Food in space: eating aboard the I.S.S.


Food in space: eating aboard the I.S.S.

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very day a group of people have their meals aboard a futuristic structure orbiting around our planet: it’s the I.S.S., the International Space Station. This place is just incredible, but also full of potential dangers, since any activity is much more complex than on Earth. Even the ‘simple’ act of feeding themselves should not be underestimated: the food currently available to the astronauts is in fact the final result of an evolution started in the Mid-Twentieth Century. At that time scientists didn’t exactly know how a human being could eat in zero gravity.

Food on the I.S.S.

I.S.S. The International Space Station

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owadays the astronauts aboard the I.S.S. can eat almost any kind of food. There are obviously some important rules to follow when preparing and packaging it, since:

It’s going to be eaten in zero gravity.
It must keep all its nutritional characteristics.
It has to be stored at room temperature for a long period of time.

Considering these special requirements, it’s available on the station in the following forms:

Dehydrated food.

Dehydrated food served on the I.S.S. (img-01)

Dehydration is a method of preservation used for all those types of food that, once rehydrated, keep great part of their original characteristics. Here follows some examples:
Soups, boiled vegetables and legumes, pasta, etc.
These aliments are packaged in soft plastic bags, the ‘spoon bowls’, equipped with a small adapter: this can be connected to a machine that, once set, dispenses the right amount of water at the temperature necessary for a perfect rehydration. Astronauts eat by inserting a special type of straw in the adapter or using cutlery.

The most used dehydrating system for this kind of food is freeze-drying: this consists in freezing aliments and removing the water by sublimating it.

Thermostabilized or irradiated food.

Thermostabilized food package (img-02)

Thermostabilization and irradiation are methods of preservation used for all those types of food unsuitable for rehydration. Here follows some examples:
Recipes based on meat, fish or vegetables. Salami. Some types of soup, etc.
These aliments are packaged in soft ‘pouches’, also known as ‘flexible cans’, made with special materials (*1). They are usually warmed up (*2) before opening them. Common cutlery can be used to eat their content.

‘Thermostabilization’ consists in thermally treating food in order to kill all bacteria: this way it can be stored at room temperature for a long period of time.
‘Irradiation’ consists in exposing aliments to controlled doses of ionizing radiation and is generally used to make meat perfectly sterile.

Notes:
*1: Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, provides the Station with traditional metal cans.
*2: The food warmer used on the I.S.S. is a portable tool looking very much like a common metallic suitcase.


Assorted food served on the I.S.S. (img-01)

Beverages on the I.S.S.

I.S.S., lyophilized beverage (img-01)

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ost of the water available on the I.S.S. is carried from Earth by cargo shuttles, a small quantity of it is collected from moisture condensation and urine recycling.
Dispensers are present throughout the Station: the astronauts can select both the amount of liquid and the temperature they need.
All drinks (like, for example, tea and lemonade) are usually lyophilized and enclosed in special pouches: these are equipped with a small adapter used for rehydration and to drink from them using a straw.

The dining table of the future.

Astronauts eating on the Skylab (img-03)

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he ‘dining table’ of the I.S.S. is quite different from those used on Earth: it’s basically a reclining surface, attached to the interior of one of the Station modules and equipped with velcro straps and ties, used to keep the food in place. Thanks to zero gravity, diners don’t have to ‘sit down’. In this regard, it’s interesting to remember that when the engineers designed the first US Space Station, the ‘Skylab’, they tried to replicate some of the living conditions of our planet. For example, its ‘dining room’ had a central structure (*1), around which the three components of the crew could sit in front of each other: this way they could have an ‘eating experience’ quite similar to that so common on Earth.

Note:
*1: Special food trays could be plugged into this structure, forming a sort of table. These trays were much more complex than those used today on the I.S.S. : for example, each of them was equipped with a food warmer.


Space food trays (img-04, img-02)

The first astronauts eat in space.

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he first astronauts to go in space, entering orbit around our planet, were the Russian Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, followed a year later by the American John Glenn. Considering the topic of this article, it should be said that they were also the very first men to eat in space. Sadly, the food they were provided was not very appetizing: for example, it had to be squeezed out from tubes, very similar to those used for toothpaste.


Yuri Gagarin (img-17) Yuri Gagarin (img-17)

Yuri Gagarin.

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ajor Yuri Gagarin was born in Smolensk, son of a carpenter and of a peasant. In April 1961 he completed a full orbit around the Earth aboard the spacecraft Vostok-1. The flight lasted about one hour and half.


John H. Glenn (img-08) John H. Glenn (img-08)

John Glenn.

