How the NASA Space Food Research Lab Works

Astronaut Brian Duffy, STS-92 mission commander, samples an orange drink at the JSC. See more astronaut pictures.
NASA

­In­ 1­961, a space center in Houston, Texas, opened to house the newly formed Space Task Group. In 1973, NASA rechristened it the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC). Today, the JSC is probably best known for its Mission Control Center, which manages all shuttle missions. But when you drive up to the campus and pass the display of rockets at its entrance, you're quickly aware that this center has much more going on inside. JSC leads NASA's efforts in the International Space Center, hosts the astronaut corps (where astronauts train), and brings together students, astronauts, scientists and engineers through education, technology and research. Some of that research includes space food development.

The Space Food Systems Laboratory (SFSL) is a multipurpose facility where teams research and process space food. It also plans menus, packaging and food-related hardware (such as space-friendly utensils and reheating devices) for the space shuttle, International Space Station and Advanced Life Support systems.

Within its rooms, scientists research food and agriculture solutions that will increase the shelf life and nutritional content of foods, reduce the effects of radiation and even solve the problem of how to grow hydroponic (or soilless) soybeans. This knowledge and technology will be needed for future expeditions to Mars or other planets.

The foods currently produced at the facility aren't mysterious mixtures bubbling in test tubes -- these foods are the same as those we eat on Earth, and some are even the same as those we buy at local supermarket. The difference is the way space food is processed and packaged.

In this article, we'll learn what happens inside NASA's Space Food Systems Lab and how the lab develops, processes and packages space food.

The Johnson Space Center

STS-113 crewmembers are briefed by dietitians during a food tasting.
STS-113 crewmembers are briefed by dietitians during a food tasting.
NASA

Inside Building 17 on the Johnson Space Center campus, you'll find the Space Food Systems Laboratory. The facility is made up of four laboratories: a test kitchen (which includes a preparation area and sensory testing booths), a food processing lab, a food packaging lab and an analytical lab.

Food scientists, registered dietitians, packaging engineers, food systems engineers and technicians blend their knowledge of chemistry, engineering, biology, microbiology and nutrition to conduct experiments, plan projects and investigations, write specifications for space food products and coordinate with other teams. All work on products for the space shuttle, the International Space Station and future exploration missions.

The scale of what can be accomplished at the facility is impressive. Teams conduct physical and sensory analyses of foods, plan menus and manage food product development. Food processing techniques to keep foods stable at room temperature, such as blast freezing and freeze-drying, are tested here. Additionally, long-term storage techniques for processing foods are researched and developed, as well as ways in which to fabricate, design and test custom packaging and materials.

Teams here are always looking for ways in which to improve the eating experience for crews in space. They advance ways foods are prepared and served during space flight, evaluate prototypes and flight food preparation hardware, and experiment with ways to grow food in space and on Mars.

In its early days, though, space food products were either cubed or tubed. Foods were freeze-dried powders, bite-sized cubes and semi-liquids in toothpaste-like tubes. Manned space missions were short, and food wasn't a high priority on trips.

In August 1962, John Glenn became was the first American to eat in space (Soviet cosmonaut German Titov was the first person). But during the early 1960s, astronauts dined on highly engineered and unpalatable foods commonly referred to as "meals in a pill" that were coated with gelatin to reduce crumbling. By the mid-1960s, product development hadn't changed much, although there was a bit more variety --butterscotch pudding for dessert, anyone?

In the late 1960s, when NASA was preparing to send the first man to the moon, NASA scientists were improving processing and packaging for space foods. During the Apollo missions, scientists provided foods that were rehydratable with hot water. Between 1968 and 1972, as missions became longer and spacecrafts became more advanced, NASA's food scientists began using aluminum cans for storage, developed more flexible packages and discovered ways to process food to extend its nutritional quality and shelf life. They also unveiled the "spoon bowl." (Don't let the catchy name fool you: It's a plastic container that can be opened and its contents eaten with a spoon.) During the 1970s, food scientists were able to offer 72 different items of pre-cooked and rehydratable foods for the first space station, Skylab, where developments allowed astronauts the opportunity to eat together around a table and use conventional utensils (knife, fork, spoon -- and scissors for cutting open plastic containers and sealed packages).

