The second half of the 20th century brought technological leaps in both space travel and food science. As food technology and convenience were growing, so was the need to adequately feed the astronauts of international space programs. Keep reading for a complete* history of space food.
*Technically not complete, since we don’t know what aliens eat. Sorry.
The First Person to eat in Space
It was initially speculated that humans may not be able to digest food normally – or even swallow properly – in zero gravity. Why? According to Vickie Kloeris, NASA’s ISS food systems manager, there was doubt that peristalsis would still happen in a null gravity environment.1
Of course, if all involuntary muscle contractions of the GI tract failed to execute, that would imply that a lot of other human physiological processes would be trapped on this side of the atmosphere. Fortunately, peristalsis works just fine off-world, as shown by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on his
groundbreaking sky-breaking flight Vostok 1.
The flight lasted 108 minutes. Not long enough to actually need a snack. Gagarin, however, took the opportunity to not only become the first human in space, but the first human to eat in space.
The first tasty space meal? Two tubes of meat paste and one tube of chocolate sauce.2
One short flight, one giant leap for the human GI tract. And can we take a second to appreciate Gargarin’s enteric nerves of steel? The first man in space, on an unprecedented mission into uncharted territory, and he manages to wolf down a few tubes of meat and chocolate for the sake of checking off the “eating-in-space” box. So, that’s where our story begins: two tubes of pureed meat toothpaste and one tube of chocolate sauce.
Mercury (1961 – 1963) and Gemini (1965 – 1966): Experimenting and Expanding
Enter Mercury. In Space Race fashion, American astronaut John Glenn became the second person to consume food in space on the third Mercury mission in February 1962, a flight lasting a total of 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds on the Friendship 7.
Definitely long enough to need a snack. The gourmet selection this time? Applesauce.
The final three Mercury flights were 5 hours, 9 hours, and finally, over 34 hours. The 34-hour mission orbited Earth 22 times and for the first time, explored the effects of one full day in space.3 For these flights, astronauts were offered pureed squeeze tubes, bite-sized cubes coated with an edible film to prevent crumbs, and freeze-dried powdered foods.4
On the 9-hour Sigma 7 mission, astronaut Wally Schirra declined any interest in eating, stating he was “having a ball up here.” Still, he managed to finish off a tube of pureed ground beef and a tube of peaches.2 Not surprisingly, most of the Mercury astronauts agreed that the food was unpleasant. Not a huge deal when the maximum mission length was 34 hours, but it was clear that longer missions would require more palatable and extensive selections to prevent menu fatigue.
Astronauts’ taste buds rejoiced when the Gemini program ditched the metal tubes. No more toothpaste dinners. Special packaging was created for concentrated foods, and the Gemini missions offered fancier fare like shrimp cocktail, butterscotch pudding, and chicken with vegetables. Crew members were able to mix and match their own meals.4 Some cubed foods remained, but generally in more fun forms like single-bite sugar cookie cubes, coated in thin gelatin to avoid crumbling.7
Food safety became a primary concern, and the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, which is now widely used in food systems, was developed.5
Apollo (1968 – 1972): Hot Stuff
The Apollo missions upped the ante by introducing hot water for the first time, making it easier to rehydrate foods and improve taste. Availability was the by-product result of hydrogen and oxygen fuel cells that powered the ship.6
Utensils also entered the picture with the introduction of the “spoonbowl,*” a packaged meal that could be opened and eaten with a spoon.4 Sealed-in moisture helped the food in the bowl stick to the spoon, allowing a more normal dining experience.2
*Spoonbowl: the Spork’s great aunt’s cousin once-removed
Apollo also introduced heat-treated canned and pouched foods, as well as irradiated products. These thermostabilized pouches were called “wetpacks” and didn’t need to be rehydrated since the aluminum foil or plastic kept the food moist.8
Lunar Firsts: Bacon; Communion on the Moon
After landing in the Sea of Tranquility, the Apollo 11 astronauts feasted on bacon cubes and an assortment of sides. Known as “Meal A,” this packet also included peaches, sugar cookie cubes, coffee, and pineapple-grapefruit juice: the first meal on the surface of the moon.9
Apollo 11 offered a set of alternative meals, all color-coded and labeled by day. Other delicacies included pork with scalloped potatoes, Canadian bacon with applesauce, and beef and vegetables. There was also a contingency system that would deliver liquid foods through the crew’s helmet ports in the event of an emergency, like loss of cabin pressure.7
Just before leaving the lunar module to take his first steps on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, a practicing Presbyterian, took Communion from a kit he’d brought from his church. The moon’s lighter gravity affected the experience. In his memoir, Aldrin wrote, “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.”10
Later Apollo missions continued to diversify the meal selection, introducing steaks and hamburgers. Apollo 15 and 17 astronauts consumed apricot bars on the lunar surface while collecting materials – the first lunar energy bar?7 Other offerings included cornflakes, tuna salad, chocolate pudding, and beef sandwiches.8 On Christmas Eve, the Apollo 8 crew enjoyed some fruitcake.
