There are no grocery stores in space

Ever wonder what – and how – astronauts eat? After all, there are no grocery stores in space. From applesauce in a tube to baking cookies, here’s what astronauts put on their on their plates, courtesy of Guest Blogger and Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Curator Jennifer Lavasseur, PhD.

There are no Grocery Stores in Space

When was the last time you visited a grocery store? I would guess it was within the last few days. You probably picked up some milk, maybe eggs and bread, fresh produce, and perhaps some meat or fish. The plastic and Styrofoam containers those come in get sent to recycling (hopefully) after meals are prepared, and food waste can go in the compost or trash. It should be no surprise that creating a healthy meal, from packaging to managing the waste by-products, is not nearly as straightforward in orbit as it is on Earth’s surface.

From MRE’s to Apollo Hot Dogs

NASA scientists have learned an incredible amount about the nutritional needs of astronauts over the six decades since John Glenn squeezed applesauce from a tube on his 1962 orbital mission. Early food choices were bland and mostly dehydrated, and cold since warm water was not available until the Apollo missions. Even then, meals were hardly something astronauts wanted to “write home” about.

Then, as now, astronaut meals are more like something you get from your local camping retailer. Or if you’ve had the opportunity to try one, an MRE (meals ready to eat) given to our military personnel during long trips away from a mess hall. That is, in fact, where our military and astronaut food history intersect. The same labs that developed food for the military in the 1950s and 1960s informed NASA on the needs for the astronauts.

A package of dehydrated pork and potatoes from Apollo 11. The white Velcro squares on the other side mean this was assigned to Command Module Pilot Michael Collins.

Especially early on, tin cans used by the military gave way to laminated plastic packages (think of vacuum-sealed pouches to maintain the freshness), fitted with special valves to insert water to re-hydrate the food inside. Dehydrating foods made them lighter, allowing astronauts to add water created by their spacecraft when needed. Some foods, like the ever-popular hot dog, were put in a new style of package during trips to the Moon, what is called thermostabilized. You’ll know these from the tuna fish or shelf-stable milk sections. The slightly metallic material can be warmed (though Apollo astronauts ate cold hot dogs) using a special oven, and easily torn open for eating.

So What Do Astronauts Eat?

There are no grocery stores in space
The Expedition 60 crew gathers for a meal of fresh fruit and other pre-packaged foods in 2019. From left to right are cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin, Aleksandr Skvortsov, NASA astronauts Christina Koch, Nick Hague, and Andrew Morgan (in red), and ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano (floating above).

But what about the food itself? Astronauts have the same general nutritional requirements in space as on Earth, but with the added concern of a lack of Vitamin D (they can’t get outside to get that from the sun) and less stress on the body in microgravity. Plus, since everything “floats” up there, that includes food as it goes into the stomach, making it possible to feel fuller than is the case. So astronauts must track everything they eat and do not, ensuring they are keeping up with what their body needs no matter how it may feel.

Fresh foods, as we know, are a far better answer for a nutritious menu than something pre-packaged (no matter how much we like the taste of that mac and cheese from a box). Resupply missions to the International Space Station, including those of the Space Shuttles until 2011, brought fresh produce especially: oranges, apples, and other more “durable” foods. Those foods need to be packed for space well in advance, so things like bananas and strawberries stay on Earth since they ripen far too quickly (the blackened bananas I got just a week ago at the store would never have made it to space in time). 

Sustainable Food in Space

But those foods are treats more than anything, as are the occasional boxes of ice cream bars when a freezer unit for biological samples makes it way up. Making life sustainable in space for people, we need to find sustainable ways of creating food. If you were on a long camping trip, say a week in the Appalachian Mountains, you would need to bring your food with you in your backpack. Or you need to know how to find sources of food in nature.

Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars do not have resources to grow food. Everything needs to come from Earth in some form. Right now, there are experiments on the International Space Station for growing foods like leafy greens, radishes, and even grasses like wheat. The ability to grow those could supplement an astronaut’s diet of pre-packaged foods, or even provide ingredients to use in making food.

Dessert Anyone?

Meals in Space
DoubleTree cookie baked on the Space Station floats with a package of milk in front of astronauts Luca Parmitano and Christina Koch, November 2019 (NASA photo).

In late 2019, a company called ZeroG Kitchens worked with DoubleTree by Hilton Hotels to try baking in space. Unbaked cookie dough (using the famous DoubleTree recipe) was placed in special silicone sleeves and then baked in the ZeroG Kitchen’s oven. One of those cookies will soon be on display at the Smithsonian! But more importantly, we learned about how microgravity changes the way baking at usual temperatures. But imagine how good it would feel to smell fresh baked bread or cookies after months inside the same space!

Astronauts do not get to go outside for a walk or breath of fresh air, so things like smells, tastes, and other comforts of home can really help the mind as well as the body. Eating good food, things that are tasty and nutritious, means even more the longer you spend away from home, so NASA and its partners are spending lots of time researching, testing, and planning for how even longer missions in space can use food in smart ways that help astronauts survive.

Meal Planning for Mars and Beyond

Deep Space Food Challenge

With the continuation of space exploration, there’s a need to develop more sustainable food systems in space. The Deep Space Food Challenge is an international effort to develop deep space food technology. And the challenge will produce benefits here on Earth, too. Solutions could be applied to food production around the world, especially in extreme environments and resource-scarce regions.

Learn More About Meals in Space

Want to learn more about meals in space? Food in Space tells the history of developing meals for astronauts, from the Mercury mission to Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz program. During this joint mission, American astronauts dined on Russian specialties such as caviar and borscht in tubes!

You can also discover how these meals are developed at NASA’s Space Food Laboratory.  Are you familiar with Tang? Those of a certain age will remember it as the go-to drink of childhood. But what put Tang on the map was astronaut John Glenn. The powdered drink is an excellent source of Vitamin C and it’s still on the menu today in space.

And did you know that tortillas are part of the International Space Station menu? They produce fewer crumbs that could float around the station in microgravity compared to bread and other baked goods.  You can read all about space food, from creation to consumption, at Houston’s NASA Johnson Space Center.

And even astronauts need comfort food. While there may be no grocery stores in space, there’s pizza!

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about meals in space? The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly are now open!