ISS20: Food on Space Station
On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin made history
as the first human in space aboard his Vostok capsule. During his single orbit
around Earth, he also became the first person to eat in space, squeezing beef-and-liver
paste from an aluminum tube into his mouth. For dessert, he had a chocolate
sauce, eating it using the same method. His fellow cosmonauts, who flew longer
missions up to five days, also consumed their meals from tubes. Astronaut John H. Glenn was the first American to eat in space —
his meal applesauce from a toothpaste-like tube. His fellow Mercury astronauts
on slightly longer missions consumed other food items, also from tubes. These
early experiences proved that humans could eat and swallow in weightlessness
with no ill effects, although their meals weren’t particularly appetizing.
Left: Cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova eats from a tube
during her Vostok 6 mission. Middle: Aluminum tube containing beef and vegetables from Mercury food supplies.
Image courtesy the National Air and Space Museum. Right: Samples of food from
the Mercury program. Credits: NASA
foods were introduced during the Gemini program to support astronauts for
missions lasting up to two weeks. Crew members used the spacecraft’s water
supply to reconstitute the food prior to eating. During Apollo missions to the
Moon, astronauts had about 70 items to choose from, including entrees,
condiments, and beverages. The food came freeze-dried and prepackaged,
requiring the astronauts to add water from the supply onboard. Some
improvements were made in the course of the Apollo program, including the
addition of hot water to rehydrate some food items, as well as food that could
be eaten out of its bag using a spoon. Sandwiches were tried but proved less
than ideal, as the bread didn’t stay very fresh and caused crumbs that would
float away in the cabin — possibly causing harm to sensitive equipment, or even
getting in the astronaut’s eyes or lungs. The number
of items aboard Skylab didn’t increase very much, but the preservation of some
foods did, made possible by the addition of a freezer aboard America’s first
space station. According to Charles Bourland, who developed
much of the food system for Skylab, about 15 percent of the food supply was
frozen, and the astronauts could enjoy lobster Newburg, ice cream, and other
frozen delicacies. The remainder of the food items were stored in cans, which
provided a long shelf life.
Left: Food for Gemini 3. Middle: Food specialist Rita M. Rapp
with food for Apollo 16. Right: Skylab 4 astronaut Edward G. Gibson at the
Skylab galley. Credits: NASA
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in 1975, American astronauts sampled Russian
space food for the first time as crewmates shared meals during two days of
docked activities. Much of the food aboard the Soviet Soyuz came in tubes, and
Soviet Commander Aleksei A. Leonov played a prank on American astronauts Thomas
P. Stafford and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton by replacing the labels on tubes of
borsch with labels from famous Russian vodkas.
the advent of the space shuttle in 1981, the availability of a galley to both
rehydrate and reheat foods made the astronauts’ menus more palatable and
varied. The lack of refrigeration, on the other hand, required most food items to
be dehydrated, or thermostabilized — apart from a small locker of fresh food intended for
Left: ASTP astronauts Thomas Stafford (left) and Deke Slayton
holding up tubes of “vodka” aboard Soyuz.
Middle: Astronaut Thomas Akers uses the shuttle galley to prepare a
meal. Right: Astronauts (left to right) Charles F. Bolden, Robert L. Gibson,
and George P. Nelson prepare meals for their STS-61C crewmates. Credits: NASA
space station Mir’s Core Module included a dining table with the ability to
reheat food in cans and tubes and using a nearby cold and hot water dispenser, so
cosmonauts could rehydrate certain food items such as juices and soups. Over
the course of its 15-year lifetime, a steady stream of uncrewed Progress cargo
resupply vehicles brought food to the station, including much-welcomed fresh
fruits and vegetables.
variety of Russian dishes was regularly supplemented when visiting crew members
from other nations brought their own culinary specialties. The first French
citizen to visit Mir, astronaut Jean-Loup Chrétien, brought such items as paté,
sautéed veal, cheeses and chocolate. During the Shuttle-Mir program, American
astronauts residing aboard Mir first ate mostly Russian food, but on later
missions brought American food as well. Astronaut Shannon M. Lucid’s favorite,
jello, became a regular Sunday treat with her Mir 21 crewmates Yuri I.
Onufriyenko and Yuri V. Usachev. Andrew S. Thomas remarked very positively on
the variety and quality of the Russian food during his five-month stay aboard
Mir in 1998, especially praising the Russian soups and fruit juices.
