Just before Christmas, NASA sent a note: Irradiated smoked turkey, thermostabilized yams and NASA’s own special stuffing recipe can mean only one thing – holiday season aboard the International Space Station.
Station Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev are currently the sole residents aboard the complex. They will spend the holidays with three new crew members. NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi are set to arrive on the station Dec. 22 after launching on a Soyuz spacecraft on Dec. 20 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Although they may not get the home cooking people on Earth enjoy this season, the station crew can celebrate with a well-stocked, and by all accounts tasty, pantry. The view from their table, speeding 220 miles above Earth at five miles per second, cannot be beat.
Space food has come a long way from the early days of “tubes and cubes.” The current station’s menu includes more than 250 different food and beverage items provided by the U.S. and Russia. Foods from other partner nations also are available on the station’s menu.
We wondered what role fresh produce served in the diet of astronauts. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Q: We appreciated the playful photographs of astronauts and fruits and vegetables floating in space! How do perishable products like produce fit into NASA’s space food program? Are fresh fruits and vegetables readily available to the astronauts either in bulk form or integrated in meals, and how does that process work?
A: We do use very limited quantities of fresh produce, and that will occur whenever a vehicle is docking with the Space Station. So, for example, when the Shuttle is going to go up, they take a small quantity of fresh products with them, typically items like apples, oranges, grapefruit, things that do well without refrigeration. Typically, they’ll use some of that for the Shuttle crews themselves, but then when they dock the Station, they usually transfer over small quantities of fresh food to the Station crew members. Q: Are there ways to prolong the cold chain? The crew needs to consume the fresh produce at the beginning of the mission then?
A: Right. Now, as of last fall, they do have a small chiller on the Space Station that can help them extend the shelf life of any fresh produce they might get on order.
Q: What is that actual refrigeration capacity?
A: People say refrigerator, but think in terms of a chiller that’s about the equivalent of the internal volume of your microwave at home. It’s really small. But if they get apples or oranges, they can store them in there to extend the shelf life.
Q: Where do you procure your produce? Do you have particular sources?
A: We use commercial sources, just the local commercial vendors. And the Russians also send up small quantities of fresh food on the Progress as well. But their idea of fresh is a little different. I think they send apples and oranges sometimes too, but they also send things like raw onion and raw garlic for their cosmonauts.
Q: Tell us some of the challenges in terms of food preparation and maintaining shelf-life in space.
A: Because we really don’t have refrigerators or freezers for food, everything obviously has to be shelf-stable and last a long time without refrigeration. So, we use a variety of methods to make the food shelf stable. We freeze-dry a great deal of it. We also thermostabilize a great deal of it, basically a heat process to destroy harmful microorganisms and enzymes using the canning process; except most of our products, rather than being in metal cans, are in pouches, what’s called the flexible can. This is the same technology that the military uses for the meals ready-to-eat. We produce a number of custom thermostabilized products that we put in the pouches. We have our own resource facility where we process those items.
Q: Could you provide examples?
A: For the custom ones we do, we have quite an assortment. We have rice products, fruit products, potato products, chicken, beef, and desserts, so we have a wide range of foods we thermostabilize. [Editor’s note: Astronaut Sandy Magnus gives an illustrated account of her experimental culinary endeavors to spice up traditional U.S. and Russian fare aboard the International Space Station here.]
Q: What are the most innovative technologies and packaging techniques you’re developing?
A: Well, to be honest, in space food processing per say, we have not invented any technologies. Thermostabilization has been around since dawn, the pouches we use – the flexible cans – were invented by the military. Although we did not invent this, we do use some irradiated products, and that is something that is not on the commercial market typically, not in the U.S. anyway. I guess that is probably the most innovative technology that we are currently using.
Q: Those would be meat products?
A: Yes. We have about 10 irradiated meat products. We have permission from the USDA and FDA to produce those, for space flight only.
Q: Does NASA irradiate any produce items?
