“Houston, We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, the home of human spaceflight, stationed in Houston, Texas. We bring space right to you! On this podcast, you’ll learn from some of the brightest minds of America’s space agency as they discuss topics in engineering, science, technology and more. You’ll hear firsthand from astronauts what it’s like to launch atop a rocket, live in space and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. And you’ll listen in to the more human side of space as our guests tell stories of behind-the-scenes moments never heard before.
Episode 4 features Takiyah Sirmons, Food Scientist at the NASA Johnson Space Center, who talks about space food: what it is, how they make it have a very long shelf life, and what happens to an astronaut’s palate after living in space for several months. This episode was recorded on July 5, 2017.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, episode 4, Space Food. I’m Gary Jordan and I’ll be your host today. So this is the podcast where we bring in the experts, NASA scientists, engineers, astronauts, all the coolest people that tell you all the coolest parts about NASA. So today we’re talking about space food with Takiyah Sirmons, she’s a food scientist here at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. And we had a great discussion about the science behind what astronauts eat, what it is, how they make it and how they have a long shelf life and what happens to an astronaut’s palate after living in space for several months. So with no further delay let’s go light speed and jump right ahead to our talk with Dr. Takiyah Sirmons, enjoy.
[ Music ]
Host:Okay, well Takiyah thank you so much for taking the time to come here today and talk about space food. This is one of my favorite topics because it’s space food, right. Right, when you think about astronauts you think about what do they eat in space and then you have all these preconceived notions about what they eat in space. And so I thought first of all I think we should start the episode before we even get into anything by just debunking a couple of myths, right.
Takiyah Sirmons:Let’s debunk those myths.
Host:Let’s debunk it right off the bat, did NASA invent Tang?
Takiyah Sirmons:NASA did not invent Tang. Tang was already in existence, it was created in the late 50s by a company called Mission Foods and we flew it in the early 60s when we were trying to figure out our food system. So John Glenn tasted Tang in space and it boosted its popularity and ever since then it’s been synonymous with the space program but we did not create it, we just purchased it, repackaged it and then sent it into space.
Host:See I feel like that’s just always one of those things people always bring up though. They say oh Tang that’s such a NASA thing and I guess they just got tied together for whatever reason. But they did use Tang.
Takiyah Sirmons:We did use Tang, we still use Tang. We still use Tang until today but we did not invent it, we did not.
Host:It’s just because of that rehydratable, the idea that you don’t have to ship up these bags of water, you can just ship up bags of powder.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yah, powder flavored essentially so it’s already convenient, you just put it into the beverage, package and you add water to it and you have a great flavored beverage. And it worked we don’t try to reinvent the wheel here and we had a product that was on the market that was great so we just sent it.
Host:All right, cool, all right there’s one more that at least comes to the top of my head and you might be able to add a couple more but astronaut ice cream.
Takiyah Sirmons:Oh, astronaut ice cream, that’s been plaguing the crew for a long time now. So the ice cream that you see in the novelty stores with the strawberry, vanilla, chocolate swirl. We have never sent anything that is remotely like that.
Host:That’s what I thought, yeah.
Takiyah Sirmons:Back in the Apollo days we sent ice cream one time and it was the cube form, so if you think back to tube and cube days it was a pressed food substance that was coated so it didn’t have a lot of crumbs.
Takiyah Sirmons:And it flew one time at the request of an astronaut and it hasn’t flown since, no one else has requested it after that. From time to time the astronauts get ice cream if there is a science experiment that requires refrigeration or a freezer on the way back. We will load up the empty unit with ice cream or if it’s plugged in, if it’s powered up. And they’ll get ice cream single serve ice cream every once in a while but it’s very, very rare. Only other time that they may have had ice cream was during the sky lab days and that’s because we had refrigeration and a freezer on that particular vessel.
Host:That makes sense, okay. Well, I feel like those astronauts should consider themselves real lucky because they are the few that actually get to have it sometimes.
>> Every once in a while.
Host:Ice cream in space, so cool. Okay so it’s nice to see you again after the super bowl thing that we did.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, that was the last time we got together.
Host:Exactly, it was so fun, so they had super bowl live downtown and NASA just came up and did like a culinary event and we talked about food science.
Host:We talked about you know, what we have to do different because it wasn’t really a cooking show, it was like this is what NASA does even though we were preparing meals and having everyone sample them, it was pretty cool. And there is, you’re not considered chefs right, you’re considered food scientists because there’s a whole different mindset when it comes to food in space, right?
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, so you’re taking a product that everyone is used to, everyone is familiar with food, food is very important, our emotions are tied to food and you’re getting it to last for an extended period. And so I think that’s where the beauty of this profession comes in, you’re solving problems with an everyday product that you need, you need for life.
Host:So is that kind of the main purpose of space food is your job to make the food las as long as possible or is there more to that?
Takiyah Sirmons:Well, there’s a nutrition component obviously so it’s a prepackaged food system so imagine if you were on a diet plan and the only thing that you could have is what a company sent you in a box. You know you need to make sure it is nutritionally sound, that the calories are balanced and that it tastes good. Because if you’ve eaten the same product for over I want to say six months or so you’re going to get tired of it. So that’s where we come in to play is we want to have foods that are nutritious, that offer a wide variety but they’re also appetizing at the same point. And it’s a really delicate balance, a lot of people think that oh it’s just food, you can just make it but it’s a lot of moving parts that go into making space food.
