Subject Matter Expert: Scott
Smith and Vickie Kloeris
Food is a basic need. Having enough food while traveling
has always been a problem for explorers. In addition to having
enough to eat, explorers also need ways to package and store
food. What can be done to make sure the food won’t spoil?
Early explorers dried and stored food in cool places. They
also used sealed containers.
Some of these same methods are still being used to store
food onboard the space shuttle and the International Space
Originally, all foods eaten by astronauts in space were
in the form of bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried food, or semi-liquids inside toothpaste-type tubes. Sound tasty? As space missions
continued, the food became “better” in variety, taste, and
texture. The choices continue to grow. Astronauts can now
choose from more than 70 different kinds of foods and 20
What kinds of foods make good space food? Of course taste
is important, but foods are also chosen for their nutritional
value. Space food must also be easy to package and store.
Space food is grouped into several different categories.
Foods may be rehydrated or freeze-dried, like “astronaut
ice cream.” If a little bit of water is left in the food
to keep it soft, like dried fruit, the food is categorized
as “containing intermediate moisture.” Some foods may be
in their natural form, ready to eat right out of the package,
like bite-sized crackers and nuts.
Other foods are processed once they’re packaged, such as
irradiated and thermostabilized foods. Both processes help
sterilize foods. Food that is irradiated is sterilized by
radiation, like smoked turkey. Thermostabilized foods, like
grilled chicken for fajitas, are sterilized with heat to
Astronauts get to taste-test foods before their space mission.
With such a variety of foods, space shuttle astronauts may
choose different foods for every meal during the mission.
An average space shuttle mission lasts seven days. Astronauts
on the International Space Station may have to repeat meals
on their 30-day menu for their 4--6 month mission.
The reduced gravity of space also affects the way foods
are packaged and served. In space, foods that crumble when
eaten are avoided. Crumbs and liquids can damage equipment
or be accidentally inhaled by astronauts as they float inside
the spacecraft. Space is no place for a peanut butter and
jelly sandwich. The breadcrumbs from the sandwich can cause
trouble. Peanut butter on its own, though, is okay. Sticky
food can be eaten with a fork or spoon.
NASA has used flour tortillas on the space shuttle since
the 1980s. These special tortillas are designed to take the
place of crumbly bread. Picture trying to make a sandwich
with two slices of bread. In space, you’d need three hands
to do it. Tortillas work great and are a favorite with the
astronauts. And …on the ISS, they still taste good after
being stored for up to 18 months! Add some picante sauce
and hot sauce, and you’ve created fajitas, one of the astronauts’
Packing food for a trip to Mars will offer even greater
challenges. A space flight to Mars will keep astronauts away
from Earth for 2 to 3 years. How will food be supplied? Growing
and processing food is one option. Researchers believe that
the best plants for a long mission are soy, peanuts, potatoes,
tomatoes, and wheat. These choices are not only good sources
of food but also contain oils that can be used with other
foods. They can also be processed into a variety of other
food products such as flour and soy milk cheese. Scientists
are studying and carefully choosing which plants to grow
in a spacecraft.
Food is not only a basic need but a comforting reminder
of home. Scientists continue to increase space food choices
and look for the best foods for a long-duration flight. Many
types of food currently eaten by astronauts are very similar
to what you eat on Earth.
It’s important that all crew members have food that keeps
them healthy and happy. Astronauts traveling in space are
no different than you or me when it comes to needing tasty
and nutritious food.