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What's on the Menu? Recipes from the ISS

Posted on Fri, November 24, 2017
  • by: Hillary Brady, Digital Experiences
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After all the food has been cleared away, and the good dishes are set aside for the next holiday, a question still remains—what do you do with all your Thanksgiving leftovers? When faced with yet another turkey sandwich, take some inspiration from the creative culinary tastes of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Prepping a meal in zero gravity poses its own unique sets of challenges, though space food has come a long way from the pre-packaged meals of the Apollo program. When Neil Armstrong was ready for dinner, his meal would come in a pre-portioned tray, marked by the day of the mission and the meal. Now, astronauts are afforded much more freedom in their food choices.

Before they begin their missions, astronauts take a trip to the NASA Space Food Systems test kitchen. Here, they can taste-test new recipes and plan out their menu for the duration of their time in space. Many of the options that are available are the same brands you would find in a supermarket on Earth (though some foods are dehydrated or sent to space in sealed pouches). Astronauts are also given the opportunity to take food that is traditional to their respective cultures—so, it’s typical aboard the ISS to have Japanese cuisine or Russian-brand chocolate bars in the food pantry. These tastes of home bring a sense of comfort and connection to astronauts aboard the ISS, said space history curator Jennifer Levasseur.

Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford juggles some tomatoes from a resupply spacecraft while aboard the ISS, 2013.

Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford juggles some tomatoes from of a food and supply package sent to the ISS by the SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft, 2013. 

There are notable differences between making one’s lunch on Earth and in space, which makes for some creative meal planning. One major hurdle is leaving behind crumbs. Foods that crumble easily are “potentially bad news for the spacecraft,” Levasseur said, as pieces can fly off and get wedged in any one of the small, intricate pieces of technology that keep the ISS running.

Your sense of taste changes in space, too. Instead of Earth’s gravity pulling your body’s fluids down as your heart pumps, blood flows evenly through the torso and head while floating in space. Astronauts report feeling congested, similar to a head cold, which makes everything taste a little blander in space. As a result, many astronauts look for ways to prepare food that’s self-contained, won’t break apart, and has a little extra flavor. 

Astronauts typically turn to tortillas as a substitute for bread, because it doesn’t leave crumbs behind when you bite into it. So, tortillas can be used for any number of creative uses: breakfast burritos or peanut butter and jelly wraps, for example, are popular workarounds. While aboard the ISS in 2015,  American astronaut Terry Virts created his own “space cheeseburger” on a tortilla wrap, made of beef paddies, cheese, tomato paste, and Russian mustard.

Astronaut Sandra Magnus poses for a photo with a tortilla sandwich which she prepared aboard the ISS.

Astronaut Sandra Magnus, Expedition 18 flight engineer, poses for a photo with food which she prepared at the galley in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station, 2009. 

Other staples in the ISS food pantry? Salt and pepper—which both come in a gel form aboard the ISS—and hot sauce, which add a little bit of flavor to the bland-tasting food in space. In fact, when Peggy Whitson was sent a care package from home during her time as the commander of the International Space Station, the most coveted item included was the hot sauce.

So, when you’re assembling your leftover Thanksgiving treats this weekend, take a bit of inspiration from the culinary creatives aboard the ISS—add some unexpected spice and watch out for the crumbs. 

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