In case you haven’t noticed – maybe you were still sleeping off the over-indulgences of the July 4th festivities, on a digital detox, or off the planet roaming the universe somewhere – this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Yes, that’s right: for those of us ‘experienced’ enough to remember that historic occasion (or those who were paying attention in history class) we celebrate the moment when Neil Armstrong planted foot and flag upon the cold, desolate surface of our most rhapsodized satellite and uttered his historic ‘one small step, one giant leap’ statement. And one of the contributing factors powering the American success in the Greatest Space Race to that point may well have been something that is all too frequently overlooked. Food…and food safety.
While Russian cosmonauts were permitted vodka as part of their mission rations, their US counterparts were more abstemious. For Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, the beverage of choice was Tang, a drink mix created by William A. Mitchell who also brought the world such delicacies as Cool Whip and Pop Rocks.(1) Contained in a sealed pouch, the powdered drink was perfectly designed for extraterrestrial use as it could be rehydrated as needed with water from a syringe. But although it was widely imbibed, some notable space travelers were not huge Tang fans. In a 2013 taping of Spike TV’s ‘Guys Choice Awards,’ Buzz Aldrin was less than subtle in his appraisal of the drink: ‘Tang sucks.’(2) Possibly with an eye to the Soviet program, in 1972 NASA did toy with the idea of allowing wine on missions but, according to an article in Business Insider, the discussion was shelved ‘due to public outcry […] and indifference from many of the astronauts.’(3)
So apart from the now famous soda-style drink, what did astronauts actually consume in space? On the Apollo 11 flight, Armstrong et al dined on beef and vegetables, bacon and apple sauce, or pork and potato scallops. The color-coded packages were rehydrated using hot water – the crew being the first to have access to that particular luxury – and later missions included apricot bars, ice cream, and chocolate, although this latter treat could also prove a distraction. In 2004, pilot Mike Melvill commented on his experiment with candy: ‘“I reached into my pocket and I took out some M&Ms, all different colors, and let them go in front of my face. […] And they just spun around like little sparkling things. I was so blown away. I couldn’t even fly the [craft].”’(4)
Subsequent crews are now fortunate to enjoy the benefits of NASA’s team of food technologists who, at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, TX, not only create new meals but also invite astronauts on a taste-test prior to flight. This is important because, as reported in an article in Quality Assurance and Food Safety, ‘if the taste or texture of the food is unappealing, the astronauts will not eat enough. And that will result in weight and bone density loss, which can impact both their health and their performance.’(5) And, in the same way as recipes are specifically formulated to combat the taste challenges for the airline industry, food in space must be tweaked to appeal to astronauts’ taste buds. To this end, NASA even drafted celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse to craft recipes. Of the five meals selected for enjoyment on the International Space Station (ISS) – Mardi Gras jambalaya, mashed potatoes with bacon, green beans with garlic, rice pudding, and mixed fruit – the spicy dishes proved to be the favorites. Why? In the same ways as foods on commercial airline flights – whether you’re in Economy, First, or Business Class – often taste muted, foods in space require additional saltiness and spiciness to register the same taste level as their ground-based counterparts. One additional challenge faced by those eating in microgravity is how to add taste enhancers such as salt and pepper given the danger solid forms represent both to system devices and astronauts’ eyes. The solution? A solution! That is, a squeeze bottle loaded with a mixture of dissolved salt and pepper-infused oil. Touching a drop directly to the food allows, to a certain extent, the customization of a dish to personal preference. As indeed does the addition of the often requested hot sauce.
