An astronaut eating in space
In the early days of space travel, when it came to eating a meal, astronauts had to rough it. Food came in dried cubes or was served in metal containers much like toothpaste tubes, and appearance and flavor were low priorities. Now, space food is much more homelike and astronauts can enjoy many of the same foods they’d eat at home.
There are a few considerations to keep in mind, however. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available, but in limited quantities and only those that can remain fresh at room temperature are likely candidates for a space flight. Water is at a premium on the International Space Station, so fewer dehydrated, and more shelf-stable menu choices are encouraged. On the Space Shuttle, water is a byproduct of the fuel cells and is available in abundant quantities for rehydratable foods and beverages.
On Earth, nutritional profiles of food are important. In space, good nutrition matters even more because astronauts need to be in peak physical condition. Meal planners at Johnson Space Center’s Space Food Systems Laboratory use the same tools as Earth nutritionists when it comes to healthy eating plans.
There is an approved list of food choices ranging from spaghetti and meat sauce to fruit salad. Using that as a guide, each crewmember creates a personalized menu and those foods are loaded and stored on board. Since each item is individually packaged, it’s merely a matter of picking and choosing which container to put in the galley storage area.
“On the Space Shuttle, we have a rehydration station where water is added to any dried products,” says Vickie Kloeris, sub-system manager for Shuttle and International Space Station food. “A convection oven is available to warm up foods, but it only reaches 180 degrees [82 degrees Celsius]. That’s not hot enough to boil water or cook meals, but it can heat foods to serving temperatures. Neither the Shuttle nor the Space Station has a refrigerator, so foods need to be able to be stored safely at room temperature for long periods of time. There is a very small chiller on board that will cool items, but the chiller is smaller than a dormitory refrigerator, so there isn’t room for much.”
This astronaut is using chopsticks to eat in space
There are very few items that just don’t work up in space, Kloeris says. “Carbonated drinks currently don’t make the trip because the carbonation and the soda will separate in microgravity. Some experiments have been done with special microgravity dispensers for soda, but it has not been perfected yet. Ice cream or anything else frozen can’t go up, because we don’t have freezers, and try as we might, we just have not been able to come up with a good shelf-stable pizza. Beyond that, though, astronauts can find just about anything you’d order on a typical menu. The presentation might be different-the chicken a la king might be dehydrated-but the names are all the same.”
Nobody enjoys a big cleanup at mealtime, and astronauts are no exception. All plates and packaging materials for space meals are disposable. The only additional work required is washing the eating utensils. Since running water is hard to manage onboard the Space Shuttle or Space Station, astronauts take care of this chore by washing knives, forks, and spoons with premoistened towelettes.
Food that travels in space is tested for flavor and general appeal, and the containers are often flown in near-zero gravity conditions to be sure they’ll hold up under the unique conditions of space flight.
“Astronauts are people,” Kloeris says. “They have likes and dislikes, and we try to meet individual preferences. Right now, most Shuttle trips last 2 weeks or less, so it’s not a big deal to alter your diet for that short a time. But as more astronauts live on the Space Station, where stays last much longer, it’s important that the food they eat is satisfying and delicious as well as nutritionally balanced.”
byproduct – something produced in a usually industrial or biological process in addition to the principal product
convection – an oven having a fan that circulates hot air uniformly and continuously around food
dehydrated – to remove water from foods
dormitory – a large room containing numerous beds
nutritional – the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances
shelf-stable – food preserved for extended storage life
Published by NASAexplores