When you come in at the end of a long day it can be a lot of effort to work out what to have for dinner. But imagine you not only have to plan your dinner for that night, but for every night for the next three years. And you don’t have normal cooking facilities. And your body has special nutritional requirements. And you’re in space.
Welcome to the challenges of feeding astronauts on major space missions. It’s something NASA has been working on for decades involving millions of dollars of research funding and an awful lot of freeze-dried ice-cream. So what do astronauts really eat in space? How do you maintain healthy bodies in “zero” gravity conditions, with recommended fat and cholesterol levels? And what’s it like having all your meals prepared months in advance? We delve into the intriguing world of space food…
Preserving Food in Space
So, just like any daily activity from stretching your legs to trimming your beard, eating in space comes with a huge number of difficulties. Firstly, everything needs to be prepared and stored in advance. With international space missions now looking to put humans on Mars, the potential length of a flight could soon be over 36 months. To supply and store food for that long is a huge logistical and scientific undertaking.
The technique most people will have heard of when it comes to space food is freeze-drying and this is still used a lot in the world of intergalactic travel. The process involves removing 99% of the fluid content from a food, which means the water won’t go off making foods last much longer. Interestingly, when it’s ready to be eaten the food is then re-hydrated using a specially designed water gun that shoots fluid back into molecules. Tasty.
Specialist Nutritional Requirements
But eating in space isn’t just about putting any old food on your spaceship. When astronauts are in flight, the trip can have a range of effects on their bodies and part of the mission of space agency dieticians is to create meals that will provide the kind of nutrients required to maintain healthy bodies throughout.
For example, being in “zero” gravity for months on end can lead to significant muscle wastage so packing food with protein is important to help maintain strength. Likewise, normal fitness parameters like appropriate body mass index and recommended cholesterol levels need to be maintained, making space food planning a pretty complex operation.
Ready for anything
The other important factor when it comes to extra-terrestrial cuisine is contingency planning. NASA may plan everything on a space mission down to the minute, but as they say, “stuff” happen. As a result all food has to last for at least five years for even the shortest of space flights and stocks will include far more than actually needed. Each day, the space ship ‘pantry’ is packed with astronaut snacks that can be eaten if the prepared meal isn’t to everyone’s liking, but all uneaten food has to be kept just in case.
The world of space food is fascinating and what’s particularly interesting is the impact it has on how we eat down here on earth. If they can maintain a healthy weight, recommended cholesterol levels and a tasty diet thousands of miles into the galaxy then it must be possible here on planet earth too!