Have you ever wished to be an astronaut? Space travel is always intriguing and full of the unknowns. One aspect that raises our curiosity is the food that astronauts eat in space. What do they eat, how are they produced, who produces them, and is it possible for astronauts to produce their own food in space instead of bringing them from this planet? Eating in space could be a real challenge because there is no gravity to even put a plate on the table. Imagine taking a bread and it is floating in space. The first food eaten in space was beef and liver with chocolate sauce as desert. It might sound yummy but it is certainly not fine dining like how we know it. The food was packed in a tube and squeezed into the mouth like toothpaste. That is food in space!
How is food packed for consumption in space?
Food that is being taken to space must be lightweight, compact, tasty and nutritious. Astronauts need different nutrition content when they are in space to stay healthy. For instance, they need more calcium and Vitamin D to keep the bones strong because bones get weaker when you are floating as there is less physical work to do.
The first food packaging that was introduced in space is food in tube-like containers which are then squeezed into the mouth. Does squeezing food into your mouth like toothpaste sound unpleasant to you? You are not alone! Astronauts also felt the same way, so scientist found better ways to make the food tastier and easier to eat.
In 1968 astronauts were complaining that their food was tasteless. To have the empathy and the real taste of space food, NASA’s chief food tester agreed to live on space food for four days. After day one, he said that he lost his appetite to eat and the middle of day three he stopped eating the space food. He concluded few important points about space food, that nutrition is critical and astronauts should not lose weight. Before sending food to space it must be screened for allergic reactions, nausea and loss of appetite, meal preparation must be simple without consuming much time, and packaging of dehydrated food must be perfect to avoid leakages. Finally, during the Apollo 14 astronauts returned without any significant change of weight. Moonwalkers in Apollo 15 were the first crew to finish eating all the food on board. Astonishingly, it took 10 years of hard work and research for this to happen.
Freeze-drying technique was introduced during Project Gemini. In this method, food is freeze-dried and dehydrated immediately after being cooked. Astronauts have to rehydrate the food by squeezing water in the food and once the water is absorbed it is ready to eat! The water is obtained from on- board hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells. Freeze drying food may sound weird but even we are consuming freeze-dried food without realising it. For instance, nowadays cereals also have freeze-dried fruits like strawberries. Food packaging for food in space also requires a lot of innovative ideas. Some packaging has been invented in a way where it prevents the food from flying about. Usually, food comes in disposable packages and astronauts must throw away the packages once eaten.
Evolution of food in space reached its high point when space stations were established with complete full kitchens consisting of hot water and oven. The hot water and microwave oven were the turning point for inventing more appealing food for astronauts. Nevertheless, fine dining still continues to be in the wishlist of astronauts, but a remedy close to eating at the table was found by preventing the plates from floating around. Astronauts used Velcro fasteners so trays are fastened to their laps so they could enjoy the meal while sitting. Apollo mission astronauts were the first ones to have hot water and even eat out of a bowl with a spoon. The oven, hot water, kitchen, spoon and Velcro fasteners are making space life exciting and easier aren’t they? Do you have any favourite food that you would take with you to space? How about chicken, pizza and sausages? But remember they must be dehydrated!
Astronauts become planters!
Scientists believe that astronauts have to be planters too if they want to live in space for a longer time and accomplish their mission to step on Mars. Experiments were carried out and scientist discovered that it is possible to grow plants in space. An experiment was done in May 2016 which was known as Veggie Plant Growth System in the International Space Station (ISS). Three different types of lettuce were grown in this greenhouse and they were grown in hydroponic medium with LED lights. Astronauts regularly harvested the lettuce and enjoyed salad in space. If astronauts could turn into planters, we can even grow plants in Mars and export them to Earth. It may sound too ambitious but with growing human population and shortage of agricultural land it could be a resolution to ensure food security in 2050. Hundred years ago, people probably never believed that everyone could fly but now we are flying around the globe within hours, so exporting food from another planet might not be too far-fetched 50 years from now. If food is produced in bioreactors such as cheese without milk, then producing food in space and Mars could be possible too using bioreactors. For instance, growing meat, cheese and fermented food in bioreactors in space stations or even Mars would be amazing. Planet colonisation is mind boggling, but it has to be pondered seriously because resources in our planet are depleting rapidly. Space-based agriculture can be achieved through cell and tissue culture using bioreactors where meat can be grown in controlled environments.