Well, as much as anyone ever enjoys fruitcake.
What was up with Tang?
Tang, an orange powdered drink mix first sold in 1959, was not invented for the space program. NASA first began using the mix on John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury flight and incorporated it into the later Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions to make water on the ships taste better.2 Some astronauts, however, disagreed that Tang did the trick: During the taping of Spike TV’s 2013 “Guy’s Choice Awards,” Buzz Aldrin bluntly stated, “Tang sucks.”11 These days, it usually isn’t kept on the ISS.
Skylab (1973 – 1975): The Unexpected Gold Standard
Skylab, America’s first space station, was designed for extended stays in orbit. In a series of three missions – Skylab I, II, and III – three-member teams inhabited the station for 28 days, 59 days, and 84 days, respectively.12 With Skylab, NASA hoped to 1) prove that humans could live and work in space for longer periods of time, and 2) conduct a series of experiments, including medical studies on the astronauts’ response to life in zero-gravity.
Because NASA hoped to learn more about human metabolism in space, and since stays on Skylab were much longer than previous missions, this space station featured a food system with unprecedented variety and familiarity with Earth-side dining. For the first time, astronauts had access to refrigerated and frozen food, along with a dining room table where they could sit down and eat meals in a similar fashion to home. Forks, knives, and spoons could now be used, and the menu boasted 72 different foods.4
Skylab had what is still considered to be NASA’s most sophisticated food system. When overall energy consumption was measured, the Skylab crews consistently held the highest percentage of desired intake of any other mission, as determined by World Health Organization nutritional requirements.5
Astronaut Ice Cream: Museum Gift Shops vs. Reality
Thanks to a freezer, the Skylab crews were able to enjoy real ice cream on the station, but it wasn’t in the form of that Neapolitan freeze-dried deliciousness offered in the best science museum gift shops. Sadly, everyone’s favorite “astronaut ice cream” isn’t a thing, at least not on real space missions. The product was developed by Whirlpool for the Apollo missions, but the end result was too crumbly to eat in zero-gravity without jeopardizing the controls.7
Not to be so quickly dismissed, Smithsonian-variety astronaut ice cream took to clogging up the space between minivan seat cushions instead.
Space Shuttles (1981 – 2011)
In a back-to-basics move, the first space shuttle reverted to trays instead of a dining table, nixed the fridge and freezer, and implemented a shelf-stable food system. Rehydratable foods and beverages were kept in hard plastic packages that were later replaced with more flexible, trash-compactable containers.5 The crew prepared food in a galley with water for rehydration and an oven for warming.4
Due to the use of fuel cells for power, a lot of by-product water was available. This means that freeze-dried foods and powdered drinks were common on Shuttle missions. Foods like frozen vegetables were further freeze-dried, while some products, like cookies and crackers, were used in their commercially available forms.5
Meal trays held foods in place and allowed astronauts to eat multiple foods at once, just like they would for a normal meal at home. Without this, dishes would have to be eaten one-at-a-time since they wouldn’t stay in place.4
Standard Shuttle menus operated on a 7-day cycle, which was initially standardized for all crew members. After some expressed discontentment with the standard menu, they were permitted to individualize some options. Crew members designed their menus from a selection of 74 different foods and 20 drinks.8 Their choices were then analyzed by a dietitian to ensure nutritional requirements would be fulfilled.5 Since astronauts were subjected to intense physical requirements during training, they were accustomed to following a nutritious diet and tended to select appropriate foods when planning their own menus.
Excess Sodium and Iron, Inadequate Everything Else
Shuttle menus exceeded sodium and iron requirements, which can be attributed to the shelf-stable requirements of the food system. Purchased process foods were higher in sodium, and most commercial grain products were enriched with iron.5
Unlike Skylab, average intake on Shuttle missions generally fell below the crew’s calculated needs. However, Shuttle missions were considerably shorter and with heavier workloads, cutting into meal times and likely making adequate intake a lower priority than in longer missions. Space adaptation syndrome ate up a greater percentage of total mission time. Since these flights ranged from only 2-17 days, sodium/iron excesses or caloric deficiencies weren’t a serious concern; however, they could be more consequential for long-term space travel.
Despite nutritional concerns, Shuttle food might have been the most fun. The Shuttle menus introduced flour tortillas, which were less prone than bread to crumbing up the works. Liquid salt and pepper were also introduced, again, to keep worrisome granules from smacking astronauts in the face.7 Houston, we don’t have a margarita.
