Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get to meet and hear Vickie Kloeris manager of the Space Food Systems Laboratory at NASA. She’s a microbiologist with a masters in food science. I’d not given much thought to what astronauts eat before. Perhaps that is why this was one of the most interesting stops for me and for the other tweeters. I tweeted non-stop during her talk b/c it was one interesting tidbit after another. And a few people following me were tweeting back questions. Apparently every one found it intriguing.
First thing you need to know is, there was no Tang. It’s not a NASA product. A childhood belief crushed. I was less saddened to hear that no astronauts eat astronaut ice cream. It’s gross and no one likes it, except gift shops. 🙂
The elevator looked like an airlock and we passed the schedule for the Orion project on the wall. The main difference between space food and regular food is space food is never meant to be eaten immediately. Their concerns are shelf life and nutrition. They tried MREs for a bit but the high salt, fat, etc. weren’t good for long missions.
All beverages are in a foil pack similar to Capri Sun, but have a NASA engineered septum adapter. A modified commercial IV clamp is used to keep the liquid from spilling out in zero g when the astronaut isn’t drinking. For freeze-dried food in clear plastic, once water is added and the food has time to absorb it, they cut open the package and use it like a bowl to eat out of. They cut an X so that the flaps can hold the food in the package. In space, they have to rely on surface tension to keep food in the bowl or on their spoon/fork. Thus they take very small bites. No wolfing it down on the shuttle. They always have some fresh food, but of course it doesn’t last.
The last shuttle mission (which BTW was the LAST shuttle mission) took up about a year’s worth of food. With stores up there, they have about 500+ days of food. All the packages are in English and Cyrillic although the official language on ISS is English.
The currently print “best by” dates, meaning that after that point it may taste bad, but it’s still safe to eat. They are working now on dates after which they should really just throw it away. It would still be safe, but so bad no one would eat it. She gave the example of black apricots.
They used to let astros pick their own menus, but because of they way things go, astronauts usually ended up not being able to eat their own selections and eating someone elses. Thus they switched to a standardized menu, although each astronaut chooses their own personal box. Those astronauts who put the most thought into their bonus food are the happiest, she said. The most popular package, the “Sweets, snacks and yogurts” pack can only be opened one every 9 days.
When asked about special diets, she told us there have been an occasional vegetarian, but not many and no other dietary restrictions. A vegetarian on the ISS now, she said, would be hurting because all of the meals have meat.