Cosmic crab, star salmon and space sturgeon: What’s on a cosmonaut’s menu?

A girl buying space food in tubes used by austronauts in outer space in a vending machine at the VDNKh exhibition centre. People are offered tubes with 11 different types of food: main courses, second courses and desserts. Source: Vyacheslav Prokofyev / TASS

A girl buying space food in tubes used by austronauts in outer space in a vending machine at the VDNKh exhibition centre. People are offered tubes with 11 different types of food: main courses, second courses and desserts. Source: Vyacheslav Prokofyev / TASS

Individuals working in space require specially-produced and packaged food that provides them with a balanced and nutritional diet for the months they are away from Earth. But what types of food are suitable for consumption in space? On the eve of Cosmonautics Day (International Day of Human Space Flight) on April 12, RBTH visited the Russian factory that makes food for cosmonauts to take on their space journeys.

Source: Yekaterina Chipurenko / RBTH, TASS

Located 3 kilometers (1,86 miles) from Moscow, the settlement of Ismailovo appears to be a typical Moscow suburb with potholes and multi-story buildings. The only noteworthy thing about it is the neat apple garden you encounter as you enter the town.

In front of the garden stands a yellow building, housing the Biryulevsky experimental factory. This is the only enterprise in Russia that specializes in the production of food for cosmonauts.

Every stage of the process – from the preparation of the food to the packaging – takes place behind closed doors. A look from the corridor through the windows in the walls reveals women in white robes putting spaghetti and mushrooms into transparent packages with unusual forms.

The food is very fine and dry, like dried fruit. These are the meals that Russia’s cosmonauts will take on their journey to the International Space Station (ISS).

 

From tubes to sublimation

"From the 60s to the middle of the 80s space food was packaged in tubes," says Viktor Dobrovolsky, Director of the Research Institute of the Food Concentrate Industry and Special Food Technology, as well as Chief Designer of Space Food. "Nine products, including soups and juice, were placed in tubes for the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin. He was the first to try food in tubes."

Source: Tatyana Shramchenko / RBTH

Today’s space food has another aspect. Since the second half of the 1980s food has been sublimated and dehydrated, which has helped to reduce its volume and mass, explains Dobrovolsky.

Sublimation is carried out with the help of special apparatus. First the products are frozen at 70 degrees below zero. Then they are dried in a vacuum and packed. In the end what you see are small transparent packages with miniature food portions. Using this method, 97 percent of the vital nutrients are preserved. Moreover, the addition of flavor enhancers, dyes and other artificial additives to the food is forbidden.

The sense of taste can change in conditions of zero gravity. It is difficult to predict how the perception of taste will change in an individual. For some people, sweet food may no longer taste sweet or they may not even taste salt. Science still does not know why this happens.

The cosmonauts also use the package as a dish. With the help of a special tube, they pour a certain amount of hot and cold water into the package in order to give it its original form. Then they knead the package with their hands, wait 7-10 minutes for the food to reconstitute itself, cut off the edge of the package with scissors and start eating. The used package is then pressed and removed from the space station by a cargo spacecraft.

The cosmonaut's ration includes canned food: crab, salmon, sturgeon, all in aluminum cans. Black caviar has also been served in space for the last two years. Before being sent, it goes through thermal processing, after which it can stay in space for up to half a year.

All the raw material used in the space food industry is exclusively Russian: The caviar is supplied by the Volgograd Region, where fish is reared in ponds; the sturgeon comes from Astrakhan; the crab from the Far East; while the bread and cheese is produced in Moscow factories.

Each spacecraft going to the ISS brings fresh fruit and vegetables: lemons, tomatoes, onions and garlic. Before being sent, the products are treated with a secret substance, the likes of which, according to Dobrovolsky, cannot be found anywhere else in the world. After such treatment the fresh fruit and vegetables can remain on the ISS for up to 40 days without changing form.

 

The diet

The cosmonauts eat four times a day: Three main meals and an additional one after intensive training or complex experiments. A daily ration for one person consists of 3,000-3,100 calories.

The popularization of space food

In February, at the VDNKh general purpose trade show in Moscow, an experimental machine was set up to sell space food in tubes. A tube of borsch, marinated lamb or pork with vegetables cost 300 rubles ($5.75). There were 12 types of products. In the next year to year and a half there will be about 200 such machines set up throughout the city.

Doctors and biologists determine how many proteins, fats and carbohydrates, as well as macro and microelements, should go into each portion. They also check the products to see if they contain pesticides, salts from heavy metals and other harmful substances. Before appearing on the spacecraft's menu the products are tasted by the cosmonauts and are then judged according to a nine-point system: they are accepted only with a score of six or above.

Each country supplies its cosmonauts with its own food: Russian food is given to Russian cosmonauts, American food to American cosmonauts. However, if the Russian cosmonauts wish, they can order products from the American ration, and vice versa. "The Americans love our first courses – borsch, rassolnik, kharcho – as well as our cottage cheese, canned food and caviar," says Dobrovolsky.

For New Year's Eve the Biryulevsky factory prepares holiday packages based on the wish lists that the cosmonauts send in advance. They usually ask for traditional holiday products, such as salted cucumbers and tangerines. Alcohol is strictly forbidden in space, and is the only restriction. "There is nothing that is not prepared for cosmonauts," concludes Dobrovolsky. "There are few of them, so everything must be done to please them."

Interesting facts:

- Shipping 1 kilogram of food to the ISS costs about $10,000

- The cosmonauts have a reserve stock of food for 40 days

- British singer Sarah Brightman, who will travel to the ISS as a tourist in September 2015, will pay $60 million for her food.

- One of the products that is most popular and frequently ordered among cosmonauts is cottage cheese with nuts

- "Earthly" food such as cookies, jams, fruit bars and candy can also be brought onto the ISS. These products do not go through special processing, but are placed in airtight packages.

 

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