How Astronauts Eat Thanksgiving Dinner in Space

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If you’ve ever wondered about Thanksgiving din din aboard the International Space Station, then this post is for you. As of this writing, there are six crew members on the ISS taking part in Expedition 61 including one Italian, two Russians, and three American astronauts. The crew is making improvements to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer so that it can look for evidence of dark matter, but we can expect the Americans to take Thursday off in observance of Thanksgiving. 

But wait – how do they track days and dates in space?

Good question. Time really flies on the ISS as the station experiences a sunrise every 45 minutes. So, to keep days and dates in order, the ISS uses Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is the equivalent to GMT. In other words, the space station is five hours ahead of New York and eight hours ahead of Los Angeles. 

Please, get to the food already.

Okay, okay. If last year’s menu is any guide, the astronauts will be feasting on turkey, stuffing, candied yams and spicy pound cake. It’s pretty much what they’d enjoy on Earth.

But isn’t space food supposed to be all weird? 

You’re probably having flashbacks to that chalky freeze-dried astronaut ice cream from generations past, or maybe some bizarre stuff that comes in toothpaste tubes. Those sort of strange food concoctions may have been served ages ago, but not anymore.

At the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, you’ll find the Space Food Systems Laboratory where menus are developed and food is packaged for American crews. Months before the ISS-bound astronauts blast off on their half-year long missions, they’re invited to the facility to sample 20 to 30 food items and rank them on a scale of 1 - 9 on appearance, color, smell, taste and texture. Food offerings can be anything from lasagna to hamburgers, beef stroganoff, chocolate cake, macaroni and cheese...almost anything you’d eat at home. In fact, astronauts can even request off-the-shelf products like Oreos and M&M’s. 

What makes space food different is the way it's packaged. There are no refrigerators on the ISS, so the food has to be sealed in a way that extends its shelf-life up to a year or more in ambient temperature. The Space Food Lab will slice up an oven-roasted turkey then freeze-dry it to remove any water (inhibiting microbial growth). Food can also be thermostabilized, a process which uses heat and pressure to destroy harmful microorganisms and enzymes. The product is then sealed in pouches or flexible cans usually made from materials like Mylar®, Aclar® and polyethylene. 

Approved off-the-shelf goodies are simply removed from their normal grocery store packaging and resealed in the appropriate pouches. Fun fact, NASA uses a slightly modified version of the pouches Capri-Sun® uses for its beverages. 

When it comes time to chow down, astronauts typically rehydrate the food with a recommended amount of water at a rehydration station and toss it in an oven or food warmer so it’s hot. Each pouch has a piece of Velcro® on it so that it sticks to a Velcro® tray and doesn’t start floating around in zero-gravity. Crew members are given a set of utensils, including a spoon with a long handle that is used to scoop out morsels of deliciousness. 

But does food taste any different in space?

Human taste buds work just fine in space, so food has more or less the same flavor. However, there is a catch. Because of the weightlessness of space, body fluids accumulate in the head. This means astronauts have persistent stuffy noses, so eating in space is like eating with a cold. 

To kick up the flavor, astronauts rely on the usual condiments like hot sauce, ketchup, mayo, mustard, and liquid salt (dissolved in water) and liquid pepper (suspended in oil). The spices come in liquid form because grains would float away in zero-gravity, and can get in the eyes, nose, or equipment. It's also the reason why crew members won’t be enjoying rolls with their turkey and candied yams. Bread produces a lot of crumbs which is messy and even dangerous when you’re in space. 

In place of bread, astronauts use tortillas which are also great because they have less volume, meaning you can pack more of them in the storage containers. They also don’t spoil as quickly. Oh, and fresh fruit and veggies come up with new cargo shipments, but, naturally, produce has to be eaten within days of arrival. 

Probably the best part about Thanksgiving on the ISS is that the meal takes about ten minutes to prepare since everything is pre-made. Clean up is also a cinch. Utensils are sterilized with wipes; food waste and refuse go in the trash which gets taken out when the next cargo vessel comes up. The vessel will either return to Earth or, if it’s expendable, it’ll burn up on re-entry, vaporizing the trash in the upper atmosphere. 

With their tummies stuffed, we can expect the astronauts to relax and make some calls to their loved ones back on Earth. Then, it’s off to bed until it’s time to wake up – in 10 or so sunrises.