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!


The First Man Into Space

Yuri Gagarin was short man with a big smile.  He was born in Klushino, a village about 140 miles west of Moscow, in March of 1934. His parents worked on a collective farm, his father as a carpenter and bricklayer and his mother as a milkmaid. The family survived the German occupation that began in November of 1941, living for 21 months in a mud hut behind their house, which had been occupied by a German officer.

When he was 16, Gagarin became an apprentice foundryman at a steel plant near Moscow, while continuing to take classes. He learned to fly while working at the Saratov Industrial Technical school.  After graduation, he was drafted by the Soviet Army and sent to Orenburg for training in the MiG-15. By November of 1959, he had been promoted to Senior Lieutenant.

Gagarin on a visit to Sweden in October 1964. Courtesy SAS Scandinavian Airlines

Gagarin was chosen for the Soviet space program in 1960.  He and 19 others underwent physical testing and training similar to the Mercury 7, but unlike the Americans, it was all conducted in strict secrecy.

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human being in space and the first to orbit the Earth. The flight of Vostok 1 began just after nine in the morning local time on April 12, 1961. “Let’s roll,” he told controllers after liftoff. It would take ten minutes for the Vostok to reach orbit and loft Gagarin into the history books. He would circle the Earth once in a flight that lasted 108 minutes. As he crossed the coast of Africa, his retrorockets fired, bringing him down in a rocky reentry caused in part when the equipment module didn’t separate cleanly from the descent module.

Courtesy Reubenbarton / Wikimedia Commons.

At about 23,000 feet, Gagarin ejected from the Vostok as planned and he parachuted safely to the ground. After landing, he told a startled farmer not to be afraid, and that he needed to find a telephone to call Moscow.

It was only after Gagarin was safely in orbit that the Soviet’s announced the mission publicly.

Gagarin on the cover of Time’s April. 21, 1961 issue. Courtesy Time Magazine.

After returning safely to Earth, Gagarin became an international celebrity, touring the world to celebrate the Soviet accomplishment. But, much like John Glenn, the Soviets wanted to keep Gagarin out of harm’s way. He was the backup pilot to Vladimir Komarov on the first flight of the Soyuz spacecraft in April of 1967. The flight completed 18 orbits in just under 27 hours, but with a series of technical problems that forced controllers to abort the mission. After re-entering the atmosphere, the main parachute and the reserve parachutes both failed, and Komarov began the first in-flight casualty of the Space Race when the Soyuz capsule crashed to the ground. After that Gagarin was banned from participating directly in the Soviet space program. He became the deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre, which was later renamed in his honor.

Less than a year later, Gagarin was killed in what was called a routine training flight in March of 1968. The cause of the crash of the Mig-15UTI was investigated several times, but there’s never been a definitive answer to what caused the crash.

Gagarin’s Vostok 1 Capsule on display at the RKK Energiya Museum near Moscow. Photo courtesy SiefkinDR/Wikimedia Commons.