Host:Yeah, yeah, there really are so like let’s just go right into it, right so space food, why are we talking now about space food versus just — do they have a kitchen up in the International Space Station right now, what is different about space food? Like the overall concept of it?
Takiyah Sirmons:The difference is that it’s already prepared for you, so most of the food that they have it’s a prepackaged food system like I said before so we do all of the cooking and all of the processing here on earth. We send it up and they can either reheat it in the case of thermal stabilized products that I’ll guess we’ll get into in a minute.
Takiyah Sirmons:And then they’ll add water to our rehydratable products. And so all of the cooking and all of the preparation has been done for them they just need to prepare it in that moment how they’re going to eat it and then if they want to remix the foods in any ways, then they have the opportunity to do that. But there’s no room for a kitchen, they have a food preparation area where they can make the meals and then eat them on the go and they are also very limited in the amount of time that they have. So anything that we give them they have to be able to heat up in about 15 minutes or so and then go onto the next task. So it’s not enough time in the day for them to actually cook foods.
Host:Right, they have like — what do they allot, like an hour for like lunch but they don’t even allot too much time, they allot sometime in the beginning and at the end of the day but not really like — I think they allot like an hour for lunch.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, yeah.
Host:So that’s pretty much it.
Takiyah Sirmons:It’s a really tight window, so I mean if you want just eat and relax during that time you don’t have the time to actually prepare the food.
Host:Makes sense, okay so it’s not ingredients based packaging, it’s meal based packaging.
Takiyah Sirmons:It is meal based packaging, so we package entrees separately and then we have a number of side dishes, a number of snacks, a number of deserts and they can pick and choose from any menu of items that they want or any variety that they want.
Host:So they pick and choose all the time or do they have like specific like for on this day you’re going to eat this for lunch, so they don’t like have meal planning.
Takiyah Sirmons:No, so we put together what’s called a standard menu and it’s basically a suggested menu that would get them to the amount of calories that they need per day. But when they eat it’s prepared pantry style, so we’ll send up a container that has x amount of side dishes, x amount of entrees, x amount of vegetables and they can pick from those containers. We only as that they open one container at a time and so that’s how we know if the inventory is getting low, we just assume that they’ve eaten everything in that container once it’s opened.
Host:Got it, you have to keep track so —
Takiyah Sirmons:We don’t mandate that they eat according to a certain menu, we’ve tried that in the past and we’ve seen that it doesn’t necessarily work. The only time that they have to eat according to a specific menu is if they are participating in a nutritional study. So they’re tracking actual foods that they have and how their bodies react to that. That’s the only time but that’s never the entire duration of their stay.
Host:Yeah, they have experiments like that, right where they’re actually doing sort of like meal planning.
Takiyah Sirmons:Correct they have shorter duration experimenting, during that time we’ll track exactly what they eat and have to eat according to that menu but outside of that they just kind of grab what they want.
Host:Okay, so that’s what they do for the most part.
Takiyah Sirmons:For the most part.
Host:Yeah, they’re just going in and having whatever they feel like having that day. I know so Peggy she got her mission extended and she’s starting to get to that point where she’s out there for a long time and starting to you know, the menu can only be so big, so — what was her favorite that she just mentioned, chicken, was it chicken fajitas that was her favorite. Yeah, but you obviously have your favorites and things that are good but then you’re going to have — you can’t please everyone right. It’s just like any food at home right. So everyone has their preferences.
Takiyah Sirmons:Everyone has their preference and after a while they start remixing meals, we make a mac and cheese product and we make a chili product and you can mix them together and make chili mac and cheese. And they do that all the time, eating the same thing for six months, you’re like okay I got to find a new way to develop this product.
Host:Okay, so you open up some containers and like you said they’re pantry based organizations so you have like you’re snacks, pet package and you have like everything, so how are the meals and you hinted at this before, like thermostabilized is one way of packaging a meal, right, so.
Takiyah Sirmons:It’s one way of preserving a food product, so everything that we send to the International Space Station has to be shelf-stable. We don’t have refrigerators, we don’t have freezers, we only have that for a short period of time during sky lab days and that was like our early stab at a space station type vehicle. Right now we don’t have the power to support those type of preservations so refrigerators or freezers so everything is shelf-stable meaning that we have to preserve the foods before we send them out of earth. So the primary methods are thermostabilized which is essentially canning but in a flexible pouch. So if you’ve seen MRE pouches that the military uses.
Host:Yeah, meals ready to eat, they’re just like these brown rectangular packages.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, so we use the same technology, basically a canning system. So a giant pressure cooker you kill any bacteria using heat as well as pressure and —
Takiyah Sirmons:And so about half of our foods are produced that way and then other foods are produced the freeze drying and I think most people are familiar with freeze dried foods. You basically pull all the moisture out of a food product so that nothing can grow. And both products are great because they’re light-weight, where we can pack more into our containers because they don’t weigh as much and all they have to do is add the water back when they get to the space station.
