Space Food Systems

Historically, space food systems have evolved as U.S. space programs have developed. The early Mercury program (1961-1963) included food packaged in bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried powders, and semiliquid foods (such as ham salad) stuffed into aluminum tubes.

The Gemini program (1965-1966) continued using bite-sized cubes, which were coated with plain gelatin to reduce crumbs that might clog the air-handling system. Freeze-dried foods were put into a special plastic container to make rehydrating easier.

The Apollo program (1968-1972) was the first to have hot water. This made rehydrating foods easier, and also improved taste and quality. Apollo astronauts were the first crew members to use the spoonbowl, a utensil that eliminated having to consume food into the mouth directly from the package.

The quality, taste, and variety of foods improved even more during the Skylab program (1973-1974), the only program to have refrigerators and freezers for storage of fresh foods. The menu contained seventy-two different food items.

The Shuttle program, which began in 1981, includes food prepared on Earth from grocery store shelves. With the help of a dietitian, crew members plan individual three-meal-per-day menus that contain a balanced supply of the nutrients needed for living and working in space. Crew members are allowed to add a few of their own personal favorite foods (which may require special packaging to withstand the rigors of spaceflight). Freeze-dried foods are rehydrated using water that is generated by the Shuttle's fuel cells. Foods are eaten right from the package (on individual food trays), or they may be heated in a convection oven in the Shuttle galley.

plasma: the fluid portion of the blood, distinct from the cellular portion iron: nutrient needed for red blood cell formation

Astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to share a meal. The quality of their menu contrasts sharply with those of the early space explorers, whose meals were either semi-liquids— squeezed from a tube—or bite-sized cubes. [NASA. Reproduced by permission.]

During the Shuttle-Mir program (1995-1998), a joint menu was used that contained half Russian and half U.S. Shuttle foods. These had to meet the nutritional needs established by technical committees representing both space programs. The Russian four-meal-per-day menu was used, with each space program providing two of the meals. Three larger meals were designed to be eaten as scheduled meals; the fourth meal was composed of foods that could be eaten at any time throughout the day.

A Space Shuttle meal tray includes scissors to cut open food packages and Velcro to hold them in place. The tray itself is secured to the wall or to an astronaut's lap to keep it from drifting away. [NASA. Reproduced by permission.]

The current food system for the International Space Station, which started in 2000, is similar to the system used in the Shuttle-Mir program. The four-meal-per-day menu plan is used, with equal provision of foods by the U.S. and Russian space programs. The menu is composed mainly of packaged foods that are freeze-dried and thermostabilized (canned), with very few fresh foods. The crew members plan their own menus with the assistance of a dietitian, and an effort is made to include all of the nutrients needed for working in the space environment. After the habitation module galley is equipped with refrigerators, freezers, and a microwave-convection oven, a more extensive menu, including a variety of fresh foods, will be available.

dietary assessment: analysis of nutrients in the diet energy: technically, the ability to perform work; the content of a substance that allows it to be useful as a fuel calorie: unit of food energy carbohydrate: food molecule made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, including sugars and starches dehydration: loss of water

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