In Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery, astronaut Scott Kelly chronicles the many small joys of a year spent aboard the International Space Station: sixteen daily sunsets, tweeting with Barack Obama, and Klondike bars.
If that last item seems out of place, consider that ice cream is a rare treat for astronauts. In Kelly’s case, it was delivered by a SpaceX Dragon capsule. “It’s real ice cream,” explains Kelly, “not the freeze-fried stuff that’s marketed as astronaut ice cream, which we don’t actually have in space. I’ve never had ice cream in space before—we usually don’t get to eat anything cold. It tastes amazing.”
Hold on. If astronauts don’t eat astronaut ice cream, why can we buy it from science museum gift shops?
Freeze dried vanilla ice cream was developed for astronauts by Whirlpool, and the dessert was included on a menu within the Apollo 7 Press Kit. In a video for Vox, Phil Edwards explains that although records of that ice cream exist, the astronauts aboard Apollo 7 didn’t remember it. Edwards interviews astronaut Walter Cunningham, who says of astronaut ice cream “No, they don’t know their ass, obviously. We never had any of that.”
Freeze-dried ice cream was grounded because it posed a threat to astronauts. Three years before Apollo 7, astronaut John Young launched a Congressional investigation when he smuggled a corned-beef sandwich into the Space Shuttle. The “$30 million sandwich,” a replica of which is now housed in the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana, made crumbs. And crumbs, left to float around in microgravity, can clog machinery and kill you. As any kid who have ever opened a bag of astronaut ice cream while still in the science museum gift shop knows, astronaut ice cream is very crumbly. It’s safe to say that NASA would never have approved it for space flight.
Astronaut ice cream may have failed in its first mission, but it’s not hard to see why it has succeeded as a product for kids. According to Stephen Colbert, “the name was everything a kid could possibly want. I mean ‘astronaut’ and ‘ice cream’? They might as well call it Dinosaur Snow Day.”
Now that the ice cream’s out of the bag, we have an educational dilemma. Astronaut ice cream is so fun that it can seem like the best way to teach kids about eating in space, even if the product itself could clog air vents or hatch seals and thus contribute to the deaths of all crew members aboard the ISS.
I propose one small step: Instead of teaching kids how astronauts eat, using freeze-dried ice cream to tempt them toward the stars, we could teach all the ways that astronauts eat like them.
The myth of astronaut ice cream should caution us against using press releases as evidence of what astronauts ate. Some of the best evidence we have about astronaut diets comes from their leftovers, some of which are now housed in the National Air and Space Museum.
The collection shows what astronauts didn’t eat—that is, their leftovers. The collection includes Neil Armstrong’s rejected beef-barbecue cubes, fruitcake, and coffee, as well as a lot of bacon bars. “Conversely,” writes Brett Martin of Smithsonian magazine, “there tend to be fewer of those items that did prove popular: hot dogs, spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp cocktail.”
They swap food, cafeteria-style.
Martin encourages us to view the ISS as the “coolest school cafeteria in the universe,” where astronauts from different countries share their food with each other.
That trading, however, causes problems for mission control, as without knowing what the astronauts actually ate, we can’t get accurate sense of how caloric requirements change in space. Just like kids and school lunch
They eat with their hands.
Kids who favor their hands over a fork might also be training for a life onboard the ISS, where astronauts don’t use plates. There’s no sink to bring any dirty dishes to, either. Kelly writes that after using his scissors to open food pouches, he licks them clean.
They play with their food.
They have Capri Suns.
According to Charles Bourland, former director of the NASA space food program and Gregory Vogt, NASA education specialist, the food pouches now sent to the ISS are modifications of Capri Sun packaging.
They eat sugar cereal.
Children who really want to eat like astronauts should campaign for sugar cereal, as, according to Bourland and Vogt, “frosted cereals stay crisper longer than unfrosted cereals.” The kids aren’t eating processed junk, they’re researching the integrity of food over long-duration space missions.
They make a lot of tacos.
Tortillas with barbecued beef. Tortillas with reconstituted eggs and irradiated sausage. Tortillas with pizza toppings. Astronauts can turn anything into a taco. Because they are shelf-stable and don’t make crumbs, tortillas are a perfect space food.
They binge on ice cream.
Just like a kid with a pint of his favorite flavor, astronauts have to binge on their ice cream. For science.
The resupply capsules bringing the ice cream are also bringing freezers for scientific research. The astronauts have to empty the ice cream quickly so that they can get on with their work.
They find mystery snacks.
If you catch a kid snacking on floor food, think on the bright side: she’s snacking like the astronauts. Kelly shares the floating food roulette his crewmates play on board the ISS:
As we are putting our tools away, Terry shouts something with a childlike excitement in his voice: “Hey! Candy!”
A little piece of something edible looking is floating by. It often happens that bits of food get away from us and provide an unexpected snack for someone days later.
“Remember the mice,” I warn him, “It might not be chocolate.”
He takes a closer look at it. “Shit, it’s a used Band-Aid,” he says. He catches it and puts it in the trash. Later that night, we tell Samantha the story and she tells us that last week she ate something she thought was candy and realized only too late that it was garbage.
They’ll eat salad if they have to.
One of the experiments Kelly assisted with during his year in space was growing lettuce, which the crew harvested and ate with a simple oil and vinegar dressing. Kelly called it “surprisingly good.”
But his crewmate, Kimiya Yui, later confessed that he had to “force himself to eat the lettuce for the camera—he grew up on a lettuce farm, and in the summer he had to get up in the middle of the night to harvest it, so since then he’s hated lettuce.”
That’s a good lesson for the kid who hates vegetables: Want to be an astronaut? Eat like the whole world is watching.