The In-Flight Menu: Food in the Space Race

An excerpt from Before This Decade is Out

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in orbit, and the first man to attempt eating and drinking in space. Soviet and American doctors weren’t sure if it could even be done, so it was a priority to find out as soon as possible. During his flight, Gagarin sampled from a toothpaste-style tube containing meat paste and one containing chocolate sauce. Other foods used in the early Soviet missions included soups, cottage cheese and coffee, all of which were stored in the tube containers.

John Glenn became the first American to eat in space. He, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper were treated to an unappetizing diet consisting of pureed foods sucked with a straw out of aluminum tubes. They proved that humans could chew and swallow, as well as drink, while in orbit. The menu included things like apple sauce and pureed beef and vegetables.  There were also cubes of dehydrated foods packed in plastic. These would be rehydrated as they were chewed.

For the longer duration Gemini missions, NASA introduced freeze-dried, pre-cooked foods. These were usually coated with oil or gelatin to prevent crumbling and packed in a thick plastic bag with a valve for water at one end. Cold water from the spacecraft was used to rehydrate the food for consumption and the bag would be cut open with scissors. The menu included shrimp cocktail, beef stew, chicken and rice, and turkey with gravy. Fruit flavored drinks and cocoa were available Three meals were provided per day and the menu was repeated every four days. One example breakfast meal included peaches, bacon squares, cinnamon toast bread cubes, grape drink, and orange drink.[1] Each day, the diet provided for 2,500 calories.

Things improved on Apollo. The meal plan provided the astronauts with 2,800 calories per day. The variety of freeze-dried foods increased. The Command Module provided hot water as well as cold. The packaging was easier to open and the food could be eaten with a spoon. In addition, food could also be stored in Wet Packs that didn’t need to be rehydrated. The selection of drinks expanded to include coffee, tea and lemonade. Over the course of the program, the astronauts were given more freedom to choose their own meals. New items were added to the menus, including hot dogs and ham. Free flowing salt and pepper would have created a terrible mess, so liquid alternatives were provided. If the Command Module was depressurized for any reason, the astronauts would be able to eat liquid foods through a port built into their helmets.

For the cosmonauts, the tubes remained in use but were bolstered can canned foods and foods contained in plastic pouches. Bread was baked in one-bite rolls to prevent crumbs. Meat, including veal, ham, and steak was prepared just before launch. The Soviets didn’t begin experimenting with dehydrated foods until 1974 aboard Salyut 3.[2] The Soviets also allowed cosmonauts small rations of vodka and brandy.

Oh, before I forget. Two notes about famous space foods.

John Glenn did drink Tang on his orbital mission. It was also carried aboard some Gemini flights. It was not, however, created by or for NASA. William Mitchell created it for General Foods, who began marketing it in 1957. Mitchell is the same clever guy who gave us Cool Whip and Pop Rocks candy.

And that freeze-dried Astronaut Ice Cream people loved to buy at souvenir stores? NASA had mistakenly included it on a list of foods aboard the Apollo 7 mission, but it didn’t actually make the cut. Because of its crumbly nature, it would have created too much of a mess in microgravity.


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/143163main_Space.Food.and.Nutrition.pdf

[2] Comparison Of Soviet And U.S. Space Food And Nutrition Programs, Page 1-8, https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19890010688.pdf

Writing Space History – Part I

I am wrapping up my first week of working full time on a book I’m called “Before This Decade Is Out.” It’s a history of the Space Race, of the American Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; the Soviet Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz missions; and the memories of the people who worked on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center. As I prepared to publish my father’s memoirs, I realized that there were thousands of other people with their own perspective of life at the Cape. I’ve read the books about and by the astronauts and other key figures, but I wanted to know more about what the grunts doing the work on the ground to make the programs a success.

John Glenn boarding Friendship 7 before becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.

Hence, the new book. I’m seeking out those eyewitnesses who are still with us to find out what their experiences were from the time. I’ve had to figure out how best to record telephone or video chats (OBS Studio is my friend), and how to efficiently transcribe them. While I’m searching for more interviews, I’ve created the basic structure of the book. It’s organized chronologically, with a series of entries about the missions, the astronauts and the key events that took place from 1958 to 1973.

Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon orbiting the moon aboard the Yankee Clipper.

Writing history requires accurate sources, and here I’m eternally grateful to the work of the early NASA historians, whose comprehensive works are available online. Other sources were written by historians or the participants themselves. Notable among them so far is flight controller Gene Kranz’s autobiography Failure Is Not an Option, Andrew Chaikan’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, and Moon Shot, which includes memories from astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. The writing requires a measure of precision. Not all of the sources agree on the details, which becomes a distraction and requires additional research. Finding just the right words to explain concepts, like orbital maneuvering, takes time and requires frequent rewrites.

The ascent stage of a Lunar Module being prepared for flight.

The first draft is going to take at least several more weeks, but this is a passion project for me. And when all is said and done, I hope you’ll enjoy the amazing story I’m trying to tell!


Big Rockets, Bigger Building

It is one of the enduring symbols of the U.S. Space Program, clearly visible from miles away as you approach the Kennedy Space Center. It’s the Vehicle Assembly Building, commonly known as the VAB, of of the largest buildings in the world. In the decades since it was built, it housed the enormous Saturn V, the Space Shuttles and soon, the Space Launch System.

The VAB was necessary because of the size of the Saturn V and the complex work necessary to put the elements of an Apollo mission together. Designed by Morrison-Knudsen, construction began in August of 1963. More than four thousand pilings were driven into the Florida bedrock, and 30,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured to create the foundation.

The massive facility was completed in 1965. It stands 526 feet tall and covers eight acres. The doors on each side are the largest in the world, at 456 feet high, and taken 45 minutes to completely open or close. They lead to the four high bays, where the Saturn V could be erected.

Apollo 14 rolls out of the VAB, headed for Pad 39A, on November 9, 1970.

Humidity can be a serious problem, so the building has a massive air conditioning system. Because the inside of the building is so large, rain clouds can actually form just below the ceiling on human days. And those big, flat walls had to be reinforced against wind, especially the powerful winds generated by hurricanes. The building was designed to withstand winds of up to 120 miles an hour.

The first stage of Apollo 8 inside the VAB on February 1st, 1968.

“I’d never seen a building that big before,” my father tells me. “The Lunar Module team had an office on the 14th or 15th floor. Windows in the office looked out over the interior, including the ground far below. I tried to keep my distance from the windows; they made me real nervous.”

Mating the Apollo 8 Command and Service module to the top of the Saturn V stack. October 1, 1968.

To accomplish the task of building the Saturn V, the building had 71 cranes and hoists, including two 250-ton bridge cranes. The VAB is 3.5 miles from Launch Pad 39A and 4.2 miles from Launch Pad 39B.  The trip aboard one of the two crawler-transports would take up to five hours.

After Skylab, the VAB was renovated to handle operations on the Space Shuttle. These days, it’s providing a home for the new Space Launch System.

For more on the effort to achieve John F. Kennedy’s challenge of putting a man on the moon, please check out my father’s memoirs. Missile Man: One Man’s Memories of Life on the Front Lines of the Space Race is now for sale on Amazon.com. The Kindle Edition is available now, and a Print-On-Demand version is coming soon.