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Former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría retired from space travel in 2012. Like an athlete, he thought his days floating above the Earth were done. Then, he started working with Axiom Space, and will soon be headed back to the International Space Station, with help from NASA and SpaceX. For a recent Eat Like, López-Alegría divulged exactly what it’s like to eat in space.
Decades ago, in the first trips outside of our atmosphere, López-Alegría says astronauts used to eat out of toothpaste tubes. Thankfully, that’s a thing of the past. “The majority of our food looks and feels and tastes like food,” he says.
For the packaged substances, there are two different ways they’re consumed. The most common form most people know is dehydrated space food. Think of the dehydrated ice cream little kids get on their first trip to a science museum. With a little water, the food is re-hydrated and ready to eat. The second form is thermostabilized food. These come in metal packets with everything already included, you just need to heat it. Everything else is as solid as it is on Earth.
To prepare for the trip, López-Alegría says astronauts go to the NASA food lab and taste everything they’ll be served. After that, they pack a lunch box with ten days worth of food in it.
Although there’s technically a schedule for when astronauts are supposed to eat certain foods in a day, there’s no day or night cycle in space, so organization quickly goes out the window. “Once the box is open, it’s kind of a free for all,” López-Alegría says.
For a standard clock, they use Greenwich Mean Time. Astronauts wake up at 6am and have an hour for breakfast. There’s scrambled eggs, cereal, and milk López-Alegría describes as “mushy,” along with other common breakfast foods. López-Alegría says he skips breakfast, and his first meal is at lunch.
For their midday meal, they have heavier entrees. Chicken fajitas, beef brisket, and ravioli were some of the options. López-Alegría is picky about his pasta, since his mother is Italian. But according to him, it wasn’t that bad. “You’d think that something that’s thermostabilized like pasta is gonna be way past al dente. It was actually pretty good,” he says.
Dinner is part of their “pre-sleep” time, where they eat, prepare for bed, and email friends and family. One of López-Alegría’s favorite foods is paella. To get a space version of it, he brought it to the food lab, where scientists dehydrated it. “This turned out to be a lot better on earth than in space,” he says.
Overall, eating in space isn’t exactly a luxurious experience. López-Alegría says it felt “mechanical” and like “an obligation”. But, the meals are nutritious and balanced. “I wouldn’t want to live the rest of my life that way, but for a short mission like the one coming up,” he says, “it’ll be just fine.”
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