Space, The Final Frontier...For Packaging

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By: Rudy Sanchez

 

For as long as humans have explored and journeyed beyond their home, carrying food, preparing and eating it while traveling has always presented a set of unique challenges.

For the modern space traveler, this is no different, and brown bagging it isn’t really in the cards as the nutritional needs and environment of space vessels produce a unique set of conditions that agencies such as NASA have to overcome so that they can complete their mission far, far away from the nearest supermarket.

For starters, shipping food into space is expensive. Like, really expensive. Just sending one pound of cargo to space costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000, and storage on both the shuttles and the space station are limited. The food has to be safe to eat at the station, and it can’t create crumbs that could fly around in a microgravity environment and damage instruments. Also, the packaging must protect the food during delivery, be shelf stable for months, provide the necessary nutrients for astronauts, and be palatable for the crew to eat.

The first US mission to send astronauts into space was Project Mercury (1958-1963). Food was pureed and packaged in toothpaste-like tubes, or they were transported as freeze-dried cubes. These cubes, however, would create crumbles, which the crew had to prevent from flying around the vessel. While this food provided sustenance, they were very unpopular, and astronauts who flew on those missions complained about the taste.

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Later, the Gemini and Apollo missions addressed the taste and crumb issues, and hot water was made available for rehydration, improving the food astronauts took with them. Later on, Skylab's space station introduced a bigger galley which allowed for freezers and refrigeration, an impossibility for the shuttles as there were no such instruments on board. However, modern food preparation and packaging for the ISS crew is most like that of the space shuttle program, and they don’t have the same galleys as Skylab had.

Another notable difference between the space shuttle and the ISS, however, came in 2015, when the first espresso machine designed for space was installed on the ISS. Designed by Argotec and Lavazza as part of a series of experiments by the Italian Space Agency (fresh espresso in space, you know, for science), the crew aboard the space station could now enjoy a freshly brewed cup of coffee instead of a freeze-dried version.

Food for the crew of the ISS is prepared in a clean, sterile room at the Johnson Space Center Food Systems Lab in Houston, TX.  Beverages are typically freeze-dried versions of coffee or juice stored in the same kind of pouch as Capri-Suns. Instead of piercing the pouch with a straw, the pouch has a septum valve which only allows liquid in or out when using a water-dispensing needle. The straw can also be pinched closed to prevent liquids from flowing out.

Other foods are partially dehydrated and sealed in a clear plastic bag with the same septum valve for rehydration, typically with hot water. Breakfast cereal, for example, is packaged with powdered milk, so when mixed together with water, it creates something close to a traditional yet terrestrial breakfast.

Other foods are prepared in a manner similar to canning, using heat and pressure to thermo-stabilize the food inside. The pouches, also known as "flexible cans," look similar to Military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and the food stored inside doesn’t require rehydration, although some do require reheating prior to eating, all of which is done onboard.

Other foods which naturally have a long shelf life, such as granola bars and M&M’S, are taken out of their commercial packaging and repackaged by the food lab in plastic material that’s been thoroughly tested and vetted for space travel.

Condiments such as mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup are the same packets as those found in your typical take-out bag. Salt and pepper, however, need to be repackaged into liquid form, as the tiny particles can fly around the station and damage components, or even pose a hazard to the crew. Salt is mixed with water and put into a dropper bottle that the eater can drop and mix into their food while pepper is infused with oil.

Astronauts have a change in their sense of taste when in space, as the body’s fluids tend to change and more flows to the sinuses and head. This condition is similar to having a head cold, and your taste buds are dulled in the process. This is part of the reason why spicy food and things like hot sauce are popular among the space crew.

All food is taste-tested by those going up into the station, and the crew chooses from hundreds of dishes and snacks to personalize their menu. After all, going into space is hard work, and the crew of the ISS will spend months confined to the smallest of spaces, completely devoid of that essential In-N-Out run. Having a meal that closely approximates food from home not only nourishes the body, but also the soul of hard-working astronauts and scientists so they can focus on their mission.

Space tourism, on the other hand, could be an entirely different beast altogether.


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Rudy Sanchez is a product marketing consultant based in Southern California. Once described by a friend as her “technology life coach,” he is a techie and avid lifelong gamer. When he’s not writing or helping clients improve their products, he’s either watching comedies on Netflix, playing the latest shooter or battle royale game or out exploring the world via Ingress and Pokémon Go.