Host:Nice, is there a benefit to doing one versus the other for particular foods?
Takiyah Sirmons:So, it depends on the foods product some can’t withstand the processing for thermal processing so say if you have a product that has a lot of cheese in it you have a lot of negative effects when you apply that high of a temperature to it so those do better when you freeze dry them. And so sometimes we can try the foods both ways and you’ll see which ever one comes out better. It just depends on the food product.
Host:Nice, okay for the rehydratable ones, I’m guessing so since the thermostabilized, MRE you can technically just rip open the package and start eating, right.
Takiyah Sirmons:You can heat them up and eat them.
Host:Oh, so they do have the ability to heat them up.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, they have a small food warmer on station that they can put their pouches into, they don’t get terribly hot but I mean it’s warm enough so that you can enjoy it.
Host:Okay, so it’s like the space version of I guess a microwave but just not as fast maybe.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, exactly.
Host:And then so for the freeze dried ones that one they actually have to rehydrate, right, they have to stick it in the machine that gives it water and then what do they let it sit for a while?
Takiyah Sirmons:Correct, they have a rehydration station on [inaudible] and on all of our food products we tell them how much water they need to add, whether or not it’s room temperature or has to be warm water. They’ll inject the product and it rehydrates within 10 to 15 minutes. Again, they don’t have a lot of time to wait for their products to rehydrate and then they can put it in the food warmer if they want it warmer or they could put it into a small chiller if they want it cool. And then they’re able to enjoy the product that way.
Takiyah Sirmons:It takes a little bit longer to prepare than the thermal stabilized products but I think the quality sometimes is a lot better.
Host:Interesting, okay yeah because it goes through — okay I guess the process of that makes it actually taste better.
Takiyah Sirmons:Well, the texture is preserved a little bit, if you imagine just cooking something, basically cooking it to death versus something where you pull the water out and then you add it back into the same place, it’s a slightly better texture.
Host:Oh, okay, see these are things I’m thinking like regular food, like cooking over a pan you know, you don’t normally think about this stuff. Okay so I’ve seen that machine before that they use to rehydrate their meals. They have a dial like you said they can put a certain amount of liquid into it, so however many milliliters it takes to rehydrate that particular food.
Host:So, what foods take a little bit more water than others and why?
Takiyah Sirmons:It depends, products that have obviously if you have more of a food product in the package it’s going to take slightly more water. Depending on if there’s sugar in the product or not that may not require as much water to rehydrate. They also adjust the amount of water that they put in so we may be do our testing on earth and say hey you need 75 milliliters, they may not like their food that watery so they’ll just dial it back a little bit. So it just really depends on the product and preferences once they get into space.
Host:Yeah, so I guess they just learn from experience in that kind of instance whereas it’s just like oh that one was a little bit too watery for me, maybe next time I’ll use the same thing because it was good but just a little bit less water.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, and it takes a couple of times to I guess learn the product.
Host:Nice. So you work in the food lab so I’m assuming you’ve tried a bunch of the different meals so.
Takiyah Sirmons:I like food.
Host:Yeah, so what are some of your favorites?
Takiyah Sirmons:I really like the meatloaf, I think it’s really flavorful, it’s better than the meatloaf that I make at home, I don’t know if that’s saying a lot. I’m really fond of anything sweet so the dessert category I’m always dipping in a dessert category, we have chocolate pudding cake, lemon carrot cake, cherry blueberry cobbler so those are probably some of my favorites.
Host:I’ve tried the cherry blueberry cobbler.
Takiyah Sirmons:Do you like that?
Host:That one is really good, yes.
Takiyah Sirmons:Anything sweet I think is [inaudible].
Host:So, I know in space I think it’s a little bit different because I guess there’s something where the astronauts over time start to lose a little bit of their taste sensitivity, so they start to enjoy spicier foods but is there a reason for that?
Takiyah Sirmons:So the perception of taste changes a little bit. Number one they’re in microgravity so there’s a fluid shift and so it’s kind of like eating with a head cold. There’s still flavor there but everything is muted and so the preference for spicy foods is because you can always taste spicy food it gives you a little bit more kick. And so we always provide a variety of condiments. They have pepper on station, not in the powder form but — not in the granulated form I’m sorry, it’s dissolved in an oil so they can squeeze a drop and touch it to the product and they can spice up their foods. We have a number of hot sauce, hot sauce is always on the menu, different kinds of hot sauce.
Host:I love hot sauce, I would bring so much hot sauce if I went up to orbit.
Takiyah Sirmons:Well, you live in Texas [cross-talk] so a lot of hot sauce to spice up their foods. One of the favorites is shrimp cocktail because it has a spicy kick in it and I guess anything, yeah spicy food.
Host:Anything spicy, yeah so how about sweet, is sweet a little bit enhanced or is the sweetness muted so they add more sugar or something like that?
Takiyah Sirmons:You know, I’ve not heard that they add more sugar, I haven’t had very many complaints about sweet products, I think it comes down to a preference if you like sweet products before you go into space you’ll still have a sweet tooth when you go into space and vice-versa.
Host:Okay, does preference change at all?
