From Kolbasa to Grits: What's for Dinner in Space? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

From Kolbasa to Grits: What's for Dinner in Space?

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Packets of food to be eaten in space
I don't believe it. GagH for breakfast, gagH for lunch, gagH for dinner. Am I the only one who thinks Klingon menus need to have more variety?
- Quark, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

For millennia, humans have dreamed of entering space. Now, they can. One of the first questions after, 'How do we get there?', 'How do we avoid dying for lack of air?', and 'How do we avoid running into the bulkhead in microgravity?' is, 'What can we eat?' Humans need food. Frankly, there's sort of a dearth of foraging opportunities in space, and even McDonald's hasn't managed to set up an orbital franchise yet. What to do?

In 1961, the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, had his priorities straight. His last words before making spaceflight history were, 'The main thing is that there is kolbasa (sausage)...' Gagarin wasn't planning to eat during his 108-minute flight. He needed the rations for his return trip to Moscow after landing1. So his spacesuit pockets were stuffed with ordinary Russian food, including that all-important kolbasa. Basically, the first space food was a brown-bag operation.

Since Gagarin's historic first flight, humanity has hit a good few milestones on its star trek, including landing people on the Moon, sending chatty robots to Mars, and even parking a probe on a comet. Humans regularly reside in orbit aboard the International Space Station. The probes and robots don't need fruits, veggies and the occasional sausage, but the human crewmembers do. For that reason, culinary research has attempted to keep pace with humankind's drive to seek out new worlds without going hungry.

Primitive Space Food

Quark: I'm not trying to rescue you, I'm taking you along as emergency rations. If you die, I'm gonna eat you.
Odo: You're joking.
Quark: Waste not... want not.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Early Mercury flights were short, so astronauts could wait for re-entry before demanding lunch. But staying out there longer required sustenance, and this created logistics problems. How to keep dinner from floating around the cabin? John Glenn added to his list of accomplishments by becoming the first American to eat in space2. He would probably have preferred to forgo the honour: early space food was unappetising. It consisted of semi-liquids that had to be squeezed out of tubes, and desiccated cubes moistened by astronaut saliva. Freeze-dried wouldn't work – too messy, and you couldn't have stray crumbs getting into the sensitive equipment. The stuff tasted so bad, the astronauts might have voted for Klingon gagH, just for the variety.

Astronauts complained, and NASA listened. Gemini's rations represented an improvement. They discarded the nasty squeeze tubes, coated the food cubes with gelatin to keep crumbs from escaping, and put freeze-dried food in handy plastic containers. Crewmembers could choose their own meal combinations, resulting in happier spacefarers. They could select such goodies as shrimp cocktail, chicken and vegetables, butterscotch pudding, and apple sauce. Everything goes better with apple sauce.

During the Apollo program, space cuisine took a giant leap: the astronauts got hot water. This made their reconstituted meals taste a lot better. They also benefitted from a nifty new invention called the 'spoon bowl'. When the crew of Apollo 8 enjoyed their Christmas dinner in lunar orbit in 1968, they also became the first humans to use an eating utensil in space. This may have annoyed NASA nutritionists and mission specialists – producing the turkey dinner took up precious cargo space and required extra research – but it was crucial to the future of space exploration. Why? Astronaut anorexia.

What it boiled down to was this: astronauts were heroes, sure, but even heroes get the blues. And space food was depressing – so depressing, in fact, that crews became reluctant to eat. Ground support realised that not only was this not fair, but the astronauts' bad moods had a negative impact on their performance. Meals were more than a question of optimal nutrition – after all, Glenn, Lovell and Armstrong were not Lt Cmdr Data3 – but also of morale. Food got better, as top minds were put to work. If even as simple an act as using a spoon to eat with improved astronaut morale, what else could they do? Christmas fruitcake cheered them up.

Apollo astronauts experienced space civilisation in the form of food trays. It wasn't Ten Forward4, but it was a start. Eating became less of a chore.

The Tang Question

Connie: I think I'll have some Tang.
Prymatt Conehead: Ah Tang, the drink astronauts took to the Moon.
Beldar Conehead: Astronauts to the Moon?
[Beldar and Prymatt laugh]
- Coneheads.

Tang, the drink of astronauts. Many people believe that NASA invented Tang, the powdered breakfast drink with added vitamins and minerals. NASA did no such thing, although John Glenn no doubt appreciated the way the orange-flavoured beverage improved the taste of the water. Tang was invented for General Foods by a chemist, William A Mitchell, in the 1950s. Tang became popular when General Foods advertised it as the drink of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts. Children stoutly demanded this 'warrior's drink', hoping to grow up to become space travellers.

A few stray facts about Tang:

  • Tang's inventor also created Cool Whip, a popular American dessert topping.
  • Tang may, or may not, have gone to the Moon. The astronauts weren't sure because the containers were labelled 'Orange Ade'.
  • Tang can be used as a component in homemade explosives. This is not an advisable practice, and we are sure the astronauts would not approve – but if they ever get stuck behind a recalcitrant bulkhead without a working phaser, it might be a good thing to know.

From Sausage to Grits

An astronaut juggling fruit on the International Space Station
Tommy: What do you think it's trying to tell us?
Sally: What scares me the most are the little orange things in its stomach.

- The Solomons, studying a lime jelly5 on Third Rock from the Sun.

The joint US/USSR efforts introduced American astronauts to exotic dishes (to them), such as Riga bread and borscht. The Soviets probably thought US food was different, too. In the 21st Century, crews aboard the International Space Station enjoy a wide variety of Earth cuisines, whatever the food chemists can provide that won't endanger the station's machinery or atmosphere. It took years and three research teams, but they managed to satisfy Korean astronaut Yi So-Yeon's hunger for kimchi aboard the ISS.

Other astronauts have enjoyed:

US NASA fans are always curious about the Thanksgiving menu aboard the ISS. In 2014, Commander Butch Wilmore shared his meal choices with the world. Commander Wilmore, a native of Tennessee, rejoiced in his favourite items: sweetened iced tea and grits8 with butter.

'You don't get no better than grits'n'butter,' asserted Wilmore.

Yuri Gagarin might have insisted on kolbasa, and asked them to pass the borscht.

Image credit: NASA
1Gagarin was used to roughing it. The Cosmodrome was in Kazakhstan. Of its location, Anastasia Osipova said in 2012, 'It might not have been the end of the world, but we could see it from here.'2Gherman Titov of the Soviet Union had already proven that it was possible to swallow food while weightless.3Android officer of Star Trek: The Next Generation who does not need to consume food or imbibe fluids.4For non-fans of Star Trek: Ten Forward is the bar and eatery aboard the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation.5In the US, jelly is called 'Jello'. The Solomons are aliens disguised as humans living in Ohio.6Reindeer jerky was not allowed, much to the disappointment of Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang. It was too close to Christmas and the idea of eating a reindeer would have made the American astronauts sad.7Once they solved the belching issues.8Ground hominy (from maize).

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