From the 1980s on, space food technology has made enormous advances in conjunction with shuttle missions and the International Space Station. Preprocessed and individually packaged foods were introduced, as were some fresh foods. Today, menus are full of a variety of foods that taste similar to foods we eat on Earth. (They even have condiments, including Tabasco, which went into orbit during the 1990s.)

Next, let's learn about the types of space food, where space food comes from and how menus are planned.

Space Food Research and Development

Payload specialists Chiaki Mukai and Sen. John Glenn and mission commander Curtis L. Brown Jr. sample space foods.
Payload specialists Chiaki Mukai and Sen. John Glenn and mission commander Curtis L. Brown Jr. sample space foods.
Joe McNally, National Geographic, for NASA

There are eight types of food processing techniques used by the Space Food Systems Laboratory. The food types are: rehydrated, thermostabilized, irradiated, intermediate moisture, natural form, fresh, refrigerated and frozen [For more information about each type of food, visit How Space Food Works]. There are also beverages. Most foods are precooked or processed to require no refrigeration, and all are ready-to-eat or ready-to-be rehydrated or reheated.

NASA food scientists don't make food from scratch in a test kitchen. United States Alliance (USA) is contracted by NASA to manage space food provisioning. When the Space Food Systems Laboratory is running low on food items, USA purchases and restocks inventory from commercial suppliers (companies such as Pillsbury Co. and Oregon Freeze Dry, Inc.) or purchases fresh foods to be processed in-house. All foods provided by USA are then tested and evaluated in the Space Food Systems Laboratory for safety, nutrition and sensory properties (such as palatability) before they're made available to spaceflight crews.

About eight to nine months before their flight, astronauts take part in food evaluations as part of their training. Evaluations take place in the sensory booths at the Space Food Systems Laboratory. Astronauts sample a variety of foods and drinks (eating crackers and water between each tasting) and score each food on characteristics such as flavor, texture, appearance and aroma. These scores help the lab put together sample menus.

In addition to food evaluations, scientists gather astronaut feedback through crew debriefings. Scientists examine the trash and leftovers from missions, looking specifically at what astronauts did and didn't eat.

Astronaut likes and dislikes are instrumental to food and packaging progress -- they suggest foods, changes to packaging and stowage techniques.

About five months before their flight, astronauts choose their menu from more than 200 foods [source: Johnson Space Center]. Dietitians then analyze each menu for nutritional content, identifying deficiencies and modifying meal plans before menus are finalized.

Menus are designed to meet each individual's nutritional needs and Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for vitamins and minerals. Scientists use a formula for basal energy expenditure (BEE) provided by the National Research Council to determine individual caloric requirements:

For women, BEE = 655 + (9.6 x W) + (1.7 x H) - (4.7 x A).

For men, BEE = 66 + (13.7 x W) + (5 x H) - (6.8 x A)

W = weight in kilograms, H = height in centimeters and A = age in years

[source: NASA]

In addition to balancing nutritional and caloric needs with astronaut preferences, dietitians also take the crew's psychological state into consideration. The team at the Space Food Systems Laboratory tries to send along off-the-menu comfort foods, stocking bonus containers with commercial candy bars, cookies and crackers.

There's also ongoing research on the nutritional risks during space flight, including exposure to increased radiation in orbit, psychological issues and bone health. Scientists study the crew's food intake, body weight and composition and bone mass during shuttle flights and missions to the International Space Station for insights into how nutritional assessment changes can minimize these health risks in the future.

Menus are finalized three months before liftoff, and shuttle food contractors at the Space Food Systems Laboratory manage the food packaging and storage for the mission.

On the next page, we'll see how foods are processed and packaged at the Space Food Systems Laboratory. We'll also find out why every package has a barcode and colored dot on it.

Space Food Processing and Packaging

The STS-114 crewmembers wrangle with unfamiliar packaging at the Johnson Space Center.
The STS-114 crewmembers wrangle with unfamiliar packaging at the Johnson Space Center.
NASA

Space foods are processed to ensure quality and safety. Fresh fruits and vegetables are minimally processed -- they're sanitized with a 200 parts per million (ppm) chlorine rinse, air-dried and then placed on a food tray, ready to be stored in the fresh food locker. Some vegetables, like carrots and celery, are packaged in sealable bags. All fresh foods need to be eaten within the first few days of a mission because they spoil quickly.

