What to eat and how to prepare dinner in space
When I think of astronauts eating, one of the first images that come to mind may be of freeze-dried ice cream. Most people have seen it at some point, either in a classroom or a museum gift shop; but it shouldn’t be surprising that NASA doesn’t send its top scientists into outer space with only a three-year supply of freeze-dried Rocky Road. In fact, though space ice cream was developed per the request of an astronaut, it’s not a popular choice among astronauts — or food scientists.
According to “NASA Facts: Space Food,” the ideal space diet for an astronaut must fulfill four requirements, each of equal importance. Each meal must be nutritious, easily portable and satisfying, and the diet as a whole must be varied, to prevent boredom. Unfortunately, ample Diet Coke supply isn’t considered, though it clearly should be. But the hope is that the food developed is safe to eat, easy to prepare and safe to consume while in space. So while the limitations on the food choices might be lessening, the work that goes into preparing the food pre-flight has grown.
To ensure proper nutrition and satisfaction, NASA employs a team of food scientists whose sole purpose is to develop and produce a nutritious diet for astronauts while on a mission. Astronauts are brought to the Space Food Systems Laboratory at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, nearly nine months before departure and asked to sample potential food and drink choices. Taking into account these food preferences, individual meal plans are drawn up. Every meal and snack for every day of the mission is planned out in advance, with the hopes that doing so will circumvent possible food boredom. Possible menu items could include applesauce, funfetti cake, bean burritos and macaroni — or they would at least, if NASA made the mistake of sending me into space.
Forty years ago, food choices would have been limited to semi-liquids and freeze-dried powders, like space ice cream; but the evolution of technology has lead to a greater variety of preparation methods, and thus a greater variety of food choices. In fact, there’s almost nothing that can’t be brought into space today. Food choices today include rehydratable, thermostabilized, irradiated and natural-form items. Traditional rehydratable foods — like freeze-dried ice cream — are made by removing the water from the food before takeoff. This was originally done to conserve weight on the spaceship. The water is taken out of the food before it’s loaded onto the ship, and then rehydrated using water from fuel cells in space. It was an effective way of packing food, but it was far from the most appetizing. Foods that can be prepared in rehydratable containers include soups, breakfast cereals, mac and cheese, shrimp cocktail and scrambled eggs. Intermediate moisture foods are only partially dehydrated and can be eaten without any preparation. These typically include usually dried foods, like dried fruits and beef jerky.
“NASA Facts” also mentions that foods that would typically need to be stored at a certain temperature must be thermostabilized to make it onto the spacecraft. This process involves treating the food with heat so it can be safely stored at room temperature, usually in a can or pouch. Beef tips and mushrooms, chicken a la king and other meals made with meat or fish and produce are usually prepared using thermostabilization. Similarly, beef steak and smoked turkey can be irradiated to remove bacteria and prevent foodborne illness. Other irradiated foods are being developed for use in the International Space Station.
Pre-packaged dried foods like granola bars, cookies and nuts can be stored under normal conditions and eaten without preparation, as can fresh foods like apples and bananas. Foods that need to be stored at a cool temperature but are otherwise ready-to-eat like cream cheese and sour cream can be refrigerated on the spacecraft. Finally, to enhance the variety of foods available to the astronauts, foods like quiches, casseroles and chicken pot pies can be flash frozen. This prevents the buildup of large ice crystals, while maintaining the original texture and tastes.
The combination of foods from all eight preparation types helps NASA’s food scientists develop a mentally and physically satisfying meal plan that meets the varied needs of the astronauts and the spacecraft.
Not only does the greater variety of food allow for happier astronauts, it also allows for greater cross-cultural communication. On international missions and at the international space station, food choices can help establish international identity and facilitate learning. Additionally — especially with regards to holiday traditions — the foods selected by an astronaut can be an important tool to help combat homesickness.
The days of eating dehydrated food out of aluminum foil are over. This might have something to do with an overarching fear that there wouldn’t be any American astronauts left if NASA didn’t leave an option for Big Macs in space. I know I certainly wouldn’t head into space without a lifetime supply of Diet Coke, white rice and Pad Thai on board, but then again, I’m also the very last person NASA should ever consider sending into space.
Kait Hulbert is a sophomore IMC major who would love to drink Diet Coke in space. Email her at khulber2[at]ithaca.edu.