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Eating in space is a little bit tricky. Weightlessness wreaks havoc on normal food. In a low gravity environment food could just float away if not handled correctly. There were no refrigerators on the earliest of missions, and most food is dehydrated. So, how do astronauts eat? That is a pretty good question. All good questions deserve an answer, so here we go.
Fifty years ago, in the early years of manned spaceflight, the answer was much different than it is today. Gemini and Apollo astronauts had to suck a pretty disgusting paste through straws. The only drink available really early on was water. Later Tang was introduced. Slowly, more food became usable, including a dehydrated ice cream that can still be purchased on line.
Well, that gives you an idea of early food struggles. Today, food is carefully contained and drinks are packaged as dehydrated powders. The astronauts add water to beverages through a special tube before drinking. Foods is still partially,or completely, dehydrated to prevent spoilage and meats are exposed to radiation for a longer shelf life.
Astronauts eat three meals a day(plus snacks). Meals are organized in the order that they are going to be eaten. The meals are stored in locker trays held by a net so they won’t float away. At mealtime the astronauts go to the galley(middeck). They prepare their food by adding water from a rehydration station that dispenses both hot and cold water. They heat food in a forced-air convection oven at about 170°F. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to rehydrate and heat an average meal.Astronauts attach their individual food containers to a food tray with fabric fasteners. The tray itself connects either to the wall or to the astronauts’ laps. Astronauts open the food packages with scissors and eat with a knife, fork and spoon.
Each shuttle packs enough food for the mission plus another three weeks. This is called the Safe Haven food system. The food supplies on the shuttle are designed to provide each astronaut with 2,000 calories per day. While the astronauts have plenty of food, they do not always want to eat. The aromas of food drift away without gravity before they make it to the nose. It is sort of like when you have a cold. If you can’t smell the food, you don’t really want it.
Salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise are available on every spaceflight to enhance the flavor of the food. These condiments are different from their terrestrial counterparts. Salt and pepper have to be suspended in liquid so the particles don’t float away.
Eating in space can be a bit of a hassle, but astronauts eat fairly normal food. They are only able to eat with the aid of several contraptions and packaging tricks. It takes a little bit of specialized training to get a single meal eaten, but it is worth it to be in space.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.