Did you hear the joke about the astronaut who got food poisoning? Probably not, and for good reason. This is because such an event has honestly never happened. To date, no astronaut has ever received a foodborne illness in space.
“At NASA, we actually have a higher microbiological standard than most companies in the general food industry,” says Xulei Wu, NASA food scientist and food system manager for the International Space Station. In other words, NASA is very strict about food safety and storage when it comes to space travel.
To reduce the risk of potential illness, all food products sent to the ISS must undergo rigorous testing. If a food fails the test, these products are immediately thrown out of the race to become freeze-dried astronaut food. A successful dish, on the other hand, must be both safe to eat and capable of delivering plenty of nutrients in a single serving.
What’s in an astronaut’s pantry?
However, an astronaut’s diet, while strict, is not necessarily bland.
Every day, the International Space Station’s pantry-style dining hall has about 200 dishes an astronaut can choose to eat. This freeze-dried buffet makes up about 70-75% of all crew meals. The rest comes mostly from food from the crew-specific menu – each astronaut is able to make a sort of culinary wish list and request certain foods or drinks they want for the duration of their mission.
Even so, many of these fan favorites may not make it to the station in time for an astronaut’s stay, and in some cases, not at all. From production to transport, it takes a long time for food to be approved and then loaded onto a rocket. Even then, once the food is in orbit, it can take years before it is consumed by a hungry astronaut craving their favorite snack.
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“We don’t have a cargo vehicle to go there every week to ship whatever they want,” Wu explains. “Therefore, we have to pre-pack their food and load all the food onto cargo vehicles even before the crew member does not launch.”
As space travel becomes even less of a distant reality, NASA eventually wants to work on improving better processing and packaging technologies to make food last as long as possible.
But transport aside, certain foods are currently banned on the space station — and why they might surprise you.
In our homes, these little scraps are often classified as an annoyance and a mess rather than a real problem. But once you leave the safety of Earth orbit, small particles are considered an occupational hazard.
Crumbs are labeled foreign object debris (FOD), or any object that could damage a vessel or system. NASA says these finicky particles could interfere with mission equipment, be inhaled by crew members and, in some cases, float into their eyes.
But fortunately, this does not mean that astronauts have to do without crumbly foods (which is many of food) completely. For example, instead of typical baked goods, like buns or cookies, which break and crumble easily, NASA’s food lab says it has sent alternative options to the station.
“The tortilla is super popular. It’s not really a sourdough bread, but it sort of serves a [similar] purpose,” says Wu. “It’s versatile, but tortillas don’t crumble like most breads.”
There are other foods that can also create big crumbly messes, including ice cream. In microgravity, these dehydrated treats could become so brittle that they crack entirely and send flavored flakes of these frozen treats flying everywhere.
Collaborations between multiple groups and launch facilities have led to the development of other types of frozen treats like popsicles, which NASA hopes to send to the ISS in the future, Wu says.
Salt and pepper
Sorry, there is no conventional seasoning in space. If you were to shake the salt and pepper in space, the grains would become airborne and pose a similar hazard to floating crumbs. To add a little more flavor to foods, NASA scientists came up with a clever alternative: liquid spice. Instead of using salt and pepper shakers, astronauts pour in premade salt and pepper solutions as they would salad dressings or sauces. NASA’s Food Lab dissolves salt in water and pepper in oil before sending the liquid spice into space.
Soft drinks are probably the most dangerous prohibited space food, simply because the consequences of consuming them are not yet fully understood.
Soft drinks, by definition, contain dissolved carbon dioxide. To get rid of this carbon dioxide, people usually end up releasing the gas with a burp, but according to NASA, carbonation and alkali don’t separate in microgravity. Without gravity to expel these bubbles, after swallowing they could become trapped in an astronaut’s digestive system and cause adverse health effects.
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“In the microgravity environment, it could be a wet burp because gas and liquid don’t tend to separate automatically,” she says. “It will be discomfort for sure.”
However, it is difficult to determine the exact health consequences of fizzy drinks, as NASA has not been able to safely test astronauts to see how carbonation in microgravity could potentially harm the planet. ‘crew.
After a long day or for festive occasions, astronauts cannot whip up a cocktail or pop a bottle of champagne. But alcohol isn’t just banned to ensure ISS crew members stay focused and alert. One of the main reasons why libations are not allowed on board is that they could potentially damage the environmental and life support system, or ECLISS.
One of the many responsibilities of ECLISS is to provide clean air and clean water to the station by recycling urine, cabin condensation and other waste. A key ingredient in alcohol is ethanol, a compound that could also become extremely volatile in space. Because recycled water has strict purity standards, anything that interferes with an astronaut’s natural digestive processes, including additional chemical contaminants like ethanol exhaled by the crew, could endanger the whole of the vital system.
“This system is very sensitive to ethanol,” says Wu. “Therefore, if alcohol is sent [and consumed]which will evaporate and interfere with the operation of the system [ability] to regenerate air and water.
But historically, while some astronauts certainly have no problem going without a drink for a few months, there have been cases of crew members sneaking their own minds on board.