Do's and Don'ts of Space Food

“What do astronauts eat?” is one of the most popular questions asked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.  A tour of the Space Food Systems Laboratory reveals that astronauts enjoy many of the same foods as we do here on Earth, only processed in ways that we may not be used to seeing such as rehydratable, freeze-dried foods and beverages in vacuum packages or heat-and-eat thermostabilized (treated under heat and pressure) foods in pouches similar to the military’s "Meal, Ready-to Eat" or MREs. 

A team of food scientists, engineers and dietitians works together in the lab develop, evaluate, and process the foods for the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS).  Their expertise over the years has taught them that not all foods are fit for flight.  Here are a few do's and don’ts of space food. 

Do:  Provide a variety of nutritious menu items 
Orbiting about 220 miles above the Earth’s surface, astronauts work and live in a closed, isolated environment with missions lasting anywhere from a few weeks for a space shuttle mission to a prolonged stay at the ISS.  Foods play an important role in helping astronauts maintain physical and psychological health.  A limited menu quickly can become repetitious with the result that astronauts may not eat enough to meet their calorie needs.  A variety of familiar and enticing foods can help boost their intake and morale. 

Space shuttle astronauts choose from more than 250 different menu items ranging from traditional comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese and beef stroganoff to more ethnic fare such as teriyaki chicken, hot and sour soup, and chicken fajitas.  After taste testing a selection of entrees, sides, desserts, snacks, and beverages, crew members select their daily menus.  They also can ask for a limited amount of fresh foods such as fruit, candies, cookies or special beverages.  A registered dietitian ensures the menus meet strict nutritional guidelines. 

On the ISS, there is a standard 16 day cycle menu supplemented with the astronaut’s favorite foods from preference containers.   Mealtimes are a multicultural eating experience since a joint agreement between nations has Russia providing half of the foods and the United States along with international partners, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the European Space Agency, providing the other half.  Eventually, the Canadian Space Agency will join this list.  The menu includes international specialties such as tvorog (also known as quark, a popular Russian unaged curd cheese), beef curry, and duck confit with capers. 

Do:  Ensure foods are safe 
We know foodborne illnesses are a serious issue.  Now imagine the potentially disruptive impact on a mission’s outcome if an illness were to occur in space.  This is why all food products, including both raw ingredients and the finished products, are sent to a microbiological lab and tested to ensure they pass stringent safety guidelines before going into flight.  NASA also has special permission from the FDA to sterilize meats by irradiation. 

Do:  Develop extended shelf-life products 
There are no refrigerators or freezers aboard the spacecraft, so foods must be shelf-stable with shelf-lives of at least nine and 18 months for space shuttle and ISS foods, respectively.   Foods are either freeze-dried, thermostabilized or, for intermediate moisture or natural form foods (cookies, crackers, etc.), nitrogen flushed and vacuum packaged.  A special multi-laminate packaging material with superior barrier properties against moisture and oxygen is used to achieve longer shelf-lives.  

Future missions to the moon and Mars require shelf-lives of three to five years.  In order to meet this goal, the Space Food Systems Laboratory is currently investigating novel processing technologies and innovative packaging solutions. They are also exploring the possibility of growing crops hydroponically (without soil) on the lunar surface and further processing these crops to make pastas, tofu, oils, cereals, and breads.

Do:  Pack plenty of tortillas 
Tortillas are a popular item among the astronauts and are used in place of bread so the lab makes sure to keep them well-stocked.

Don’t: Forget to bring the condiments
Astronauts have reported that foods taste blander in microgravity.  In microgravity, food aromas do not travel well, which can affect the perception of flavor.  Astronauts also may experience upward moving fluid shifts, leaving them with a congested nose feeling.  Stronger flavors and spicier foods often are requested.   Astronauts also adapt by adding plenty of condiments, especially hot sauce to flavor their foods.

Don’t:  Scatter crumbs
Crumbs are the enemy and the main reason chips, breads, and crackers are discouraged from being flown in space.  Crumbs can litter the airspace, clog the air filters and get in your eyes.  This is why salt and pepper are provided in liquid form (salt dissolved in water and pepper suspended in oil) in plastic dropper bottles.

Don’t: Send up soda or other carbonated beverages
In the absence of gravity, carbon dioxide bubbles do not escape and may cause unpleasant abdominal discomfort.  Instead, astronauts can drink coffee (with or without cream and sugar), tea, or a variety of juices that are freeze-dried and rehydratable.

Just like at home, meal times are a chance for astronauts to relax, socialize, and bond with each other.  Knowing this, the Space Food Systems Laboratory team continues to successfully provide them with nutritious, high quality, safe foods.  To learn more about space foods visit the Space Food Systems Laboratory Web site.