A Holiday Dinner in Space
International space station crew eating a holiday meal
What's your favorite part of the holidays? Maybe you're excited to have a few days away from school, but in some way or another, most holidays involve food. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Russian Orthodox Christmas, New Year's Day, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice and Ramadan: some people focus on eating during the holidays, while others avoid certain goodies.

Image to left: The crew of international space station Expedition 3 enjoys Thanksgiving dinner in space. Credit: NASA

How do astronauts plan for holidays when they're 240 miles in space? What foods do the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the international space station think about as the holidays approach?

Many cultures come together on the ISS, and that means that holidays are full of diversity. Russians emphasize New Year's Day more than Christmas, for instance, and when they do celebrate Christmas, it's often the Russian Orthodox version. The types of holiday observations will vary depending on the individuals who make up the crew of any given expedition. With that in mind, NASA allows the crew members to decide if they want special holiday meals. If they do, they can choose the foods that fit established guidelines.

International space station crew eats a meal
Vickie Kloeris and Michele Perchonok are NASA food scientists. Their job is to find foods that astronauts enjoy eating that are also nutritionally balanced and able to make the trip into low Earth orbit.

Image to right: The crew of international space station Expedition 7 prepares to eat a space meal. Credit: NASA

Menu items supply each astronaut with the vitamins and minerals necessary for the space environment. Eight or more months before a flight, the crew members choose three meals a day, plus snacks from a long list of options. The meals follow a 10-day cycle of repetition. Because there are no refrigerators, fresh fruits and vegetables can only be taken in short supply. Fortunately, re-supply ships can bring more fresh foods periodically.

Should a crew member wish to have a typical American holiday feast, there would be no problem. Smoked turkey, dehydrated mashed potatoes and thermostabilized cranberry sauce are on the list of acceptable menu choices.

Food items float in microgravity
"If a crew member has a special food they enjoy for the holidays, we often have it on our menu lists," Kloeris said. "And if we don't, crew members and their families are allowed to send bonus containers up to them in space. These are extra items that aren't on our regular list of choices, but are still approved to travel in space. Holiday items could go in the bonus containers."

Image to left: In microgravity, foods float unless they're held down. Credit: NASA

Family members also pack "psychological support kits," which are like goodie bags sent from home. Kits may be full of videos, games, books and non-food items, but they can also contain chocolate bars, candy canes and other treats that make it easier to be away from home over the holidays.

While the ISS may be a lot like home, in the galley kitchen you'll see quite a few differences. The space station has no refrigerator or stove, so meals have to be shelf stable and easily reheated in small warmers. Also, the ISS galley is missing a few other things you'd find in a kitchen at home: knives and chairs! Most meals are eaten with a spoon only, and because of microgravity, chairs aren't necessary. Crew members float around the table, and can strap themselves in one spot using Velcro tabs. The crew eats from disposable plastic containers and aluminum pouches, and they hold food to the table with bungee cords.

A display of space-ready food items
Maybe you've seen or heard about freeze-dried ice cream that astronauts took into space. Kloeris will tell you that it's not on the regular menu for current space missions.

Image to right: Astronaut Jerry Ross displays some of the food items used in space. Credit: NASA

"Space ice cream was a special request for one of the Apollo missions," Kloeris said. "It wasn't that popular; most of the crew really didn't like it, so it isn't used any more. Budget restraints now prevent us from granting special requests, but popular demand can lead to several new products being introduced to the menus every year."

While holidays on the ISS are manageable, it might be a bit more difficult on future missions to the moon and Mars. A significant portion of the foods used by crew members will be grown as needed, Perchonok said.

"Pick-and-eat foods can be grown on the transit vehicles as well as at the mission sites," Perchonok said. "These include tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, carrots, strawberries and peppers. There is no cooking needed. Other foods require further processing for use, such as potatoes, wheat, soybeans, peanuts and rice. Space travelers will become gardeners as well as explorers. Growing their own food will reduce weight and provide the psychological lift of freshness."

As food scientists, Kloeris and Perchonok apply sciences to food processing and production. They use elements of engineering, chemistry, microbiology, marketing and physics -- much more than just cooking and nutrition. With degrees in microbiology, food chemistry, chemistry and food science, both Kloeris and Perchonok say that working with NASA's space crews has been an innovative way to use their education.

Related Resources
Space Food and Nutrition Fact Sheet
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See the Menus Selected for the Expedition 12 Crew
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Space Food Information
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Space Ice Cream
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A History of Food in Space
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NASA's Advanced Food Technologies for Future Missions
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Institute of Food Technologists (for Information About Food Science)
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Maggie Griffin/NASA Educational Technology Services