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

Freeze-dried 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

During the 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.

With 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 immediate consumption.

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

The 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.

The 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

One 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. Credits: NASA

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. Credits: NASA

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: NASA

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 too irresistible.

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

With the 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: NASA

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.***