Extraterrestrial dining has come a long way since John Glenn, the first American to eat in space, consumed a tube of apple sauce aboard Friendship 7 in 1962.
NASA now offers American astronauts heading to the International Space Station 200 buffet-style menu items to choose from—all developed at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas—as well as two containers of personal treats which they can exchange with fellow crewmembers from Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe during their mission.
“We like to think that food is the currency of choice in space,” says International Space Station Food System Manager Ryan Dowdy, when I join him in JSC’s taste test kitchen during NASA’s 50th anniversary of the Moon landing celebration.
Among the top swaps: freeze-dried shrimp cocktail, for its horseradish-heavy sauce. Because astronauts’ nasal passages often become congested in space due to fluid shift in microgravity (also called zero gravity), their ability to taste is limited but they can still enjoy anything spicy. Personally, I love any food with some heat to it but my stomach roils as Dowdy passes me the warm sachet and I squeeze the gooey, ruddy mess onto my plate.
It smells really fishy. When I put the shrimp in my mouth, the shrimp is fibrous and chewy. Astronauts have it even worse; in the lab, I’m using tap water but on the ISS, this would be made with recycled urine.
“Every meal is a team effort,” says Dowdy, smiling.
Food science for space travel is constantly evolving as the length of missions and EVAs—extravehicular activities, or spacewalks—each astronaut undertakes is increasing.
When the first manned spacecraft launched in the 1960s, space agencies had no idea whether humans could eat and digest food in microgravity, so developed the “tubes and cubes” system to minimise floating debris while optimising nutrition and ease of consumption. Menu options included bite-size squares of bread, cinnamon and peanuts held together with gelatin, and meat and vegetables pureed like baby food, squeezed directly from a toothpaste-style tube directly into their mouths.
Astronauts quickly tired of eating like this, so NASA developed a series of systems that made meals in space similar to those on Earth, offering familiar dishes that were freeze-dried, dehydrated or thermo-stabilised in “wetpacks” to make them safe for space travel. The Apollo 8 crew celebrated Christmas Day 1968 by eating thermo-stabilised turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969, they dined on ham-salad sandwiches, beef stew, bacon squares, date fruit cake and grape punch.
NASA’s 1970s Skylab, set within a Saturn 5 rocket and which crewmembers would inhabit for weeks at a time, had enough electricity and space to accommodate a fridge and freezer. Aboard Shuttle, meals were prepared and eaten in a similar way commercial air travel, with crewmembers slotting dish packs onto trays strapped to their legs and eating them with ferromagnetic cutlery which stuck to the tray.
“We still use the silverware today because so much was produced back then and it was of such high quality. It’s one of most popular souvenirs from the International Space Station,” says Dowdy.
A key goal for food scientists is prescribing a meal programme to minimise astronauts’ weight loss in space—a hot button topic since the 1960s attributed partly due to the unappetising nature of meals, and because microgravity causes muscles to atrophy and bones to regenerate more slowly.
To counteract these effects, NASA bumped the required energy intake per crewmember to at least 2800 kilocalories per day; because ISS astronauts typically stay there for six months or more—its first female commander Peggy Whitson set the record for continuous inhabitation at 665 days in 2017—they are also required to exercise for 2.5 hours a day, six days a week, to keep their bodies healthy.
Before every mission, astronauts bound for the ISS come to this taste test kitchen in JSC’s Building 30 to select their options so it can be prepositioned for their flight. Foods are organised in 10 different container types—breakfast, fruits and nuts, meats and fish, rehydrated meats, vegetables and soups, side dishes, nutrition bars, condiments, beverages, and desserts and snacks—with every astronaut required to consume one type of container every nine days or so.
Each container has a best-by date and RFID tag which the JSC team can ping from earth to help astronauts locate it within the ISS living quarters, which NASA describes as being larger than a six-bedroom house (the ISS is as large as a football field).
Inside, each package is labelled with its name in English, Russian, a bar code, sodium content and a “recipe”—how much hot or cold water needs to be injected through the one-way valve, and how long it takes to reconstitute.
Dowdy offers me some dishes from the “sides” container. Braised red cabbage (50 ml hot water; five to 10 minutes) has a good texture and level of sweetness, as does the sweet and savoury kale; the rice pilaf (75 ml hot water; 10 to 15 minutes) isn’t bad either.
“A lot of our new food items introduce more colour, more flavour, more texture, more crunch, as well as phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals,” says Dowdy. “Food has such a huge psychological component of decreasing stress for the crew and promoting their well-being.”
Many of the principles developed in the 1960s are same. No glass, or anything that could get crushed. Dishes must be able to survive the g-forces of being blasted into space and minimise floating object debris (FOD). Because there’s no mixing of powders in space, if a crewmember likes their coffee with a large dollop of cream and two spoonfuls of Splenda, the ISS Food System team will powder premix it in the food lab and send up packets in their beverage container. Salt becomes a saturated solution and pepper is turned into an oil so that astronauts can squeeze it onto their food. Bread that produces crumbs is out, tortillas are in.
Some astronauts find that food tastes different in JSC’s taste test kitchen to how it does in space.
“I loved the freeze-dried strawberries on the ground but I didn’t care so much for them on orbit, and I don’t know why,” says William McArthur, who logged 224 days and 22 hours in space during three space shuttle missions and one long-duration stay at the ISS before retiring in 2017.
Veteran of seven space flights Jerry Ross—who spent more than 1,393 hours in space, including 58 hours, 18 minutes of EVA on nine spacewalks—says for him, everything tasted the same in space as it did at JSC. He hated the shrimp cocktail equally in both places. His best meal was beef tips with gravy, potatoes or gratin, green beans with almonds, lemonade, and a brownie for dessert.
Other differences were cultural. Both Ross and Macarthur say that the worst thing they tried in space was a favourite among their Russian cosmonaut colleagues: cold fish in aspic.
“Valery [Tokarev] loved it. I really, really tried to like it but I just couldn’t get there,” adds Macarthur.
Occasionally, astronauts enjoy the occasional off-menu treat. In 2001, Pizza Hut vastly overran its promised 30-minutes delivery time to send an extra salty, spicy salami pizza (pepperoni went mouldy during the 60-day feasibility test) aboard a resupply rocket to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachov on the Mir Space Station. Pizza Hut reportedly paid the Russian space agency around US$ 1 million for the promo stunt and despite the fact Pizza Hut is a US franchise, the Americans aboard the ISS were forbidden from grabbing a slice under NASA’s strict no-advertisement policy.
The following year, Peggy Whitson received a pecan pie as part of a care package from her husband, which definitely didn’t meet NASA’s FOD requirements and was described by fellow astronaut Jeffrey Ashby as being squashed to half the size during its journey. “I don’t know how he got it past the food people,” he said.
In 2008, NASA astronaut and ISS crew member Sandra Magnus became the first person to cook a meal in space: mesquite grilled tuna in a lemon-garlic-ginger marinade, noting in her journal that it took four or five 30-minute cycles in the food warmer to cook the garlic and onions.
Dowdy says the ISS Food Systems team is currently developing the menus for quarantined commercial crew prior to space flight – it’ll be the first time astronauts have launched from the United States since the Shuttle programme. While they haven’t figured out the menus for the first space tourists—a Japanese billionaire and numerous other passengers , all of whom are used to the finer things in life—scheduled to fly on a round-the-moon mission in 2023 with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, he says he’s confident one thing will be on the menu.
“For sure, they’re going to ask for shrimp cocktail.”