The Evolution of Space Food

The following is a reprint from Uncle 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.


Unfortunately 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. (Photo: NASA)


Gemini 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).


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."


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.


Skylab food heating and serving tray with food, drink, and utensils. The tray contained heating elements for preparing the individual food packets. (Photo: NASA)

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 list.


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.


Food preparation aboard the space shuttle STS-4 in 1982 [YouTube Link]

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.


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 a prize. 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.)


Astronaut Michael Foale describes what eating in space is like [YouTube Clip]

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 bad stuff). 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 coffee. 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 for starters.


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.


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 labs. 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!)

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Some of that stuff looks over-packaged to me. Vacuum packed M&Ms, 4 vacuum packed crackers. 25% by mass of prepackaged food on earth isn't thrown away, packaging takes up a lot of volume, but weighs much less than it's contents. That is because we don't buy 4 packs of crackers in plastic so thick you need scissors to open it.
How much money do we waste boosting all of that astronaut-proof packaging into orbit?
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Ooh, those Space Food sticks were awesome! Like a cross between a Tootsie Roll and a brownie. There are a few sites selling them online, but I'm not sure how authentic they are.
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