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

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


very day a group of people have their meals in a sci-fi structure that orbits around our planet. It’s the I.S.S., the International Space Station: a fascinating place full of potential dangers, where any activity is much more complex than on Earth. A place where even the simple act of eating should not be underestimated. The food currently available to the astronauts is the final result of an evolution started in the mid-twentieth century, a time when scientists didn’t exactly know how a human being could feed in zero gravity conditions.

Food on the I.S.S.

I.S.S. The International Space Station


owadays, most of the food available on Earth can be also eaten by the astronauts living on the I.S.S. There are anyway certain important requirements to follow when preparing and packaging it, since:

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

Taking into account these special needs, it is provided in one of the following forms:

Dehydrated food.

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

It consists in all the types of food well suited for dehydration: once rehydrated, they keep great part of their original qualities.
Some examples: soups, boiled vegetables and legumes, pasta, etc.

These aliments are packed in soft plastic bags, the so-called ‘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. The astronauts can eat inserting a special type of straw into the same adapter or using normal cutlery, once the small container is opened.

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

Thermostabilized or irradiated food.

Thermostabilized food package (img-02)

Thermostabilization and irradiation are preservation methods for food not suitable for rehydration.
Some examples: recipes based on meat, fish or vegetables. Salami, some types of soup, etc.

These aliments are packaged within flexible, rectangular ‘pouches’ (‘flexible cans’), made with special materials. The food inside of them is thermally treated (thermostabilization): this way it can be stored at room temperature for a long period of time.
Generally the so-called ‘irradiation’, the exposure to controlled doses of ionizing radiation, is used just for meat, to make it perfectly sterile.
The pouches are usually warmed up (*1) and opened on one side: a normal spoon or a fork can be used to eat their content.
Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, provides the Station with traditional metal cans.

*1: The food warmer used on the I.S.S. is a portable tool that looks 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)


ost of the water available on I.S.S. is transported from Earth by cargo shuttles, a small quantity is collected from moisture condensation and recycling urine.
Water dispensers are available throughout the Station: the astronauts can choose the quantity and the temperature needed.
All drinks, such as tea and lemonade, are lyophilized and contained in special pouches: these are equipped with a small adapter used both to rehydrate and to drink with a straw.

The dining table of the future.

Astronauts eating on the Skylab (img-03)


he dining table of the astronauts on board the I.S.S. consists in a reclining surface, attached to the interior of one of the modules. It is equipped with velcro straps and ties, used to keep the food pouches in place so that they don’t float away. Thanks to the zero gravity environment, diners don’t have to sit.
In this regard it is interesting to remember that designing the American Space Station ‘Skylab’, scientists tried to replicate some of the conditions of life on our planet: its ‘dining room’ had a central structure (*1), around which the three components of the crew could sit in front of each other, placing their feet under supports. This way they could have an ‘eating experience’ quite similar to that so common on Earth.

*1: Some very special food trays could be plugged into this structure to form a sort of table. These trays were much more complex than those now used on the I.S.S. : each of them was in fact equipped, among the other accessories, with a food warmer.

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

The first astronauts eat in space.


he first men to be launched in orbit around Earth were the Russian Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, followed a year later by the American John Glenn. They were also the first to eat in space. Their ‘snack’ was not very appetizing: it had to be squeezed out of tubes very similar to those used for toothpaste.

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

Yuri Gagarin.


orn in Smolensk, son of a carpenter and of a peasant, in the month of April 1961 Major Gagarin completed a full orbit around the Earth aboard the spacecraft Vostok-1. The flight lasted just over an hour and a half.

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

John Glenn.


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.

What Gagarin and Glenn had in space, more than a proper meal, was a scientific experiment: both Russian and American scientists needed in fact as much information as possible to confirm their theories. Suffice to say that they didn’t know if in a zero gravity environment astronauts could swallow or how these particular conditions would affect the digestive system.

NASA: the evolution of space food.

