An Amazing Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner: Turkey and Gravy Made Space History – NASA

On Christmas Day 1968, the three-man Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders found a surprise in their food locker: a specially packaged Christmas dinner wrapped in foil and decorated red and green ribbons. Something as simple as a home-cooked meal, or as close as NASA can get to a spaceflight at the time, greatly boosts the crew’s morale and appetite. More importantly, the meal marks a turning point in the history of food in space.

On their way to the Moon, the Apollo 8 crew wasn’t very hungry. Food scientist Malcolm Smith later documented how little the crew ate. Borman ate the least of the three, eating only 881 calories on the second day, which worried flight surgeon Chuck Berry. Most of the food, Borman later explained, was not tasty. The crew ate some of the compressed, bite-sized items, and when they rehydrated their meals, the food took on the flavor of their wrappings instead of the actual food in the container. If that doesn’t sound like a heartening endorsement, it isn’t, he told the audience watching the Apollo 8 crew in space before their amazing meal. As Anders shows television viewers how astronauts prepare food and eat in space, Borman announces his wish, that people back on Earth have a better Christmas dinner than food for the flight crew that day.1

Frank Borman

Apollo 8 Astronauts

During the 1960s, there were many complaints about the food from astronauts and others who worked at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now NASAs Johnson Space Center). After evaluating the food the Apollo 8 crew would eat aboard their upcoming flight, Apollo 9 astronaut Jim McDivitt wrote a note in the food lab about his flight preferences. Using the back of the Apollo 8 crew menu, he instructed them to reduce the number of compressed size items to a minimum and include more meat and potato items. I’m very hungry, he wrote, and I’m afraid I’ll starve to death on that menu.2

In 1969, Rita Rapp, a physiologist who headed the Apollo Food System team, asked Donald Arabian, head of the Mission Evaluation Room, to evaluate the four-day supply of food used for the Apollo missions. The Arabian describes himself as a man who will eat almost anything. you might say [I am] it looks like a human garbage can. But even he found that the food lacked the taste, aroma, appearance, texture, and taste that he was used to. At the end of his four-day evaluation he concluded that the pleasures of food had disappeared to the point where interest in food was inhibited.3

Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman agreed to watch the Arabians eat the food on Apollo. The one thing Borman enjoys? It was the stuff of Christmas dinner wrapped in ribbons: turkey and gravy. The Christmas dinner was so good that the crew contacted Houston to let them know their good fortune. It appears we have done the food people a great injustice, Lovell told capsule communicator (CAPCOM) Mike Collins. After our TV show, Santa Claus brought us a TV dinner each; very tasty. Turkey and gravy, cranberry sauce, grape punch; [it was] amazing In response, Collins expressed happiness at hearing the good news but shared that the flight control team was not so lucky. Instead, they eat cold coffee and baloney sandwiches.4

The food on Apollo 8 was a success. Until that mission, food options for the Apollo crew were limited to freeze-dried foods that had to be rehydrated before consumption, and ready-to-eat foods. compressed foods are formed into cubes. Most food in space is highly processed. In this mission NASA introduced the wetpack: a thermostabilized package of turkey and gravy that retains its normal water content and can be eaten with a spoon. Astronauts consumed thermostabilized pureed food on the Project Mercury missions in the early 1960s, but without a chunk of meat like turkey. For the Project Gemini and Apollo 7 spaceflights, astronauts used their fingers to pop small cubes of food into their mouths and zero-G feeder tubes to eat rehydrated food. The inclusion of a wetpack for the Apollo 8 crew was years in the making. The US Army Natick Labs in Massachusetts developed the packaging, and the US Air Force conducted several parabolic flights to test food from the package using a spoon.5

Smith calls food a true morale booster. He notes several reasons for its appeal: the new packaging allows astronauts to see and smell the turkey and gravy; the texture and flavor of the meat is not changed by the addition of water from the spacecraft or the rehydration process; and finally, the crew does not have to go through the process of adding water, kneading the package, and then waiting to eat their food. Smith concluded that the Christmas dinner shows the importance of the methods of presenting and serving the food. Eating from a spoon instead of a zero-G feeder improves the inflight feeding experience, mimicking the way people eat on Earth: using utensils, not squirting pureed food out of a pouch. into their mouths. Using a spoon also made eating and preparing food easier. NASA added several wetpacks to Apollo 9, and the crew experimented with eating other foods, including a rehydrated food item, with a spoon.6

Food was one of the few creature comforts of the Apollo 8 flight crew, and this meal demonstrates the psychological importance of smelling, tasting, and seeing the turkey before eating their meal, something that missing the first four. days of flight. The sight of delicious food induces hunger and encourages eating. In other words, if the food looks and smells good, then it must taste good. Little things like this development of the Apollo Food System made a big difference to the crew who just wanted some of the same dining experiences in orbit and on the Moon that they enjoyed on Earth.


[1] Apollo 8 Mission Commentary, Dec. 25, 1968, p. 543,; Apollo 8 Technical Debriefing, Jan. 2, 1969, 078-15, Apollo Series, University of Houston-Clear Lake, Houston, Texas (hereafter UHCL); Malcolm C. Smith to Director of Medical Research and Operations, Nutrient consumption on Apollo VII and VIII, Jan. 13, 1969, Rita Rapp Papers, Box 1, UHCL.

[2] Jim McDivitt food evaluation form, n.d., Box 17, Rapp Papers, UHCL.

[3] Donald Arabian to Rapp, Evaluation of four-day food supply, May 8, 1969, Box 17, Rapp Papers, UHCL.

[4] Apollo 8 Mission Commentary, Dec. 25, 1968, p. 545.

[5] Malcolm Smith, The Apollo Food Program, in Aerospace Food Technology, NASA SP-202 (Washington, DC: 1970), pp. 58; Whirlpool Corporation, Space Food Systems: Mercury to Apollo, Dec. 1970, Box 9, Rapp Papers, UHCL.

[6] Smith, The Apollo Food Program, pp. 78; Smith to the Record, Christmas Dinner for Apollo VIII, Jan. 10, 1969, Box 1, Rapp Papers, UHCL; Smith et al., Apollo Food Technology, at Apollo Biomedical Results, NASA SP-368 (Washington, DC: NASA, 1975), p. 456.

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