A: We don’t use irradiated produce at all. We use some irradiated meat products, but we don’t have irradiated fresh produce or anything like that.
Q: What about nuts?
A: No. We use commercial off-the-shelf Planters and other brands. We get the shelf life we need from commercial dry roasted nuts.
Q: In the wake of the Georgia peanut outbreak, for example, wouldn’t irradiation be a more foolproof method to protect astronauts against potential contamination?
A: Currently irradiation in the U.S. is not approved at a level that would give you commercial sterility. You could irradiate products basically only at a level that would give you a pasteurized product, which means it would still need refrigeration afterwards.
For instance, they could treat strawberries or potatoes at a level to stop the sprouting and extend the shelf life. They can treat frozen meat, like ground beef, to get rid of the E. coli and the Salmonella and things like that, but the end product still needs refrigeration afterwards.
Q: Are you looking at bringing in irradiated produce?
A: Not at this time we’re not, but that doesn’t mean when we look at moon/mars or something like that, we wouldn’t consider that.
Q: Have you been concerned about produce outbreaks? Do you undertake additional safety measures beyond what is provided commercially?
A: Everything we send to orbit we treat; we typically use a chlorine dip on it to try to prevent surface contamination and things like that.
Q: A chlorine wash, such as what is used on sprouts?
A: Yes, water and chlorine, basically bleach water to treat the product. We do that to reduce any potential issues there.
Q: Have any astronauts gotten sick in space from the food?
A: Not that we know of. We’re not aware of food poisoning incidents… of course they’ve gotten sick for other reasons, but no, we’re not aware of any instances of food poisoning per say.
Q: Could you discuss health issues in space? Are there complications, for example, insuring astronauts receive the necessary nutrients in their diets? How do daily nutritional requirements differ in space compared to on earth?
A: There’s really not a huge difference in the nutritional requirements in space as compared to the ground. There are some differences, for instance, you don’t need as much iron on orbit because you’re not turning over as many red blood cells as fast.
We also would like to have lower sodium levels. The typical American diet is higher in sodium than it should be, and when you take that diet into space, the higher sodium contributes to bone loss. Actually, that’s true on the ground. As we age, we tend to lose bone mass, and a higher sodium diet makes that worse, and it’s the same way in microgravity. So we want to get the sodium content down, but it’s difficult when you’re working with an all shelf-stable food system. Obviously, if we had more fresh food products, those would have less sodium in them than processed ones. Unfortunately, we’re very limited because of the shelf life issues and lack of refrigeration on how much fresh and frozen food we can have.
Q: Is there more flexibility in food options with the shuttle program compared to the international space station, considering flight duration, or other variables? Don’t you have experience working in both programs?
A: Yes, I do, and I can tell you there are very few differences. Actually, on the U.S. food system, the shuttle space system is kind of a subset of what we fly to the space station. Because the shuttle missions are shorter, they don’t need quite as much variety as our crew members that are up there for six months at a time. Literally, we use the same food system; we just make a little bit more variety available to our station crew members.
Q: I remember reading something about plans to build greater refrigeration for food…
A: Neither on the shuttle nor on the space station do we have dedicated refrigerators or freezers for food. There are refrigerators and freezers for medical samples, but not for food. The only thing we have is the small chiller implemented in the fall that we talked about.
Q: Do you envision that changing?
A: The original plan for the International Space Station included refrigerators and freezers for food, but that got cut for budgetary reasons and power reasons. They weren’t sure they could generate enough power. They were going to be part of the U.S. Habitation module, but that got cut. So then we were back to an all shelf-stable food system.
Q: Do you have any notable stories related to produce, perhaps a vignette from an astronaut produce aficionado you could share?
A: An example that comes to mind that will fit with your produce theme involves one of our crew members, Peggy Whitson, who went to orbit on Expedition 5, and again on Expedition 16. She had two different duration stays on the Space Station. Peggy talked about when she went up on the Shuttle, during Expedition 5, and she transferred over to the Station, bringing a little fresh food with her to the Station crew.
