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How NASA Gets a Turkey to Space for Holiday Meals

It’s not just the challenge of creating food that will survive the journey, but all sorts of logistical issues unique to dining in a state of near weightlessness

A turkey, slices of fruit, corn, and other foods float above the Earth in space. Lille Allen | Eater

Planning holiday meals is tricky enough on Earth. In space, it requires Noma-levels of preparation from teams of scientists determined to give astronauts something special. And it’s not just the challenge of creating food that will survive the journey, but all sorts of logistical issues unique to dining in a state of near-weightlessness. For instance, typical Christmas cookies and any other foods that generate crumbs could create a disaster on the International Space Station (ISS) thanks to the highly sensitive equipment on board. As a result, cookies on the station are small enough to eat in one bite, and other, larger desserts must be gooey or moist. Most space foods also need to be shelf-stable, safe to eat months after delivery, and packed in a way that creates minimal mess.

Figuring out the coordination and strategy behind those challenges is the job of Kimberly Glaus Läte and her team. Läte is a scientist at Leidos, a NASA contractor that works with the NASA Space Food Systems Laboratory (SFSL) to prepare and package meals — holidays and otherwise — for the crew on the space station. We asked Läte what’s on the menu aboard the ISS this holiday season, how meals are prepared for dining in space, and what sort of dietary restrictions can be accommodated 250 miles above Earth.

Eater: First off, can you walk us through the challenges of making food for use in space? What’s the space-worthy food-prep process from pan to package?

Kimberly Glaus Läte: Shelf-stable, ready-to-eat food items like cookies, crackers, and trail mix are purchased commercially and repackaged in flight-approved packaging materials. Beverage powders are purchased, packaged in pouches and vacuum-sealed with a septum assembly, which allows water to be added without leaking. Crew members shake the pouch to dissolve the powder, then drink the beverage using a special straw.

Purchased ingredients are used to prepare foods, which are then either freeze-dried or thermostabilized. Freeze-dried foods must be rehydrated prior to consumption. They’re vacuum-packaged with a septum assembly to allow water to be added to fully rehydrate the food prior to the crew member cutting open the package and eating. Thermostabilized foods are ready to eat and can be heated or consumed at room temperature.

What holiday foods will the ISS crew have this year?

The standard menu includes both sliced roasted turkey (a freeze-dried item, rehydrated by the crew member) and smoked turkey (an irradiated product that’s ready to eat), plus mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and cranapple dessert. The SFSL team also prepared a special holiday foods container including canned crab meat, smoked salmon, pork liver pate, jellied cranberry sauce and pumpkin spice latte. The food was delivered in November.

Crumbs can be dangerous on the space station. How are desserts like cookies modified to be more ISS friendly (and less messy)?

Standard-menu cookies and snacks are generally bite-sized. Items that aren’t bite-sized are chewy or sticky, limiting the crumbs generated. Lemon curd cake and chocolate pudding cake are thermostabilized, pouched foods (like ready-to-eat chicken and tuna found in grocery stores). Both cakes are moist and don’t generate crumbs. To give crew members a holiday experience, tubes of icing are provided for decorating the cookies.

Do international crew members typically get together for holiday celebrations, regardless of backgrounds?

The on-orbit crew do get together for celebrations and special meals.

With Christmas coming, do ISS crew members receive food-based gifts from their loved ones still on Earth? How does that work?

Space station crew members receive care packages with foods selected by their families. The SFSL team provides input to ensure the selected items won’t generate crumbs and are shelf-stable.

Do any astronauts have dietary restrictions or preferences? Can you cater meals to specific diets?

The standard space station menu is sent ahead of crew and designed to be acceptable to the general population. Since it has to be sent ahead, it cannot accommodate individual restrictions or choices. ISS crew do get some individual choices in a limited quantity of personal-preference allotment for resupply schedules, but this may not be possible on future exploration missions farther from Earth.

Are there special health concerns to consider when making meals to be eaten in space? For instance, do crew members need more of certain nutrients than they might here? Do they require supplements?

The SFSL team prepares food using non-iodized salt, as iodine may create thyroid issues for crew members. Excess iron is also a concern. Foods for spaceflight have reduced sodium compared to most commercially processed foods to prevent exacerbation of spaceflight conditions such as bone loss or intraocular pressure issues. Crew members are individually paired with a flight surgeon, collaboratively assessing the need for any supplements.

Are any junk foods/snack foods sent up?

Snacks on the standard menu tend to be healthy, such as dried fruit, trail mix, and nuts. Three types of candy-coated chocolates are on the standard menu. Additionally, crew members select their favorite snacks and candy to include in their crew preference containers. Around 20-25% of the foods are personal preference or specialty items that can be accommodated with the ISS resupply schedule.

What beverages do they have? Is everything besides water dehydrated?

Each crew member is allocated five coffee/tea preference containers as part of their personal preference allotment. The SFSL team works with the crew members to select the powdered coffee, tea or other beverage of their choice to be packaged in the beverage pouch. This allows crew members to have their caffeinated beverage the way they might at home. You can’t add sweetener or cream to a beverage pouch on-orbit; all the ingredients have to be included when it’s packaged. There are also containers with drinks like cocoa, orange drink, mango-peach smoothie and other beverages. The standard menu does not include alcoholic beverages.

Does fresh food ever get sent up?

Fresh food kits, shelf-stable food kits, and cold stowage kits are sent on each cargo vehicle, upmass availability permitting. Fresh food kits usually include apples, oranges, and other items that crew members request. Shelf-stable kits contain food products stored at room temperature and include special requests. The cold-stowage food kits contain perishable items like cheese.

I’ve heard pizza kits are a welcome treat. How do these work?

Pizza kits are a special treat and include shelf-stable pizza crust, pizza sauce in a squeezable plastic bottle, pepperoni, and other shelf-stable toppings. These ingredients still have a limited shelf life and are only possible due to resupply and the short distance between the Earth and ISS. The pizza is a fun reminder of home.

Kathy Adams is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer with a passion for offbeat topics. Her work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, USA Today, SFGate, and more.