The History of Food In Space

Earlier this year, we were digging into our archives and we found a small book we published in 1988. As we celebrate Astronaut Ice Cream's 50th anniversary, we decided to digitize it and update it to the present day - a lot has change in astronaut food since then - dig in! 

INTRODUCTION

In 1958, with the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), American pioneers took the first step toward a new world… a world beyond the thin protective sheet of atmosphere that shields the inhabitants of planet Earth from the rest of the universe.


NASA’s mission was to conduct aeronautical and space activities, arrange for participation in scientific measurements and observation, and to provide for the widest practical and appropriate dissemination of this information.


Early in the history of crewed space flight, the Mercury and Gemini astronauts’ trips into orbit were brief, cautious, and filled with excitement. Apollo’s trips to the moon staggered the imagination of Earthlings. Some people did not believe ‘man’ had walked on the moon, just as doubters earlier in the history of Earth’s exploration could not be convinced that the world was round. 


Today, few people doubt that the world is round, and only a handful do not believe Americans have walked on the moon. 


Tomorrow’s space travelers will chart new courses. There will be trips to Mars, more space stations, and thousands of people orbiting above our heads.


Survival in space over a prolonged period of time requires many forms of scientific and engineering support. One of human’s most important needs in space is the one most easily overlooked by casual observers: the need for a reliable food system. Survival in space, as on Earth, cannot be assured unless the most basic of human needs are met. Nutrition is one of those needs.


Since the space program began, scientists have been faced with the problem of feeding Astronauts in a microgravity environment. The results of these efforts were occasionally disappointing, usually educational, and frequently amusing. 



MERCURY


In 1961, President John F. Kennedy set a major goal for NASA: By 1970, he wanted America to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. 


In 1962, a tiny space vehicle was thrust from the surface of planet Earth carrying Mercury Program astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. on the first crewed orbital space flight. Mercury’s objectives were to place a crewed spacecraft in orbital flight around the earth and to investigate our ability to function in space. Few questions were more fundamental than whether a person could swallow food in a microgravity environment. 


Glenn was only in orbit for a few short hours. He was given an aluminum toothpaste-type tube filled with applesauce. He had no trouble swallowing the applesauce, although it was reported he found it “not very tasty.”


Mercury astronauts had little to look forward to at mealtimes. Their meals bore a strong resemblance to military rations. The food was compressed, processed, and packed to take up little space. It survived launch without disintegrating, lasted almost indefinitely, and offered balanced nutrition if the crews could be influenced to eat it. 


A transcript of astronaut L. Gordon Cooper’s 1963 Mercury flight on Faith 7 recorded some examples of his indifference to mealtimes:


06:25:40 COOPER: “At 6 hours and 22 minutes I turned off the cabin coolant and the cabin fan. Now I’m preparing to eat a little. The sandwiches that I’m looking at here are pretty crumbly, lots of crumbs floating all over in the bag they’re in. I may not open them.”


11:16:18 COOPER: “...I’m eating a pot roast of beef. I’ve had considerable difficulty getting the water in from this water device… I spilled it all over my hands and all over the cockpit here trying to get some in it. I have succeeded in getting about half of it dampened and am proceeding to eat.” 


22:27:49 GROUND: “Astro have you eaten? Over.”


(NO RESPONSE.)


22:27:58 GROUND: “Astro this is Kano Cap Com. Have you eaten? Over.”


22:28:03 COOPER: “...Cabin dome is 72 degrees.”


GROUND: “Roger have you eaten? Over.”


22:27:30 COOPER: (Finally responds) “Negative. Not yet this morning.” 


22:55:52 GROUND: “Have you had your breakfast?”


22:55:54 COOPER: “Negative.”


If Cooper sounded evasive in his responses to questions about food, perhaps he had good reason. Aeromedical observations of the Mercury project noted that during the 34 hours, 16 minutes, and 43 seconds of Cooper’s flight, he consumed only 696 of the 2,369 calories available to him at launch. 