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n February 1962, about a year after Gagarin, Lieutenant Colonel and test pilot John Glenn was launched in space aboard an Atlas rocket. In five hours he completed three full orbits around our planet.

The light ‘snack’ that Gagarin and Glenn ate during their short missions, was part of a very important scientific experiment. Both the Russian and the American scientists needed in fact as much information as possible to confirm their theories about feeding in zero-gravity conditions. For example, they didn’t know exactly if it was possible to swallow and digest food.

NASA: the evolution of space food.

Project Mercury.

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he food eaten these days by the astronauts living and working aboard the I.S.S., is the final result of an evolution started in the Sixties, the period of the first space missions.
Here follows a list of the main stages of this evolution:

Project Mercury (1958 – 1963):

The first spaceflight program created to put US astronauts in orbit around the Earth, was the ‘Project Mercury’. The NASA scientists who contributed to its realization had to face many complex and dangerous challenges: the life of many men depended on their choices. For example, in zero gravity conditions, even eating was a problem: that’s why the safety of food became much more important than its taste and the first astronauts were provided with the ‘tubes’.

Tubes: containers very similar in shape to those used for toothpaste, filled with a sort of puree made with beef and/or vegetables (*1).

Project Gemini (1961 – 1966):

Project Gemini II Patch (img-13)

The ‘tubes’ were not used anymore during the ‘Project Gemini’ missions. Astronauts could finally eat solid food in the form of ‘cubes’.

Cubes: small pieces of food, wrapped in a thin edible layer to avoid crumbs. Once extracted from the package, they were eaten whole.

The first bags of dehydrated aliments made their appearance: although the rehydration process was not yet perfected and the result was not very good, this innovation at least allowed a greater variety of meals.

Project Apollo (1961 – 1972):

Apollo Program insignia (img-14)

The Apollo missions represented a significant step forward in the evolution of ‘space food’. Hot water started to be available aboard spacecrafts, allowing the perfect rehydration of a great variety of aliments: these were enclosed in special containers, the ‘spoon bowls’. Astronauts could finally start to use standard cutlery: eating in space became an experience much more similar to the one we have on Earth.

Skylab Space Station (1973 – 1979):

Skylab Program Patch (img-15)

The NASA engineers designed a very complex system to feed the three members of the Skylab crew.
A couple of examples:
The installation of a freezer aboard allowed a great variety of foods, including ice cream.
For the first time, astronauts could have their meals sitting down around a dining table.

Space Shuttle (1981–2011):

Space Shuttle.

Frozen aliments were no longer available on the Space Shuttle. Astronauts could eat:
Dehydrated food: aliments sealed in special bags (‘spoon bowls’), designed to ensure a perfect rehydration.
Thermostabilized food: aliments enclosed in special envelopes (‘pouches’), heat treated to ensure long conservation at room temperature.

Note:
*1: When wearing the space helmet, astronauts could not reach the tube with their mouth: for this reason they used a special type of straw.


I.S.S. and Space Shuttle Endeavour (img-16)

I.S.S., the International Space Station.

International Space Station (img-05)

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he International Space Station was created thanks to the collaboration of fifteen nations.
Its structure was built by assembling several modules over the years: the first was the Russian ‘Zarya’, put into orbit in 1998. After just two weeks, it was the turn of the American ‘Unity’, carried in space by the Shuttle Endeavour.
The final result is a laboratory unique in its kind, whose main function is to host scientific experiments in a zero gravity environment. The information obtained from these experiments are fundamental for technological development and for the future colonization of Mars.
The Station is occupied without interruption since the month of November 2000: ‘expeditions’ including up to seven astronauts (the ideal number of crewmen for the I.S.S.), stay on board for periods of time usually not exceeding six months.

Many Space Stations.

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uring the years many space stations have been sent into orbit around the Earth. The very first was the Russian Salyut 1 in 1971, the latest has been the Chinese Tiangong-2, in 2016. Two of these stations are particularly famous:


Skylab Space Station (img-06) Skylab Space Station (img-06)

Skylab

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kylab was the first American space station: it was in service from 1973 to 1979. Its structure consisted of a single large module, put into orbit by a huge Saturn V rocket, the same used to send the first men to the moon.


MIR Space Station (img-07) MIR Space Station (img-07)

MIR

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ssembled in orbit between 1986 and 1996, the Russian MIR (‘Peace’) was the largest space station before the construction of the I.S.S. Its mission ended in 2001, when it was deorbited and crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

Leon Battista Alberti (img-18)

THE NUMBERS OF THE I.S.S.

