Cosmic Cuisine

Blog post by Program Assistant Laura Grant. To read more posts from Laura, click here.

Here at the JMM, we’ve been taking a deep dive into space with the opening of our latest exhibit, Jews in Space Members of the Tribe in Orbit. Personally, I’ve never been a space or sci-fi fanatic. I didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut, I have trouble using a telescope, and I’ve never watched Star Trek or Star Wars. However, one area of space exploration that I find fascinating is food and how it can be packed, preserved, and eaten by astronauts aboard the space shuttle and station. I’ve been surprised to learn there’s a whole science behind it that goes a lot further than gross looking food in tubes or astronaut ice cream.

Examples of Space Foods

Food in space has come a long way since the early missions. While the first astronauts didn’t find the act of eating in space particularly difficult, they did note that the food was not that appetizing. Their choice of items was limited; and the food consisted of freeze-dried powders and semi-liquids packaged in tubes that had to be squeezed to be eaten. Luckily, the food quality improved quickly and by the time of Apollo, the third U.S spaceflight program, astronauts had access to hot water which made reheating food much easier and thermostabilized pouches whereby food is heated to destroy bacteria and then can be stored at regular temperature. There is a whole team behind these innovations who research, develop, and prepare the food and menus for astronauts, and they can be found at the Space Food Systems Laboratory at NASA.

Work at the Space Systems Laboratory. Scientists wear full PPE (personal protective equipment) to help prevent the transmittal of foodborne illnesses.

To learn about the work of the Lab, I recently watched a livestream hosted by the Intrepid Air and Space Museum that featured Food System Manager, Ryan Dowdy, along with NASA Astronaut Michael Massimino. At the lab, food scientists, engineers, and dieticians work together to conduct experiments about how to improve the eating experience for astronauts. One of the most interesting things I learned during the livestream was the process behind menu development. According to Dr. Dowdy, the menu planning process starts about 8-9 months before a scheduled launch. The menu options are varied and feature about 200 items for astronauts to select from for their breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks.

While variety is key, so is nutrition. The menus are designed to ensure that astronauts get enough vitamins, minerals, and calories. According to Dowdy, astronauts need up to an additional 1,000 calories a day especially for when they are conducting space walks. One of the most popular menu items is shrimp cocktail because of its spicy flavor from horseradish in the sauce. In addition to the items the astronauts select off the menu, they are also allowed a limited number of specialized foods for their personal preference kit, small containers used to carry personal belongings. Astronauts can request to have their favorite food or special meals for celebrations stored in this way.

While space food has evolved tremendously since the early missions, there is one area that remains a challenge for food scientists—accommodating dietary requests for vegan, gluten free, or kosher food. According to Dr. Dowdy, due to the amount of food that is required and storage/packaging requirements, scientists can only adapt what is available as opposed to creating a fully vegan or kosher meal plan for someone. I learned about this challenge earlier this year when Rabbi Yoggev presented for the JMM about “How to be Jewish in Space.” He mentioned that no astronaut has ever gone to space with a fully certified kosher meal plan.

However, the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon did ask for permission to bring some kosher food into space as a symbol of his identity as the first Israeli astronaut. His request was granted, and the food was stored as part of his personal preference kit. NASA was able to accommodate his request in large part because he was only in space for 15 days, and he did not need a full menu of certified kosher items for the flight.

Ilan Ramon

While there is much more to say about space food and eating in space, I’ll close with a fun fact about what may be the most ubiquitous item of “space food” —astronaut ice cream. Freeze-dried ice cream is merely a gift shop favorite and not something astronauts eat. According to Massimo and Dowdy, it’s never appeared on a menu nor been a specialty requested item because it just doesn’t taste that good.  

Astronaut ice cream in an assortment of flavors
Exhibits Museum Stories