Project Mercury.


ood eaten everyday by the astronauts on the I.S.S. is the final result of an evolution started in the sixties, the period of the very first human missions in space.
Here follows a list of the main stages of this evolution:

Project Mercury (1958 – 1963):

The first American astronauts were sent into orbit around the Earth thanks to Project Mercury. The NASA scientists who contributed to its realization had to face many complex and dangerous challenges: the life itself of many men depended on their choices. In zero gravity conditions, even the simple act of eating was a problem: that’s why safety of food became much more important than its taste. Astronauts were fed using the so-called ‘tubes’.

Tubes: containers very similar in shape to those of toothpaste, filled with a homogenized paste available in different flavours. A special type of straw was used to eat wearing the helmet.

Project Gemini (1961 – 1966):

Project Gemini II Patch (img-13)

The ‘tubes’ were not available anymore during the Gemini missions: astronauts could eat solid food in form of ‘cubes’. The first bags of dehydrated aliments made their appearance.
Although the rehydration process was not yet perfected and the result was not so good, these innovations at least allowed a wider choice of meals.

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

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 on board of spacecrafts: this allowed the perfect rehydration of a great variety of aliments. These were stored in special containers, the so-called ‘spoon bowls’: once opened, astronauts could 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 scientists designed a very complex system to feed the three members of the Skylab crew.
Just a couple of examples:
The presence of a freezer on board allowed a great variety of foods.
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 choose instead:
Dehydrated food: aliments contained in special bags (‘spoon bowls’), designed to ensure a perfect rehydration.
Thermostabilized food: aliments contained in special rectangular envelopes (‘pouches’), heat treated to ensure a long conservation at room temperature.

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

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

International Space Station (img-05)


he I.S.S. comes from 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 the technology development on our planet and for the future colonization of Mars. The station is occupied without interruption since the month of November 2000: ‘expeditions’ of up to seven astronauts (the ideal capacity of the I.S.S.), stay on board for periods of time which usually don’t exceed six months.

Many Space Stations.


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)



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)



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

Leon Battista Alberti (img-18)



etter than a thousand words, some numbers can give an idea about the I.S.S. :
Altitude: between 230 and 285 miles.
Speed: 17.000 mi/h.
Weight: 450 tons



very kind of seasoning can be used on the I.S.S., including ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Powders like salt and pepper are dissolved in water, so as to avoid the risk to be inhaled or to end up in the eyes of the astronauts.



n board the I.S.S. astronauts can enjoy not only food ‘meant’ to be eaten in space, but also commercial products, available in any supermarket of the Earth. Biscuits, candies and many other specialties made by famous brands, generally are not in the original packaging, but in special containers in compliance with the NASA safety rules.



arbonated beverages, at least for the moment, can not be drunk in the space. The problem is, as usual, the lack of gravity: in fact it doesn’t allow the bubbles of carbon dioxide to be expelled from the liquid. This leads to an excessive foam production, and is a quite big issue for the astronauts, since the gas remains trapped within their digestive system.



tarting from 2015, the International Space Station hosts the ‘ISSpresso’, a very special coffee machine that can operate in zero gravity conditions. As it’s easy to notice looking at the photo above, there are two adapters inside of it: the blue one is used to fill the machine with water, the brown one injects the hot beverage in a pouch. Astronauts can drink using a straw.

Space garbage.



here does the garbage produced on the I.S.S. ends up? Well, it certainly can not be thrown out of the station: it would enter in orbit becoming a sort of bullet and posing a serious threat to the present and future space missions. That’s why it’s stored in some special bags and returned to Earth on board the first cargo shuttle available.



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 the Earth. It seems that when the engineers designed it, they were inspired by the cockpit of the ‘Millennium Falcon’, the famous spaceship from the movie ‘Star Wars’.



he ‘Progress’ were the first cargo shuttles to ferry 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 filled with garbage produced on the station. Typically these space capsules disintegrate passing through the atmosphere.

The future of the I.S.S.



he end of the I.S.S. mission, initially scheduled for 2016, has recently been delayed to 2024 and beyond. This is just the last of many postponements: problem is that sooner or later the structure of the station will be too damaged by space debris to work properly. That’s why it’s quite possible that in a few years the oldest modules will be deorbited and the remaining ones will be used to start the construction of a new station.

The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

Click for the list.

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.