- When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon, they weren’t treated to culinary delicacies on board the Apollo 11 spacecraft.
- Their meals consisted of beef and vegetables that had been dehydrated and stuffed into a package.
- Today’s astronaut food is prepared similarly, but contains a lot more variety and flavour.
- In the future, astronauts could be able to grow their own fresh fruit and vegetables in space.
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July 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set out to become the first humans to land on the moon.
In the years since that crowning moment, the US space program has witnessed countless other achievements: the landing of a spacecraft on Mars, the launch of the Hubble telescope, and the permanent occupancy of the International Space Station.
It also also managed to improve the culinary experience for astronauts. While today’s astronauts still eat packaged meals, their food has a lot more variety and flavour than what Armstrong and Aldrin ate in 1969.
Take a look at the evolution of astronaut food from the 1960s to now.
1962: John Glenn was the first American to eat in space. He had applesauce from a tube.
The first person to eat in outer space (and the first human to venture there) was Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, who orbited earth on board the Vostok 1 in April 1961. Gagarin ate beef and liver paste squeezed from a tube, followed by chocolate sauce for dessert.
Glenn’s meal on board Friendship 7 in February 1962 was similarly unappetizing. The astronaut consumed applesauce and pureed beef and vegetables from a toothpaste-like tube. He also drank xylose sugar tablets dissolved in water.
1960s: Tang’s powdered formula became popular on US spaceflights.
The artificial drink Tang wasn’t very popular when it was released in 1959, but it turned out to be the ideal formula for astronauts since it could be mixed with water. Starting in the 1960s, the drink became so popular on NASA flights, it generated a myth that the product was developed for space.
Though John Glenn brought the drink along on his 1962 flight, the astronaut later admitted he didn’t enjoy it very much.
But Tang in space doesn’t look the same as Tang on the ground. It’s sealed in a pouch that astronauts inject with water using a needle. They then sip the mixture – which is labelled “orange drink” or “peach mango drink” instead of Tang – through a straw.
1965: NASA dehydrated food and sealed it in plastic bags.
NASA’s Gemini program conducted its first manned flight in 1965. In preparation for that launch, NASA began dehydrating food and sealing it in plastic bags. The bags were labelled with instructions on how to rehydrate the food in space using water.
Food items prepared for Gemini astronauts included scrambled eggs, shrimp with cocktail sauce, curried chicken, and raisin rice pudding. Drinks included coffee, grape juice, and milk.
Since weightless astronauts exerted less energy in space, meals contained fewer calories compared to what the astronauts were used to eating on earth. On average, the food consisted of 17% protein, 32% fat, and 51% carbohydrates.
1964: Gemini space missions also included sugar cookies.
To satisfy their sweet tooth, Gemini astronauts were given cubed sugar cookies designed to be eaten in a single bite. The cookies were coated in gelatin to prevent crumbs, which could clog electrical systems or air filters.
Astronaut Virgil Grissom learned this firsthand when he tried to eat a regular corned beef sandwich on rye during a Gemini mission.
The gelatin coating also kept the food from spoiling and preserved the flavour, though the astronauts still found their meals bland and lacking in texture.
1969: The Apollo 11 astronauts ate packaged beef and veggies.
Apollo astronauts were the first to have hot water and eat their packaged food with a spoon. While on board Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were reportedly served beef and vegetables, pork with potato scallops, and Canadian bacon and apple sauce – all out of a package.
The meals were colour-coded, individually wrapped, and labelled for each day. If something went wrong, such as the cabin losing pressure, the astronauts had a back-up food source that would feed them through a port in their helmet, ensuring they wouldn’t have to take off their suits.
1971: Apollo 15 astronauts ate apricot bars on the Moon’s surface.
Apollo 15 was the fourth US Apollo mission to land on the moon. While the astronauts worked long hours collecting surface material, they reportedly snacked on apricot bars, which were also served on Apollo 17.
Apollo 15 introduced new foods like beef steaks and hamburgers that were thermostabilized, or preserved by heat. Food packages came with a sulfate tablet to prevent them from spoiling, but some of them went uneaten.
Here is every Apollo mission explained
1972: US astronauts were almost allowed to drink wine in space.
In 1972, astronaut food was still somewhat bleak, so NASA briefly toyed with the idea of introducing wine to its menu. The organisation designated a “space sommelier,” who determined that sherry was the best option, since it wouldn’t succumb drastically to changes in temperature.
