No matter the form of long-term travel, explorers have taken it upon themselves to come up with new and innovative ideas for nutrition for centuries. Space was, and continues to be, no different in that regard. Where it does differ, however, is in how food must be prepared, stored, and eaten. When you’re in an atmosphere at zero gravity, simply keeping food sustainable can become a challenge, let alone eating it.
Thankfully, as you’ll see in this brief history of space food, ingenuity has continued to win out again and again. Astronauts today are eating ‘better than ever’ on missions, thanks toz advancements in technology. But first, let’s take a look at where space food started, and what some of the first astronauts had to do in order to get proper nutrition in outer space.
Astronauts need about 2,500 calories each day to maintain a healthy weight and get an adequate amount of nutrients. Finding meals that are dense in calories, however, is only half the battle. It’s actually making those meals edible and preserving them that has always proven to be the biggest amount of work in space travel.
In all honesty, scientists weren’t even sure how nutrients would first be absorbed in space. It was first put to the test in 1962, by John Glenn. Aboard the Friendship 7, Glenn became the first American to eat in space, ingesting a small tube of applesauce. That may not seem like much to us now, but that small amount of applesauce, along with a couple xylose tablets (sugar) proved that not only could ingestion happen in space, but nutrients would be absorbed the same way in zero gravity.
Once it was confirmed that the digestion process for food was the same in space as is was on earth, the research began on offering different types of sustainable nutrition to astronauts. Unfortunately, that first meant a lot of pureed food, that astronauts would have to suck through a straw. Imagine having a wonderful steak dinner in front of you, only to have someone run it through a blender before you had to drink it; the components may have been good, but it’s not exactly appetizing at that point.
With a desire to offer both nutrition and palatable taste to the astronauts, research began on different ways astronauts could eat well, and still actually enjoy what they were eating.
It was during the Gemini space project in 1965 that the first introduction of freeze dried food came into play. Dehydrated food was created by quickly cooking the food itself, and then sealing it in a vacuum pouch immediately. This removed all water from the food, but left things like natural oils, fats, etc. The specific laminated pouch used for the space program had a water valve on one end. When it was time to eat, astronauts on board their spacecraft would use H20 fuel cells to rehydrate the food. A water gun on board fit perfectly into the valve, and would rehydrate the food quickly.
Once the meals were packaged and freeze dried, they were shelf-stable for months at a time, and allowed astronauts to take solid food into space for the first time. It was John Young who first got a ‘taste’ of this food on the Gemini 3, bringing to meals on board. What was on the menu? A corned beef sandwich on rye bread. While the deli treat was an incredible feat to carry on board, it still wasn’t without problems. After all, think about how hard it would be to clean up floating crumbs in space.
It was the Apollo space mission that first provided astronauts with utensils, and hot water for rehydrating their freeze dried meals. These advancements meant that they no longer had to simply ‘squeeze’ foods into their mouths, and eating could become a more comfortable and familiar action, just like it was on earth.
Another huge advancement on the Apollo mission? Food started to come in aluminum packs, called wetpacks. These packs made it possible for food to remain stable on board the spacecraft without having to be rehydrated. Things like chocolate pudding, corn flakes, and even small pieces of bacon were on board in these wetpacks - perhaps not the most gourmet features in the world, but they provided the astronauts with a taste of home. That ‘comfort food’ idea especially rang true on Christmas Eve of 1968, when the crew on board was able to have a piece of fruitcake!
Comfort and familiarity became a theme for advancing food technology in space. The Skylab mission 1973 introduced 72 different menu items astronauts could choose from, and the program actually had a dining area for astronauts to eat.
When you stop to think about the advancements and changes in space food over the years, it’s truly remarkable. The program has gone from ‘food in a tube,’ to dehydrated, chalky meals, to a more delicate approach in feeding our astronauts. Since the 1980s, there have been continued advancements in how to prepare food in space, and how to make it a more comfortable and welcoming experience to those on board.
The introduction of an oven, and water dispensers has made preparing and heating food in zero gravity easier than ever. But, the selections have certainly changed, too. Those bits of bacon and corn flakes simply don’t compare to the selections that have been offered in more recent years. For example, when the Space Shuttle Discovery launched in 2006, astronauts were actually asked to create menus based around what they might like to eat. To top it all off, professional chef Emeril Lagasse created an incredible gourmet menu to sustain them throughout the trip. Mashed potatoes and bread pudding with rum extract were on the list, which seems like a long way from food in a tube.
Today, astronauts still have a large input in the food they eat in space. They can actually go to the Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston, Texas to determine the foods they like, and give them a ranking on a scale of 1 to 9. Ultimately, however, it’s their overall nutrition and the variety of foods given that will determine what can go into orbit. Since astronauts need less calories in space than they do on earth, it’s important that the foods they are choosing have adequate nutrition in a smaller amount of calories.
Keeping astronauts healthy and happy has always been the clear mission of food in space. It’s one thing to simply sustain someone with nutrient-dense ‘food,’ but offering someone who is putting their life on the line to explore the depths of the universe just a little something extra? It’s clear that the space program has made that a standing priority over the years, and it is certainly a priority to stand firmly behind. A taste of home is always comforting, even at zero gravity.
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