wait for suitable packaging.
PACKAGING THE MOVABLE FEAST
Food preparation aboard the space shuttle STS-4 in 1982 [YouTube
Space shuttle meals limit each astronaut to one pound of packaging waste
daily, a day's food supply having a gross weight of 3.8 pounds, including
snacks (this means that more than 25 percent of a meal package is meant
to be thrown away - and if you think that's a lot, have a look at almost
any frozen dinner available to us nonastronauts).
Months ahead of a flight, astronauts plan their own meal. Engineers review
their choices to make sure they won't weigh too much (the meals, not the
astronauts). Then nutritionists review the menus to ensure the shuttle
won't be harboring a junk food addict or a budding anorexic. Too much
packaging and too much waste food (what we Earthlings call leftovers)
could screw up the garbage compactor. Just prior to the flight, the food
packages are individually color-coded and stored in the shuttle galley.
A MEAL THAT STICKS TO YOUR ... TABLE
To an astronaut, the single most important technological advance for
space flight wasn't all-purpose duct tape or crazy glue, it was Velcro.
The individual packages containing a full meal could be Velcroed to a
tray and all opened at the same time. Previously, packages had to be opened
one at a time and consumed before the next was opened. Otherwise, the
first package could float away while the astronaut snipped at the top
of another. Shuttle crews can now have a full-course hot meal reconstituted
in a recognizable form and on a dinner tray within 35 minutes. Not bad.
NASA chefs were no slouches. When the tricks of conventional cookery
didn't work, they invented some of their own. Many of their offerings
were provided with varying amount of water removed from them. "Add
water and eat" or "Add water, heat, and eat" were about
the only directions astronauts needed. Breakfast was a breeze: cereal,
sugar, and powdered milk in a single pouch. Add water, and voila! It would
snap, crackle, and pop with the best of them, even if it didn't come with
You can taste some of this handiwork in commercially available camping
and trail foods. (And we can thank NASA impetus for those small, full-panel
pull-off lids on cans - they thought of them first.)
THE LONG HAUL
Astronaut Michael Foale describes what eating in space is like [YouTube
And all that while, NASA was gearing up to feed astronauts for prolonged
periods. THe orbiting space station has facilities to provide frozen,
refrigerated, and thermostabilized food (heat-treated to kill off the
NASA had to give up its passion to just add water - the space station
couldn't generate enough - which meant that astronauts could finally eat
fresh food. Moreover, every four astronauts had their own microwave/convention
oven; no more line ups to liquefy and heat those first cups of morning
With all these technical advances has come a quantum expansion of the
menu. Astronauts can choose from nine different cereals, some with fruits;
nine different chicken entrees; ten different vegetables; four flavors
of yogurt; regular, decaf, or Kona (excuse me!) coffee - and that's just
Space food samples. Yum! (Photo: NASA)
The menu on space flights seem to have reached such gourmet standards
that private citizens are paying millions just for a short hop. Of course,
there's still no wine list, but when tourists can plan their own menus
months before tying on the bib - that gives NASA a lot of time to procure
the best ingredients, not to mention using the acumen of expert chefs
and the latest technology to ensure optimal quality and freshness.
CHIX IN SPACE
NASA knows that accessing remote space frontiers may require space flights
that last for years, so they've started to figure out ways to fashion
a self-contained, self-sustaining food system - shades of 2001: A
Space Odyssey, not to mention Silent Running.
The cities in space that cosmologist Stephen Hawking talks about will
require the same approach. NASA has already sent (unplanted) tomato and
mung bean seeds into orbit, as well as chicken embryos, just to find out
what effects, if any, space travel would have on them. As it turned out,
the effects were negligible. And NASA scientists have been fiddling with
hydroponics (that is, grown only in water) lettuce in space simulation
Help in this regard has come from the private sector: The tomato seeds
courtesy of H.J. Heinz, and KFC footing some of the bill for the "Chix
in Space" experiments. (We're getting kind of bored with "spacecraft
metallic" anyway: Make way for billboards in space!)