Space food: The fascinating story of astronaut food (it should include HACCP)

Since the beginning of the space race, the American public has been fascinated by how astronauts eat.“Astronaut ice cream” is an evergreen impulse buy in museum gift shops across the country, and Tang has gotten nearly unlimited marketing mileage from its presence on-board NASA missions.

Special foods have always been required for consumption in space, since few off-the-shelf products have the longevity or rigorous packaging needed to pass muster. Space food must be compact, while offering enough nutrition to support strenuous zero-g activity.

Then there’s the mess factor. Without gravity to pull crumbs to the ground, foods with loose particles can cause all kinds of problems. That means bread is a no-go, and tortillas are the sandwich staple of choice.

While you might imagine pureed goops in tube and freeze-dried bricks are routine for spacefarers, the reality is quite different. In fact, the astronauts aboard the International Space Station hail from all over the world, and have brought a diverse menu to the spaceborne dinner table.

One constant for all space food is that nothing can be served up raw. Dishes must either be extremely shelf-stable or rehydratable. Foods like chicken and steak are thermostabilized, meaning they’re completely cooked to kill bacteria and other potential threats before blastoff. Refrigerated foods are also occasionally consumed on board. Every few months, astronauts get a taste of fresh fruits and veggies from terra firma, but they must be consumed quickly.

With no access to a conventional kitchen, astronauts use special convection-based food warmers to heat frozen entrees to a more palatable temperature. Preparing dehydrated foods, meanwhile, is an integral part of the design of the ISS habitation module. A rehydration unit is built into a console; astronauts simply plug in their meal, turn the dial to the setting indicated on the pouch, and hit a button. The correct amount of hot water is dispensed automatically.