Space Food In A NutshellZ
Mercury | Gemini | Apollo | SkyLab | Shuttle | ISS | Mars


John Glenn shows President Clinton the finer points of Space Shuttle Cuisine

1962 – 1964: Can We Eat in Space?
One of the goals of Project Mercury was to find out: Can humans swallow food in weightlessness? It seems quaintly amusing now, but there was a time when we simply didn't know anything about how the body would function in space! While John Glenn was in orbit, he was given aluminum tubes of beef stew and applesauce he didn't find terribly appetizing (basically baby food purees), but of course was the first to report that he had no problems ingesting food.

Mercury foods resembled military rations: processed, compressed and packaged to have maximized nutrition, but take up minimal space. The bland meats and breads were difficult to prepare, however, and tended to crumble or splash about the capsules.  Believe me when I say you don't want details on the liquefied tuna.

Every single astronaut returned home with un-eaten food, having either evaded or downright lied to their Mission Control CapComs about eating. Gordon Cooper, the first astronaut to try freeze-dried food in space in 1963, disliked it so much that he only consumed 696 of his 2,369 calories worth of food on board. 

Less than 700 calories for a grown man during a 34-hour journey?? Ouch. Obviously they needed to make this stuff tastier! Longer missions would be impossible if astronauts were malnourished. I wonder if NASA's "food designers" realized at the time that the efficiency with which they solved the challenges of nutrition might ultimately set the pace of space exploration? We simply can't last anywhere for long if we don't eat well. 

1965 – 1967: Moving Beyond Snack Fare
By the start of Project Gemini, squeeze tubes were already gone. Concentrates were covered with gelatin so they didn’t crumble. Any particles of food which float away must be collected to prevent it clogging up air filters and other equipment! Freeze-dried foods were put in plastic containers that made re-hydrating easier. However, difficulties in expectations versus realities made themselves known on the first long flights. 

Gemini-7, a two-week affair, offered the first complex menu of shrimp, chicken, mixed vegetables and "toast cubes."  All bright ideas, but "reconstitution" with limited water was tougher than anticipated. Mission planners initially allocated 15-minute meal-times, but "cooking" and consumption took nearly an hour; the frustrated flyers (Borman, Lovell) ate only about 1000 calories per day in the second week because they wearied of the complex preparation processes that resulted in bland, unsatisfying meals.

Still not acceptable. Bodies break down and lose functional capacity when not properly nourished; Russian and American teams were also learning that space-walks required far higher degrees of energy than expected. Can't do it if you're hungry. Would walking on the lunar surface burn even more calories?

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Project Gemini Project Apollo
1968: Astronauts On Strike
The first three Apollo Program missions enjoyed something their predecessors hadn't: HOT water for reconstituting dried foods, as provided by enhanced fuel cell systems. Even then, fierce complaints about the flavorless fare finally led NASA's Chief Food Tester to agree to live on Apollo food for four days. After only one day, he had lost his appetite, and in the middle of day three, he stopped the experiment. The point had been made.

Among his notes were the following writings:
Without pleasing aromas to stimulate the appetite and textural variety to prov
ide satisfaction, the astronauts lose their desire to eat. 
  1. Foods consumed during flights must provide adequate nutrition and must maintain body weight.
  2. Foods must be screened to avoid problems with nausea, loss of appetite or allergic reactions.
  3. Meal preparation and consumption must be simple, requiring a minimum of crew time and effort.
  4. Water for reconstitution and dehydrated foods must be palatable.
  5. Re-hydratable food packages must function well without failures (leaks).
1969: Now We're Getting The Hang Of This
By Apollo 9 and 10, a small "pantry" had been added to the capsule and "thermo-stabilized wetpacks" were developed to improve texture, whereby specially-treated foods in zip-lock bags could be "watered" by a valve in one end, and openings at the other end provided spoon access. A step forward! 

Fresh foods such as fruits and soft breads also made their appearance in this era, and by Apollo 12 they were experimenting with freeze-dried scrambled eggs and protein bars inside their space suits.

However, it was not until Apollo 14 that astronauts returned to Earth with no significant change in weight. Apollo 15 moonwalkers were the very first crew to consume ALL onboard food, returning home with no doggie bag leftovers!  Well, that only took ten years.

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1973: Long Duration
The next big challenge would take place on the Skylab Space Station, where astronauts might be in low earth orbit for 60 days at a time. Nutritionists were now fully aware that traveling foodstuffs needed to smell good, taste good, feel good in the mouth –- just like on Earth -– for the sake of basic human well-being. 

It's not enough to count calories and add vitamins, then assume humans will eat whatever is set in front of them, even in a hostile, foreign environment. When not naturally stirred by olfactory and flavorsome stimulus, the body can actually resign itself to avoiding food entirely… leading to various physiological and psychological problems.

