The Evolution of Space Food

If you were a child or a teenager during the Sixties, I’m guessing you drank Tang.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tang, it’s a powdered orange drink. It first became available in 1959. Tang probably never would have achieved more popularity than similar drinks… except for one thing.

In 1962, astronaut John Glenn had it during his highly-publicized orbit of Earth on Friendship 7. Actually, he orbited Earth three times during his nearly five-hour flight. And reached speeds of more than 17,000 mph.

Orbiting Earth doesn’t sound like a big deal now. But the U.S. was lagging behind the U.S.S.R. in the space race at the time. This flight was vitally important in the quest to catch up. And it helped make Glenn a national hero.

Eating and Digesting in Space

As a result, just about every young person – and some older folks – wanted to drink Tang in the early Sixties.

Glenn was the first American to eat and drink in space. Before that, our scientists were not certain how well he would ingest and absorb nutrients in a state of zero gravity.

But he consumed applesauce packed in a tube and xylose sugar tablets mixed in water. Thereby showing we could eat, swallow and digest food in a weightless environment.

The key for NASA was providing astronauts with lightweight, compact food and beverages. Ideally they would be tasty and nutritious too.

In addition, those foods and beverages needed to stay edible and healthy for periods of time without refrigeration.

Water Gun Re-Hydrates Food

Glenn and other Mercury astronauts sucked food through straws from aluminum tubes. They had no problem chewing and digesting that food.

But the taste was not all that great. Glenn munched on pureed beef and vegetables. Other Mercury astronauts ate crushed cornflakes and crushed wheat. They were molded into bite-sized cubes coated in gelatin so they wouldn’t crumble.

Cooper ate a meal of dehydrated shrimp, potato salad and apple juice. During the Gemini program (1961-66), the dehydrated food astronauts consumed consisted of 51 percent carbohydrates. And 32 percent fat and 17 percent protein.

They used hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells to re-hydrate their dehydrated or freeze-dried foods. This cold water was injected into a food pouch with a water gun. (Eventually these water guns produced both hot and cold water.)

Velcro Tabs Come in Handy

Whirlpool Corporation packed much of this space food. In conjunction with the U.S. Army Laboratory and NASA.

Perhaps tired of the cumbersome nature of eating this way, Grissom tried to eat food in “normal” manner during one space flight. But his corned beef sandwich on rye produced a problem. Breadcrumbs broke off and started floating around him.

So, astronauts stuck with the pouches, which became increasingly sophisticated through the years. Velcro tabs allowed pouches to fasten to the inside of spacecraft. That kept them from floating away while astronauts engaged in various activities.

By the late Sixties, astronauts ate thermo-stabilized turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce. It did not have to be re-hydrated and could be eaten with a small spoon.

Canteens and Food Bars Added

When astronauts finished the contents of a pouch, they’d place a small tablet in it to kill potential micro-bacterial growth.

The Apollo 11 mission in 1969 featured compressed pineapple fruitcake in a pouch. One of those pouches is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

On the trip, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins also ate spaghetti with meat sauce, sausage patties and chicken stew.

Inside the lunar module while on the moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin consumed beef stew, bacon squares, date fruitcake and grape punch.

Once other astronauts were walking on the moon, they were given canteens for drinking and apricot food bars for a snack.

Family Style on Skylab

During the Skylab program, astronauts were able to cook and eat meals of their own choosing on the space station.

Food was often heated within pop-top aluminum cans or plastic pouches prior to consumption. In the dining area, footholds were used rather than chairs so that they could congregate around a table.

A food storage refrigerator was used. Astronauts would prepare their meals with a “warmer tray.” It featured compartments that used heat conduction.

Among the foods they consumed were ham, chili, mashed potatoes, steak and asparagus. Plus ice cream.

On a Bland Diet

Today’s International Space Station astronauts don’t use a refrigerator. In fact, the only fridge on the station is used for biological experiments.

The food is thermo-stabilized or freeze-dried, or irradiated or in its natural form. U.S. astronauts choose meals before departing Earth from the Johnson Space Center Food Lab.

Astronauts say food tastes blander in space. That’s because senses of smell and taste are altered due to the lack of gravity.

Aromas do not dissipate like they do on Earth. They don’t rise to the nostrils as when gravity is a factor.

Shelf Lives Must Increase

Food used on the space station has a shelf life of 18 months to three years. NASA will need to increase those shelf lives for a manned mission to Mars.

For one thing, the food will have to be shipped to Mars ahead of the flight crew, due to space and weight restrictions. So, it will have to last for at least five years.

NASA is also looking into ways to grow food in space. The space station crew has already consumed space-grown food in the form of red romaine lettuce.

A successful manned mission to Mars will have to include plants. Due to the nutrients they provide, as well as for creating oxygen and processing waste gases.

Space food has come a long way since John Glenn. But there’s still a long ways to go.

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