The Future

What Astronauts Eat | Space Food Technology

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go to space? Venturing out into the unknown, looking down at the blue and green planet we call home? But, the excitement of space exploration is somewhat hampered by the realities of daily life: being with the same people for months on end, being unable to leave a relatively small space and having all your meals pre-planned for you.

Many astronauts have said that food and mealtimes are the biggest connection they feel to home, heavily affecting their happiness and well-being. So, as plans progress for longer space flights, getting the food right is a crucial part of the operation.1

Historically, what did astronauts eat in space?

In the early days of space travel, food was unsurprisingly based on what the army had developed for survival situations. This included pureed food packaged in aluminium tubes that was sucked through a straw (yum...). Soup flavours like beef, vegetable or mushroom were eaten cold on NASA’s Project Mercury in 1962.2 A few years later, on Project Gemini, astronauts were introduced to freeze-dried foods that were rehydrated with cold water from a specialised water gun.

As unappetising as it sounds, food was created in this form so that none of it would float away. In the microgravity environment of a spacecraft, even the smallest amount of food or liquid can interfere with the instruments.

By the time of the 1968 Apollo mission to the moon, space food resembled something more familiar. But it was contained within a “spoon bowl”, which held dehydrated food. Astronauts would inject it with hot water, unzip the package, and eat it with a spoon. The wetness of the food made it stick to the spoon rather than float away. The Apollo mission also had “wet-packs” which kept food moist, so they could tuck into chocolate pudding, bacon squares and cornflakes with no added preparation work.3

The 1970’s Skylab mission included refrigerators containing a selection of 72 different foods, and the astronaut's favourite dish was (of course) ice cream. Meals could be heated on food warmer trays. The astronaut team of three embraced mealtimes as a social occasion, with a designated dining room on the ship.3

Fun Fact: It is not only American food that made it into space. On the NASA Shuttle-Mir program in the 1990’s the crew had a choice of Russian or American food, which the astronauts seemed to enjoy, as Astronaut Andy Thomas commented, “the Russian soups were just outstanding.” 4

How about space food today?

Today, space meals are extensively planned. The food taken into space must be lightweight, compact, nutritious and, of course, tasty. Five months before a space mission, astronauts visit the Space Food Systems Laboratory and choose their menu from a selection, ranking their favourite space foods in appearance, colour, smell, taste and texture. In addition to the normal nutritional requirements, there are several factors working on the body while in space which means that the diet must be highly supplemented--even more so than on Earth.

Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where astronauts from all over the world will live for six months, we have the best example of modern space food technology. Of the 300 food items available to choose from, most are American or Russian dishes, with some Japanese, European and Canadian food also available.

When developing space food, there are many limiting factors to consider. Apart from the microgravity environment, other significant problems include being able to store enough food for six astronauts and having a space to collect the food and wrapper waste. The Space Shuttle visits the ISS about once a month and can only take a limited amount of rubbish away.

Fun Fact: The ISS also has a Safe Haven Food system if there is an emergency, like an on-board failure. It contains food that will sustain the crew for 22 days, providing 2,000 calories per day per astronaut.

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