Neil Armstrong may have taken the first little step for the man on the moon, but it was John Glenn who took the first sip of apple sauce for humanity.
Until he ate when he circled around the world in 1962, scientists at NASA were not sure people could swallow and melt food in space. Fortunately he chowed down to zero gravity without any problems. Today's astronauts spend sometimes months at a time in the International Space Station (ISS), so they get quite hungry without any snacks!
Of course, while the human body is happy to take a meal while floating 250 miles above the ground, the process of cooking and eating is not exactly the same as it is at home. Therefore, NASA researchers are still working hard to perfect astronaut menus. A healthy diet is even more important for spacecrackers than it is here on the surface, to spend time in space causing your body to start losing legs and muscle mass. NASA needs to figure out how to send food into a rocket, store it as long as possible and make sure it provides a perfect balance of nutrients – and it must keep the astronauts boring too!
"Imagine eating the same food for every meal for six months. You can get tired of the food and eat less than you need to keep weight, health and performance. Therefore, we need to make sure there is a large amount of healthy food available to astronauts to make choices, "said F. Ryan Dowdy, ISS Food Systems Manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The astronauts have about 200 foods to choose from. According to Dowdy, many options are surprisingly similar to meals we eat on Earth.
"Whether it's macaroni and cheese or chocolate pudding cake, it's important for astronauts to eat to be reminded of the home," he says. "Food can be an important psychological comfort in the stressful environment of space."
It's the preparation that's unique: Food must often be in storage for six months before it's out of space – lasting for weeks or months at a time when it's up there – so NASA designs everything with a sustainability of at least two years. Macaroni and cheese are freeze dried (which means that most of the moisture has been removed, making it safe to store at room temperature) and the astronauts put hot water at the space station. The chocolate pudding cake is preserved in the same way as canned food, but NASA puts it in a flexible bag so it takes up less space.
Some ground foods are already perfectly adapted for zero gravity consumption. Tortillas are, for example, a good alternative to bread – they last for a long time, and they do not form curves floating around and caught in important parts of the ship. Astronauts can also request small quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables when NASA sends deliveries, but most of the time, they eat different combinations of super-preserved stored foods.
When NASA looks forward to spacecraft's future – with a mission to Mars, and maybe even further – the agency needs to design even more sustainable food. It takes about eight months to come to Mars, and astronauts must also bring food for the trip home. Dowdy says that NASA is working to extend the life of its food for about five years, but space utilization is also part of the plan.
The astronauts on the ISS can grow plants as a salad in small quantities, but Dowdy says it takes some time before this is a sustainable calorie source. He thinks that 3-D prints can also be on the menu any day soon. One thing is certain: It will take a lot of scientific knowledge to feed future space researchers.