What do astronauts eat in space? Can they grow food? (Beginner)

What are some of the things that astronauts eat while they are in space?

Even though when you go to some shops you can buy "Astronaut Ice Cream," this is not the kind of food that astronauts eat when they are traveling. Packaging technology has advanced so astronauts can eat very similar meals to what we have on Earth without having to chase floating blobs of juice or spinning bananas around. Astronauts even eat with a fork, knife and spoon, except since everything they eat comes in sealed packages, their silverware also includes a little pair of scissors to cut open the packet that contains their meal. Plus, some changes are made to keep things from getting messy -- like making wraps with tortillas, instead of sandwiches on bread, which produces a lot of tiny crumbs.

The meal itself consists of foods that are specially treated to preserve them and prevent bacteria and other microbes from growing on them. Some foods, like granola bars and nuts, don't need any treatment. Others are dehydrated, like macaroni and cheese and eggs, and the astronauts add water to them in space to soften them back up. Fruits, yogurts and some meats are treated with heat to kill bacteria, and some are partially dehydrated and eaten that way once in space, like dried apricots and peaches. Steak and some other meats are treated with radiation to kill microbes. Also, astronauts have to keep in mind that "eating healthy" is a little different in space. For example, since they are in a zero-gravity environment, their bones become weaker, so they make sure to eat a calcium-rich diet and take vitamins. Even more interesting is the fact that some foods actually are dangerous in space, such as bread and other foods that make crumbs, as mentioned above. An astronaut could get sick from inhaling bread crumbs that are floating around the cabin, or they could get in the way of a nearby scientific experiment. Overly hot food is also dangerous because if it floats away and touches an astronaut, it could burn her or him.

If you want more detailed information on how astronauts eat in space, check out NASA's Space Food website, or their Educator Guide on the topic of Space Food and Nutrition. The website Serious Eats, which is all about delicious food around the world (and now, above it!) recently posted a great, detailed article on NASA's space food.

Can you grow food in space?

We are not yet very good at it, but we can grow some plants in space. Most plants do not grow very well in microgravity, and circulating nutrient solutions through their roots (without getting any clogs in the pumps) and providing light for them to grow (without creating unnecessary heat or wasting power) is a big challenge.

Learning to grow enough vegetables to be a useful source of food for astronauts is important if astronauts want to go to Mars! This is an active area of research for NASA and the International Space Station.

Page last updated on June 24, 2015.

About the Author

Britt Scharringhausen

Britt studies the rings of Saturn. She got her PhD from Cornell in 2006 and is now a Professor at Beloit College in Wisconson.