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Space Station 20th: Food on ISS

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin made history as the first human in space aboard his Vostok capsule. During his single orbit around the Earth, he also became the first person to eat in space, squeezing beef and liver paste from an aluminum tube into his mouth. For dessert he had a chocolate sauce, eating it using the same method. His fellow cosmonauts who flew longer missions, up to five days, also consumed their meals from tubes. Astronaut John H. Glenn was the first American to eat in space – apple sauce from a toothpaste-like tube. His fellow Mercury astronauts on slightly longer missions consumed other food items also from tubes. These early experiences proved that humans could eat and swallow in weightlessness with no ill effects, although the meals weren’t particularly appetizing.

iss20_food_tereshkova_eating_in_space_vostok_6 mercury_beef_and_vegetables_tube_nasm iss20_iss_food_mercury_food
Left: Cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova eating from a tube during her Vostok 6 mission.
Middle: Aluminum tube containing beef and vegetables from Mercury food supplies.
Right: Samples of food from the Mercury program.
Credits: NASM.

Freeze-dried foods were introduced during the Gemini Program to support astronauts for missions lasting up to two weeks. Crewmembers used the spacecraft’s water supply to reconstitute the food prior to eating. During Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts had about 70 items to choose from, including entrees, condiments, and beverages. The food came freeze-dried and prepackaged, requiring the astronauts to add water from the onboard supply. Some improvements were made in the course of the Apollo program, including the addition of hot water to rehydrate some food items and food that could be eaten out of its bag using a spoon. Sandwiches were tried but proved less than ideal, as the bread didn’t stay very fresh and caused crumbs that would float away in the cabin and possibly cause harm to sensitive equipment or even get in the astronaut’s eyes or lungs. The number of items aboard Skylab didn’t increase very much, but the preservation of some foods did, made possible by the addition of a freezer aboard America’s first space station. According to Charles Bourland who developed much of the food system for Skylab, about 15 percent of the food supply was frozen and the astronauts could enjoy lobster Newburg, ice cream, and other frozen delicacies. The remainder of the food items were stored in cans which provided a long shelf-life.

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Left: Food for Gemini 3. Middle: Food specialist Rita M. Rapp with food for Apollo 16.
Right: Skylab 4 astronaut Edward G. Gibson at the Skylab galley.

During the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in 1975, American astronauts sampled Russian space food for the first time as crewmembers shared meals during two days of docked activities. Much of the food aboard the Soviet Soyuz came in tubes, and Soviet Commander Aleksei A. Leonov played a prank on American astronauts Thomas P. Stafford and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton by replacing the labels on tubes of borsch with labels from famous Russian vodkas. With the advent of the Space Shuttle in 1981, the availability of a galley to both rehydrate and reheat foods made the astronauts’ menus more palatable and varied. The lack of refrigeration on the other hand required most food items to be dehydrated or thermostabilized, apart from a small locker of fresh food intended for immediate consumption.

iss20_food_astp_vodka_borsch_tubes iss20_food_akers_using_rehydrator_sts_41 iss20_food_chow_line_on_61c
Left: ASTP astronauts Stafford (left) and Slayton holding up tubes of “vodka” aboard Soyuz.
Middle: Astronaut Thomas Akers using the Shuttle galley to prepare a meal.
Right: Astronauts (left to right) Charles F. Bolden, Robert L. Gibson, and George P. Nelson
preparing meals for their STS-61C crewmates.

The space station Mir’s Core Module included a dining table with the ability to reheat food in cans and tubes, and using a nearby cold and hot water dispenser, cosmonauts could rehydrate certain food items such as juices and soups. Over the course of its 15-year lifetime, a steady stream of uncrewed Progress cargo resupply vehicles brought food to the station, including much welcome fresh fruits and vegetables. The variety of Russian dishes was regularly supplemented when visiting crewmembers from other nations brought their own culinary specialties. The first French citizen to visit Mir, astronaut Jean-Loup Chrétien, brought such items as paté, sautéed veal, cheeses and chocolate. During the Shuttle-Mir Program, American astronauts residing aboard Mir first ate mostly Russian food, but on later missions brought American food as well, such as astronaut Shannon M. Lucid’s favorite, jello, that became a regular Sunday treat with her Mir 21 crewmates Yuri I. Onufriyenko and Yuri V. Usachev. Andrew S. Thomas remarked very positively on the variety and quality of the Russian food during his five-month stay aboard Mir in 1998, especially praising the Russian soups and fruit juices.

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Left: Items taken to Mir by French astronaut Chrétien. Right: Mir 21 crew
(left to right) Onufriyenko, Usachev, and Lucid during mealtime onboard Mir.

