What did astronauts eat on their celestial voyages? From dehydrated spaghetti to bacon cubes, the answers might surprise you.
Space food had to fit a number of requirements. Easily portable was a given, as just bringing food into space is incredibly expensive: even today, it costs a whopping $10,000 to take one pound of food up to the International Space Station. Food had to be nutrient-dense and filling, as the astronauts would be expending a fair amount of calories up in space, particularly during space walks. And NASA engineers didn’t just have to deal with the meals themselves, but how certain foods would affect the digestive system in space.
The technology NASA employed to solve these problems was truly state of the art. Astronauts on the Mercury missions, including John Glenn, had to rely mostly on unappetizing semi-liquids, sucked through straws. But food options improved during the later Gemini and Apollo missions. A lot of the space food, and almost all of the space drinks, flew up dehydrated. Milk, coffee, grapefruit juice and even soups could be eaten with just some added water. NASA was obsessed with food in cube form: cinnamon toasted bread cubes, strawberry cubes and even bacon cubes formed part of a balanced space breakfast, and cubes of sugar, chocolate and peanut butter were available for snacking. In fact, the first food eaten on the moon was a bacon cube.
One 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 chicken stew, chicken and rice and spaghetti with meat sauce. 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.
But how did all this food taste? There’s surprisingly little record of any answer to that question. In a “Nutrition Today” article from the fall of 1969, a NASA scientist reported that the astronauts “enjoyed the food we put aboard. The variety was satisfactory, and there was enough to satisfy their hunger and maintain their performance.” It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for space food, but keep in mind that our taste buds react very differently to foods eaten in the air. Decreased atmosphere plus a dry cabin environment decreased our taste buds’ ability to taste by about 30 percent. Buzz Aldrin, though, had very positive things to say about one of the 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 like Skylab and the space shuttle included more than 70 food items. Celebrity chefs even contributed tasty dishes for our men and women far, far from home. Today, much like newly engaged couples planning a wedding, 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.