Before you tuck in to your gravy-drenched, slow-roasted turkey this Thanksgiving, you might want to give thanks that you’re not circling above the earth at 17,500 miles per hour. Forget for a moment that you probably couldn’t even keep the food down in microgravity – would you be willing to trade those creamy mashed potatoes or Grandma’s green been casserole for something freeze-dried and wrapped in plastic?
For six astronauts currently working more than 200 miles above the surface of the earth, that choice is easy, as freeze-dried, irradiated and thermostablized food items are their only options. Luckily for them, food scientist Vickie Kloeris and her team at NASA have developed shelf-stable Thanksgiving meals to celebrate the holiday on the International Space Station. First though, they had to figure out a way to make the food taste good in space.
“One of our biggest challenges is that crew members in orbit do report that they feel like their taste buds are somewhat dulled,” Kloeris told CNN from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
“We’ve been able to do experiments to verify why that is the case, however, we do know that one big contributing factor is the fact that they’re not getting as much aroma from the food,” she said.
Kloeris acknowledged that nothing is going to taste like homemade food, but insisted all the food is tasty – her favorite is the cornbread dressing, which she said is the closest item to the original.
Kloeris and her team have even submitted a proposal to study the effect that microgravity has on taste buds. Prior experiments have been performed on shuttle missions, but because the time spent on the shuttle was minimal as compared to time spent on the ISS, the results were inconclusive. Their proposal is ongoing as of press time.
In space, Kloeris said astronauts are battling a shift in body fluid which results in congestion, and similar to having a cold on earth, congestion can affect the way astronauts taste their food. Additionally, much of the flavor we “taste” is actually absorbed through our sense of smell, and because heat does not necessarily rise upward in space, astronauts will not necessarily get a strong sense of aroma from the food, resulting in food that is less tasty.
This Thanksgiving, there are two Americans, one Japanese and three Russians that will be – for lack of a better term – breaking bread aboard the ISS. But instead of smothering their stuffing in gravy and dunking their turkey in cranberry sauce, the astronauts will be eating their meals out of plastic or foil-wrapped packaging.
According to Kloeris, there are 200 different food and beverage items available aboard the ISS, which include all the traditional Thanksgiving trimmings like cornbread dressing, green beans and sliced turkey. Due to the lack of freezers and refrigerators on the ISS, all food items have to be freeze-dried, thermostablized or irradiated to ensure microbiological requirements and stable shelf life. NASA packages these items to send to the ISS several months before sending them to space: about four to five months prior to shipment for beverages, and about six to eight months for rehydratable items.
Astronaut Tom Marshburn, who spent 146 days on the ISS, told CNN that “you can’t have too much variety, [though], because everyone will want something different.”
For those astronauts who want something extra outside of the NASA menu, they can take items up to the ISS that meet NASA’s requirements in something called a “bonus box.”
“There was some past bonus food that people hadn’t had time to eat when I was up there, so we were digging around, eating food that had been left for previous crews,” Marshburn said. For example, Astronaut Suni Williams once requested Marshmallow Fluff when she was in space, and then supposedly left it on the ISS for another astronaut to make “candied yams” on Thanksgiving.
Astronauts can also take up non-Thanksgiving themed items. Kloeris told a story where one Japanese space agency astronaut asked NASA if there was any way to send up sushi.
“And it was like, ‘sigh’ Not without refrigeration,” Kloeris remembered. “Sorry. Not gonna happen,” she added, laughing.
Thanksgiving isn’t the only holiday that astronauts observe in space. Marshburn recalled celebrating Christmas aboard the station last year.
“Keep in mind you’re talking about six dudes, some test pilots, engineers and a doctor, so our ambiance wasn’t too great, [but] we’ve got a little plastic Christmas tree about a foot and a half tall,” he said. “We [also] have funny little elf hats.” And while the festivities only lasted for a few minutes, Marshburn said it was really enjoyable.
For the two Americans currently aboard the ISS right now, Thanksgiving will still be a work day, but they plan on enjoying a big meal after their work is done.
While the sliced turkey is heated on a hot plate-like device, much of the food is rehydrated with hot water inserted into the foil or plastic-wrapped packaging, and then manipulated with the astronaut's fingers to spread the water around.
Since the astronauts obviously can't eat off of a plate in space due to lack of gravity, they will cut an X into the plastic-wrapped mashed potatoes, stuffing and green beans so that the flaps keep the food inside the container. The astronauts then rely on the surface tension of the wet product to keep the product in the container and on the fork.
“If we can’t be at home with our families during the holidays, then this is the next best place that any of us would like to be,” Astronaut Rick Mastracchio said in a message posted on YouTube.
“From the International Space Station orbiting 260 miles above the earth, we wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.”