Probing Question: What do astronauts eat in space?

Freeze-dried cubes and unpleasant powders? Try shrimp cocktail and butterscotch pudding. And these are only a couple of the items now on the galactic menu thanks to NASA's Food Technology Commercial Space Center (FTCSC), located at Iowa State University.

Inside FTCSC's labs, food scientists, nutritionists, engineers, and plant breeders are collaborating to develop nutritious, convenient, safe, and tasty foods for outer space consumption. Koushik Seetharaman, assistant professor in the department of food science at Penn State, is part of the team.

cartoon astronaut

What do astronauts eat in space?

Seetharaman says the Food Center was originally tasked with developing appetizing space foods that could remain edible for three to five years—the time required to reach Mars. "Aside from being healthy and tasty, space food must also have an extended shelf life, meet specific safety criteria, and use ingredients that may be grown or produced in a place like Mars or the moon," he says. (The gases emitted from plants react differently in such environments, and so researchers must consider how locally-grown crops will affect humans and other plants in outer space.)

FTCSC researchers have developed several methods to meet these unique requirements. For instance, fish, ham, pudding, and some fruits are heat-processed (also called thermostabilization) to destroy harmful bacteria, while water is removed from soups like chicken noodle and cream of mushroom and casseroles like macaroni and cheese to prevent microbial growth. These techniques improve both safety and shelf life.

Seetharaman says packaging is another tricky issue. While ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and taco sauce are provided to astronauts in their unaltered forms, salt and pepper must be liquidized and stored in bottle droppers to prevent the particles from floating in the microgravity of space. Velcro strips are attached to food trays to hold them in place, and to inhibit mold, oxygen is removed when packaging foods.

The FTSCS is always looking for new ideas, which is why it holds an annual product development competition for undergraduate and graduate students in food science or food engineering. Student teams are challenged to design a space food product that meets the requirements of long-term space travel.

Seetharaman advises Penn State participants in the competition. In 2004, the vegetable spread developed by his students, Renée Britton, Supratim Ghosh, Rajesh Potineni, and Vandana Totlani, came away with first prize. Veg@eez, as the team named their creation, was made from minimally processed spinach, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and radishes—all of which can potentially be grown on Mars or the moon, says Seetharaman. A blend of oregano, salt, vinegar, and olive oil were added to the three-layer spread to make a yummy snack. Its high nutrition content and attractive tricolor appearance topped the competition.

"The nuances of developing a product with specific dietary, shelf life, and safety criteria for space travel allow students to be creative in applying the knowledge they have learned as food scientists," says Seetharaman. "After all, food science is more than just cooking."

Koushik Seetharaman, Ph.D., is assistant professor of food science;

Last Updated April 13, 2005