One item noticeably absent from these past space menus is bread. As noted above, attempts at flying sandwiches during Apollo missions met with little success. In November 1985, Mexican Payload Specialist Rodolfo Neri Vela, who was a crewmember aboard Atlantis during the STS-61B mission, requested that tortillas be included in his food supply. Once on orbit, his fellow crewmembers noticed that the tortillas, unlike regular bread, didn’t create crumbs and could be used to make sandwiches or hold other food items. Since that mission, tortillas have been a favorite of astronauts and are standard fare aboard ISS. Crewmembers use them to make breakfast burritos, hamburgers, and even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as demonstrated by Expedition 50 Commander R. Shane Kimbrough.

iss20_food_neri_vela_w_tortilla iss20_sts_98_cockrell_fixing_breakfast_burritos iss20_food_space_hamburger_w_whitson
Left: Payload Specialist Neri Vela enjoying a trend-setting tortilla aboard Atlantis in 1985.
Middle: STS-98 Pilot Kenneth D. Cockrell preparing breakfast burritos for his crewmates.
Right: Expedition 51 Commander Peggy A. Whitson showing off the hamburger she prepared using a tortilla.

The Space Food Systems Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston is responsible for the testing, preparation, and packaging of U.S. food to be delivered to ISS. Today, crewmembers can choose from about 200 different items for their standard menu that can be augmented with some personal choices to include commercial off-the-shelf items. Without any dedicated refrigerators or freezers for food storage other than a chiller to cool beverages and condiments, all food items on ISS are stored at ambient temperature and must remain stable at those conditions. Foods can be freeze-dried or thermostabilized to achieve the required shelf-life. The packaged food is then shipped to one of three launch sites for loading into resupply vehicles – to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida for launch aboard SpaceX Dragons, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia to be loaded into Cygnus spacecraft, or the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan from where HTVs are launched. 

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Left: Patch of the JSC Space Food Systems Laboratory. Right: Expedition 1
crewmembers (left to right) Yuri P. Gidzenko, William M. Shepherd, and
Sergei K. Krikalev and two of their backups Vladimir N. Dezhurov and
Mikhail V. Tyurin sample ISS foods in the JSC food lab in 1998.

The U.S. and Russia each provide their half of the food destined for ISS and the two partners share some food with each other. Before their missions to ISS, crewmembers sample the American food at JSC’s food lab and repeat the process with Russian food in Moscow. Astronauts from the other ISS partner agencies such as the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) often bring their own specialties that are shared among all the crewmembers. For example, for his flight during Expedition 50 and 51, ESA astronaut Thomas G. Pesquet from France brought 13 dishes prepared especially for him by the French space agency CNES. 

iss20_food_food_preparation iss20_food_grace_douglas_and_vickie_kloeris_outside_freeze_dryer iss20_food_food_lab_technician_packages_food_for_iss
Left: A food scientist prepares a meal for ISS using fresh vegetables.
Middle: Grace Douglas and Vickie Kloeris in front of the freeze-drier in the JSC food lab.
Right: A food technician packages food for delivery to ISS.
Credits: Brian Goldman/Texas Monthly.

The most difficult foods to provide to long-duration crewmembers on ISS, and the most sought after by them, are fresh fruits and vegetables. Their short shelf life and the lack of dedicated refrigeration on ISS for food result in them being a rare commodity in orbit. A limited supply of fresh fruits and vegetables regularly arrives with each visiting vehicle and is eagerly consumed by the onboard crews. Another option, exercised by Russian cosmonaut Oleg G. Artemev on both his long-duration missions, is to bring along your own, in this case onions that he carefully tended and regularly snipped off the growing shoots to add as a flavoring to his usual dishes. A third possibility, so far only tried on a very limited and experimental basis, is to grow your own aboard ISS. In 2013, after earlier trial runs that showed that eating the red romaine lettuce grown in the Veggie apparatus was safe to eat, Expedition 44 Flight Engineers Kimiya Yui, Kjell N. Lindgren, and Scott J. Kelly tried the space-grown vegetable and declared it delicious.

iss20_food_padalka_with_fresh_fruits_exp_9 iss20_food_artemevs_onion iss20_food_astros_snack_on_space_grown_lettuce_aug_2015_news
Left: Expedition 9 Commander Gennadi I. Padalka showing off fresh fruits recently delivered by a
Progress cargo resupply vehicle. Middle: Fresh onion photographed by Expedition 39 Flight Engineer Artemev.
Right: Expedition 44 Flight Engineers Yui, Lindgren, and Kelly sampling red romaine lettuce grown aboard ISS.

