As soon as NASA began the work of sending humans into space, the question arose: What would they would eat once there? Space food had to fit a number of requirements. It had to be easily portable. It had to be nutrient-dense and filling, as the astronauts would be expending a fair amount of calories, particularly during space walks. And it had to last.
The technology NASA developed to solve these problems has evolved over the decades. At first, astronauts on early missions, such as Mercury (1958-1963), had to rely on unappetizing semi-liquids, squeezed out of tubes.
Food options improved during the later Gemini (1965-1966) and Apollo (1961-1975) missions. Dehydrated milk, coffee, grapefruit juice and even soups could be eaten with just some added water. NASA also began turning food into cube form: cinnamon toasted bread cubes, strawberry cubes and even bacon cubes formed part of a balanced space breakfast, while snacks included cubes of sugar, chocolate and peanut butter. (In fact, the first food eaten on the moon was a bacon cube.) Additionally, Apollo astronauts were the first to have access to hot water, which made rehydrating foods easier and improved their taste.
Another real breakthrough was an invention called the spoon-bowl pack. Looking like a hybrid of a zippable plastic freezer bag and an IV bag, the spoon-bowl was a plastic packet full of dried food that could be rehydrated via a valve at the bottom. The hot water turned bricks of inedible stuff back into meals like chicken stew, chicken and rice and spaghetti with meat sauce.
Apollo astronauts unzipped the top of the bag and fed spoons into a small opening: they could eat without fear of food flying away since the moisture in the food caused it to stick to the spoons.
How did all this food taste? In a Nutrition Today article from the fall of 1969, a NASA scientist reported that the astronauts enjoyed the food: "The variety was satisfactory, and there was enough to satisfy their hunger and maintain their performance.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement, but the bar may have been lower, since taste buds react very differently to foods eaten in the air. Decreased atmosphere plus a dry cabin environment decrease taste buds’ ability to taste by about 30 percent.
For his part, Buzz Aldrin had very positive things to say about one of his mission’s appetizers: shrimp cocktail. He later explained, “They were chosen one by one to make sure they would be tiny enough to squeeze out of the food packet, and they were delicious!”
By the 1970s and ‘80s, culinary options on spacecraft grew to include more than 70 food items. For the first time, shuttles such as Skylab designated large interior spaces to use as dining rooms.
These days, astronauts are invited to Houston’s Johnson Space Center for taste-testing sessions and the Space Food Systems Laboratory, where they help recommend dishes for their upcoming missions. A month before a mission launches, the food (up to 3.8 pounds, including packaging, per astronaut, per day) is packaged and prepared, with partially or fully dehydrated items still making up many of the meals, though condiments and spices (including salt suspended in water) are readily available. Shuttles are also now equipped with fresh food lockers that contain bread, fruits and vegetables.
NASA is even experimenting with space gardening, so one day astronauts might be able to feed themselves without any earthly help.