5-Star Space Food: Astronaut Cuisine Hits Lofty Heights
A metal food tray with magnetized silverware and Velcro patches to secure food packets (at left and right) in the microgravity environment.
Credit: Adam Hadhazy/SPACE.com

NEW YORK — Roasted chicken in a sweet ‘n' sour sauce, washed down by a mango-peach smoothie. Sounds like food fit for … an astronaut?

When most of us think of space food, we think of unappetizing, chalk-like chunks of freeze-dried ice cream, food that comes in tubes in the manner of toothpaste and, of course, Tang.    

Yet flavorful chicken and (real) fruit drinks have indeed been served in space — albeit in rehydrated form.

A taste of space food landed here at the American Museum of Natural History last week to give dining connoisseurs a flavor of what astronauts consume in spaceAlthough prepared fresh by a caterer — instead of rehydrated — the food choices showed how far eating in space has come over the last 50 years.

The event featured Charles Bourland and Gregory Vogt, the authors of an insider's look at the challenges of eating and drinking while in orbit entitled "The Astronaut's Cookbook: Tales, Recipes, and More." [Best Space Foods of All Time]

On display buffet-style were shrink-wrapped packets of food, from creamed spinach to M&M-esque candies, which astronauts and cosmonauts gobble during their stays in space.

Space food on Earth

Bourland worked for 30 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a space food guru. He developed both the meals and the methods of eating them for astronauts flying in the Apollo program, on the space shuttle, and living for extended periods in Skylab and the International Space Station.

Over the decades, he has seen space dining evolve from having food in a squeeze tube — and astronauts going hungry — to shuttle crews now personally selecting their meals months in advance of a flight and enjoying items such as (rehydrated) shrimp cocktail.

That's a far cry from the initial glum outlook of some scientists when the human spaceflight program got under way nearly 50 years ago. 

"Some thought that astronauts might not be able to eat in zero gravity, that they wouldn't be able to swallow," Bourland said. "Apparently they didn't watch college kids drink a beer on their heads — you can swallow upside-down."

To prove the point, upon arrival at the museum eventgoers were treated to a cup of Tang. This sweet, orange-colored, powdered drink became famous for its adoption by the space program in the 1960s and it is still gulped high above our planet today.

Eat, drink, be merry, but be careful

Tang, like other beverages in space, however, must be consumed with care. That is because in weightlessness, everything not tied down floats away. [Video: Astronaut's Zero Gravity Coffee Cup]

In this environment, liquids glob into airborne amoeba-like droplets and water boils weirdly. Instead of hundreds of roiling, rising bubbles, one big, blobby bubble forms that draws in smaller air pockets.

Meanwhile, minor, earthly annoyances such as bread crumbs can become a health hazard by irritating the airways of astronauts if inhaled. 

Despite these obstacles, NASA's culinary goal has been to provide astronauts with nourishing yet recognizable meals, rather than just sustaining the crew on protein pellets, vitamin pills and other tasteless rations.

Savoring space food

To this end, dieticians and cooks for NASA have come up with meals that aim to gustatorily stimulate and psychologically satisfy, Bourland and Vogt explained.

For sweet ‘n' sour chicken, NASA freeze-dries the boned, skinless chicken chunks after traditional preparation in a terrestrial kitchen, and the sauce goes into space as a dry mix with instant starch that is then rehydrated.

At the Oct. 27 museum food tasting, eventgoers sampled a fruity slurry of the mango-peach smoothie poured into cups from a pitcher, while astronauts would take the drink — or any other liquid — from the shuttle beverage package.

This is a special container that holds powder and then connects to a galley water dispenser for rehydration. It has a straw for careful drinking and that avoids leakage from the container.

Another tasty offering at the event was garbanzo bean burgers.

Although these have not been eaten in space — yet — Bourland explained that these veggie patties have been pegged as the sort of food that long-distance voyagers to Mars could prepare from beans grown in their spacecraft.

The bean burgers and some other foods included in "The Astronaut's Cookbook" were concocted by people involved in the space program. Celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray also contributed recipes to the book.

For example, the final item offered at AMNH — lemon bars — came from a recipe by Paula Hall, a former shuttle and ISS dietician who died in 2007. Preserving or replicating the tart's pleasing gooeyness in orbit might well be tricky, Bourland said.

Space dining etiquette

Space station residents take their meals on a metal tray, as shown at AMNH, with straps on the bottom to attach to their laps.

Velcro patches on the tray and food packets keep the grub anchored.

Astronauts use regular utensils — fork, knife, spoon — though they are magnetic to attach to the tray, and there is one more crucial implement: a scissor to open up food packets," said Vogt, who has worked for NASA as an education specialist.

Celestial gourmet? Not yet

As far as astro-food has come – the book authors showed a slide of early, soap bar-like "chicken sandwiches" that astronaut's saliva was in theory supposed to rehydrate to become palatable — it still has a long way to go.

Although the title of the book is "The Astronaut's Cookbook," nothing, Bourland pointed out, has ever been cooked during a manned spaceflight mission. "We haven’t cooked in space," he said, "we've just warmed up food to eating temperatures."

Grilling, boiling, roasting, saut?ing — all these require significant heat, which can pose a threat to both the crew and the space-faring vessel itself.

Plus, "if you burn a steak, you can't open a window to let the smoke out," Bourland said.

Adam Hadhazy is a Staff Writer for TechNewsDaily, a sister site to SPACE.com