Five categories of food were tested for greater longevity on Skylab: 
  • Fresh natural
  • Frozen
  • Dehydrated
  • Thermostabilized 
  • Intermediate moisture
New metal (and thus easily-heated) food trays were developed to keep foods from floating, though eating in weightlessness with actual utensils instead of fingers still took practice. Another new addition was liquid salt & pepper, which could be massaged into eggs or meats (since if you use a shaker, it just sprays out into sneezy clouds! Imagine the first crew that had to find THAT out and perform the ensuing cleanup).

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SkyLab Space Shuttle
1982: Space Shuttle Transport
Irradiated foods joined the major categories of consumables, primarily to make meats safer, as they had to be stored at lower-than-refrigerated temperatures.

NASA nutritionists attempted to design one comprehensive menu for the Shuttle program to please everyone, but we all know that never happens! Menu evolution tended to follow astronaut tastes, and "Food Files" began to be routinely compiled for each astronaut, with all preferences being checked by food scientists to ensure they contained balanced nutrients.

Unlike previous crafts, the Shuttles each have a small galley with a pantry, oven, water hose, and packs of nuts, dried fruits and M&M candies for snacking. Crew members take turns preparing food for the group. In addition to liquid salt & pepper, astronauts can now flavor their foods with mustard, catsup, and mayonnaise… as well as barbecue, picante, Tabasco or hot Thai sauces.

Not every experiment makes it onto the regular menu. Pizza is probably the most often requested food through the eras, but scientists cannot find a way to preserve both crust and toppings in a way that will re-constitute. Cheesecake also won't survive any preservation process without hardening. And I won't go into that whole Coca-Cola debacle… but if you want to do you own homework, check out the Top Ten WORST Space Foods and the Top Ten BEST Space Foods.

Astronauts rarely complain if there are certain foods they dislike, but if at the end of a mission, food items come back that no one chose to eat, those are rarely sent up a second time.

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1998: Modern Food on the ISS
Today, most consumables on the International Space Station (as was also true for the Mir Station) are canned, frozen or wrapped in sealed packs. There are Russian and American food-warmers, and a refrigerator. Since space station designs did not call for fuel cells as capsules once had, new on-board water systems were required, and underwent their own evolutions to the modern day, where both hot and cold "taps" are available. 

Today's astronauts have a greater say in what food is flown, based on personal preferences and the information learned by astronauts before them –- such as, bananas are a great idea, but smelly fish dishes are definitely not. Tortillas crumble less than bread and don't bother with potato chips or crackers, unless they are bite-sized, due to the floating debris factor.

SPICY foods tend to be favorites. In micro-gravity, astronauts experience congestion, because there is no force pulling bodily fluids into their legs and feet. Everything pools in the head! Even after initial adaptation to weightlessness, this has the effect of making food taste bland. Smells do not travel well in space, and the lack of this complementary sensation also dulls the taste buds.  Thus, richly flavorful items like shrimp with tangy sauce, or jambalaya with garlic beans (special recipes developed by Emeril Lagasse!) are preferred the longer astronauts are in orbit.

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Onward To Mars
Menus are designed to fulfill the nutritional requirements of crews in terms of days, weeks or months at a time on the ISS. Of course, the Space Station is quite close to Earth, and re-supply vehicles are comparatively easier to come by than they would be on a mission to Mars, which might last 2-3 years.

The new goal will be to create foodstuffs that last far longer than the 12-24 month shelf-life they have now -- but can they still make them light, edible, transportable, safe and nutritious?  And imagine having to plan and store thousands of said meals (3 per day x 6 crew members = 6570 per year), where each must prepared with rudimentary cooking equipment in a galley smaller than the front seat of your car, millions of miles from Earth.  Quite a tall order.

NASA hydroponics researchers have also identified crops for possible growth in transit on long missions: lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onions, radishes, peppers, strawberries, various herbs. From my reading, Other space programs are testing rice, potatoes, and various types of beans.

NASA Food Technology managers are also considering sending separate robotic crafts stocked with food and water, which will rendezvous with human visitors to Mars!

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Astronaut James Voss enjoys some fresh fruit on the ISS

Lachance, Paul, NASA's Astronaut Feeding Program, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, © 1972.

Lattimer, Richard, All We Did Was Fly To The Moon, Whispering Eagle Press, Gainesville, FL, © 1975.

Owen, Sharon, The History of Food in Space, American Outdoor Products, Boulder, CO, © 1988.

NASA White Papers: Biomedical Results of Apollo Food Technology (1960 - 1974)

NASA Press Kits: Space Food Facts Sheets (2002 – 2005)

NASA Press Kits: Space Food Photograph Gallery (2007)

NASA Mission Journals: Sandy Magnus, Expedition 18 (2009)