Takiyah Sirmons:I’ve heard that preference does change so before any crew member goes into space they sit down with our dietician and we have one dietician on staff who essentially shows them the entire menu, so they’ll work their way through all 200 different menu items.
Host:Sounds like a great day, a great day.
Takiyah Sirmons:They do it over several days, maybe four different times they have lunch with us and it’s just so they know what to expect and they understand how the food is going to taste when they get into space. Or hopefully how it’s going to taste when they get into space. They rate all the products and then items that are scored pretty high, we add those to their crew specific container which is essentially like a bonus container, it’s separate from the standard menu so it’s just for that particular crew member. And we do that in case they really like one item and we don’t provide enough of it in the standard menu, they can have some just for themselves.
Takiyah Sirmons:So we’ve heard that they come into evaluate food and they score it really high and then when they get into space they say oh I don’t want this product anymore, so it’s really hard to accommodate that.
Host:Wow, that would stink if you had to — if you really enjoyed one item and you’re like for example the cherry blueberry cobbler and you’re like oh that’s my favorite dessert I’m going to have a bunch of that and then you put it in your personal and you take up all this space then you’re like I really don’t want it, I’ve had too much cherry blueberry cobbler.
Takiyah Sirmons:You know what I mean, you live and you learn.
Host:Yeah, I guess.
Takiyah Sirmons:They trade a lot of foods on space station, so if you said you wanted one product and it doesn’t taste the same when you get into space, I’m sure someone else would like that product. So it works out usually.
Host:So I mean beyond preparing specifically for the International Space Station because that’s where we’re flying right now. You sit them down and you go through the whole menu to select what they’re going to have aboard but is there any other, are there any other processes before they go up where you are preparing in a sense?
Takiyah Sirmons:Preparing them for —
Host:Preparing either the meals or like how do you get ready for that, so do you sit down with the dietician and then select your meals and then you are busy preparing that food for the next couple months, like what other steps are there?
Takiyah Sirmons:You mean in the lab where we prepare?
Host:Yeah in the lab, yeah.
Takiyah Sirmons:Oh, so we keep inventory, so like I said before all the food is packed according to category and we ask that they just open one container at a time per category. So once they’ve opened it, they’ll scan it and we’ll get a message saying hey they’ve opened their breakfast items which means that that is no longer in inventory. So we’ll at that point go and prepare more breakfast items in the lab and have them available for the next shipment.
Host:So yeah, yeah so it’s more like you’re watching what everyone is doing in orbit. It’s not necessarily like you know, they sit down, like this is what I want and then you’re preparing their meals for their orbit specifically.
Takiyah Sirmons:No, no, no, no we don’t do it that way because they eat according to a standard menu, no for their crew specific containers if it’s something that we don’t have on the menu, so say we send up granola bars, a generic form of granola bar. If you have a certain brand that you’re loyal to we will go to the store and buy that brand for you as long as it’s flight compatible. Meaning that it doesn’t have a lot of crumbs, it’s not very liquidy. It’s not going to produce a lot of free liquid in space. We’ll repackage it and send it into space for you so those items we will do on a case by case basis. If you say you know, I really like this brand of chocolate granola bar we will go and get that for you and package it.
Host:All right, okay, I’m trying to think of other things that I would probably want to package but I’m thinking of a lot of crumby stuff so that’s one thing they have to be wary of right, is because crumbs are not good to have on orbit because I guess they fly around.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, I mean it’s a closed environment, if you don’t eat it in space it’s going to float around and it’s going to stick somewhere. It may get stuck in your eye, it’s going to get stuck in equipment, we just don’t know where it’s going to land to we try to avoid that we don’t send chips into space for that reason but you can have crackers.
Host:Oh, okay because they’re less crumby, okay that makes a lot of sense. So I know another one is bread, right you can’t ship bread up because bread is crumby and instead they use tortillas.
Takiyah Sirmons:Right, they have tortillas and we have one type of bread product that we send up and it’s extended shelf life bread and we purchase that and then we send it into space. But primarily when they want to have a sandwich or something on the go they use tortillas because it’s just really convenient.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, so traditional bread that you find on the shelf we can’t send that up, the shelf life isn’t long enough and then it produces too many crumbs.
Host:All right, so what else has the food lab learned just from, now that you’ve been flying space, flying food to space for so long, what have you sort of learned along the way. Like bread for example, thinking about crumbs, what other things have you learned along the way and kind of adapted to the menu that you have now.
Takiyah Sirmons:Gees, lessons learned from flying in space. I’d like to say that the hardest thing to control is the human factor of eating in space. So like I said before we don’t dictate what they eat in space because we’ve tried that in the past and it doesn’t necessarily work.
Host:Because they want to eat what they want to eat.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, and I mean that’s a human factor that you can’t control for. So you have people who are very brilliant people that are going into space but there’s a psychological component that goes along with eating and when you eat something it reminds you of home, there’s comfort foods that you have, you can’t always mandate what someone does or doesn’t want to eat. And so I think that’s been one of our, I guess our biggest lessons learned.
Host:So I guess it’s a lot of planning then is really what the lessons come down to as you’re trying to plan something diverse or if someone wants something you can deliver [inaudible].
