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

Author: Michael W. Bay

Michael is a geek. He likes smart science-fiction, good coffee, playing the bass guitar, making up songs in the shower, cats and dogs and a nice, long Stephen King novel.

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