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The Woman Who Got Real Food to Space

Posted on Mon, April 9, 2018
  • by: Matthew Sanders Space History Researcher
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Rita Rapp, the scientist who packed lunches for 230,000 miles.

Rita Rapp displays the range of food containers used on the Apollo 16 mission

Rita Rapp displays the range of food containers used on the Apollo 16 mission. Credit: NASA

Astronauts have always been one of the most fragile parts of the human space flight program and a significant portion of NASA’s research and efforts went into maintaining their function. Scientist Rita M. Rapp spent her entire career ensuring that the astronauts’ bodies, and stomachs, were in good working order. As head of the Apollo Food System team, she not only provided the means of getting food to space, but helped the astronauts make sure they found something worth eating when they got there.

Rapp was born in Piqua, Ohio, on June 25, 1928. After earning a bachelor’s in science from the University of Dayton in 1950 and a master’s in anatomy from the St. Louis University Graduate School of Medicine in 1953 (which had only just started admitting women a few years before Rapp enrolled), she quickly took a position at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in their Aeromedical laboratories. As a physiologist, her first assignments were assessing the effects of high g-forces on the human body, especially the blood and renal systems.

“I like to feed them what they like, because I want them healthy and happy.”

In the early 1960s, when the Mercury 7 were beginning training for the first American spaceflights, Rapp joined the NASA Space Task Force and continued her work on centrifugal affects. She said, “…they would go to … the School of Aerospace Medicine, for their annual physical and then they’d see me. They knew what was going to happen. They knew I was going to puncture them, bleed them about every four hours around the clock.” Her early work would leave the astronauts equally sore, as she designed the first elastic exercisers for Mercury and Gemini missions for experiments in orbital exertion. Other tasks included devising biological experiments to carry aboard the crafts and the development of the Gemini medical kit.

Rita Rapp explains a rehydratable food package to visitors.

Rita Rapp explains a rehydratable food package to visitors. Credit: The Piqua Public Library Archives and Special Collections

A broken leg kept Rita Rapp from witnessing Alan Shepard’s launch, but it was the only liftoff she would miss before the Shuttle era. When the Apollo program began, Rapp joined the Apollo Food Systems team. She would continue to work space health and hygiene projects, but her primary focus was food stowage. One of the team’s goals was to turn space food from “cubes and tubes” into something that an astronaut could eat in a conventional, earthbound way. Rapp and her team worked with the Whirlpool Corporation to redefine how space food was packaged and prepared, leading to the spoon bowls and eventually thermostabilized food they would eat out of a can. Rapp viewed food as part of “the hardware” for the mission, and it was her job to make sure it was on board the spacecraft.”

“Somehow – I’m not sure how – I got into food,” Rapp once said. Fortuitously, she became the main interface between the food lab and the astronauts themselves. She told one interviewer from the Los Angeles Times, “I like to feed them what they like, because I want them healthy and happy.” Noting the astronauts’ preferences, Rapp, along with division head and nutritionist Dr. Malcom Smith, developed menus to meet their needs, often devising new recipes. When astronaut Charlie Duke wanted a serving of grits to take along, he recalled, “… it took her two or three iterations… By the time we got ready to fly, they were pretty good, so I ate all mine.” She also took charge of organizing food for the astronauts at the Cape prior to their launches and was known for spending the first half-day or so in the kitchen making massive piles of sugar cookies.

Rita Rapp carefully stows a bag of frankfurters besides labeled meal packages.

Rita Rapp uses an Apollo water gun to fill a rehydratable food packet for a press demonstration prior to Apollo 7’s launch. Credit The Piqua Public Library Archives and Special Collections

By the start of Skylab, Rapp’s food team grew from seven to more than 30, creating new solutions for the long-duration missions. Her famous sugar cookies were used like currency among the crews on the station, according to some Skylab astronauts. Rapp would continue to innovate the NASA food system for the Shuttle missions and was remembered fondly by every generation of the astronaut corps. Beyond their personal appreciation, she authored or co-authored over 20 technical papers on space medicine and was awarded numerous commendations for her work, including the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. Rita Rapp died July 12, 1989, until her final years a respected member of the astronauts’ team. A plaque in her honor hangs at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

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