According to NASA, when astronauts go to space, they do “basically the same thing” as we do when camping: plan our rations, store them properly to prevent spoilage, and stow all our gear to cook the food with.
But space food on the International Space Station is a far cry from campfire-roasted marshmallows or barbecued sausages. The history of eating in space is peppered with anecdotes, and inventing ways to keep food “space-stable” has advanced the technology behind our own supermarket fare over the decades.
Indeed, some of the foods eaten by astronauts you can buy at the grocery store - including cheese crackers and M&Ms, all carefully decanted and repackaged into vacuum-sealed pouches.
Turns out that when it comes to actual space meals, it’s not all freeze-dried or cube-shaped flavourless gunk, full of nutrients just to keep the astronauts fuelled. People like variety, even when they go on the most complex “camping trip” imaginable, with microgravity to boot.
Here’s our pick of the best and worst items that keep those astronauts going - or not.
This “space food” is available in many museum gift shops and novelty stores, always in Neapolitan flavour, always crumbly and kind-of-like-ice-cream-but-not-really. Chances are you’ve tried it. Once.
Once is also the amount of times freeze-dried ice cream made it to actual space. The first and last mission to feature this food was Apollo 7 in 1968 - real astronauts just weren’t that into it.
Peanut butter popsicle tortilla
Peanut butter and tortillas are two actual staples on the International Space Station today. Tortillas, unlike bread, don’t crumble as easily, while peanut butter - the same kind you get at your local store - is shelf stable, packed with nutrients, and delicious.
Astronauts also need a way to not lose their food when eating in microgravity - hence this Kevin Ford’s “popsicle tortilla” with a butter knife stuck to the peanut spread for leverage.
The “shrimp cocktail” is another real food that’s arguably one of the most popular items NASA packs in their astronauts’ lunch boxes. The dehydrated shrimp coated in a tangy, spicy sauce are allegedly so delicious the dish has been a favourite since the Gemini 4 mission in 1965. Shuttle astronaut Bill Gregory even ate it 48 times in a row during an Endeavour mission in 1995.
The secret of space shrimp cocktail’s popularity? The spicy sauce. In microgravity it can be difficult to taste anything properly due to stuffy sinuses, hence anything with a kick is favoured over bland meatballs and re-hydrated potato mash.
If you’ve ever tried cooking sardines in the office microwave (please don’t), you know that not everyone appreciates the pungent smell of fish. It’s no different on a space station, where privacy is at a premium and bad smells are as appreciated as they are in a cramped caravan.
Some commanders have specifically banned fishy foods on their missions because of the smell, which also explains the downfall of a food that many astronauts recount as one of the worst - a packet version of fish veracruz. The tomato sauce was supposed to mask the fishy smell, and while the flavour was appreciated by some, other astronauts still gag at the idea of this dish.
Liquid salt and pepper
Because space food can taste rather bland, astronauts really appreciate condiments, starting with such basics as salt and pepper. However, microgravity comes into play once again - these basic spices are not allowed to be taken up in their normal dry format, and are instead turned into solutions, with water as a base for salt and oil as a suspension for the pepper.
How do astronauts get them onto their food? With tiny squeeze-bottles. A variety of hot sauces, including Sriracha and BBQ sauce, are also staples in the space station condiment pantry.
Tube borscht and rassolnik
Even though we are used to thinking of space missions as predominantly NASA business, space food comes from other countries, too. Russian space foods are known for variety and difference in flavour, such as the classic soup-in-a-tube versions of borscht and rassolnik.
"The Americans love our first courses – borsch, rassolnik, kharcho – as well as our cottage cheese, canned food and caviar," says Viktor Dobrovolsky, Russia’s chief designer of space food.
There’s only ever been one attempt at food contraband in space, as far as we’re aware. That fateful item was a corned beef sandwich on rye, and the guilty astronaut was John Young, pilot of the Gemini III space capsule in 1965.
The sandwich was supposed to be a joke, and Young handed the sandwich to mission commander Gus Grissom, who took one bite before realising the thing was crumbling into pieces, causing concern for where those crumbs could end up (sensitive equipment, control panels, eyes). Ever since, regulations on space food have been stricter, and bread is still not allowed in space.
Canned bacon sandwich
The problem with crumbly bread was a real challenge for British chef Heston Blumenthal who was tasked with designing some new space foods for the first British astronaut Tim Peake when he went on a mission to ISS late last year.
One of the items Peake requested was a bacon sandwich - but it couldn’t be an ordinary sandwich. Blumenthal had to make a concoction that would be deemed space-ready by first the UK Space Agency, then European Space Agency, and finally NASA. Blumenthal did succeed, producing a small round sandwich made from “sticky brown bread, tough lobes of bacon placed between grouting-like layers of a thick lard-like butter,” and stored in a can. Yay?
Unlike their historical counterparts, these days astronauts enjoy lots of variety, and bring versions of their national cuisines aboard as well. But few foods have generated as much excitement as the lettuce Scott Kelly and his crewmates ate last year on the ISS. For the first time we succeeded to grow actual plants in space - and eat them, too.
Perhaps by the time we make it to Mars we’ll be able to stroll into the space shuttle hothouse to harvest some fresh veggies and fruit.
And eat them with some soup from a tube.
Can’t get enough of space food? Follow Heston Blumenthal in Heston’s Dinner in Space, a two-part series airing April 28 and May 5 at 8.30pm on SBS or any time On Demand!