Left: Items taken to Mir by French astronaut Jean-Loup Chrétien.
Right: Mir 21 crew (left to right) Yuri Onufriyenko,
Yuri Usachev, and Shannon Lucid during mealtime onboard Mir. Credits: NASA
item noticeably absent from these past space menus is bread. As noted above,
attempts at flying sandwiches during Apollo missions met with little success.
However, in November 1985, Mexican Payload Specialist Rodolfo Neri Vela, a crew
member aboard Atlantis during the
STS-61B mission, requested tortillas in his food supply. Once on orbit, his
fellow crewmates noticed that the tortillas, unlike regular bread, didn’t
create crumbs and could be used to make sandwiches or hold other food items. Since
that mission, tortillas have been a favorite of astronauts and are standard
fare aboard the space station. Crews use them to make breakfast burritos,
hamburgers, and even peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, as demonstrated by
Expedition 50 Commander R. Shane Kimbrough.
Left: Payload Specialist Neri Vela enjoys a trend-setting
tortilla aboard Atlantis in 1985. Middle: STS-98 Pilot Kenneth D. Cockrell
prepares breakfast burritos for his crewmates. Right: Expedition 51 Commander
Peggy A. Whitson shows off the hamburger she prepared using a tortilla.
The Space Food Systems Laboratory
at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston is responsible for the testing,
preparation, and packaging of U.S. food delivered to the International Space
Station (ISS). Today, crew members can choose from about 200 different items
for their standard menu, which can be augmented with some personal choices to
include commercial, off-the-shelf items. Without any dedicated refrigerators or
freezers for food storage other than a chiller to cool beverages and condiments,
all food items on station are stored at ambient temperature and must remain
stable at those conditions. Foods can be freeze-dried or thermostabilized to
achieve the required shelf life. The packaged food is then shipped to one of three
launch sites for loading into resupply vehicles: to Cape Canaveral Air Force
Station in Florida for launch aboard SpaceX Dragons, the Mid-Atlantic Regional
Spaceport in Virginia to be loaded into Cygnus spacecraft, or the Tanegashima
Space Center in Japan, from where HTVs are launched.
Left: Patch of Johnson’s Space Food Systems Laboratory.
Right: Expedition 1 crew members (left to right) Yuri P. Gidzenko, William M.
Shepherd, and Sergei K. Krikalev, and two of their backups, Vladimir N. Dezhurov
and Mikhail V. Tyurin, sample station fare in Johnson’s food lab in 1998.
The United States and Russia each
provide their half of the food destined for station, and the two partners share
some food with each other. Before their missions, crew members sample the
American food at Johnson’s food lab, and then repeat the process with Russian
food in Moscow. Astronauts from the other ISS partner agencies, such as ESA (European
Space Agency), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian
Space Agency (CSA), often bring their own specialties that are shared among all
the exploreres. For example, for his flight during Expeditions 50 and 51, ESA
astronaut Thomas G. Pesquet from France brought 13 dishes prepared especially
for him by the French space agency CNES.
Left: A food scientist prepares a meal for station using
fresh vegetables. Middle: Grace Douglas and Vickie Kloeris in front of the
freeze-drier in Johnson’s food lab. Image credit: Brian Goldman/Texas Monthly. Right:
A food technician packages food for delivery to station. Credits: NASA
The most difficult foods to provide for long-duration crew members
on station, and the most sought after by them, are fresh fruits and vegetables.
Their short shelf life and the lack of dedicated refrigeration on space station
for food result in them being a rare commodity in orbit. A limited supply of
fresh fruits and vegetables regularly arrives with each visiting vehicle and is
eagerly consumed by the onboard crews. Another option, exercised by Russian
cosmonaut Oleg G. Artemev on both his long-duration missions, is to bring along
your own (in this case onions), which he carefully tended and regularly snipped
off the growing shoots to add as a flavoring to his usual dishes. A third
possibility, so far only tried on a very limited and experimental basis, is to
grow your own. In 2013, after earlier trial runs that showed eating the red
romaine lettuce grown in the Veggie apparatus was safe to eat, Expedition 44
Flight Engineers Kimiya Yui, Kjell N. Lindgren, and Scott J. Kelly tried the
space-grown vegetable and declared it delicious.
