For most of human history, breakfast in space was kind of gross. What Buzz Aldrin ate while floating in zero-gravity probably barely resembled a breakfast on his home planet. But as the rockets got more technologically advanced, so did space food.These days, food in space is so much more than freeze-dried blocks of ice cream or tubes of mystery meat. If anything, what astronauts eat for breakfast might even be more nutritious than what you eat on Earth—although it’s not without its complications. We are living through a new golden age of space food, and breakfast in space is no exception.
The first foods eaten in space were packaged in tubes or as cubes, and the menu was limited. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, ate applesauce or pureed beef from a tube that was sucked through a straw. During the Gemini program in the mid-1960s, astronauts were given solid, freeze-dried food that could be rehydrated in orbit using a water gun. It was also during a Gemini mission that NASA realized that not everything could be eaten in space. Two astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young smuggled a corned beef pastrami sandwich on board Gemini 3 in 1965, but when they started to eat it, the sandwich crumbled and the detritus started gunking up the machinery. Since then, regular bread has basically been banned in space.
It wasn’t until the Apollo program, which started in 1961 and ended in 1972, that American astronauts began eating hot food in space. It was also during the Apollo program that thermostabilized foods became available to astronauts in space, meaning that the food is, “heat processed to destroy deleterious microorganisms and enzymes” and then stored in cans, according to a NASA fact sheet. It’s not a high-tech process in and of itself—A can of tuna that you’d find at your grocery, for example, is thermostabilized. But it was a game-changer for astronauts, who could now eat solid foods without hydration in space, though it wasn't all gourmet. Some breakfast options on Apollo included Canadian bacon and applesauce, bacon squares, and cinnamon toasted bread cubes.
The Shuttle Era, which lasted from the first launch of Columbia in 1981 until the final landing of space shuttle Endeavor in 2011, was marked by an increase in food quality, too, but it is now, during the Space Station Era—in which astronauts are travelling to the International Space Station, in part to see if human life can sustain in space for longer periods of time—that space food is becoming even more innovative and creative, almost by necessity. Gone were the two-week trips of the Shuttle Era, replaced with marathon voyages. Astronaut Scott Kelly, for example, recently completed a yearlong mission in space, and with these longer trips comes a need for more types of food, even if the processes to make them have stayed fairly constant since the days of the shuttle.
“I would say the main change between Shuttle and Space Station has been the amount of variety,” explained one of NASA's top food scientists Vickie Kloeris. “Really the processing technology that we're using between shuttle and station haven't really changed. We were using freeze-dried foods for shuttle, we're still using them now, same way with thermostabilized. So we're using the same types of foods, we just have way more variety than we had during the shuttle program because the duration is so much longer.”
These days, there are about 200 different food and beverage options that are sent up with astronauts as part of the standard menu. To put that in some perspective, Russian astronauts are only sent up with 100 different products, according to Kloeris. The breakfast offerings are extensive, basically a full Continental breakfast that would put any hotel buffet to shame. “We have several different kinds of commercial cereals that we package with non-fat dried milk, and they add water on orbit, and that’s how they get their cereal and milk. We probably have five or six different kinds of cereal that are part of our standard menu.” According to a NASA fact sheet, the cereal options in space include Bran Chex, Cornflakes, Rice Krispies, granola, and even grits with butter.
There are also eggs and breakfast meats available, though the scrambled eggs can be “a little messy,” according to astronaut Garrett Reisman in a NASA video. “We also have probably four different kinds of freeze-dried egg products that are part of our menu, so they can have eggs for breakfast,” explains Kloeris, including regular scrambled eggs, Mexican scrambled, and seasoned scrambled eggs. “We also have a sausage patty that’s freeze-dried, we have a beef patty that’s freeze-dried. We also have a pouched breakfast sausage product.”
Astronauts in need of a caffeine fix are in luck, says Kloeris, because, “They can have coffee. They just have to tell us if they want it with sugar or creamer. We have to add all that ahead of time so that all they’re doing is adding hot water on orbit.” As British astronaut Tim Peakes demonstrates in a video posted to the European Space Agency’s YouTube channel, coffee in space comes in a silver pouch and is drank with a straw.
Since bread is generally a no-go in space, as established by Young and Grissom, most breakfast pastries are also off-limits, though Kloeris notes that, “The [U.S.] military does make some shelf-stable bread products that we buy and use, and one of those is called the maple-top muffin. That's one of the items that a lot of crew members select for breakfast, as well.”
Since there’s no toast in space, astronauts make do with what’s available: flour tortillas. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield made a peanut butter and honey “sandwich” on a flour tortilla, though serving up a savory breakfast on a tortilla is quite common, too. “A lot of them do make breakfast tacos,” explains Kloeris. “They’ll take the flour tortilla and put the freeze-dried egg and maybe cut up the sausage patty and put it in there. We do have a squeeze cheese product, like a cheese spread.”
Even though 200 different types of food sounds like a lot, it’s not that much when that’s the only food available for several months at a time. That’s why each crew member gets to bring on some personal goodies, for further customization of their meals. “When they’re on orbit, on station for six months, they get nine containers that we call crew-specific menu containers. So those nine containers will have their name on them, and they will get to decide what goes in there.”
Sometimes countries bring specific foods—South Korea famously created a canned space kimchi. But more often than not, the choices are more pedestrian, like Hadfield’s tiny pouch of peanut butter. “If they can find a pouched product or a product in a small can in the grocery store that they want to send, then as long as it meets our shelf-life and microbe requirements, then they can do that,” says Kloeris.
There’s also advances to grow fresh food in space, which, at this point, is more of a way to break up the monotony of eating pre-cooked food than anything else. It’s now possible to grow lettuce in space, what Kloeris calls a “pick-and-grow” crop, and they’re looking at this technology to jazz up meals on future missions, like, say, a trip to Mars.
“What we kind of anticipate for Mars is that on the trip to first Mars, and on the way back, hopefully, [the astronauts] be able to grow some pick and eat crops like lettuce and cherry tomatoes to add to their packaged food system,” Kloeris explains, but quickly adds, “It's honestly going to be more of a psychological impact to the menu than an actual nutritional impact to the menu because the volumes are just going to be pretty small.”
And really, that monotony is the hardest part about space food, because, when it’s all said and done, breakfast in space is kind of boring. It’s just scrambled eggs, cereal with milk, and other normal dishes you’d find here on Earth—but hey, at least the view is nice.