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few numbers, better than a thousand words, can explain why the I.S.S. , the most futuristic place where to eat, is so special:
Altitude: between 230 and 285 miles.
Speed: 17.000 mi/h.
Weight: 450 tons

SEASONING IN SPACE

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very kind of seasoning can be used on the I.S.S., including ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Powders like salt and pepper must be diluted in water, to avoid the risk of being inhaled or getting in the eyes of the astronauts living on the Station.

COMMERCIAL FOOD

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he astronauts aboard the I.S.S. can eat not only food ‘meant’ for space, but also commercial products. Biscuits, candies and many other specialties made by famous brands, are generally not available in their original packages, but inside special containers, in compliance with the NASA safety rules.

CARBONATED BEVERAGES IN SPACE

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arbonated beverages, at least for now, cannot be drunk in space. The lack of gravity doesn’t allow the little bubbles of carbon dioxide to separate from liquids: this is a big problem for astronauts, since the gas remains trapped within their digestive systems.

COFFEE ON THE I.S.S.

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n 2015 a special type of coffee machine (*1), designed to operate in zero gravity, has been installed on the I.S.S. : the ‘ISSpresso’.
Looking at the photo above, it’s easy to notice the presence of two adapters inside of it:
The blue one is used to load water.
The brown one releases hot beverages, injecting them in a pouch.

Note:
*1: The ISSpresso can make also tea and broth.

Space garbage.

SPACE GARBAGE

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here does the garbage produced on the I.S.S. end up? It obviously cannot be thrown out of the Station, since it would go in orbit around the planet, becoming a sort of ‘bullet’ and posing a serious threat to present and future space missions. That’s why it’s usually disposed by loading it on a cargo capsule and making it disintegrate during the reentry through the atmosphere.

EATING IN THE ‘CUPOLA’

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he ‘cupola’ is one of the most fascinating parts of the I.S.S. : there is for sure no better place to have a meal. It is basically a large porthole, divided into seven smaller windows (including the central one), from which it’s possible to enjoy a breathtaking view of Planet Earth. It seems that when the NASA engineers designed it, they were inspired by the cockpit of the ‘Millennium Falcon’, the famous spaceship from the movie Star Wars.

SUPPLIES FOR THE I.S.S.

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he ‘Progress’ were the first cargo capsules used to bring supplies to the I.S.S. They can load up to 2.5 tons of materials, including food, water and air. Once emptied, they are usually filled with the garbage produced on the Station and destroyed by sending them through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The future of the I.S.S.

THE FUTURE OF THE I.S.S.

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he decommission of the I.S.S. , initially scheduled for the year 2016, has recently been postponed to 2024. Problem is that, sooner or later, its structure will be too damaged by the space debris orbiting around our planet. So, it’s quite possible that, in the near future, the oldest modules will be destroyed and the remaining ones will be used to begin the construction of a new Space Station.




The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

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The following images are public domain: they have been created by NASA and belong to the US Space Agency. These images are published courtesy of NASA (NASA copyright policy page).
img-01 (**) – Assorted bags of food served on the I.S.S. (ID:JSC2003-E-63875), 2003, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-02 (**) – Bags of I.S.S. food and utensils on a tray (ID:JSC2003-E-63872), 2003, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-03 (**) – Astronauts eat space food aboard the Skylab, 1973, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-04 (**) – Skylab food tray, 2013, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-05 (**) – International Space Station (ID:S134-E-010137), 2011, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-06 (**) – Skylab Space Station, 2011, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-07 (**) – Mir Space Station viewed from Space Shuttle (ID:STS089-340-035), 1988, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-08 (**) – John H. Glenn (ID:GPN-2000-001027), 1962, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-09 (**) – International Space Station (ID:S132-E-012208), 2010, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-10 (**) – Progress M-52 spacecraft, 2005, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-11 (**) – ISSpresso machine (ID:ISS043-E-160227), 2015, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-12 (**) – I.S.S. seven-windowed Cupola (ID:S130-E-009694), 2010, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-13 (**) – Project Gemini II Patch, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-14 (**) – Apollo program insignia, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-15 (**) – Skylab Program Patch, 1973, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-16 (**) – I.S.S. and the docked space shuttle Endeavour (ID:ISS028-E-005638), 2011, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}

The following images are public domain:
img-17 (*) – Yuri Gagarin in Sweden, 1964, image by SAS Scandinavian Airlines (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Sweden-1969}
img-18 (*) – Leon Battista Alberti, XVIII cent., G. Benaglia (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

The header images are pubblic domain:

img-01 (**) – Assorted bags of food served on the I.S.S. (ID:JSC2003-E-63875), 2003, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}
img-05 (**) – International Space Station (ID:S134-E-010137), 2011, image by NASA (Wikipedia Link) {PD-USGov-NASA}

(*) The copyright of this image is expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.