Early space food was bland and unappetizing, but advances during Mercury and Gemini led to greater variety, improved taste, and streamlined preparation processes.
NASA began working in the 1960s on developing food suitable for long, multi-day space flights, which needed to provide sufficient calories and nutrition without being difficult for astronauts to prepare due to limited access to stoves or hot water.
Gemini missions and subsequent Apollo missions provided food options such as dehydrated meals such as ham and apple sauce or beef with vegetables that could be reconstituted with either cold or hot water from a small water dispenser. Once reconstituted, these foods were sealed pouches containing yellow germicide tablets to minimize spoilage; additionally a special plastic bowl known as the spoon bowl allowed for more convenient eating.
NASA gradually improved their space food as Gemini and Apollo missions became longer and more challenging, including access to hot water which greatly enhanced taste (though astronauts might testify otherwise), allowed flexible meal times, and made rehydration simpler. A typical dinner on an Apollo flight may include chicken and rice with butterscotch pudding or graham cracker cubes as the main course; with instant coffee, tea, cocoa or lemonade served alongside their meals in order to boost flavor if necessary.
Apollo astronauts were provided with ready-to-eat meals packed in pouches that had been thermostabilized with some moisture content so as to enable easy consumption without needing to rehydrate; these pouches proved more appetizing than freeze-dried foods which Armstrong and Aldrin consumed on their lunar mission.
Food packets were also modified to be easier for astronauts to handle while weightless, including using smaller versions with plastic zip-closures to prevent leakage that might damage meal contents, and being designed for easy opening and sealing action – something particularly essential in zero gravity conditions.
These packets were supplemented by bite-sized foods known as intermediate moisture foods – these served as a bridge between dehydrated or dried foods at one end and fresh or frozen foods at the other.
As part of their space flight, astronauts were provided with breakfast foods such as apple sauce and cereal drinks; lunch foods like chicken sandwiches, coconut cubes, sugar cookies and sugar cookies; dinner foods included spaghetti with meat sauce, cheese sandwiches and pineapple fruitcake – unlike Project Gemini astronauts who required hot and cold water sources – for these new meals; unlike Project Gemini they did not require rehydrating; just eating right out of a spoon was fine – hence this space food pack bearing blue Velcro squares to indicate its production during Apollo program production.
NASA scientists developed new dehydrated foods that fell between fresh and completely dried, called intermediate moisture foods, that were both tasty and weight saving. These bite-sized meals supplemented rehydrated meals and contained more water to give it an “attractive” appearance and more “stable” texture.
Food was packaged in a sealed pouch that could be eaten using the same spoon used for drinking rehydrated liquids. After each use, this pouch would be resealed before being thrown away into the waste disposal system. Astronauts collected their urine using an ingenious device resembling a condom and solid waste was stored on board in plastic bags stowed on either side of their spacecraft.
By the time of the 1969 moon landing, space food had greatly improved. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could enjoy meals such as beef with vegetables, pork with potato scallops, Canadian bacon with apple sauce–all from packages!
Astronauts were also provided with snacks from a pantry of pineapple fruit cake, jelly candy and chocolate cake – while having access to their beverages through an exclusive drink port built into their helmets so that they could sip without opening their spacesuits.
Apollo astronauts needed to eat, but their options for nourishment were somewhat limited. Dehydrated meals were packed into special containers labeled with each day of their mission; today’s astronaut cuisine offers much greater variety including fresh fruits and vegetables.
Initial space meals consisted of bite-size food that could be eaten using fingers or spoons from plastic bowls specially designed to hold them without them floating off. Later on, food was freeze-dried so it would last longer and weigh less; these must then be rehydrated using a water gun – these rehydrations efforts resulted in less delicious but more calorific meals than Mercury meals; astronauts used plastic packets filled with water to squirt liquid through and reconstitute it; this caused it all sorts of unpleasantness but gave energy necessary for mission completion.
The Apollo crew also received some treats like pineapple fruit cake, packs of peanut butter cookies, cheese crackers and BBQ beef bites as snacks, as well as pantry items like apricot bars – still available today at science museum gift shops – and gum for chewing to help provide enough air while in space.
Before spacecraft crewmembers entered lunar modules, they needed to be fed. Their food must be lightweight, quick to prepare, nutritious and calorific enough to maintain weight without creating health concerns; and must also be easily rehydrated without hot water rehydration; this necessitated an assortment of dehydrated meals ranging from spaghetti with meat sauce, chicken salad and cubed sugar cookie pieces, along with freeze-dried meals such as beef with vegetables or pork with potato scallops.
By the time Apollo 11 reached the moon, food had markedly improved from what had been available on Mercury and Gemini missions, such as tubes of liquid food being provided through tubes in tubes. According to The Washington Post, astronauts on Apollo 11 could enjoy frozen meals that they heated in their microwave. Accordingly, three frozen pre-packaged meals per day including full cooked breakfasts, ribs of beef, and lobster could be enjoyed by these astronauts.
Apollo program astronauts would select from a menu of approximately 70 items that could be packaged and sent into space for their meal needs. A video clip from Apollo program shows astronauts unpacking one such meal: frozen cheese sandwiches with strawberry cubes and coconut cubes as dessert, cocoa, pineapple fruit drink and cocoa are seen being enjoyed as cocoa is served alongside cocoa and pineapple juice for beverages. Reportedly this food was very well received among astronauts; however due to concerns with free-floating crumbs in space and dry cabin environments scientists added germicide tablets into packages in order to inhibit bacteria growth and ensure safe travels back on Earth.
NASA provided astronauts on Apollo missions with a selection of meals designed to satisfy their hunger and provide nutrition during long flights, providing comforting foods like sugar cookies and chocolate pudding for inflight menus. Furthermore, astronauts could customize their dishes by selecting condiments and seasonings to add taste and variety to bland space food offerings.
Food technology was transformed by the Apollo program, as rehydration processes became simpler by adding hot water directly to food packages and spoon-bowl packaging made it more palatable for astronauts who also had the option of drinking their soup through straws.
As well as these advances, astronauts were also provided with “wetpack” meals – thermally stabilized and ready-to-eat food without needing rehydrating before eating; wetpack meals proved more appealing as they mimicked regular food more closely, saving astronauts both time and effort in the kitchen. This innovation proved extremely popular.