She said that was fine and they enjoyed it. But after she was there for awhile without fresh food, her longing set in. When the Progress showed up later, they imagined what kind of fresh food would be on board, because they began to crave the fresh stuff. She went so far as to say she dreamed about some of the fresh produce that might come on board. Because that fresh aspect is missing from the typical menu, it becomes very important to them. And I know, for a lot of them when they land, the first thing they want to do is hit a salad bar.
Q: Are there astronauts that have vegetarian diets?
A: We’ve had a few vegetarians fly on shuttle, not long duration on the Station. When that day comes, it will be very difficult, especially for a vegan, who doesn’t do dairy either. That’s going to be extremely difficult, mainly because there is just not enough variety. When you start looking at international partners, I don’t think any are vegetarians. Russians aren’t big on vegetarianism. We’ve had a few vegetarians fly on the shuttle, and for them, we’ve had to go out and get some additional commercial items and package them, like some dried fruits, just to give enough variety.
Q: It sounds like you have quite a bit of flexibility in bringing in commercial foods…
A: We have a fair amount, not as much as we’d like to have, but we have a limited amount of ability to fly commercial stuff that is not part of the regular menu.
Q: Do you have any relationships with produce companies, or thoughts on ways the produce industry could help you?
A: We really don’t have existing relationships with produce companies. If there were a way, even with irradiation, I’m not sure it would extend shelf life enough to ship in our regular food containers, because very often, those regular food containers are not going to get opened on orbit until 9 months or a year after we stow them on the ground. So even if you have irradiated fruits, they’re not going to last that long. Of course, that would be the happy thing if there were a way to extend the shelf life of an apple or an orange, where it would last that long without refrigeration.
Q: So we’ll conclude this interview with a challenge for the produce industry… to innovate more space-friendly fresh fruits and vegetables! Before we let you go, what inspired you to get involved with the space program and your fascinating position?
A: I was a microbiology major as an undergrad in college, and when I was a senior I took an elective course in food microbiology, and got very interested in application of microbiology in the processing and preservation of food. I decided to go into food science for my graduate work and got a masters in food science. I came to Houston and was working for a hospital here, and a food plant where they produce food for several hospitals.
I joined a professional organization called the Institute of Food Technologies for food scientists headquartered in Chicago. I started going to local chapter meetings with other food professionals in the Houston area and had the opportunity to meet some of the folks working at the Johnson Space Center on space food. After a couple of years, they had an opening and one of the gentlemen called me up and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing, and I certainly was. In fact, as soon as I found out there was potential to use my expertise in the space industry, I pretty much decided that’s what I wanted to do, so I was just waiting for my chance!
It’s definitely a fun thing to do. It’s very much a niche job, but I’ve been at it since 1985. I’ve worked for different contractors and been on the NASA side for about 20 years now. And the challenges keep changing often enough that it’s more than held my interest all these years.
Although a chiller filled with a few produce items may not sound like much, it is an enormous leap from the early days of the space program. The Pundit is old enough to have grown up watching TV commercials for TANG, which has been associated with the space program since Gemini. In fact, here is a great TV Commercial contrasting how astronauts in space and consumers on earth could each drink their TANG. Just click the arrow at the lower left of the video.
Unfortunately the space program itself is, well, up in the air right now. President Obama has proposed killing the planned return to the Moon and proposes more use of commercial space providers.
Supporting the commercial space industry could be a good thing, encouraging its growth and development much as commercial air travel was aided in its development by government contracts to fly air mail.
Unfortunately, the specific proposal is to develop technology but without a goal, such as visiting Mars. Without such a goal, we doubt the funding will be sustained to really make progress.
Of course, the whole issue of space travel is complicated by our decision to sign a treaty that makes commercial exploitation of space almost impossible. We weighed in on the issue with a piece in The Weekly Standard, titled Jump-Starting the Space Program.