Left: Expedition 9 Commander Gennadi I. Padalka showing off
fresh fruits recently delivered by a Progress cargo resupply vehicle. Middle: Fresh
onion photographed by Expedition 39 Flight Engineer Oleg Artemev. Right: Expedition 44 Flight Engineers Kimiya Yui, Kjell
Lindgren, and Scott Kelly sample red romaine lettuce grown aboard ISS. Credits:
The first pizza aboard ISS arrived via a Progress resupply
vehicle in May 2001 in a commercial agreement between the Russian Space Agency
and Pizza Hut. Expedition 2 Commander Yuri V. Usachev reheated the
salami-topped pie and filmed himself eating a slice in a commercial for the
pizza company. In 2017, Expedition 53 astronaut Paolo Nespoli from the Italian
Space Agency casually mentioned that he missed one of his favorite foods,
pizza. So, station managers ensured that all the necessary ingredients were
loaded on the next Cygnus resupply vehicle, and Nespoli and his crewmates had
themselves an out-of-this-world pizza party. Needless to say, in weightlessness,
it wasn’t enough to just eat the pies — spinning and playing with them was just
Left: Expedition 2 Commander Yuri Usachev tastes the pizza
delivered to ISS. Right: Expedition 53 crewmates (left to right) Mark T. vande
Hei, Sergei N. Ryazanski, Aleksandr A. Misurkin, Paolo A. Nespoli, Joseph M.
Acaba, and Randolph J. Bresnik show off the pizzas they created. Credits: NASA
increased diversity of NASA’s astronaut corps, as well as the number of
international astronauts who have visited space station, the variety of food
available to all crew members has grown significantly. Astronaut Sunita L.
Williams not only enjoyed Fluffernutter sandwiches with peanut butter on a
tortilla to remind her of her childhood, but Slovenian sausages to celebrate
her mother’s culture and samosas to celebrate her father’s Indian heritage. To
help celebrate his birthday, French astronaut Thomas G. Pesquet had macarons
delivered to station. Several astronauts from JAXA held sushi parties for their
fellow crew members. Short-term visits by spaceflight participants from several nations added culinary spice to ISS menus, such
as satay from Malaysia, kimchee from Korea, and madrooba,
saloona, and balaleet from the United Arab Emirates.
Left: Expedition 10
Commander Leroy Chiao enjoys a Chinese-inspired dish. Middle: Expedition 50
astronaut Thomas Pesquet enjoys macarons delivered for his birthday. Right: Expedition
55 crew members (left to right) Anton N. Shkaplerov, Oleg G. Artemev, and
Norishige Kanai enjoy a sushi dinner. Credits: NASA
Despite the wide variety of foods
available to station crews, sometimes they crave that little something extra — either
an extra sweet dessert or some comfort food item that reminds them of home. Although
ISS doesn’t have a dedicated freezer for food, freezers destined to return
science samples are frequently launched on cargo vehicles like SpaceX Dragon or
Northrup Grumman Cygnus spacecraft. Since the freezers often launch empty, they
can carry items such as ice cream or other frozen treats for crew members to
enjoy as soon as they open the hatches to the vehicles. During Expedition 42, Italian
astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from ESA enjoyed the first authentic espresso
in space, made in a device provided by the Italian Space Agency in cooperation
with espresso maker Lavazzo. In November 2019, the Cygnus 12 vehicle brought to
station a Zero G oven provided by Doubletree Hotels as an experiment to assess
the possibility of baking in space. And, just in time for Christmas, Expedition
61 astronauts Luca S. Parmitano and Christina H. Koch baked chocolate-chip
cookies that returned to Earth aboard SpaceX 19 in January 2020.
Left: Expedition 55 Flight Engineer Oleg G. Artemev enjoys a
frozen candy bar. Middle: Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti
savors an espresso made aboard station. Right: Expedition 61 astronauts Luca
Parmitano and Christina Koch show off the chocolate cookie they baked. Credits:
Great improvements have been made
in the food available to long-duration crew members over the 20 years that ISS
has been permanently occupied. The international nature of the program adds
much-appreciated variety to the menu, as crews bring their culturally important
food items to the dining tables. Future technology developments will certainly
expand these already broad and diverse culinary horizons.
Left: Expedition 32 Flight Engineer Sunita Williams displays
the meal she prepared in the Unity Node 1 module. Right: The table is prepared
for dinner in the Zvezda Service
Module during Expedition 40. Credits: NASA
The International Space Station — taking culinary delights to new
heights. Credit: NASA
***With special thanks to Ryan Dowdy from Johnson’s Space Food Systems Lab
for outstanding support in writing this article.***