Takiyah Sirmons:Right and that’s been the driving force behind the food lab here at JSC, we started from tube and cube days and we were providing nutrition but it was very good, it wasn’t very appetizing and we learned quickly that you had to provide something that at least mimicked or resembled food here on earth. And so that’s what we’ve been doing sense the beginning of the space program when we were allowing humans to eat in space is just trying to improve it. And get something that’s closer to what you normally have here on earth.
Host:So I mean working with space food and designing food that has to be nutritionally balanced for the astronauts, what have you learned that you’ve taken into your personal life about food. Little tips and tricks that maybe us at home can take into account. Just like maybe I should have you know, I know there’s a lot of fad diets out there right, so people are eliminating carbohydrates starting to eat more proteins. Or something like that, is there anything that you’ve learned just from creating food for astronauts on board?
Takiyah Sirmons:I would say that seasonings go a very long way. Prior to coming into the food lab I seasoned everything with salt and pepper. And we had a large sodium reduction initiative in our food lab a couple years ago, we were finding that the astronauts, some of the astronauts were having vision problems from having high blood pressure in space [cross-talk]. So we reduced the sodium to reduce blood pressure and a long with that you had to reformulate a lot of your products and figure out different ways to season them. And don’t under estimate the power of good seasoning, with herbs and spices and so now in my personal life I season a lot more with those. They’re slightly more expensive but they go a further way than just salt and pepper.
Host:So it’s eliminating sodium from your or at least reducing sodium.
Takiyah Sirmons:We’re not eliminating it.
Host:Reducing and then seasoning them with different things other than salt.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yes, in my personal life I’ve learned how to do that.
Host:Okay, all right, that’s a good one, I’m going to take that one back and I’m the same way I like putting salt and pepper on everything. Because it’s a good neutral seasoning and it enhances the flavor of whatever you’re eating without necessarily changing it and yeah but I guess that’s a bummer because I really like salt.
Takiyah Sirmons:You can have your salt.
Host:Okay so up on board they’re going to have their preferences, right, we’ve been talking about this but do they share meals, right and this in an International space station, so do they share internationally?
Takiyah Sirmons:So the U.S. provides about half of the food for the International Space Station and then our international partners, primarily Russia provides the other half of the foods. The astronauts that come and evaluate foods in house, they are U.S. astronauts but it’s not uncommon once they get into space to begin trading food with the Russians and vice-versa. So it’s a lot of trading that goes on it just kind of depends on their preference, if they see something they like then they’ll try it and then they can request Russian food in their crew specific containers if they really like an item. So the next time we have a vehicle go up we can send those foods. But very common for them to trade foods amongst themselves. Because we get curious after a while.
Host:Yeah, what are you guys eating, I want to know what that is, so. And they package theirs differently right, so you’re talking about in the U.S. we package, thermostabilized, we do the dehydrated or what did you say, freeze dried.
Takiyah Sirmons:Freeze dried foods.
Host:Freeze dried foods and they do theirs in cans.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, they still use a can system which means that their food warmer is slightly different so they have a — their food warmer allows you to drop the cans into a slot and they warm it that way. And our foods obviously don’t fit in that particular configurations. So it’s very different, the one advantage to moving to a flexible pouch which we use is that it’s a light lighter so you can send more food up.
Host:Oh, okay, nice yeah I do like — it’s something you have to think about right especially when you’re launching things to space you got to make sure that weight is money right.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah weight is money.
Host:Yeah, so you got to reduce that and that makes a lot of sense. So going back to the lab, you know, when you’re talking about sharing but you do have to prepare it and you said you’re preparing — you realize the inventory of what’s on board and then prepare it that way. What’s that like, what does preparing entail, like are you making dish by dish and putting them into packages. Like what’s the process to get from a meal here on the ground packaged and ready to go, shipped up to the International Space Station?
Takiyah Sirmons:So it’s kind of a batch process, we will make maybe 100 pounds of food, 80 to 100 pounds of food depending on the process we’ll determine how long it takes so with thermal stabilized foods you’ll make a large kettle and then you’ll put the food into individual servings sizes and so one of those collectable pouches is a serving of food. So say you take 160 grams, you’ll package it, you’ll seal it and then you’ll put the entire batch into a retort, which is basically a giant pressure cooker. And that retort will run at a high temperature, high pressure for say an hour and then you’ll take all those packages out, inspect them one by one and then they will be stored until it’s time to send those. For freeze dried foods the process is a little bit longer because it can take up to a week to remove all that moisture in our freeze driers. So the process starts about the same, you’ll buy ingredients from the grocery store, you’ll inspect all of the ingredients. Make your batch of foods and then you’ll either freeze dry them into individual servings or into one large pan, And then from there you take the pan of product and then you’ll put it into individual servings, package it and then store it until you’re ready to use it. So quite a long time, it is a process.
Host:But you have to do that right, you can’t, you’ve got to make sure the food is going to be good.
Host:When you send it up both in terms of taste obviously but in terms of quality.
Takiyah Sirmons:Correct, correct.
Host:Okay, so let’s see we talked about shelf life, it’s one of the more important things, so you’re going through this process for a reason, it lasts a long time.