And for Armstrong’s contemporaries, who frequently undergo much more protracted missions than those of the early pioneers, an extensive core menu is available along with permitted bonus items. For Rick Mastracchio, a veteran of 4 missions, 9 spacewalks, who lived in space for more than 228 days, this meant enchiladas, dehydrated fruit, salsa, and supplemental condiments. Although of course these items were not without their own set of particular challenges: ‘Because of the lack of gravity, the sauce (or any other condiment in such packaging) doesn’t squeeze down onto your food as it would on Earth, it simply squeezes out, forming a ball around the opening and sticking to the sides of the packet—and your fingers. “You have to use the package almost like a paintbrush,” Mastracchio said.’(6)
But the options for bonus items are not unlimited because, for NASA, it is not always as simple as ordering off the shelf. With a heavy focus on safety, the agency must ensure that all ingredients and dishes are tested for potential contamination, including microbial and fungal organisms. Foods that make the cut fall into seven categories: freeze-dried, thermostabilized, intermediate moisture, natural form, irradiated, beverages, and condiments. Thermostabilization and irradiation are both used to safeguard items such as meat products, some pasta dishes, and chocolate pudding. However, they are not interchangeable in terms of their underlying technologies. Thermostabilization is achieved by treating the food with high temperature steam and increased pressure for around 20 minutes to produce a package of food deemed ‘commercially sterile.’ Irradiation, on the other hand, requires the food to be sterilized using ionizing radiation to eliminate the sort of microorganisms that can cause Salmonella or E. coli poisoning. Dried foods such as peaches are permitted ‘intermediate moisture’ – a low level of water content that is just enough to facilitate easy consumption but not sufficient to allow for microbial growth. The ‘natural form’ items include nuts, cookies, and tortillas – the favorite of many astronauts due to their lack of system-clogging breadcrumbs – which are repackaged under laboratory conditions and conveyed into space essentially without change. Why the repackaging? In an interview with MythBusters’ co-host Adam Savage, Jackie Kloeris, Manager of the Space Food Systems Laboratory (SFSL) at the JSC, explained that flammability and chemical off-gassing of food packaging represents a significant danger in space.(7) Instead of testing the packaging from the multitude of vendors from whom it sources these natural form items, NASA simply repackages individual portions in materials it knows to be safe and contamination free – from the ink on the label to the adhesive and the Velcro dots that allow the diner to maintain control of their food package in microgravity.
Back in 1960, NASA’s partnership with the Pillsbury Company developed not only food products but also the standard safety system upon which we still rely: Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP. As we know, the protocol seeks to identify stages of the manufacturing process into which contamination could be introduced and to eliminate that risk – in effect, resolving the problem before it becomes one. Seeing the success of the protocol for NASA, Pillsbury implemented it for its own commercial manufacturing processes, thereby becoming the first instigator of a contamination control system that would ultimately be mandated for meat, seafood, poultry, and juice processing industries, as well as being voluntarily adopted by some restaurants.
For contemporary NASA this means that all items within a food pack have a bar-coded serial number linked to their origins. These codes allow the agency to track both products and ingredients, warning astronauts ahead of time of any potential issues such as recalls. Furthermore, when commercial, off-the-shelf items such as cookies or cereals are sourced for consumption in space, NASA’s protocol demands the purchase be from the same lot, with a rigid set of testing specifications for each product. Additionally, even when a Letter of Commercial Sterility is issued for a product, it is not considered space-ready until the pouch is thoroughly cleaned and labeled by NASA and Velcro dots are attached. And, as a last failsafe measure, samples of each food taken on a mission are stored at the SFSL for testing in the event that a crew member reports problems while in space.
In tandem with its focus on traceability, NASA also leverages its Advanced Food Technology (AFT) Program, a component of the agency’s Human Research Program (HRP). AFT examines ways in which the weight and volume of food products can be reduced and the shelf-life of items extended. Given the relative proximity of the space station (254 miles above Earth) and duration of missions (a 6 month stay is the average), food intended for the ISS need be viable for only a comparatively short period. Potential future missions to Mars, however, would require items to be viable for up to five years – and this means remaining not only free of microbial, fungal, bacterial, and toxicological contamination, but also replete with life-sustaining nutrition and flavor. Not an easy task…
With that said, a closer look at the history of space food shows just how far technology and menus have already advanced from the ‘cubes and tubes’ of the Gemini and Apollo missions. Whilst adequate nutrition was provided via toothpaste-style tubes or edible film-coated cubes of cereal or dried fruit, the appearance of the provisions arguably did little to stimulate an appetite. Yet one similarity remains between the repasts of yesteryear and those of today: the importance of shelf-stability. Having ditched the luxury of Skylab’s freezers (and their glorious possibility of real ice cream), today’s missions continue to rely on shelf-stable food options, much to the chagrin of space-going gastronomers like Mike Massimino. In an interview published in Wired, Massimino – veteran of missions aboard the Space Shuttles Columbia and Atlantis, author of Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, and the first person to use Twitter in space – shared that the ‘tragedy of spaceflight is that you can’t get pizza […] There was some pizza flown in recently. But I don’t know what it tasted like. I’m very skeptical.’(8) As indeed are we since – as far as we know – neither Grubhub nor DoorDash are sufficiently speedy to deliver to the ISS. At least, not yet…
We may have a light-hearted take on food in space but it does remain a significant challenge to astronauts. So what advances would you expect to see in advance of the much touted missions to Mars? Is growing food in microgravity a solution? Additive food manufacturing? Complete nutrition packed in a pill? We’d love to know your thoughts!