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Solving Space: Transporting food to space

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This summer, we are exploring how we push human extremes in order to survive and thrive in the harsh environments of space. So far, we explored the extremes of cooking and eating in space, but perhaps one of the biggest challenges is getting food to the crew in orbit.

Astronauts can’t just run out to the store to get food whenever they get a particular craving. In fact, they select meals from a predetermined menu of space food scientists create and curate on Earth months in advance of their launch!

An astronaut’s meals are prepared and packaged by the Space Food Systems Laboratory at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC). Prior to their flight, each astronaut chooses from approximately 200 standard menu items to create their own menu tailored to their individual tastes.

The food must keep for long duration missions, so most foods shipped to the International Space Station (ISS) fall into one of two categories – thermostabilized or freeze-dried. Some of the most highly desired food aboard the ISS is fresh produce, which must be consumed first before it spoils.

Look inside the Space Food Systems Laboratory at JSC in the NASA clip below to learn more about how foods are carefully packaged for travel into space.

So, how do astronauts get their cosmic cuisine? Delivery, of course!

According to NASA, after the food is packaged, it is then shipped to one of three launch sites and loaded as cargo in resupply vehicles. The packaged space food can launch aboard SpaceX Dragons from Cape Canaveral in Florida, a Cygnus spacecraft in Virginia, or an H-ll Transfer Vehicle (HTV) from Japan.

While American astronauts are supplied their food by the U.S. and Russian cosmonauts by Russia, crew members do end up sharing their food with their international partners onboard the Space Station.

There is also the occasional treat that gets delivered to the Space Station, like when Pizza Hut partnered with the Russian Space Agency to deliver the first pizza to the ISS by way of a Progress resupply vehicle in 2001 (see below)!

Since there are no dedicated food freezers onboard the ISS, astronauts will occasionally be sent frozen treats like ice cream in the empty experiment freezers being shipped up to the Space Station.

As astronauts prepare for longer duration spaceflight missions, they will need to rely less on resupply missions and shift to producing their own food. Recently, astronauts have been working to grow fresh produce in space! In fact, in 2013, Expedition 44 crew members Kimiya Yui, Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly sampled the first space-grown vegetable, Outredgeous red romaine lettuce, while floating weightless in zero gravity.

Even more recently, in 2019, a Zero G oven made by Doubletree Hotels was sent up to the Space Station where Expedition 61 crew members, Luca Parmitano and Christina Koch, baked chocolate chip cookies for the first time in space!

Click here to learn more about how food is packaged for space and put in orbit.

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