Space food has come a long way since John Glenn. The first American in space snacked on freeze-dried cubes and squeezed his meals out of tubes and straight into his mouth. Later missions like the Gemini and Apollo programs gradually introduced more diversity to the menu and added utensils, and later iterations tried to make the food taste more like, well, food. But the goal was always the same: meeting astronaut’s nutrition needs while they were far from home, without creating too much waste, and without loading excess weight onto the carefully calibrated rocket that carries supplies and astronauts to space.
Rockets have to use massive amounts of fuel to propel vessels like the Soyuz capsule or the now-retired space shuttles into orbit. That means that all weight is at a premium, even for necessary items like food.
Then there’s the preparation. Mixing up a recipe is difficult when all your ingredients want to float. In early ISS experiments, astronauts used duct tape, plastic bags, and wet wipes to mix up recipes, but in a zero-g environment, even careful planning could get messy.
To avoid a kitchen nightmare, most meals destined for spaceflight are already pre-packaged, ready to heat and eat.
Astronauts share a meal on the ISS. Credit: NASA
Even on holidays, like Christmas, the astronauts on the International Space Station subsist on sustenance packaged in foil packets and canned goods. But this isn’t ordinary canned food. For the 2016 holiday season, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet brought food specially prepared by French chefs: gingerbread, ox tongue, and chicken with morels, all in cans.
The crew of the ISS celebrates on Christmas 2016. Credit: NASA
In foil drink pouches, American astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson brought up cider and cocoa to toast the holiday, along with turkey, fruit salad, and vegetables. The only differences between their feast and the feast on Grandma’s tables? Grandma’s food didn’t require extensive research to serve, and it was probably presented on platters instead of pouches.
Researchers test food that might one day be bound for space at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Credit: Mark Sowa
But with stays on the space station getting longer, and future missions to Mars or other Solar System destinations in the future, researchers are working on coming up with solutions to let astronauts not only customize their food but also get fresh, healthy food on long space flights.
One solution that researchers are experimenting with involves 3D printing foods, which would give astronauts some additional choice in what they ate. Other experiments—including the aptly-named Veggie plant growth system—involve growing plants on the ISS in the hopes that the techniques learned there could be applied to future long-distance space flights or even early outposts on Mars, where fresh fruits, vegetables and greens would be a luxury.
“Lettuce Eat”: A crop of romaine lettuce grown on the space station sampled by astronauts. Credit: NASA
There is also some thought that fresh foods might provide a psychological benefit to astronauts on long space flights.
A schematic depicting a garden module on Mars. Credit: NASA
But vegetables would only provide a small amount of the astronaut’s diet on these future missions. For the upcoming Orion missions, set to launch in the early 2020’s, researchers are working on breakfast bars, which will weigh less than the lunch and dinner options, and provide a large amount of calories needed for the long mission.
It might be a long time before fine dining arrives in space, but in the meantime, there are plenty of interesting ways that astronauts can dig in!