Squishy gunk in tubes. This space food package in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum contains pureed beef with vegetables and was issued to John Glenn for consumption during his Friendship 7 flight in February 1962.
One morning, shortly after the school day started, my classmates and I gathered around my school’s small black-and-white television to view history in the making. It was May 5, 1961, and I remember being transfixed by a grainy, darting image of the Freedom 7 capsule carrying Alan Shepard, the first American in space, back home to Earth. I was in the first grade and like a lot of kids of my generation, I decided right then that becoming an astronaut would be the coolest thing EVER.
Except for the food. In those early days, it seemed like an astronaut’s diet consisted primarily of squishy gray gunk in tubes. Yuck.
Over the years, Hollywood and television have given us an evolving vision of dining in space. Still-squishy gunk is served in elegant trays by stylish flight attendants in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). At the beginning of Alien (1979), the crew enjoys a normal breakfast spread of cereals, biscuits, corn bread, fruit, and coffee—in one of the last normal moments of the film. And then there’s the foodie ultimate—the replicator aboard the USS Enterprise that conjures “Earl Grey, hot,” at Captain Picard’s command in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).
Left: A Star Trek thermos, perfect for taking your “Earl Grey, hot” with you. Right: No one on board the Nostromo suggested making an omelette out of these! Ripley (aka Sigourney Weaver) was on hand when this prop from Alien was donated to the museum.
But what do real astronauts eat? Well, among other things, hot sauce, according to NASA food scientist Vickie Kloeris, who is interviewed in the latest Prototype Online: Inventive Voices podcast from the Lemelson Center. Kloeris explains that many astronauts experience a diminished sense of taste (and smell, an important component of taste) while on orbit, and something with a bit of a kick provides a welcome wake-up call to the taste buds. So it’s not a surprise that horseradish-laden shrimp cocktail ranks first as American astronauts’ favorite space food.
Developing a mouthwatering menu for microgravity, however, involves more than dishing up the chili peppers. Processing and packaging directly affect things like taste and shelf life. Since there are no food refrigerators in space, Kloeris and her team are constantly innovating methods of food preparation that retain both flavor and nutrients as well as packaging that keeps the food appetizing even after months on the International Space Station (ISS). And if we ever make the trip to Mars, the food will need to stay tasty for about five years.
Beyond these practical considerations, Kloeris stresses the importance of the psychological role of food. Gathering for meals is an important part of the day for the men and women in space. And it’s even more satisfying if they can finish a meal with a warm dessert, something Kloeris and her team developed for the ISS.
NASA food scientist Vickie Kloeris points out that freeze-dried ice cream made one flight into space, on Apollo 7 in 1968, and hasn’t been back since. “It’s not an adult thing,” she says. See her list of the 10 Worst Space Foods.
OK, so the squishy gunk in tubes is gone and today’s astronauts are not eating freeze-dried ice cream washed down with a pouch of Tang. But how close is NASA to “Earl Grey, hot?” Though space food has come a long way, Kloeris says that Jean-Luc won’t “make it so” anytime soon. Seems that food is the real “final frontier.”
Joyce Bedi is senior historian at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History.