What’s for Dinner?
Michael Lopez-Alegria's Mission Log
There are certain things we do every day up here, some of them more than once. Eating falls neatly into that category. The food aboard ISS is plentiful and tasty, considering the obstacles in our paths. We have no refrigerator, we go long periods of time without being able to refill our pantry, and everything we eat is by necessity pre-cooked. Nonetheless, we eat decently although not in gourmet style.
Image to right: Flight Engineer Thomas Reiter and Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria share a meal together. Image credit: NASA
The food comes in a variety of forms. Dehydrated food is packaged in plastic containers or “bags” that have a septum built into them. Our galley doesn’t have anything that looks much like a stove. When it’s time to “cook” we use a special machine. The machine has a needle, not unlike that used to inflate sports balls, that is inserted in the septum. A specific quantity of either hot or cold water (specified on the label) is then selected on the machine and is subsequently dispensed into the bag via the needle. When complete, the needle is withdrawn, and the septum closes to prevent water from coming back out. One usually squishes the contents of the bag around to evenly distribute the water. In 5-15 minutes, depending on the contents, voila – food!
Another form of food is called “thermo-stabilized,” which, in fewer letters, means canned. They probably call it thermo-stabilized because there aren’t actually any cans involved (plus it sounds more space-like). Instead of cans, the packages are metal foil pouches. If you’ve had the good fortune to sample a military ration (now called MRE, or Meal, Ready to Eat), you are familiar with this packaging. The envelopes are even drab olive green – like camouflage (so the enemy can’t see your food while you’re eating in the dense foliage); not so practical up here but we live with the legacy. Half of our food is provided by NASA, the other half by the Russian Space Agency. RSA thermo-stabilized food doesn’t come in drab olive green metal foil pouches, it comes in cans. They call it “canned food.”
Yet a third type of food is provided in its natural form. This includes things like “Candy Coated Chocolates,” crackers, cookies, tortillas (no bread – too many crumbs), various kinds of nuts and other items. Drinks also come in a bag and are prepared in the same way as the dehydrated food. We have several juices from which to choose, as well as fruit drinks, tea, coffee and, of course, water.
The process of choosing our menu starts long before flight. While we’re in training we spend some time sampling the various food offerings in the NASA food laboratory, as well as at its analog facility at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow. We end up sampling just about everything from which we can choose, well over two hundred items. We rate each on a scale from 1-9 (9 being best). Based on these ratings, we come up with a menu of four meals per day – the three obvious ones plus a snack. Two of those meals each day are from the Russian food options; the other two are from U.S. selections. The next day, the sources of the two sets are swapped. The menu lasts for ten days; then the cycle is repeated. Once our menus are chosen, we spend two weeks (five working days each in Houston and in Moscow) eating only food from our menu – to make sure we like it.
Image to left: Sharing a meal at the galley inside the Zvezda service module are spaceflight participant Anousheh Ansari, Expedition 14 Flight Engineer Mikhail Tyurin and Expedition 13 Commander Pavel Vinogradov. Image credit: NASA
All of that is good in theory. On board, when you’re hungry you go to the pantry and choose what sounds good at that moment. We don’t usually eat breakfast together (mine usually consists of a juice and a coffee), but we usually do pause for an hour midday to have our meal together and almost always have dinner together. Whoever is free will usually “cook” by placing Russian cans in a special oven and/or putting an assortment of foil pouches in a different special oven that looks more like a briefcase. If you want something special, it’s up to you to put it in one of the ovens. Everyone pretty much rehydrates their own food. For a given meal you might choose something in a can, in a pouch or rehydratable, or a combination of all three.
Meals are our primary social time together. During the workday, each of us is busy performing our own tasks, usually in different modules aboard the station. I often go the entire morning or afternoon without seeing Misha, since he spends almost all of his time in the Russian segment. Our mealtime discussions range from technical (how was your morning?) to politics (usually at night). It goes without saying that we miss a nice glass of wine to go with our meal (and our discussions on politics).
One truly bright spot in our culinary prospects is food that is sent up from our families or friends in so-called “bonus” containers or care packages. The food is neither dehydrated nor thermo-stabilized; it’s just as you might see it in the store. The rules are that most anything that is shelf stable and available for purchase through a store (meaning it has passed certain FDA requirements) is fair game. We have feasted on everything from Jamón Serrano, mussels and anchovies from Spain, to paté de foie gras from France to pumpernickel bread from Germany, and, of course, Swiss chocolate.