Eating is one of life's most important activities, and the same applies in space. Every astronaut eats three times a day, and yesterday for lunch, Adam and I had space food. It was awesome.
So how did everything taste? On the whole, surprisingly good! But before we delve into our detailed taste test, a word about what we were eating. I spoke to Vickie Kloeris, the Subsystem Manager for Shuttle and ISS Food Systems—NASA's head chef—and she walked me through exactly what goes into the vittles consumed in orbit by our astronauts.
Essentially, NASA does exactly what the army does with its MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), with a few exceptions: MREs are designed to keep an 18- to 22-year-old, extremely active soldier fueled and ready, whereas space food must be nutritionally tailored to older and less-active adults, so in general, space food is lower in fat, calories and salt.
For space food, the main criteria are spoilage resistance, easy preparation and consumption in microgravity (ie no potato chips), plus storage-space considerations. There are five classifications of space foods: rehydrateable (just add water), thermostabilized (already wet, heat in its metallic/plastic pouch and eat), irradiated (cooked irradiated meats ready to eat), intermediate moisture (meaning dried fruits, jerky, and such) and natural form (better known as junk food—ready to eat without any prep or storage concerns).
On the Space Station, there is a food prep area in the Russian half that has a fold-down dining table along with food package heaters. But soon, as the station is expanded to accommodate a crew of six later this month, a second, smaller food prep area will be added—this time equipped with a chiller, which is a first for the station—refrigeration specifically for food products. Cold drinks in space!
Vickie was kind enough to ship out a batch of goodies that didn't make it into orbit from the last ISS mission, and we dined on them for lunch. We didn't have a specialized thermostabilized pouch heater—and you can't microwave these puppies—so we just dunked them in boiling water for a while until they heated through. We made it through six courses including dessert:
Here, our menu in detail:
First Course: Southwestern Corn, Potato Medley
While it may have looked a little rough in the thermostabilized packet, corn was actually pretty tasty, and had the correct consistency. The Southwest was apparently represented by flecks of red and green pepper and a mild spiciness.
But the potato medley—oh the potato medley. Don't know what to say—there was a really strange chemical bitterness, from where it came I do not know. But not good.
Rating: Two Stars
Second Course: Breakfast Sausage Links, Curry Sauce w/ Vegetables
Awesome. Fingering pork sausage links inside a packet is not super pleasant, let me tell you, but out of the packet they were perfectly edible—fairly salty and a little stringy and dry, but with good taste. And dipped in the curry sauce? Yes. Sausages and curry go incredibly well together here on earth, and in space it's no different.
Rating: Four Stars
Third Course: Beef Enchiladas, Baked Beans, Tortillas
Wow. Delicious. As the busted enchiladas slid out of the packet, we were scared. But the flavor was right on—equal to if not better than any frozen enchilada you can get at the store. And the baked beans—oh my—Adam had three helpings. Taste was great, consistency perfect—and wrapped in a tortilla, which Kloeris says is one of the most versatile space foods (understandable), the combination was fantastic. I could fuel my spacewalks with this combo for months.
Rating: Five Stars
Fourth Course: Chicken Teriyaki, Creamed Spinach
Yikes. As you saw in the video, the chicken teriyaki was nasty. I don't know if we got a bad pouch or what, but the chicken was mushy to the point of being hardly recognizable as chicken. And the smell. Oh the smell. Not sure what went wrong here, but this was more akin to dog food than teriyaki. AVOID!
As for the creamed spinach, that was our only freeze-dried food item. In space, you would use the small tube opening to inject hot water with a syringe and smush it around in the package until it was done, but we reconstituted it in a bowl, and it came out alright. Kind of bland, but edible. We didn't spend long on it though because we wanted that chicken teriyaki out of our sight as soon as possible.
Rating: Zero Stars
Fifth Course: Chicken w/ Peanut Sauce, Green Beans w/ Potatoes
Definitely an improvement. The chicken here was in more recognizable texture and shape, and the peanut sauce, while not particularly delicious, was certainly more edible than the teriyaki sauce. And the green beans and potatoes were pretty much the same as your typical canned fare, so not bad at all.
Rating: Three stars
Dessert: Brownies, Cocoa, Kona Coffee
The brownies were basically Little Debbie brownies—in fact, they may have been exactly that, as NASA does purchase off-the-shelf snacks to send up after they're evaluated and repackaged. And the drinks were essentially the same as their earthly equivalents—only in space, you rehydrate with the same syringe-in-bag technique. Both were tasty.
Rating: Four Stars
You may be surprised to see no freeze-dried ice cream here for dessert—the item most commonly associated with "space food." Well, that's because actual freeze-dried ice cream was only eaten on one Apollo mission—its flavor is just too unlike ice cream to be enjoyed, and its excessive crumbliness made it especially difficult to eat and clean up in microgravity. Thus, its relegation to museum gift shops and novelty stores everywhere.
So in conclusion, I'd say our lunch was highly enjoyable. We went through what every astronaut does before their missions—a sampling of the available foods to see what they like. If Adam and I were going up, you can guess our containers would be full of beef enchiladas, baked beans, sausages and curry sauce, and there wouldn't be any chicken teriyaki in sight.