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Beyond Tang: Food in Space

NASA's Johnson Space Center invited The Kitchen Sisters to visit its "hidden kitchen." On the eve of NASA's scheduled launch of space shuttle Atlantis, The Kitchen Sisters present a brief history of space food.

"This is Tiffany Travis calling from the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. We'd like to invite The Sisters to come to our space food lab where our food scientists create meals for our astronauts on board the shuttle and the space station. I thought you might be interested in what astronauts are eating 220 miles above the earth. Bread is the number one enemy in space. You do not want crumbs floating around in microgravity getting into the electronics. Come take a look." — Hidden Kitchens Hotline Message #2203

We took Travis up on her invitation and set off traveling to Houston. Along the way, we followed the trails of some of the many Hidden Kitchens Texas calls that we had received over the year. Calls about oil barrel barbeques, cowboy kitchens, oystermen on Galveston Bay, the tamale lady at Fuel City in Dallas, a restaurant tucked down a driveway in Fort Worth, a car wash kitchen in El Paso, the garage kitchens of Vietnamese residents in Houston, and the space food kitchens of NASA.

Tubes. Cubes. Space Sticks. Tang.

The first American astronaut to eat in space dined on bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried foods, and semi-liquids squeezed from an aluminum toothpaste-like tube. Years later, astronaut John Glenn requested Tang for his return to space, but now astronauts can choose from an ever-expanding list of meals that the food scientists at NASA keeps cooking up.

If you're game to try some space food - hydrated and ready-to-eat - or if you'd rather "collect" or have some "leftovers" — one of the rare last Apollo spoon-pouches of peach ambrosia, or beef pot roast which comes with a certificate guaranteeing its authenticity — it's all available online.

And then there are Space Sticks. Pillsbury used its role as a food supplier on Apollo 11 as a launching pad for a spin-off named Space Food Sticks, which were added to the menu for the Skylab astronauts. Three different flavors, three sticks a day. The long, chewy sticks could slide into an airtight port located in an astronaut's helmet.

Farming in Space

Michele Perchonok, a top Advanced Food System official at the NASA Johnson Space Center, describes what it would take to keep astronauts fed on the long mission to the red planet:

"A mission to Mars is likely to last at least 24 months, six to go, six to return and 12 months on the planet. As we go on to longer-duration missions, it makes sense to become a little more self-sufficient with our food. The ultimate way of doing that is growing crops and processing them into food.

"On the outpost of the moon as well as Mars, it is very likely we will grow vegetables and fruits, and then we'll have a real galley because you've got 1/6th gravity for the moon or 3/8th gravity for Mars, so you can actually prepare foods and not be eating out of packages all the time.

"We'll also start looking at bringing up in bulk items like wheat berries or soybeans and then processing those into edible ingredients, like with the wheat berries we'd make wheat flour and then we'd be able to do pasta or cereal or breads. The food itself probably won't change a whole lot. As the missions grow longer, the food lab's attention will be directed to longer shelf-lives and growing ingredients," Perchonok says.

NASA continues to collaborate with scientists, students, inventors and innovators around the world as it works toward its goal of a manned flight to Mars.

Prof. Joseph Marcy of Virginia Tech, one of many people working on designing packaging for space food, talked about the challenge of planning how to feed astronauts on a mission to Mars at the annual Taste3 food symposium in Napa, Calif.

To hear about "towing biosphere gardens trailers to Mars," watch Marcy's presentation online.


Our thanks to the NASA Johnson Space Center, Tiffany Travis, Astronaut Bill McArthur, Cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, Dr. Vickie Kloeris, Dr. Michelle Perchonok, the ISS (International Space Station) Fan Club, Tim Ferris and Maeve McGoran.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.