Host:So what is a typical shelf life of space food?
Takiyah Sirmons:Again it depends on the product, we try to have an inventory that will last for at least six months. Six months on space station, our thermostabilized foods because of the processing those can last from one year up to two year and then it can last beyond that depending on what the product is. But we definitely shoot for at least six months on space station and that just allows us enough time to prepare more foods and to get another vehicle up.
Host:So what are the steps that need to happen to take it beyond that?
Takiyah Sirmons:So if we needed to extend it beyond whatever shelf life we assigned it.
Takiyah Sirmons:So we have a control set that we have on earth, it’s housed here at JSC, anytime that we make a product and we package it we’ll pull a couple samples and keep them in storage here. And so if there’s a situation where we have to extend the shelf life we as a team will evaluate those products and make sure that it’s till acceptable. So if I’m not going to eat it on earth, I would never ask you to eat it in space. So we don’t do anything we’re not willing to [inaudible].
Host:Okay, so you prepare it to last that long, you’ve packaged it, you’ve gone through that whole process what about getting it to space, how does that happen? How do you get from the lab and I guess how much do you put in a single cargo vehicle to get to space?
Takiyah Sirmons:So there’s no solid answer for that it really depends on how much space is available on that vehicle and what the inventory looks like on ISS.
Host:So it’s constantly changing.
> Takiyah Sirmons:> It’s constantly changing, no vehicle has the same amount of weight put into that. With that being said we don’t have our own vehicle that we use, we use commercial vehicles, so Space-X and Orbital now those will dock with the International Space station, they’ll unload the food and they will load up any trash or anything that needs to come back or experiments that need to come back. We don’t send that on our own.
Host:Oh, okay, so it changes just based on whatever you have available on that [inaudible].
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, it’s all inventory driven so whatever is available in space that will dictate what we make on earth as well as what we package and what we send on the next vehicle.
Host:But I’m assuming you have plenty of food on the International Space Station, right, so they’ll never — there’s a very low chance that they’ll actually runout.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, they’ll never be in a situation where they’re running out of food, they may not have all the variety that they like. They might be down to peanut butter and something they don’t necessarily like but they will never runout of food. It’s set up so that they have a reserve of food at all times.
Host:All right, so what’s some of the more creative things you’ve seen astronauts do with the food because you said they are prepared in a way that you can just heat them up and eat them as is because they’re already meals. But are they adding stuff together and — I mean the chili mac and cheese sounds amazing.
Takiyah Sirmons:It is amazing.
Takiyah Sirmons:Oh gosh I guess they make a little bit of anything, we filmed a video a couple of months ago, we had two astronauts come in and show us some of their treats and I think I was the most blown away with the space smores. They a chocolate brownie I want to say they put peanut butter paste and then cookies on the outside and I was actually really impressed with the flavor of that. And that’s not anything that I would have thought of but I guess if you’re in space for six months and you’ve been eating the same food you kind of think of different ways to consumer it.
Host:Wow, if you’re going to snack in space you’re going to snack right, the space smore that sounds amazing. Awesome, okay so we’ve been talking a lot about the International Space Station and it seems like we’re in a system where we’re still learning and you’re learning how to do different things to make it as efficient as possible and it sounds like it’s very efficient right now the way that food is delivered, eaten, the whole process. But for deep space what has to change and I’m assuming shelf life is at the top of that list but you know, we’ve already brought down the weight so much with the freeze drying capabilities but what do we have to do to prepare for a mission to deep space and to Mars?
Takiyah Sirmons:Well, your right shelf life is our number one concern. We can make foods that last two years easily, that’s what we’ve been doing for the International Space Station. When you start talking about going to Mars you’re looking at a five-year shelf life. And that’s because they’re have been talks of prepositioning the foods, so we launch the food ahead of the crew. The crew travels, completes the mission and then we have to have food that will last to come back. And so no one has ever done a five-year shelf life, it’s not something that’s necessarily desired in industry because it doesn’t make money, the quicker you can turn product over the better for our food company. And so no one is really testing out to five years and so that’s been a challenge for us, not only quality wise but nutritionally. We have to make sure that vitamins are stable, vitamins and minerals are stable through the entire duration of the mission so that you don’t have astronauts that are malnourished at the end of their stay on Mars. You know, so that’s been a challenge, that’s what we’re looking at now, a lot of projects that have starting now are looking at the shelf life of food up to five years.
Host:So I mean you can obviously store food for long periods of time, what about a growing food? Is the food lab a part of any experiments where you’re talking about planting vegetables or something like that and growing them in a different environment?
Takiyah Sirmons:Well, we’re not growing plants at the food lab, a lot of that work is housed out of Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And so they are growing different dwarf vegetables with the expectation that that would supplement the foods system but not necessarily be the full menu. So we still have to have a standard menu that will provide the core amount of calories. And then there’s a certain amount of food that you can grow to increase their variety. And so we’ve partnered with them on a couple of their projects, mainly for the sensory component so seeing whether or not those products taste good and whether or not consumers can tell the difference between a product that was grown in the greenhouse versus something that you would buy in the grocery store. And so we’ve done a little bit of work with them on that.
