Cooking for Space Travel

Lori Neish and Valerie Cathriner
The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch June 8th and one of the tasks will be to deliver Astronaut Clayton Anderson to the International Space Station. Part of his preparation for living in space for the next several months included selecting some of his meals. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker reports how the NASA food program has evolved over time.

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While NASA does still use Tang, gone are the days of food cubes coded with edible film. International Space Station Food System Manager Vickie Kloeris says during the early days, food quality was not the priority.

"Early on you know they were totally concerned about, they didn't want one crumb getting into the environment of the space craft cause they just, it was almost medicinal at that point then like food."

Some meals are freeze-dried. Astronauts rehydrate the meals while in orbit. The texture can be a bit mushy, so NASA is trying to develop more foods using a process called thermo-stabilization. The latest addition: cheese grits.

"A great comfort food I guess (laughs)"

Lori Neish oversees the Space Food Research Facility at Texas A&M. Neish and another NASA food scientist manually fill 300 pouches before putting them into a large metal capsule called a retort.

The retort uses pressure and heat to sterilize the product. The A&M facility started operations earlier this year after NASA was having a difficult time contracting with companies to produce the pouches. Those same companies are involved in producing MRE's for the war. Food System Manager Kloeris says MRE's don't work for NASA in part because of the salt content. She says sodium encourages bone loss which is a problem in space, but not a problem for troops on the ground.

"They need the salt because they want to have the electrolytes because the troops are sweating it out a lot. And then they also need the calories because they are tending to feed a much younger crowd. They are typically looking at 18 to 21 year olds and we're feeding folks in their 40s."

Astronauts do have a selection of about 180 foods and beverages and food scientists are looking to add more. One challenge is that astronauts say food tastes different in orbit.

Retort Machine"Some of it you can guess. When they go into space flight initially, there's a fluid shift that occurs. And the fluid moves to the upper part of their body so initially they are very congested. So it's just like you and I have a cold and things taste different to us."

As NASA looks to return to the Moon and going on to Mars, food with even longer shelf-life is needed that still tastes good and doesn't lose it nutritional qualities.

"Like the early explorers got scurvy and things like that, because they had specific nutrients that were missing out of their diets. We want to be sure we're not going to be in a situation like that on a three year mission to Mars where we cause some disease because of a lack of nutritional content in the food."

One food item not likely to make the three year trek to Mars: pizza. Astronauts request it all the time, but pizza just doesn't taste right in pouches. Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Capella Tucker

Capella Tucker

Director of Content

Capella Tucker joined KUHF in the spring of 1994 as a part-time reporter. She quickly gained a full-time position when she took over production duties for

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