Shuttle menus also introduced the “fresh food locker” with fruits and vegetables like carrots, celery, apples, and bananas. Carrots and celery are highly perishable and had to be eaten within two days, the rest of the items within the first week.13 The real challenge here was not only the lack of refrigeration, but the locker’s storage near electrical equipment that could raise its temperature to over 85 degrees.
A lot of effort went into those celery sticks.
For the Discovery launch in 2006, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse developed five new recipes: bacon mashed potatoes, green beans with garlic, rice pudding, mixed fruit, and “Mardi Gras jambalaya.” The latter was especially popular because of its spiciness – taste is diminished in space.7
The International Space Station (ISS): Extended Stays
Mir (1995 – 1998)
During construction of the ISS, American astronauts joined Russian cosmonauts on the space station Mir. American shuttle menu items and Russian Space Agency (RSA) foods were served, setting the stage for the future ISS menu.5 Long stays on Mir proved how important food would be to the crewmembers, for both nutritional and psychological reasons. It was obvious that more variety would be needed to boost morale and combat menu fatigue.
Change of Plans
It was expected that the ISS would have refrigerators and freezers in the US habituation module. However, this module was scrapped from the final design to save money and power. Rather than developing additional refrigerator foods, funding was diverted to development of a greater variety of shelf-stable menu items.5 Thermostabilized items were favored over freeze-dried since the ISS does not generate water as a fuel cell byproduct like the Shuttles.
NASA’s food list offers nearly 200 items, while the Russian program offers about 100. The designed menu selects foods from both equally, allowing greater dietary diversity for all ISS crewmembers. Russian items include lamb and vegetables, beef with barley, sturgeon, and chicken with rice, canned foods that can be heated in the microwave. Korean scientists contributed kimchi, noodles, and nutrition bars treated with gamma-ray radiation.6 Not to be outdone, Japan offers sushi, ramen, yokan, and rice with ume. Yes, sushi – the Japanese favorite was introduced to the ISS in 2009 by astronaut Soichi Noguchi.14
Originally, crew members selected their own menus and the space agencies made every effort to honor their preferences. However, due to cargo shipping logistics and impractical timing, astronauts didn’t always get their desired foods at the same time. At the crew’s request, NASA switched to a standardized menu with monthly allowances for individual monthly bonus containers.5 Fresh fruits and vegetables also make an appearance, transported by the Russian resupply vehicle Progress and more recently, SpaceX’s Dragon. With no refrigeration, these foods have to be eaten within several days. ISS crew members frequently praise the psychological benefits of these fresh food deliveries.
Space nutrition has always been a potentially limiting factor in long-term missions. As extended trips are planned – back to the Moon, or to Mars and beyond – providing space travelers with a variety of foods that are functionally nutritious, along with enjoyable, will grow even more challenging. Taste, variety, and health benefits will be key to successfully navigating deeper into space.
How do you envision the future of space menus?
1. Megia P. “When NASA wasn’t sure if astronauts could swallow in space.” Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/nasa-space-food-chew-swallow. / 2. “Space Food.” Space Foundation Discovery Center. https://www.discoverspace.org/exhibit/space-food. / 3. “Mercury Crewed Flights Summary.” NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mercury/missions/manned_flights.html. / 4. “Food for Space Flight.” NAtSA. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Food_for_Space_Flight.html. / 5. Smith et. al. Nutritional Biochemistry of Space Flight. Nova Publishers, 2009. / 6. Tang et. al. Long-term Space Nutrition: A Scoping Review. Nutrients. 2022, 14 (194). https://doi.org/103390/nu14010194. / 7. “From applesauce in a tube to ‘space noodles,’ here’s how astronaut food has evolved from the 1960s to today.” Insider. / 8. “How Space Food Works.” How Stuff Works. https://science.howstuffworks.com/space-food1.htm. / 9. “The First Meal Eaten on the Moon was Bacon.” Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/first-meal-eaten-moon-was-bacon-180950457. / 10. “The First Food Eaten and Drink on the Moon was Communion.” Apollo 11 Space. https://apollo11space.com/the-first-food-eaten-and-drink-on-the-moon-was-communion/ / 11. “To Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, ‘Tang Sucks.’” Space.com. https://www.space.com/21538-buzz-aldrin-tang-spaceflight.html / 12. “The Skylab Crewed Missions.” NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/skylab/missions/skylab_manned.html / 13. “Fresh Ideas for Space Food.” NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/5-8/features/F_Fresh_Ideas.html / 14. “Astronauts to Taste Space Sushi.” Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2009-12-astronauts-space-sushi.html