The Experience: NASA Johnson's Food Lab

Photo Credits (above and below): NASA's Flickr Stream

Thinking about eating in space may evoke thoughts of bland and boring food. But much of the food that astronauts consume today are foods they would eat on the ground; they’ve just been processed and prepackaged to withstand microgravity and time.

“When you go to a restaurant a lot of it is presentation. When we process food, the presentation is gone and so you are very dependent on the quality of the product and the flavor and the smell and the taste,” said Grace Douglas, a lead advanced food technology scientist at NASA’s.Grace Douglas

Douglas and her colleagues work on developing, processing and packaging the foods that astronauts will consume on spaceflights. Food is processed so it requires no refrigeration and is ready to eat or can be prepared simply by adding water or by heating. The lab is also researching how to extend the shelf life of food for a mission to Mars. We talked to Douglas to find out more.

What’s the focus of the food lab?

There’s a couple of things that go on in the food lab. There’s a research side and the provisioning side. They basically produce all the foods or package -- some of the natural form foods like nuts they can get commercially and then they repackage them for space flight, and powdered drinks that they get commercially get packaged specifically for space flight.

On the research side, we look at how do we take that food system and get it to a five-year shelf life for a mission to Mars. The crew would be on a two-and-a-half year mission but they might preposition a lot of the supplies because they weigh a lot. They’d send them on slower missions ahead of the crew so they would be possibly be up to five years old, maybe even older, by the time the crew would be at the end of the mission consuming the end of the food. How do we make sure that during this time the food remains acceptable, remains nutritious, and has the variety that they want to eat?

Our food system has 200 different items and that’s done very well for the ISS [International Space Station]. We’ve come a long way from the Mercury Missions where it was tubes and cubes and we’ve come to a point where our food system is pretty good for ISS, but how does that change as you go to long duration? Right now we know that some nutrients won’t be stable for the lengths of those missions, especially at room temperature.

What types of things are you looking at to achieve that?

NASA Space FoodWe look at new processing technologies like microwave technology, which uses very high heat time for a shorter duration. The idea is you’ll get a better quality product right after processing and so that better quality product, packaged correctly would hopefully maintain a longer shelf life.

Looking at that in combination with cold storage, looking at what happens to the nutrition of the system, what happens to the quality of the food over time. If we have a food system that’s grown in flight, like veggies, how do you do that for a longer duration mission? It’s not likely that these missions would include a bioregenerative food system because it’s a lot of crew time to grow food and then process it. So do they want to spend their crew time doing that or doing science mission? The other thing is even though you get benefits from growing food, you need a lot of infrastructure to do that and then to process the foods. We also don’t know what deep space radiation does to seeds or even to our foods at this point.

So those are the kinds of things we need to look at going forward and how do we create a food system that truly promotes crew health and performance. We know from history that if they don’t like the food well enough or if they get tired of it over time, they’re not going to eat enough to be top performing and not lose weight. Food is incredibly important as missions get longer.

How do you achieve that variety? Are you going to be serving the same foods as missions get longer?

Those are good questions. Part of the other issue is that there are always requests for reduced mass. And so right now we’re actually looking at some of our shorter, upcoming explorations reducing mass by replacing a meal with a meal replacement bar. What is the acceptability of doing that? Now you’re taking away choice. We have a study right now to see if that can be maintained and if that’s an acceptable strategy to reduce mass. Even as you get to longer missions, part of that would be to start studying that and understand how much can you limit the food system and still have the crew getting the nutrition and the calories they need.

What are some foods that you absolutely can’t have in space?

Foods that have different moisture contents. In space there are foods that are easy to provide in acceptable ways. Bread has a lot of crumbs and it goes stale easily. We use tortillas that last about a year and a half that were especially formulated, they have a low moisture content so they don’t grow mold and the crew loves those. They eat them a lot, they put a lot of different things on them so that’s basically their form of bread. Crumbs are a problem so anything that produces a lot of crumbs so potato chips and things like that they don’t really eat a lot of.

Anything that doesn’t have a shelf life that will meet our requirements, so everything needs to have a shelf life of at least a year-and-a-half to two to three years because by the time you produce it and pack it and stow it and ship it, it might be a year old before it even gets to space station. That’s why we really need a five year for a Mars mission at a minimum.

It needs not to have a lot of free liquid, if it has a lot of free liquid, the liquid floats. Anything that needs refrigeration they can’t have. They don’t get ice cream except on very special occasions when a freezer gets sent to orbit and it’s already powered up for science. They don’t get fresh foods because they have no way to store them except on very rare occasions when we send a resupply mission and they may get apples or carrots or things like that.  

Does the crew taste the foods before leaving on a mission?

NASA TacoYes, they can taste the food and they can rate it but they do get a standard menu. The menu is packed by categories so meats and then sides and vegetables, and they can put together their meal with that and they get guidance to make sure that they’re meeting their requirements.

Any favorite dishes among crew members?

Quite a few of the crew members like the spicy things. There are anecdotal comments that taste changes in space but there’s never been any research. It’s so subjective; it depends on the person. And if you think about it they’re eating a completely prepackaged food, they have a fluid shift to the head in spaceflight, they have competing odors, they’re eating out of packages so there are a lot of things that could be influencing perceived taste changes. A lot of them say they like spicy things, the shrimp cocktail a lot of them really like that, the tortillas they really like but it really depends on the crew member.