Host:All right, all right that sounds awesome.
Takiyah Sirmons:They can have a salad in space.
Host:Yeah, cut up some fresh tomatoes or something.
Takiyah Sirmons:They goes a long way, if they haven’t had a salad in a while then you’d be very thrilled to have one in space.
Host:That is true, they did something on International Space Station recently, right the veggie experiment. Some lettuce, Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren and some of those guys actually got to taste it up in orbit and they said it tasted like arugula.
Takiyah Sirmons:Oh, okay, arugula is tasty.
Host:So it would be good for a salad right, sprinkle a little arugula on a salad, I mean I’m imagining eggs benedict right now, I’m super hungry.
Takiyah Sirmons:We’re not there yet.
Host:One, day, one day, oh okay all right so is there anything that you’ve learned you know, about astronauts, just anything new. I know taste buds maybe change but is there anything that they brought down with them from their experience on orbit that has kind of changed the way that. Or maybe not exactly changed the way but just added something to the way that you process food, make food, something like that.
Takiyah Sirmons:I think the preparation component has changed a little bit, we’re constantly getting feedback, like we mentioned before the amount of water that it takes to rehydrate a food item. We may get feedback that says hey when we were up there it took more than 15 minutes so you guys might want to look at your formula again. Or it didn’t take that much water, I had to add water, so those are things that help us improve the products for the next crew that goes up. And so we’re constantly depending on astronauts for their feedback so that we can optimize any formulas that we have in house.
Host:All right, cool, all right I just know from talking to different astronauts their experience with making food and eating food and it’s always visually just a cool thing to watch, right because they, a lot of them end up playing with their food.
Takiyah Sirmons:Playing with your food.
Host:It’s a very cool thing to play with, right, they bring out the different colored candies and they flow. Yeah and they flow and they’re making water bubbles and drinking that, I guess are all the drinks powdered and then they have to rehydrate.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yes, every drink that we send whether it’s coffee, coffee with sugar or just a hint of lemon, it goes in a powder form and then they add water to it. And all of our beverages have a clamp on them, it’s to prevent that bubble from floating around in space but if you want to play with your food you just remove the clamp and then over time liquid will come through the straw and start to bubble at the top, so.
Host:There you go.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah the eating experience is very different, you have to think more about it when you’re in space just to make sure you’re not making a mess everywhere.
Host:So I mean I should have asked about that, just drinking, just coming out of a pouch, you have a straw coming out of a pouch, you have to clamp the straw otherwise —
Takiyah Sirmons:It won’t happen fast but eventually over time you’ll start to see a large bubble at the top and if you’re not watching it then that can fall off.
Host:So the bubble appears at the top of the straw and then I guess.
Takiyah Sirmons:Then you can play with it.
Host:You can play with it, yeah but eating though I guess we talked about making and eating but we didn’t really talk about the actual process of eating. So when you open up a package is the food flying out or does it stick to the inside of the package.
Takiyah Sirmons:So surface tension will keep the food in the package, it will keep it on the fork, they all have metal utensils that they use and they just clean it with wipes after they’re done with the food product. Because you can’t have free water, they can’t wash dishes but they can sanitize and clean them. The overall experience is a little different because number one your food is floating and then you’re floating in space. And so when we package food we use vel coins on the back of every product and that’s so that you can literally stick it to the wall and your food doesn’t float away. And so say if you’re snacking while you’re doing something else, you have your food product there you have your beverage there and it’s stuck to one place. You can’t just sit it on the table and walk away, like we have the luxury here on earth, your product will be somewhere else. Somewhere else in the space station.
Host:That’s interesting, you called it a vel coin?
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah a small Velcro coin.
Host:Okay, like a circular, so then it sticks to that and then the food is inside the package just with the surface tension.
Takiyah Sirmons:Right it stays in the package it just makes sure your food is where you left it when you turn your back.
Host:Okay. And then whenever you’re scooping it out with your fork or spoon or whatever it’s not sticking just because you know, when you think about soup is the first thing that comes to mind. You scoop your soup and it stays at the bottom of the spoon because of gravity but because if you’re scooping I don’t know they probably don’t have soup, do they have soup?
Takiyah Sirmons:No, they have a number of soup items. They have soup, some of them have solid pieces in them so they eat them with a spoon and then we have a couple of them that it’s just more of a broth and so you can drink those with a straw. So they have a number of soup products.
Host:And does it stick to the —
Takiyah Sirmons:It sticks to the spoon.
Host:No way it sticks to the spoon, that’s really cool, awesome. All right I have so many more questions I just want to make sure that I get them all. Okay, so you’re sticking it to the wall and they have like a — I’m throwing up some air quotes here, so a dinner table right, it’s just a table that’s kind of diagonally against the wall but they have like tape and Velcro on it right.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah so they can stick their food product down. And it’s still a communal experience, no one wants to eat alone, unless they decide to, we don’t dictate that.
Host:Sometimes they’re busy right.
Takiyah Sirmons:Sometimes they’re just busy but I mean it is set up so they can at least have the community aspect of eating, breaking bread together.