Cooper was not alone in his reluctance to eat the unappetizing fare, but there was a more serious concern for the Mercury astronauts. Stray crumbs could float about the cabin and foul their instruments.


By the end of the Mercury project, it was clear that foods for space travel needed improvement. The space program was gaining momentum. On the longer, more complex Gemini flights, meals would have to be more appetizing, easier to eat, and less likely to crumble. 



GEMINI


Mercury taught American space explorers the fundamentals of crewed space flight and paved the way for the Gemini project. In order to send a person to the moon, a great deal more had to be done. Gemini astronauts were faced with the more complex mission of bringing two spacecraft together in orbit. This program would also help experts further determine our ability to survive and function in the microgravity of space flight. 


By June 1965, two crewed Gemini missions had been flown and a third was about to begin. Thirty-three astronauts, including the first six selected as scientist-astronauts, were in various stages of training and preparation.


Astronauts on the Gemini missions benefited from the eating difficulties of their earlier counterparts on Mercury. 


Cooper had been the first to test freeze-dried food items. When he attempted to reconstitute his beef pot-roast, the connection between the water probe and the plastic bag had begun to leak. The water drops began floating around the cabin. Cooper was able to capture the floating droplets before they could do any harm.


By the time the Gemini Program began, there were two basic principles in the space nutrition program: 


  1. To provide food that was nutritious. 
  2. To make that food appealing enough to reinforce the astronauts’ daily eating habits. 

Food experts believed that while nutrition was not a goal of space flight in itself, it was indispensable to the achievement of the space program’s goals. The program’s best laid plans could not have been carried out if our astronauts simply refused to eat and became malnourished. 


Fortunately for the Gemini astronauts, the squeeze tubes were discontinued before their missions began. Instead, bite-sized cubes were coated with gelatin so they would be less likely to crumble. Freeze-dried foods were put in special plastic containers that made reconstituting easier. 


Gemini astronauts had more appetizing choices than their predecessors on Mercury flights. They could choose from shrimp cocktail, chicken and vegetables, butterscotch pudding, and applesauce. They even selected some meal combinations themselves. 


The first long-term flight was the two week Gemini 7 mission. Nutritional criteria became important and began to constrain food system designers. The food system allowed about 1.7 pounds and 110 cubic inches per person per day, which also had to allow for all packaging materials needed to protect the foods. 


Gemini was the first spacecraft to use fuel cells to provide electrical power. This energy source had a valuable fringe benefit. Water was a byproduct of the fuel cell system. During the Gemini Program, efforts were made to process this water so that it could be used for drinking and rehydrating freeze-dried foods. In spite of these efforts, it was not until the Apollo Program that fuel cells produced water of extremely high quality. During the Gemini Program, food experts learned that the meals prepared for the astronauts were difficult to eat. Fifteen minutes had been planned for the astronauts to spend getting a meal ready to eat. In the confined quarters of the Gemini capsule, it actually took them an hour. 


During one Gemini flight, problems with the fuel cells required increased effort and attention from the astronauts. With the added stresses of this flight, they did not want to spend the extra time and effort required to prepare their meals. When their mission ended, they had eaten only 1000 calories per day for several days. Their experience taught food systems experts that prepared emergency rations should be placed on board for future flights. 


At the conclusion of the Gemini program, space nutritionists saw a challenge for the future of space nutrition. They believed that the speed with which they solved the problems of nutrition and waste control may very well set the pace for future space exploration. The Mercury and Gemini food system experts believed that humans could live in space so long as they could take their food along with them. 



APOLLO


The Apollo Program’s primary goal was to land astronauts on the moon and return them safely to Earth. The Lunar Landing Program was the largest, most complex scientific exploration humanity had ever undertaken. 


The Apollo Program’s technology requirements were threefold. The first objective was to ensure man’s health and functional capability in a hostile environment. Second was the need for a more powerful launch and transportation system. The third was to ensure that the space vehicle would reach the moon and return safely. 


