Meet the Scientist Who Takes Vacations on the International Space Station

Planning holiday meals is very difficult on Earth. In space, it requires a Noma-level of preparation from groups of scientists determined to give astronauts something special. And it’s not just the challenge of making food that survives the journey, but all sorts of logistical issues unique to eating in a weightless state. For example, common Christmas cookies and any other food that creates crumbs can create a disaster on the International Space Station (ISS) because of the highly sensitive equipment on board. As a result, the biscuits at the station were too small to eat in one bite, and the other, larger desserts had to be gooey or wet. Most space foods also need to be shelf-stable, safe to eat months after birth, and packaged in a way that creates as little mess as possible.

Thinking of the coordination and strategy behind the challenges is the job of Kimberly Glaus Lte and her team. Lte is a scientist at Leidos, a NASA contractor that works with the NASA Space Food Systems Laboratory (SFSL) to prepare and package food holidays and otherwise for the space station crew. We asked Lte what’s on the menu aboard the ISS this holiday season, how meals are prepared for dining in space, and what kind of dietary restrictions can be accommodated 250 miles above. Earth.

Eater: First, can you walk us through the challenges of making food for use in space? What is the process of preparing space-worthy food from bread to package?

Kimberly Glaus Lte: Shelf-stable, ready-to-eat foods such as cookies, crackers, and trail mix are purchased commercially and repackaged in aviation-approved packaging materials. Beverage powders are purchased, packed in pouches and vacuum sealed with a septum assembly, which allows water to be added without leaking. Crew members shake the pouch to dissolve the powder, then drink the drink using a special straw.

The purchased ingredients are used to prepare foods, which are then freeze-dried or thermostabilized. Foods that have been frozen should be rehydrated before eating. They are vacuum packed with a septum assembly to allow water to be added to fully rehydrate the food before the crew cuts open the package and eats. Thermostabilized foods are ready to eat and can be reheated or eaten at room temperature.

What holiday meals will the ISS crew have this year?

The standard menu includes two sliced ​​roasted turkey (a freeze-dried item, rehydrated by the crew member) and smoked turkey (an irradiated ready-to-eat product), plus mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts , macaroni and cheese, green beans, and cranapple dessert. The SFSL team also prepared a special container of holiday foods that included canned crab meat, smoked salmon, pork liver pate, jellied cranberry sauce and pumpkin spice latte. The food was delivered in November.

The debris could be dangerous to the space station. How can desserts like cookies be modified to be more ISS-friendly (and less messy)?

Biscuits and snacks on the standard menu are standard sizes. Non-bite-sized items are chewy or sticky, which limits the crumbs generated. Lemon curd cake and chocolate pudding cake are thermostabilized, pouched foods (like ready-to-eat chicken and tuna found in grocery stores). Both cakes are moist and do not form crumbs. To give the crew a holiday experience, icing tubes were provided for decorating the cookies.

Do international crews usually get together for holiday celebrations, regardless of background?

The orbiting crew gathered for celebrations and special meals.

As Christmas approaches, will the ISS crew receive food-based gifts from their loved ones still on Earth? How does that work?

The crew members of the space station received care packages containing foods chosen by their families. The SFSL team provides input to ensure that selected items are crumb-free and shelf-stable.

Do any astronauts have dietary restrictions or preferences? Can you eat specific foods?

The standard space station menu is sent to the crew first and is designed to be accepted by the general population. Because it must be sent forward, it cannot accommodate individual restrictions or choices. The ISS crew will get some individual choices in a limited number of personal-preference allocations for supply schedules, but this will not be possible on future exploration missions farther from Earth.

Are there special health concerns to consider when making foods to eat in space? For example, does the crew need more nutrients than they can handle here? Do they need supplements?

The SFSL team prepared food using non-iodized salt, as iodine can cause thyroid issues for the crew. Too much iron is also a concern. Foods for spaceflight have reduced sodium compared to most commercially processed foods to prevent aggravation of spaceflight conditions such as bone loss or intraocular pressure issues. Crew members are individually paired with a flight surgeon, collaboratively assessing the need for any supplements.

Are there junk foods/snack foods sent?

Snacks on the standard menu tend to be healthy, such as dried fruit, trail mix, and nuts. Three types of candy-coated chocolates are on the standard menu. In addition, the crew chooses their favorite snacks and candy to include in their crew favorite containers. About 20-25% of the meals are personal preferences or special items that can be accommodated in the ISS resupply schedule.

What drinks do they have? Is everything but water dehydrated?

Each crew member is allocated five coffee/tea preference containers as part of their personal preference allotment. The SFSL team works with the crew to select the powdered coffee, tea or other beverage they want to put in the beverage pouch. This allows the crew to drink their caffeinated drinks the way they would at home. You cannot add sweetener or cream to a beverage pouch on-orbit; all components must be included when they are packaged. There are also containers with drinks such as cocoa, orange drink, mango-peach smoothie and other drinks. The standard menu does not include alcoholic beverages.

Is fresh food delivered?

Fresh food kits, shelf-stable food kits, and cold stowage kits will be sent to each cargo vehicle, upmass availability permit. Fresh food kits usually include apples, oranges, and other items requested by the crew. Shelf-stable kits contain food products that are stored at room temperature and include special requests. Cold-stowage food kits contain perishable items such as cheese.

I hear the pizza kits are a welcome treat. How does it work?

Pizza kits are a special treat and include shelf-stable pizza crust, pizza sauce in a squeezable plastic bottle, pepperoni, and other shelf-stable toppings. These ingredients still have a limited shelf life and are only possible due to the supply and short distance between Earth and ISS. Pizza is a fun reminder of home.

Kathy Adams is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer with a passion for offbeat topics. His work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, USA TodaySFGate, etc.


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