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Everything you wanted to know about space food

 

© Canadian Space Agency 

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to eat in zero gravity? “Space food” is carefully chosen, packaged and pinned down to make it easy for astronauts to eat, enjoy and stay healthy. Here are some pretty cool facts about eating in space!

Early space food

Exhibit showing early space food.
An exhibit displaying examples of food that gets sent to space for the astronauts to eat. Photo by Maksym Kozlenko licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s astronauts get to choose from a wide variety of tasty food (even fresh fruit and vegetables!) but this hasn’t always been the case. Early astronauts had to choke down bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried powders, and thick, gluey liquids stuffed into aluminum tubes.

Assorted foods in plastic packaging for astronaut David Saint Jacques to sample.
David Saint-Jacques shared this photo of food samples on his Facebook page. Clockwise: Italian vegetables, shrimp cocktail, vegetable quiche, beef pattie, oat cereal. © Canadian Space Agency

When they’d had enough, the astronauts complained and food started to get better (unsurprisingly, the first things to go were the squeeze tubes!). Improved packaging — special plastic containers that make it easier to prepare — made it possible to improve food quality and variety. The astronauts on the Apollo space mission (1961-1975) were the first to have hot water and to use spoons.


No junk food in space!

Commander Chris Hadfield shows off floating tomatoes.
Expedition 34 Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield juggles tomatoes on the International Space Station. © NASA

Everything that makes it into orbit is carefully selected, and food is no exception. Food needs to be nutritious — a healthy diet helps to reduce the negative effects of zero gravity on the human body —but also lightweight, compact and individually packaged.

There are no refrigerators in space so all food is precooked or processed, ready to eat or prepared by adding water or by heating (with the exception of fruit and vegetables). 

Food also needs to be wet or sticky, because zero gravity means that crumbs will float away (and maybe get into the equipment, which could spell disaster)!


Strap in and chow down!

Astronauts eat together in the International Space Station.
Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk and the crew of Expedition 20/21 eat dinner together. © Canadian Space Agency

So how do you eat a meal in space without your food getting away? Well, astronauts use a specially-designed meal tray which can be attached to the wall or to their laps by a strap. The meal tray holds the food containers in place, allowing the astronaut to eat all the different foods in their meal at once, just like a meal at home.

Without the tray, they would have to finish each container of food one at a time. That means you’d have to eat your mashed potatoes first — then drink your gravy!


Taste in space

David Saint-Jacques samples space food.
It’s tasting time! David Saint-Jacques samples food at the Canadian Space Agency for his upcoming mission, Expedition 58. © Canadian Space Agency

Does food taste the same in space? Scientists don’t think so. Smell is a big part of taste, but in a weightless environment, food aromas don't quite make it to the nose.

Zero gravity also causes fluids to rise — including bodily fluids! When astronauts first arrive at the International Space Station, some experience congestion in their head and sinuses, giving them stuffy noses. This usually clears up after a while, but foods with a strong flavour are definitely an astronaut’s best friend.


Space food of the future

Growing vegetables in space.
NASA researchers strive to test food production on the Internationals Space Station. © NASA

We’ve come a long way since the days of squeeze tubes, but there’s still nothing like biting into crisp, fresh produce — and seeds are much lighter and smaller than pre-packaged meals. That’s why scientists at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center started trying to figure out how to grow plants and vegetables in simulated space environments. Named “The Veggie Experiment,” this research project has made it possible for astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) to grow and eat fresh greens — including red romaine lettuce grown in clay instead of soil.