Edible rocket science: Astronaut food is more than Tang

Imagine having to carry along all the food you’ll need for a three- to six-month camping trip – including water – and you’ll get a small idea of the challenges facing NASA’s Space Food Systems Labs in Houston, Texas, especially as missions to the moon and Mars are planned. Scientists provided a tour of the labs to members of the Association of Food Journalists at our recent conference.

Michele H. Perchonok, advanced food technology project manager at Johnson Space Center, said that carrying high-tech foods is fine for Space Shuttle trips and stays on the International Space Station. However, for the longer trips, astronauts will need to find ways to grow their own food
because it will be impossible to carry enough. NASA plans to have a habitat on the moon, where astronauts will stay for six months at a time, by 2022. An outpost on Mars is projected by 2035.

Space flights must travel light. Perchonok said astronauts require four pounds of food per day (that includes the packaging) per person. Her current challenge for long-term stays in space: Get the food weight down to 2 1/2 pounds per person.

Besides weight requirements, the food must not require refrigeration or freezing. No crumbs that could float around in the weightless environment. And it must be processed to resist bacteria. Foods for the Shuttle must have a nine- to 12-month shelf life; it’s 18 months for the space station.

Water weighs two pounds per liter, and the assumed use per person is two liters daily. Every drop of moisture in the shuttle and space station is recycled, from condensation produced by equipment to, yes, urine (it’s processed like at municipal water treatment plants).

Perchonok said a lot of the foods are freeze dried because that process meets the food safety requirements and still lets the food look like appetizing. Meats are irradiated at the Department of Defense labs in Natick, Mass. Thermostabilized foods are heat processed to destroy microorganisms and packed in pouches similar to the military’s MREs.

But with all the space-age technology, the food still has to taste good. The food lab’s menu has 160 items, from main dishes to snacks and beverages, and astronauts bound for the space station taste them all to select their preferences. Shuttle astronauts taste and pick from a smaller number. Lab dietitians develop three to five new items a year, and taste panels of astronauts evaluate them.

Perchonok said that unless there is a special food study going on, astronauts may select whatever they want – everyone doesn’t have to eat the same thing. However, the boss has a big say. “Many commanders say ‘no fish on my shuttle’ because of the smell,” she said. “There are problems with fish for that reason, and it’s been hard to keep it from being fishy tasting. The commander has to like it, but not necessarily everyone else.”

It’s not like you can open a window.

Some of the most popular foods are homey favorites: meatloaf, corn tortillas, shrimp cocktail, M&Ms, cookies, and desserts like chocolate pudding cake and berry cobbler. Perchonok said that one perennial request from crews is for more warm desserts. The lab has accommodated some special requests – Italian and Japanese food when crew members from those countries traveled to the space station – and provides holiday meals, if the astronauts want them. “We’ve had one vegan,” she said. “And we had kosher style meals, not certified kosher, for an Israeli crew member at his request.”

Condiments are in liquid form: salt dissolved in water, black pepper in oil. Nothing that could float, remember?

Because the Russians are partners in the space station, half of the U.S. crew’s meals are from Russian items such as borscht, aspics and heavier stews. “But they switch food all the time with each other,” she said.

And beverages? “There’s no alcohol on the U.S. side,” she said. “I can’t say there hasn’t been some vodka now and then on the other side, but we don’t encourage it.”

Although dietitians have calculated the menus to provide enough calories (with 30 percent calories from fat), astronauts often lose weight on their missions. Perchonok said there are many reasons for this. One is that the crews are so busy and excited to be in space that they just forget to eat. Another is that without gravity, aromas don’t rise. Also, the lack of gravity affects fluids in the body, causing a feeling like a stuffy nose. Can’t smell the food, can’t taste it well.

Yes, the crews still carry Tang into space, but it was not developed for NASA as legends say, according to Perchonok. And that freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” never went to space. It was developed solely as an item to be sold at museums, she said.

For the Mars mission, crews will be able to carry some food, but will need to grow some of it hydroponically in recycled water. Want bread? They’ll have to grow the wheat and mill the results. That’s a long way from the tubes of applesauce first sent into space in 1961.

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