The past, present and future of food in space — from astronaut ice cream to “Enchilasagna” on Mars.
Author: Kate Torgovnick May
John Glenn eating applesauce in space, 1962. Photo courtesy of NASA.
John Glenn was the first American to eat in space. Aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, he squeezed applesauce and puréed beef with vegetables from metal tubes down a straw and into his mouth through a port in his helmet.
The world was captivated. This strange method of consumption was so intriguing that, while tubed, puréed food was quickly abandoned, it continues to be what most people think astronauts eat.
Today, space food has come a long way. It’s no longer about astronauts simply meeting a calorie requirement while on short trips to the moon; it’s about them living semi-comfortably in space over months. Below, an overview of what’s changed since the 1960s — and what’s happening next.
Yes, tubed food was a hit with America at large. But not so much with the people who actually had to eat it. By the Gemini and Apollo missions of the mid-1960s, dehydrated, freeze-dried and bite-sized foods were the trend, to cut down on equipment-damaging floating crumbs while providing a more human experience of eating.
Packets of dehydrated food and a food tray. Photo courtesy of Whirlpool.
“Space food became a kind of modernist symbol of the times to come,” says TED Senior Fellow Angelo Vermeulen, who recently led a four-month NASA study simulating cooking and eating on Mars. “It’s this idea of, ‘We’re going to change the future technologically.’ It became a strong symbol of the belief in progress in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Astronaut ice cream made a single flight into space.
Many foods of this era were created with the help of the same people who made washers and dryers. Whirlpool Corporation debuted its Space Kitchen at a convention in 1961; with a refrigerator, freezer, water system and disposal units, all packed into a 10 x 7.5-foot cylinder, it was designed to take care of all the food and beverages needs for a 14-day mission. Between 1957 and 1973, Whirlpool completed 300 space-related kitchen contracts, and employed 60 people to design, develop and package food for space.
A Whirlpool food station. Photo courtesy of Whirlpool.
One famous food the company created: astronaut ice cream. But while it’s a perennial best-seller at your local science museum gift shop, freeze-dried ice cream only made a single flight into space, in 1968 aboard Apollo 7.
“Space ice cream was a special request for one of the Apollo missions,” Vickie Kloeris, manager of NASA’s Food Tasting Lab, told educators. “It wasn’t that popular; most of the crew didn’t like it.” After taking one bite (which this author did, for science), it’s easy to see why it was abandoned. It tastes vaguely like sweetened styrofoam. But the marvel lingers as kitsch.
Since the early days of food in space, many other foods have been attempted and failed. Wine is a challenge, because it’s fermented and not sterile for space. Soda is stubborn too, because carbonation acts very weird in zero gravity. But one big innovation has come in the way astronauts eat. In space, your meal might float off before you’ve had a chance to eat it. The solution that developed over time? Food items are velcroed to a tray, which can then be attached to a table.
The table itself was an astronaut demand. “The original Space Station took out the table because nothing stays on it anyway,” says Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. (Watch her [unrelated] TED Talk, “10 things you didn’t know about orgasm.”) “But at a certain point, the astronauts said, ‘Bring back the table. Put some straps on it. We want to sit around a table at the end of the day and eat like humans.’”
Human beings live aboard the International Space Station for as long as six months at a time. “Food is absolutely crucial to the psychology of your crew, and you need to handle that carefully,” says Vermeulen.
according to NASA, flour tortillas are the new bread.
Today, astronauts order off a menu — one far, far more extensive than what you’d find in a restaurant. According to NASA, astronauts are given more than 200 food and beverage choices to select from, most of them developed at the Johnson Space Center’s Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston. About 8 to 9 months before launch, astronauts join a food evaluation session where they sample foods and pick breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, from scrambled eggs to macaroni and cheese. Foods are tuned to give astronauts the nutrition they’ll need. While they need to consume about the same number of calories as they do on Earth, the amount of iron in their diet is limited to 10 milligrams per day. Sodium is also limited, to maintain healthy bones.
Magnets, springs, and velcro keep cutlery and food packets from floating away. Photo courtesy of NASA.
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