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Fresh Fruits and Vegetables in Space
Man packaging space food
Fresh fruits and vegetables have been in demand with astronauts since the early Shuttle days. Fresh fruits and vegetables (apples, bananas and carrot and celery sticks) were first flown on STS-6 in April 1983. Oranges, pears, nectarines, grapefruit and jalapeno peppers have also flown occasionally.

Image to right: NASA has special food packaging methods
Credit: NASA

Bananas and oranges became less popular over time because of the odor they produce. The fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded on the spacecraft 16 to 24 hours before launch. The odor permeates the spacecraft. Upon arrival in microgravity, some crew members may become nauseated and then associate the odor of the fruits and vegetables with the nausea.

Fruits and vegetables for Shuttle missions are prepared for flight. They are rinsed in 200 parts per million chlorine, air dried and placed in the food locker tray. Chlorine sanitizes the fruits and vegetables to ensure food safety. Carrot and celery sticks are packaged in resealable bags. NASA is currently investigating using a product that sanitizes fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Russians send onions, garlic and tomatoes with each Progress shipment to the International Space Station (ISS). ISS crew members report that the fresh fruits and vegetables from Shuttle and Progress add variety to their diet and increase crew morale.

The on-orbit shelf life is two to three days for most fresh fruit and vegetable items because there is no refrigeration. There is a need to store fresh fruits and vegetables longer periods of time in space, especially on the ISS. Odor control also needs to be addressed. Fresh fruits metabolize and cannot be sealed in a container. Therefore, a controlled atmosphere package or storage container may be a possible solution.

Russian Space Food

Currently, the Russian Space Agency provides half of the food consumed on the ISS, with NASA supplying the other half. The Russian space food system has some notable differences from NASA's food system. These differences include where their food is produced, packaging of foods and the types of foods included in the space food system.

While the majority of U.S. space food comes from various companies, the Russian Defense Department produces most of the Russian food. These foods are of a better quality than Russian commercial food, especially since Russia has many imported sources.

A retortable pouch used for packaging space food
Image to left: Retortable pouches are one of the packaging materials used for space food
Credit: NASA

Russian food packages have not changed much over the years. Packages from 1972 look similar to, and function the same as, 2003 packages. The U.S. discontinued the use of space food in tubes in the early 1970s. Russia has used tubes continually, but is now beginning to phase them out. Most of the Russian thermostabilized foods are packaged in metal cans, while the U.S. almost exclusively uses "retort pouches" -- similar to those used for the Military's Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE).

Preservation methods for Russian food are similar to that of Shuttle food. They do, however, use different materials and packages. Most Russian food is dehydrated or thermostabilized, or has intermediate moisture. Packaging includes metal tubes, cans and plastic over-wrapped in foil.

Russian cans are steel, require a can opener and come in two sizes. The large cans are 4 inches in diameter by 1.5 inches high. The small cans are 2 7/8 inches in diameter and 1.25 inches high. In addition to steel cans, the Russians use a plastic packaging material for dehydrated and intermediate moisture foods. They do not have sufficient barrier properties, so the plastic packaging material is over-wrapped with a foil material to extend the shelf life.

The Service Module that contains the ISS galley is provided by Russia and is designed to accommodate Russian food packages. The Russian galley dining table has slots for heating foods that are sized to fit both can sizes, tubes and the bread packages.

Cultural differences between the two food systems include the lack of any typical American breakfast foods. There is also more fish on the Russian menu. Some of their breakfast items include perch, both pickled and spiced, and foxberry juice, a mixture of wild cranberry and buckwheat gruel. Several thermostabilized and dehydrated cottage cheese items appear in the menu, mostly with fruit. And, of course, we cannot have Russian food without borsch, a soup made of beets.

Adapted from Space Food Insights: Fresh fruits and vegetables in space and Russian Space Food