WE ALL SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM… EVEN IN SPACE! by Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator


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WE ALL SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM… EVEN IN SPACE! by Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator

As a kid growing up in Southern Louisiana, going to John Stennis Space Center was THE highlight in the field trip era of my young life. It wasn’t because it’s NASA’s largest rocket engine test facility. It wasn't because it played an integral role in the development of the Saturn V rocket. It was because of... astronaut ice cream! 

Image Credit: Astronaut Foods
Astronaut Foods

For the uninitiated, “astronaut ice cream” is a crumbly, chalky bar of freeze dried ice cream that’s just like what the astronauts eat in space! Except… it’s not. At all. In fact, there have been no recorded space flights that included freeze dried ice cream in their cargo. So, if astronauts aren’t eating dried bars of dairy product in space, what are they eating?

In 1962, John Glenn had the first meal in space aboard the Mercury spacecraft, named Friendship 7. At that time, it wasn’t known if the ingestion and absorption of nutrients was even possible in a zero gravity environment. Glenn's meal consisted of applesauce, sugar tablets, and water, which showed it was possible to eat food in space, opening the doors for cosmic cuisine. 

Following this period, astronauts’ menu options consisted of pureed food packed into aluminum tubes to ensure they could squeeze all of the content into their mouths. But that all changed during the Gemini program in 1965 when freeze dried foods were introduced. 

Freeze drying is a process by which food is frozen and then placed in a vacuum. This process removes almost 97% of the water from the dish, helping preserve it for long periods of time without altering taste or nutritional content. 

Once in space, astronauts only have to inject these meals with water to rehydrate it before eating. This method ensures that foods maintain their quality, are lightweight, have a longer shelf life, and can be stored at room temperature. But not all foods required this preparation method... some items, such as brownies and cereals, could be eaten straight from the packaging.

Image Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution / Eric Long
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution / Eric Long

The next step in the evolution of space food came in 1972 with the Skylab Program. The station had a full galley where astronauts could make their own meals. Using fuel cells to combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity and water for the crew became a thing of the past as Skylab utilized solar cells for energy, meaning they could be more creative with their water usage for things like the first shower in space.

Pete Conrad in the Skylab shower in 1973 / NASA JOHNSON SPACE CENTER (NASA-JSC)

Perhaps even more groundbreaking than having hygienic astronauts was having a food menu expand beyond the strict freeze dried options available. The station came equipped with a fridge and freezer which allowed certain foods to be brought aboard like, you guessed it… ice cream! 

You read correctly folks, the first ice cream eaten in space wasn’t fancy “astronaut ice cream,” but your plain ole’ garden variety ice cream. 

These days, astronauts have a menu of about 74 different dishes and 20 different drinks they can choose from. Each astronaut picks what foods they want by ranking them before a mission.

The future of food in space will be in the hands of the astronauts themselves. With several missions to the Moon and Mars planned within the next two decades, astronauts will have to rely more on what they can grow in space than what can be brought with them. If you’re interested in finding out what that may look like, check this out»

Image Credit: NASA
The fast-growing salad green was the first plant to be grown, harvested, and eaten in space / NASA

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- Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator

Posted by Molly Hornbuckle at 2:15 PM
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