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Top seven space foods

Best anecdotes about the stuff astronauts are fed

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Sunita Williams eating ice cream in the ISS. NASA.

Food in space is complicated. It has to be good enough for astronauts to actually eat it, it has to be healthy so that astronauts don’t end up sick, it has to keep for months at a time, it has to be compact,… To make things worse, in micro-gravity, your taste buds don’t work quite the same. For instance, Peggy Whitson discovered that in micro-gravity, she likes some foods that she didn’t like on Earth, but doesn’t like other foods that she usually loves. So feeding astronauts isn’t easy. Here are the top seven space foods.

  1. Chopped liver in a tube

This list starts with the begining of the space age. Number 7 is chopped liver and chocolate cream in tubes. Like toothpaste tubes. But with chopped liver in them.

In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human is space. Back then, no one knew how to eat things in space. No one knew if it was even possible! Would the digestive system work in micro-gravity? Would astronauts be able to swallow? The answer turned out to be yes. Gagarin ate two tubes of chopped liver and one tube of chocolate while he was in orbit around the Earth. Luckily, his flight didn’t last very long, and he only had one meal like this one!

  1. Energy bars in a spacesuit

When an astronaut is in their spacesuit, they can’t bring things to their face or their mouth. In their helmet, they even have a small piece of velcro just in case they get an itchy nose, so that they can scratch the itch without using their hands.

For Apollo astronauts, and especially for Apollo 15, 16 and 17, when spacewalks started to get longer, NASA anticipated that they might get hungry on a spacewalk. For astronauts to be able to eat during a spacewalk, NASA added a kind of sock in the astronauts helmets. In this sock, astronauts could fit an energy bar before going out. That way, if they got hungry, they just had to lower their chin and take a bite.

Except that the energy bar had a tendency to rub against their chin, which supposedly wasn’t too pleasant. Astronauts ended up eating the energy bar in the airlock before putting their spacesuit on. After NASA noticed this, they stopped doing the energy bar thing.

  1. Food cubes wrapped in gelatin

When engineers are left alone in the kitchen, the results can be… surprising! Which brings us to number five in this list.

One critical property of food that is sent to space is that it can’t make crumbs. We already mentionned this here with John Young’s corned beef sandwich. The best way to avoid crumbs is to make bite-sized food items, that can’t make crumbs, that are easy to stow and that still taste like food.

To fill in all of these criteria, NASA invented food cubes wrapped in gelatin. In practice, astronauts opened a little vaccum-packaged plastic bag that contained several cubes. They grabbed one of the cubes with their fingers and put it whole into their mouth. And voila! Astronauts fed without any risk of crumbs! Engineers could make sandwich cubes, strawberry cubes, bacon cubes, etc. A four-course meal with only cubes! There was only one problem, but it was a big one. The cubes didn’t have the look or the texture of the thing they tasted like.

After Apollo, NASA stopped producing food cubes, because astronauts left opened packets of cubes unfinished.

  1. Shrimp cocktail

There were a few mix-ups as far as food goes during the first space missions. But there were also a few success stories. Number 4 on this list was quite a success: Let me hear it for shrimp cocktail!

Starting with Gemini 4, one of the first manned space missions, NASA served shrimp cocktail to astronauts. They were specially selected to be small enough for astronauts to be able to easily take them out of their packaging. Of course, they were peeled before being sent to space.

In micro-gravity, astronauts lose their sense of smell and food seems rather tasteless compared to when they eat on Earth. Shrimp cocktail comes with a sauce containing horseradish. And even though astronauts can’t perceive all the aromas of what they’re eating, they can taste when something is spicy. The spicy sauce in the shrimp cocktail might even make it easier for astronauts to taste their next dish!

Astronauts Stroy Musgrave and Bill Gregory ate shrimp cocktail at every meal while they were in space. Yes, that includes breakfast.

  1. An apple, but not any apple

Number three is an apple that comes from Japan. When the japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri flew in the space shuttle, he wanted to be able to eat the apples he loves. But that specific variety of apples is illegal in the United States. To be able to take a few of these apples into the space shuttle, NASA had to get a special authorization and implemented a strict protocol to make sure that all the seeds from these apples would be destroyed.

  1. BBQ pulled pork

There is an astronaut named Sonny Carter who happened to be a test pilot, a doctor, a chemist, and a professional soccer player. And Sonny Carter wanted to be able to eat the BBQ pulled pork from his hometown while he was in space. He asked the restaurant that made his favorite pulled pork to send a frozen sample to NASA. NASA ran tests on this sample to determine whether it could be sent on the space shuttle.

The bacteriological tests failed, but you need more than that to discourage someone like Sonny Carter. He figured there might have been a problem during shipping, so he tried again. But he still had no luck.

At last, NASA contacted the restaurant to know exactly how the pulled pork was prepared. The chef would cook the meat then remove it from the bone by hand. NASA asked them to use sterilized gloves when they removed the meat from the bone and to send them a new sample. And this time, the BBQ pulled pork was good to go! Sonny Carter finally was able to eat his favorite dish on the space shuttle.

  1. Ice cream

I have to admit, I love ice cream. I could eat it every day. Some astronauts also like ice cream. Which is why ice cream is number one in this list of space foods.

During the Apollo missions, the astronauts regretted not being able to eat ice cream during their long missions. Whirlpool was mandated to develop ice cream that could be eaten in space. Thus was born freeze-dried ice cream. Apollo 7 astronauts tried it, but freeze-dried ice cream is just slightly crunch blocks of cream, and it wasn’t a hit. Souvenir shops in museums sometimes sell freeze-dried ice cream (“astronaut ice cream”), but it never went back into space.

Luckily, the story of ice cream in space didn’t stop there!

In the Skylab space station, there was a freezer on board. So astronauts could eat ice cream while they were in space. Unfortunately, in the ISS, there aren’t any freezers or fridges to store food.

But on the ISS, astronauts perform many experiments. And some of these experiments produced results that need to be frozen before being sent back to Earth to be analyzed. In this case, a small freezer is sent along with all the other equipment needed to perform the experiment. But it would be a shame, once the freezer reaches the ISS, to notice that it doesn’t start up. So it is more prudent to turn it on on Earth for the entire trip. And to reduce the amount of energy used by the freezer, it is best to fill it up with something. But what could be used to fill up a freezer that wouldn’t be just a dead weight? Ice cream of course! The astronauts just have to eat all the ice cream before the experiment is over and the results need to be stored.

Astronauts are devoted to their job. With an unparalleled dedication to science, some even volunteer for missions where one of the experiments requires a freezer, and eat all the ice cream before the experiment is over.

You can listen to this story in French here.

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PhD, astrophysicist. I play with keyboards and telescopes whenever I can.