Host:Breaking bread, yeah all having a meal together, that’s pretty awesome. Okay, do you notice that they eat together more often or do they kind of just rush eat?
Takiyah Sirmons:That I actually don’t know they choose to do it one way or another. And I imagine it will depend on their schedules as well as the crew member themselves.
Host:I’ve seen sometimes where they have an experiment and it’s too vital that kind of bleeds over into their lunch time and so their lunch time is pushed to a different time and it doesn’t overlap with other crew members.
Takiyah Sirmons:Yeah, so they don’t always eat together.
Host:I was just curious on what they do in those instances, I’m assuming they just like they rehydrate their package, go do some work, come get their package, eat along the way so —
Takiyah Sirmons:Just a normal day at the office, I’ve had those days.
Host:It’s just crazy, I noticed you know, some astronauts when I was talking to them sometimes they just take that stuff for granted right, like I forget who was saying but this is not necessarily food but obviously you know, you’re floating your food over on the side and working. And you’re not really thinking about it. But your food is floating right next to you. I guess eventually you get in a groove when you’re up there for so long that there was one astronaut talking about working out. And you know the ARED, the advanced resistance exercise that simulates weight lifting, it’s positioned right, I guess if you were looking at the configuration of the International Space Station above the cupola. So when you’re working out and doing bench presses you just see the earth right down —
Takiyah Sirmons:It’s a beautiful sight.
Host:Above you I guess it depends on — yeah and they’re taking it for granted, like awe man this workout is really hard [cross-talk] I’ve seen that one before, you know. I’m sure that not all of them are like that but there comes a point where you know, you’re doing the same thing. They’re working out two and a half hours a day, every single day. So eventually you know, things get a little bit more repetitive and I can understand it, but still very, very cool.
Takiyah Sirmons:They work out a lot so they have to eat a lot, they eat a lot than you would on earth, so.
Host:Oh, they do, their calories are increased?
Takiyah Sirmons:They have more calories on average, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’re working out so much and then also it takes a little bit of energy to stay upright in zero gravity. We take for granted that when we sit in a chair we want to be sitting upright, whereas they’re constantly bobbing and weaving. So they have to exert that energy to stay up right.
Host:There’s no real sitting right, they kind of like hook their feet underneath one of those hand rails and then they have to, yeah you’re right they’re bobbing because they have to stay in one position unless they kind of get their footing, right.
Host:Interesting, do you notice that they come down, I guess this is kind of subjective but do they come down in better shape than they went up or worse shape or how does that change?
Takiyah Sirmons:It kind of depends on the person, so NASA in general they take the health of the astronaut very seriously.
Takiyah Sirmons:And so that is part of the reason why they workout so much, that’s to combat muscle loss as well as bone loss. And so they probably work out more than they would maybe on earth, depending on the person. We try to make sure that their food is nutritionally sound so that if you’re someone who is not constantly paying attention to your diet before going into space it will be an improvement for you. But a lot of them are already very health conscious. So it really depends on the person and what state they were in before, but in general we don’t notice those changes as much as we used to in the past.
Host:I guess that’s good, right because then there’s not really negative — well, you have counter measures against those negative things.
Takiyah Sirmons:Right, right.
Host:So you’re eating healthy, you’re exercising regularly so you come down.
Takiyah Sirmons:To make sure you’re in reasonably good health when you come back and that’s an overall mission of the space program to make sure there aren’t lasting effects of going into space. And obviously the more that we have astronauts in space, the more we learn and we try to combat those effects.
Host:Right and the International Space Station is perfect for that right, it’s like a big you know, it’s a laboratory that you can practice this over and over and then if you go do another mission then you’re well-prepared because you have all this data from collected from the International Space Station, very cool. Well, Takiyah I think that’s about all the time we have for the listeners if you want to know more have a suggestion on what we should talk about stay tuned to after the music to learn how to submit those ideas. Takiyah thank you so much for coming it’s always a pleasure talking to you, space food is one of my favorite things to talk about. And I know we were just talking beforehand but we might have to do another episode on the history of space food.
Takiyah Sirmons:That would be very interesting.
Host:Yes, okay and I’m sure there’s more so we’ll do another episode but thank you again, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Takiyah Sirmons:Thank you.
[ Music ]
Host:Hey, thanks for sticking around, so today we talked with Dr. Takiyah Sirmons about space food and the space food that they make is mostly right now, well almost entirely, for the International Space Station. And you can see some of the pictures that some of the astronauts share of the food that they’re eating on the International space Station by going to NASA.gov/ISS. We have a lot of blog posts and photos that we release regularly, some of them are about space food but you can also learn what’s going on aboard the International Space Station like what experiments they’re doing and some of the latest updates on what’s being done onboard. On social media we’re very active on Facebook it’s International Space Station, Twitter at space underscore station and on Instagram is at ISS. If you use the hashtag ask NASA on anyone of those platforms and submit an idea or maybe a question for the show we’ll make sure to address it in a later episode of Houston We have a Podcast. This podcast was recorded on July 5, 2017. Thanks to Alex Perryman, John Stoll and Bill Jesse and thanks again to Dr. Takiyah Sirmons for coming on the show. We’ll be back next week.