Last year at this time, astronaut Sandy Magnus was living on board the International Space Station. When the holidays were approaching in 2008, Magnus decided it was time to spice things up a bit in the culinary department in space. “When you think about it, food is an important part of our lives,” Magnus said. “Family gatherings, celebrations and holidays all center around food, and when you invite people over it seems everyone always ends up in the kitchen. The same holds true on the space station, but you have to be able to prepare and eat food in microgravity without making a big mess!”
And now that she’s back on terra firma, have her cooking techniques changed because of her experiences in space? “I certainly appreciate gravity a lot more because your food actually wants to stay in the bowl, which is a good thing!” Magnus said.
“Sandy is our astronaut who has done the most experimenting with cooking in space,” said Vickie Kloeris, who heads NASA’s food lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “She has definitely given us some ideas about advancing food preparation on the space station.”
Magnus told Universe Today there were two different levels of cooking she did in space. “One was special cooking for the holidays which took hours. My favorite was what I called ‘Italian Night,” where I took some rice, chicken, black olives, sundried tomatoes, cheese, garlic, onions and pesto and put that together. On an everyday basis it was easy to combine foods that were already prepared by Vickie and her group. My favorite everyday meal was taking black beans, tomatoes and artichokes and putting it on a tortilla with picante sauce. That was very tasty.”
The astronaut food on the ISS—while leaps ahead of the food “tubes” that early astronauts endured – still has to meet many different requirements. It has to last for long periods of time without refrigeration, have the appropriate nutritional value, it has to be appealing and tasty, and it has to be packaged to be able to be used with the food warmers and rehydration system on the ISS and space shuttle.
“There is probably on the order of 300 different foods and beverages up there when you look at all the food from the US, Russia, Europe and Japan,” said Kloeris. “We stow the food pantry style, and so the crew members are able to pull different items and they are not restricted to a certain food on a certain day.”
Astonauts often say their tastes change in space, and Magnus agreed. “Yes, it did a little bit. I noticed on my first mission that the tomatoes and eggplant that I loved on the ground, when I got on orbit it didn’t taste quite the same to me. I’m not sure exactly why – I think your sense of smell gets disrupted which of course affects your sense of taste.”
When Magnus was on the ISS, the crew size was just three. Since then the crew size has expanded to six. And when a shuttle crew visits, there can be as many as 13 astronauts to feed. How does that change how food is prepared?
“Fortunately, with the increase in crew size we have an extra food warmer or two,” Magnus said, “which is really the big issue for planning a meal because it takes about 20 minutes to heat some of the food. And so with six people you have to start perhaps a little earlier and you are using all three food warmers on board so six people can eat together.”
“When the shuttle is there we typically have family dinners, if you will, in the evenings a couple of times. The shuttle astronauts will prepare all their food in the shuttle, bag it up and bring it over and we’ll all have one big family dinner in the service module or Node 1, which ever table we decide to use.”
One of Magnus’ favorite holiday foods while on the ISS was one that many on Earth would probably agree with: frosted Christmas cookies. “We are able to bring up some personal foods, as long as they don’t need refrigeration,” Magnus said, “and I brought up some cookies and there was some icing already on board. The entire crew really enjoyed having frosted cookies for the holidays.”
For more info about Magnus’ time in space read her cooking in space journal.