Earlier Mercury and Gemini programs had raised some concerns about the health and safety of future crews. Scientists had learned that astronauts working outside the space vehicle on Gemini missions expended a higher degree of energy than expected. 


Exploring the moon would require a great deal more time outside the spacecraft than any of the past space missions. The overall objective of the Apollo food system program was to provide adequate and safe nutrition for the astronauts during the most ambitious space exploration ever attempted. In addition to a constant supply of potable water from the fuel cell system, the Apollo astronauts enjoyed another convenience their predecessors did not have: hot water. They were the first space travelers to be able to enjoy a hot cup of tea. 


After the first three crewed Apollo flights, the astronauts’ complaints about the food led Donald D. Arabian, chief of the Manned Space Center’s (now known as the Johnson Space Center (JSC)) test division, to evaluate Apollo rations. He agreed to live on Apollo food for four days. 


At the end of the first day, he noted a marked loss of appetite. By the third day, he found eating a real chore. 


By this time, it was obvious that to encourage the astronauts to eat, there had to be some pleasant anticipation of meals. Without pleasing aromas to stimulate the appetite and textural variety to provide satisfaction, the astronauts lost their desire to eat. In making modifications of the Apollo food system, a number of points were considered:


  1. Foods consumed during the flights must provide adequate nutrition and must maintain appropriate body weight. 

  1. The foods must be screened to avoid problems with nausea, loss of appetite, allergic reactions, or other undesirable responses. 

  1. Meal preparation and consumption must be simple, requiring minimal crew time and effort.

  1. The water for reconstitution of dehydrated foods must be palatable.

  1. Rehydratable food packages must function well without failures.

As these points were addressed, each successive Apollo crew reported increased acceptance of their meals.


The early Apollo flights relied heavily on rehydrated foods. Eighty percent of the weight of fresh food is water. With the water removed, the weight of the food stored aboard the spacecraft could be substantially reduced. With potable water as a byproduct of the fuel cell system, these foods could be reconstituted without fear of using up the spacecraft’s water supply. 


Freeze-dehydration provided the best method of dehydrating food. The color, texture, flavor, and nutrient content of these foods closely resembled the original food after they were reconstituted. 


Freeze-dehydration, or freeze-drying, is done by preparing the foods as they would be eaten at a normal meal. Then it is quickly frozen down to -50 degrees. The food is then placed in a vacuum chamber on shelves that can be heated. It is heated under low heat in a process called sublimation, which causes the ice crystals in the food to turn to vapor. The food is left with its original shape, but with 80 percent of its weight gone. It has a hard texture until water is used to reconstitute it. 


Dehydrated foods on the early Apollo flights consisted of both bite-sized foods that required rehydration and ready-to-eat dehydrated foods. During the Apollo program, there were many modifications in the packaging of dehydrated foods. Finally, the astronauts were able to use a rehydratable food package with an opening that allowed them to use conventional tablespoons. Packages containing ready-to-eat bite sized foods were opened with scissors and the contents could be eaten with the fingers. 


The later Apollo flights made some departures from rehydratable foods. The Apollo 8 astronauts celebrated Christmas Day 1968 by eating thermostabilized turkey and gravy with spoons. The normal water content of their Christmas meals had been retained, so no rehydration was necessary. 


Because the crew members liked the thermostabilized meals, more of these items, called wetpacks, were included on Apollo 9. 


The Apollo Program saw other improvements in space food and packaging. Food experts learned that the astronauts could eat from open containers without difficulty. The spoon-bowl package was introduced on Apollo 10. With this package, water could be inserted through a valve at one end, and a large opening on the other provided access to eat the contents with a spoon. With this change, larger pieces of dehydrated meat and vegetables could be included in a more familiar texture.


Conventional slices of fresh bread were also used successfully for the first time on Apollo 10. At last, the astronauts could make sandwiches. 