Almost as soon as the idea came about, it was cut short due to public outcry – and indifference from many of the astronauts. Still, some astronauts were permitted to drink the packaged sherry during a pre-flight training exercise.
1973: NASA astronauts were served ice cream, but it wasn’t the kind sold in gift shops.
Science museums are known to feature freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” in their gift shops, but the concoction likely never made it to space. Whirlpool developed the product for the Apollo missions, but since there were no freezers, the substance would have been too crumbly to eat.
That all changed with NASA’s 1973 Skylab mission, which was equipped with a refrigerator. The astronauts on board ate normal ice cream, not the freeze-dried substance.
1983: Astronauts on board NASA’s ninth Space Shuttle mission ate rice pilaf.
NASA’s Space Shuttle program launched crews into space for three decades (1981 to 2011). During the ninth Space Shuttle mission in 1983, astronauts ate from trays containing foods like meatballs with barbecue sauce, rice pilaf and Italian beans, and thermostabilized chocolate pudding.
Starting in around 1985, astronauts were given flour tortillas, which helped solved the breadcrumb issue. To make it easier to season their food, they were also given liquid pepper and salt.
To top it off, Space Shuttle astronauts had access to a “fresh food locker” with fruits and vegetables like apples, bananas, carrots, and celery sticks.
2004: A pilot released a pocketful of M&Ms aboard SpaceShipOne.
Chocolate has long been a favourite item among US astronauts. In 2015, the manager of the Space Food Systems Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center told Smithsonian that NASA astronauts request chocolate “on pretty much every flight.”
In 2004, pilot Mike Melvill advanced this trend while operating SpaceShipOne, an experimental aircraft that retired that same year.
“I reached into my pocket and I took out some M&Ms, all different colours, and let them go in front of my face,” Melvill said at a press conference after the flight. “And they just spun around like little sparkling things. I was so blown away, I couldn’t even fly the [craft].”
2005: The “space noodle” was introduced in Japan.
The Japanese food company Nissin released the first instant ramen noodles in 1958. Decades later, the company delivered a similar product for astronauts under the name “Space Ram.” In 2005, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi brought the noodles to space for the first time.
2006: NASA adapted five recipes from celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
Astronauts from the 2006 Space Shuttle Discovery launch received personalised menus based on their favourite foods. NASA even enlisted celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse to come up with a few recipes.
NASA ultimately chose five of Lagasse’s dishes to send into space: Mardi Gras jambalaya, mashed potatoes with bacon, green beans with garlic, rice pudding, and mixed fruit.
In a press release, astronaut Jeff Williams said he liked the spiciness of the jambalaya, since an astronaut’s “perception of taste is a little bit decreased” in space.
2011: Astronauts at the International Space Station eat from a set menu.
The first long-term residents of the International Space Station (ISS) arrived in November 2000. At that time, NASA thought it could personalise foods like it did for the Space Shuttle program.
The plan turned out to be difficult, since NASA sends its cargo shipments separately from the astronauts, preventing crew members from receiving their food choices on time.
The organisation now offers a nutritionally-balanced menu with around 200 foods and beverages so astronauts still have some variety.
2015: NASA funded research to make food from astronaut poop.
A trip to Mars would take longer than the typical stay on the International Space Station. To prepare for this scenario, NASA has considered whether astronauts would be able to sustain themselves by eating their own faeces.
2017: Astronauts at the International Space Station received a care package of Blue Bell ice cream and Snickers ice cream bars.
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has the ability to transport objects to and from the International Space Station. In 2017, the spacecraft delivered Blue Bell ice cream and Snickers ice cream bars to astronauts living on the artificial satellite.
In addition to the occasional sweet treat, today’s astronauts eat the traditional three meals per day. Meals are typically dehydrated, freeze-dried, or thermostabilized, then labelled and stored in locker trays.
2019: Astronauts could eventually grow their own food using LED lights.
NASA plans to build a moon-orbiting space station known as the Gateway with the goal of achieving a moon landing by 2024. One of the prototypes for this new station includes a “space garden” that can grow a head of lettuce in 24 days using LED lights. The garden can also produce strawberries, carrots, and potatoes without requiring much water.
In 2005, astronauts at the International Space Station proved this could be done by growing romaine lettuce.
Though astronaut food hasn’t evolved much from its thermostabilized, freeze-dried history, growing fresh food could drastically improve diets in outer space.