The first pizza aboard ISS arrived via a Progress resupply vehicle in May 2001 in a commercial agreement between the Russian Space Agency and Pizza Hut. Expedition 2 Commander Yuri V. Usachev reheated the salami-topped pie and filmed himself eating a slice in a commercial for the pizza company. In 2017, Expedition 53 astronaut Paolo Nespoli from the Italian Space Agency casually mentioned that he missed one of his favorite foods, pizza. So ISS managers ensured that all the necessary ingredients were loaded on the next Cygnus resupply vehicle and Nespoli and his ISS crewmates had themselves an out of this world pizza party. Needless to say, in weightlessness it wasn’t enough to just eat the pies, spinning and playing with them was just too irresistible.

iss20_food_usachev_w_first_pizza_in_space_delivered_exp_2 iss20_food_making_pizzas_on_iss
Left: Expedition 2 Commander Usachev tasting the pizza delivered to ISS. Right: Expedition 53
crewmembers (left to right) Mark T. vande Hei, Sergei N. Ryazanski, Aleksandr A. Misurkin,
Paolo A. Nespoli, Joseph M. Acaba, and Randolph J. Bresnik show off the pizzas they created onboard ISS.

With the increased diversity of NASA’s astronaut corps as well as the number of international astronauts who have visited ISS, the variety of food available to all crewmembers has grown significantly. Astronaut Sunita L. Williams not only enjoyed Fluffernutter sandwiches with peanut butter on a tortilla to remind her of her childhood but Slovenian sausages to celebrate her mother’s culture and samosas to celebrate her father’s Indian heritage. To help celebrate his birthday, French astronaut Thomas G. Pesquet had macarons delivered to ISS. Several astronauts from JAXA held sushi parties for their fellow crewmembers. Short-term visits by Space Flight Participants from several nations added culinary spice to ISS menus, such as satay from Malaysia, kimchee from Korea, and madrooba, saloona, and balaleet from the United Arab Emirates.

iss20_aapi_chiao_eating_w_chopsticks_in_zvezda iss20_food_macarons_for_pesquets_birthday sushi_exp_54_apr_21_2018_artemyev
Left: Expedition 10 Commander Leroy Chiao enjoying a Chinese-inspired dish. Middle: Expedition 50 astronaut
Pesquet enjoys macarons delivered for his birthday. Right: Expedition 55 crewmembers
(left to right) Anton N. Shkaplerov, Oleg G. Artemev, and Norishige Kanai enjoy a sushi dinner.

Despite the wide variety of foods available to ISS crewmembers, sometimes they crave that little something extra, either an extra sweet dessert or some comfort food item that reminds them of home. Although ISS doesn’t have a dedicated freezer for food, freezers destined to return science samples are frequently launched on cargo vehicles like SpaceX Dragon or Northrup Grumman Cygnus spacecraft. Since the freezers often launch empty, they can carry items such as ice cream or other frozen treats for crewmembers to enjoy as soon as they open the hatches to the vehicles. During Expedition 42, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from ESA enjoyed the first authentic espresso in space made in a device provided by the Italian Space Agency in cooperation with espresso maker Lavazzo. In November 2019, the Cygnus 12 vehicle brought to ISS a Zero G oven provided by Doubletree Hotels as an experiment to assess the possibility of baking in space. And just in time for Christmas, Expedition 61 astronauts Luca S. Parmitano and Christina H. Koch baked chocolate chip cookies that returned to Earth aboard SpaceX 19 in January 2020.

ice_cream_delivered_by_spacex_exp_55_apr_19_2018_artemyev_2 iss20_food_cristoforetti_with_espresso_machine iss20_food_cookies_in_space
Left: Expedition 55 Flight Engineer Oleg G. Artemev enjoys a frozen candy bar.
Middle: Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Cristoforetti savoring an espresso made aboard ISS.
Right: Expedition 61 astronauts Parmitano and Koch showing off the chocolate cookie they baked aboard ISS.

Great improvements have been made in the food available to long-duration crewmembers over the 20 years that ISS has been permanently occupied. The international nature of the program adds much-appreciated variety to the menu as crewmembers bring their culturally important food items to the dining tables on ISS. Future developments in onboard technologies will certainly expand these already broad and diverse culinary horizons.

iss20_aapi_suni_williams_dinner_is_served iss20_food_dinner_is_served_in_sm_exp_40
Left: Expedition 32 Flight Engineer Williams displays the meal she prepared in the
Unity Node 1 module. Right: The table is prepared for dinner in the Zvezda
Service Module during Expedition 40. 

ISS – taking culinary delights to new heights.

With special thanks to Ryan Dowdy from the JSC Space Food Systems Lab for outstanding support in writing this article.