Until Apollo 10, astronaut meals had all been planned in advance before lift-off. A crew member chose the foods he preferred, and those foods were assembled into nutritionally balanced menus. These were then pre-packaged and labeled as meals for that astronaut to consume during the mission.


With the addition of a pantry on the spacecraft, Apollo 10 crew members could select some foods in the spur of the moment if they felt like varying the menus that had been arranged before the flight.


Apollo 12 added freeze-dried scrambled eggs to the menus, and Apollo 13 included the first dehydrated natural orange juice. 


Apollo 14 was the first mission in which crewmen returned to Earth without a significant change in weight. The astronauts had in-suit drinking devices that helped them maintain a better fluid balance during their explorations on the moon’s surface. Apollo 15 crewmen ate solid food while working on the lunar surface. They had high nutrient food bars inside their full pressure suits. This crew was the first to consume all of the food provided for them.


There were some biomedical findings related to nutrition in the crewmen of Apollo 15. Some experienced irregular heart rhythms thought to be related to a potassium deficiency. On Apollo 16, this problem was corrected by adding potassium to the astronaut’s soups and beverages.


As the Apollo program came to a close, Apollo nutrition experts found that despite the improvements and modifications of the food systems, most of the astronauts did not consume sufficient nutrients during their missions. In spite of this, the program was considered the most magnificent achievement in the history of the world. 


Apollo commander Neil A. Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 lunar module onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. John F. Kennedy did not live to hear those first words from the moon, “...The Eagle has landed,” nor did he see Commander Neil A. Armstrong take a “giant step for mankind.” But Americans throughout the country sat spellbound in front of their television sets and marveled as Kennedy’s vision became a reality.



SKYLAB


After the Apollo Program came to an end, the space program looked forward to new challenges. Since the earliest speculations about space, people had dreamed of orbiting lunar cities. But the world beyond Earth’s atmosphere was still hostile territory. To travel, work, and live in space, humans would have to take their natural environment along.


Skylab, an Earth-orbiting station equipped to study the sun, the stars, and the earth, was the next step toward making space a second home. Skylab astronauts would be in orbit for two months at a time. 


To food system experts, it was clear that their efforts must continue. Space food would have to be modified for these longer missions. The food system must provide the most favorable conditions for the astronauts’ physiological and psychological well-being. 


One of the Skylab program’s major studies was Life Science Investigations. Gemini astronauts had lost calcium from their bones and nitrogen from their muscles during their missions. On Skylab, two studies were designed to find out if these losses would continue on longer space flights.


The scientists hoped the Skylab menus would be made up of foods that would help them with their studies, but there was a problem with their plan. The foods they wanted to use were sure to cause complaints from the astronauts. By now, it was clear that the astronauts must have appetizing meals. If the scientists’ diet was used and astronauts did not eat well, the longer flights would be in jeopardy. 


They worked out a compromise, and there were five classes of food on Skylab: dehydrated, intermediate moisture, thermostabilized, frozen, and natural state.


The Skylab astronauts enjoyed steak and prime rib dinners. Their modern conveniences included hot water and a food freezer. 


New packaging was designed, includingmetal containers for individual servings of food. A new food tray held food in place and also warmed it. Usually, one crewmember was assigned to prepare all the meals. He took items out of the pantry, added water to the dehydrated foods, and then secured the containers in the special trays for heating. 


Mealtimes on Skylab had another new feature: a dining room table. To sit down in microgravity, the astronauts could lock cleats on their shoes to the floor of the wardroom and use thigh restraints that would hold them in a sitting position. A large porthole allowed them to look down at their home planet while dining. 


Their silverware was held to the food tray magnetically, and they used scissors to cut into their plastic food packages. The magnets were helpful, but not foolproof. Astronaut William Pogue reported that while he was looking out the wardroom window, he accidentally kicked his utensils off the table and his spoon ended up stuck to the ventilating screen above his head. 