NASA scientists use certain processing techniques to make foods shelf stable, or safe to store at room temperature. Thermostabilization, or heat processing, extends shelf life to three years. Irradiated foods are shelf stable because they're sterilized by a dose of ionizing radiation. Lowering the pH and water activity of foods can also stabilize them. Freeze-drying, or removing water from foods, inhibits microbial growth, and mold growth can be prevented by removing oxygen from packaging.

Shelf life is determined by noting changes in product quality, and the lab has specific methodology for testing. All foods intended for shuttle flights must have nine-month minimum shelf life. Foods going to the International Space Station must have a one-year shelf life, and any foods developed for future planetary expeditions or outposts must have a five-year shelf life [source: Iowa State University].

Testing at the Space Food Systems Laboratory begins with sensory evaluations. Astronauts rate food by appearance, color, odor, flavor, texture and overall palatability. Foods are then exposed to time and temperature changes, and sensory evaluations are repeated to determine how the foods hold up.

Scientists perform chemical analyses by testing the food's moisture, pH, water activity, nutrients, color and texture as well as considering time and temperature changes.

Packaging materials and methods are developed to reduce contaminates. The materials' weight, shape and waste are also considered during development. Currently, scientists take advantage of materials such as Mylar®, Aclar® and polyethylene to create flexible containers and pouches as well as sticking to old standards like foil pouches and aluminum for cans.

Since food weight allowance is limited to 3.8 lbs (1.7 kl) per person, per day on the ISS, and only 0.5 lbs (0.23 kl) per person, per day on the shuttle, the lab continues to develop new packaging materials to reduce weight and waste [sources: NASA and Iowa State University].

Each package is given a barcode and colored fabric fastener dots. The dots' colors match each crewmember with his or her menu items. Astronauts use the barcodes to log each food item when consumed -- information used by the lab back home in determining future food lists.

Once products and menus are green-lighted, they're given to the Flight Equipment Processing Contractor for processing, packaging and storing before being sent to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Two to three days before launch (or 24 hours for fresh foods), food lockers are placed onboard the shuttle, ready to go into space.

For more information about space food and how astronauts eat in space, visit our related resources on the next page.

How the NASA Space Food Research Lab Works: Author’s Note

Food science and food technology fascinate me. Although I try not to eat much processed food in my diet, I find myself both repulsed and delighted by foods such as blue french fries and tang. So I was happy to immerse myself in the world of space food science for this assignment.

Space food has come a long way since the era of John Glenn. Back in the early 1960s, astronauts referred to their meals as “meals in a pill,” but these days astronauts often eat the same foods we do, just processed and packaged a bit differently. What was most surprising was how much can be done by the food science teams at the Johnson Space Center, everything from menu planning and the analysis of the physical and sensory aspects of foods to food product development, research and development of long-term storage and food processing techniques.

Sources

  • "Beyond Tang: Food in Space." Morning Edition. National Public Radio. 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10792763
  • Borsche, Catherine E. "Get a Taste of the Future!" Roundup. NASA. 2004. http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/roundup/online/2004/0504_p6_11.pdf
  • Bourland, Charles. "Space Food Packaging Facts. Iowa State University 2002. http://www.ag.iastate.edu/centers/ftcsc/media/package.pdf
  • "Food For Space Flight." Human Space Flight. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 2002. http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/factsheets/food.html
  • French, S. "Space Food Systems Laboratory Shelf Life Analysis Operations Guideline." Human & Environmental Factors Office; Habitability & Human Factors Office; Food Development Projects Group. Johnson Space Center. NASA. 2003. http://hefd.jsc.nasa.gov/pubs/More/Shelf-lifeGuideline.pdf
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NASA Space Food Research Lab: Cheat Sheet

Stuff You Need to Know:

  • The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) opened in 1973 in Houston, Texas. Inside Building 17 on the JSC campus, you'll find the Space Food Systems Laboratory, containing a test kitchen, a food processing lab, a food packaging lab and an analytical lab.
  • The Space Food Systems Laboratory employs food scientists, registered dietitians, packaging engineers, food systems engineers and technicians.
  • At the facility, researchers conduct physical and sensory analyses of foods, plan menus and manage food product development, test food processing techniques, research long-term storage techniques and develop ways in which to design, fabricate and test custom packaging and materials.
  • There are eight types of food processing techniques used at the lab: rehydrated, thermostabilized, irradiated, intermediate moisture, natural form, fresh, refrigerated and frozen.

Now, test your knowledge with these quizzes!

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