Think coordinating your Thanksgiving Day dinner was tricky? Try putting together a meal plan on the Space Shuttle or International Space Station, where menus must be planned 7-9 months in advance.
As Michele Perchonok, Shuttle Food System Manager says in this article about NASA meal planning and space food:
“We provide the astronauts with tastes of about, maybe 20 to 30 of our items…While they are here, tasting the product they rank it [on] a scale of 1 to 9, where nine is great and one is not so great. We tell them, ‘If you score it six or higher we have the option to put it on your menu.”
Later, they help choose foods for the mission from a list of nearly 200 menu items which are added to the flight meal schedule after a dietician insures the meals are both nutritionally complete and will provide enough calories.
As it says in this Mr. Breakfast.Com story about breakfast in space, all selected foods must then undergo zero gravity testing in a special airplane (also known as a Vomit Comet) before being approved for a mission. If the item survives the flight without breaking down, it becomes a menu option.
Astronauts end up consuming approximately 70-95% of the food they take with them, depending whether they’re flying a Space Shuttle or International Space Station mission.
Due to improvements in packaging technology, space food has come a long way since the days when food in toothpaste-like squeeze tubes and plastic wrapped bite-size cubes was the culinary norm for space travel.
The first meal in space was pureed applesauce in a squeeze tube, which was eaten by Astronaut John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 in 1962.
Today, specially designed bags and containers that open and close with a valve make eating safer and easier in zero gravity. Small patches of Velcro and magnets are used to secure pouches to trays so they don’t float away during meals.
As a result, with some modification, many of the entrees, snacks, and beverages we enjoy on Earth are also available for space travel.
Foods like shrimp cocktail and barbecued beef brisket have long been popular with astronauts, in addition to such newer options as chocolate pudding cake and apricot cobbler with pieces of crust, according to this article about how the NASA Food Systems Team keeps culinary boredom from sinking the astronauts’ morale.
Increasingly, more ethnic and vegetarian foods are also being added to the astronauts’ menu, in sharp contrast to the days of the historic Apollo 13 crew. The food, while not gourmet, can be surprisingly good.
As Chicago Tribune food and wine critic Bill Daley writes when describing what space food tastes like in Discover Magazine:
“I could easily have downed two packages of the shrimp cocktail, long an astronaut favorite. The six medium-size orange shrimp were just a touch chewy after their slapdash, 10-minute water bath, but they looked and smelled like what you get at the supermarket. NASA’s cocktail sauce is spiked with plenty of horseradish and salt. If anything can revive tired taste buds in space, this dish is it. I chased it with a pouch of powdered mango-orange drink. The lush but tangy mango flavor juiced up the orange’s sweetness, and the mango aroma was pronounced. It was delicious.”
However, there are still a few major culinary differences between menu planning in space and the more down to earth menu planning we do at home.
Since there are no refrigerators aboard, NASA relies on freeze drying for food preservation purposes. As a result, meals are sometimes more heavily spiced than their earthly counterparts to help make up for any flavor loss. Salt and pepper are available for the astronauts’ use–in liquid form. Otherwise, floating granules could end up lodged in astronauts’ eyes or in interfere with equipment.
Additionally, any water naturally present in foods is removed via dehydration before it is placed onboard to help reduce weight and waste. When it’s time to warm the food, if needed, water is reintroduced via a special inlet valve or liquid injection syringe.
As NASA’s Food Systems Manager Perchonok points out:
“Foods in space have to be stored at room temperature. It’s difficult when you have too many components, like a pizza — where you have the crust and sauce and the cheese. Each component requires different processing conditions.”
Luckily, putting together a traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas menu is much easier than making pizza suitable for space. It is said that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren’s first lunar meal included turkey.
This year, astronauts enjoyed a NASA Space Cornbread Dressing for Thanksgiving aboard the International Space Station which you can read about here.
Please join us tomorrow to enjoy Sing a Song of Pomegranates: Working the Fruit into Your Meals, which features tips and recipes to help you make the most of pomegranates this holiday season.
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