Eating with spoons and forks in microgravity took practice. A bit of pudding was moist enough to stick to a spoon as long as the astronaut used a smooth, uninterrupted motion from the container to his mouth. If he forgot and stopped half way, the pudding left the spoon and continued on its own trajectory. With quick reflexes, he might catch it in his mouth before it made contact with his face.


On Earth, the aroma of food is a strong appetite stimulant that enhances the sense of taste. But smells do not travel well in space. To compensate for this, the crew members were provided with extra salt in liquid form. This worked better than the pepper one Skylab crew brought along in particle form. They had to shake the box very hard before the pepper came out. Then, instead of settling on the eggs, it swarmed off in a cloud above their heads. They learned that breakfast in space could be something to sneeze at. 


Films of Skylab crews showed them chasing after globs of food or catching egg on their faces, like characters in a slapstick comedy. 



THE SPACE SHUTTLE


Skylab gave nutrition experts the information they would need for the Space Shuttle crews. The Shuttle extended our ability to work in space and allowed us to understand more about the interplanetary environment. 


The Shuttle could launch satellites involved in environmental protection, energy, weather forecasting, navigation, fishing, farming, mapping, and oceanography. 


Types of foods used on the Shuttle included dehydrated, thermostabilized, irradiated, intermediate-moisture, and ready-to-eat. Shuttle energy was provided by fuel cells, with the resulting water as a byproduct. Because of this, dehydrated food remained a particularly important item. The savings in weight and volume allowed for more storage space.


There were three classifications of crew members on the Shuttle: pilots, mission specialists, and payload specialists. 


Space Shuttle crews benefitted from the experiences of their predecessors; the pioneers who squeezed apple sauce from tubes and inhaled pepper particles meant for their eggs. 


The foods the Shuttle crews ate were prepared here on Earth. Many were commercially available in grocery stores and supermarkets. Some traveled in their original packages; others were repackaged at NASA’s food lab.


Early in the Shuttle program, food system experts tried to design an ultimate menu that would please everybody, but that only lasted for five or six missions. Because of the variety of backgrounds and tastes, the diet was made more flexible.


When a crew for a new Shuttle mission was announced, food system personnel checked their files. If any of the crew members had flown before, they had a menu choice on file. This was sent to the crew member along with any new choices. All crew members had the choice of taking the standard menu or designing one to accommodate their own tastes. Menus designed by crewmembers were then checked by a dietitian to be sure the foods supplied an appropriate balance of nutrients. 


Astronauts rarely complained if there was a certain food they disliked, but if an item came back and none of the astronauts had eaten any of it, it was not sent up again. Each astronaut’s food was stored aboard the Shuttle and identified by a color code:


MISSION COMMANDER: Red


MISSION PILOT: Yellow


MISSION SPECIALIST: Blue


Other mission specialists and payload specialists were assigned colors such as green, orange, tan, purple, or brown.


On Shuttle missions, crew members took turns as chef. On most flights, meals were prepared in a galley installed on the Orbiter’s middeck. First used in 1983, the galley had a water dispenser, an oven, condiment and meal tray stowage, and a food preparation area. A full meal for a crew would be set up in about five minutes, and reconstituting and heating took an additional 20-30 minutes.


On missions that required extra interior space, the modular galley was left behind, and meals were prepared by using a water dispensing system and a portable food and beverage warmer. 


A pantry was also stowed aboard the Shuttle for each flight. It provided enough food for each crew member for two extra days. There were extra beverages and snacks in the pantry, and items could also be exchanged for regular menu items. 


There was a wide variety of ready-to-eat snacks. They ranged from freeze-dried ice cream and strawberries to a special premium blend of fruits and nuts developed by one food company for NASA as a complete dietary supplement. All unused food packages were stored in the pantry. If the flight was extended unexpectedly, these items could be used at regular mealtimes. 


Shuttle mealtimes were not exactly like eating at home (food still drifted away if it could escape), but the food was appetizing, and preparation was uncomplicated. 



INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION


The International Space Station (ISS) represents a significant evolution in the way astronauts live and work in space, particularly in terms of food preparation and consumption. Unlike past spacecraft, where food options were limited and often not very palatable, the ISS boasts a sophisticated food system that provides crew members with a variety of choices to suit their tastes and nutritional needs. This advancement is crucial not only for the astronauts' physical health, but also for their morale and psychological well-being during long-duration missions.

One of the key differences in the ISS food system compared to earlier space missions is the variety and quality of food available. Astronauts on the ISS can choose from over 200 food items, including international dishes that reflect the diverse origins of the Space Station's crew members. This variety helps cater to personal preferences and prevents menu fatigue. Food types include rehydratable, thermostabilized, freeze-dried, natural form (like nuts and tortillas), and the fresh fruits and vegetables that are occasionally sent up on resupply missions. The ISS also introduced the "Veggie" experiment, allowing astronauts to grow and consume their own leafy greens aboard the station. This not only supplements their diet with fresh produce, but also contributes to psychological health by providing a small piece of Earth in the sterile environment of the space station in the form of green, living plants.

Food supply to the ISS is carefully planned and executed. Resupply missions occur approximately every three months, carried out by different spacecraft, including the Russian Progress, the SpaceX Dragon, and the Northrop Grumman Cygnus. Each resupply mission brings a mix of replacement equipment, scientific experiments, and, crucially, food and water to sustain the crew. The planning process ensures that there is a balanced, nutrient-rich diet, while also taking into account the storage limitations and the need to minimize waste. Moreover, the packaging of space food has evolved to make meal preparation easier in microgravity, with improved packaging that allows astronauts to eat directly from the pouches or containers. This reduces the risk of food particles floating away and contaminating the station's environment.

The importance of the food system on the ISS cannot be overstated. It is designed not only to sustain life, but to enhance the quality of life for astronauts living and working in space for extended periods. The advances in space food technology and the ability to grow plants on the ISS are paving the way for future long-duration missions, such as those to the Moon and Mars, where self-sustaining food systems will be critical. The ISS serves as a test bed for these technologies, ensuring astronauts will have the nutrition and comfort they need to explore beyond Earth's orbit.

FOOD PLANS FOR THE MOON AND MARS

Looking beyond the ISS, ambitious plans for human missions to the Moon and Mars necessitate innovative approaches to space nutrition. NASA's Artemis program and SpaceX's Mars colonization efforts underscore the need for sustainable food systems. These efforts include the potential for hydroponic and aeroponic farms, the utilization of in-situ resources, and the development of closed-loop systems that could support plant growth in extraterrestrial environments. Research focuses on overcoming challenges such as reduced gravity, radiation, and efficient use of water.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

The future of space exploration will likely see further innovations in food production and preparation, including vertical farming, genetically modified crops suited for space, and even 3D-printed food. These advancements aim to ensure that astronauts have access to a nutritious and varied diet, supporting not only their physical health, but also their morale and mental well-being on long-duration missions.


The advancements in food systems aboard the International Space Station (ISS) mark a pivotal evolution in space exploration, reflecting our growing understanding of the importance of nutrition, variety, and psychological well-being in space. The diverse and sophisticated food options available to astronauts, coupled with innovative efforts to grow fresh produce in microgravity, underscore the critical role that food plays in the success of long-duration missions. These developments not only enhance the day-to-day lives of astronauts, but also lay the groundwork for future exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

As humanity sets its sights on these distant destinations, the lessons learned from our space program will be invaluable. The ability to provide sustainable, nutritious, and enjoyable food options will be a cornerstone of mission planning, ensuring that astronauts remain healthy, motivated, and prepared to face the challenges of deep space exploration. 

The ISS serves as a testament to international cooperation and human ingenuity, proving that with collaboration and innovation, we can overcome the barriers of living in the harsh environment of space. As we continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, the evolution of space food systems will remain a critical aspect of our journey to the stars.