Subsistence in Space
CPT Nanette Gallant
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin – Summer 1992
Editor’s Note: The Army has been involved with the space program since its earliest days. Until 1984 the Army assumed only a minor supporting role through the Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, MA. With the advent of the space shuttle, and now Space Station Freedom, the potential for a greater role for the Army is here. The mission of providing subsistence for space is a big one, one that could conceivably be handled by the Quartermaster Corps. Here the author provides a brief introduction to the space subsistence program and advocates a greater involvement of the Corps in the space subsistence mission.
1957. The Cold War is 11 years old and shows no signs of slowing. China has fallen to the Communists and Korea is still fresh in the minds of the nation. The Soviet Union launches the first satellite and the space race begins.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, eager to overtake the Soviets’ accomplishment, establishes the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in October 1958. Its immediate goal: put the first man in space. At the time, this project is a mammoth undertaking fraught with problems, not the least of which is feeding astronauts in space. NASA works out a myriad of problems, most dealing with the effects of weightlessness on food and digestion. The Army has become involved with the space effort through the Redstone and Vanguard rocket programs. Although NASA will relieve the Army of responsibility for these programs in 1958, the Army remains involved in space subsistence. The Natick center has provided significant technical and materiel assistance in food for space from the original manned Mercury flights through today’s space program.
On 5 May 1961 the first Mercury flight launched Alan Shepard into space. John Glenn followed Shepard and Virgil Grissom on 20 February 1962. Glenn carried a menu of freeze-dried powders, tubed spaghetti and roast beef, and a variety of foods reduced to bit-sized cubes The cubes flaked into crumbs that floated around the astronaut’s capsule. The subsistence program had a long way to go.
The Gemini program began in 1965 and with it came NASA’s revised approach to menu development. Gemini astronauts ate the same bite-sized cubes as Glenn but coated with gelatin which crumbled less. Also carried were freeze dried (rehydratable) foods packaged in special containers to allow better reconstitution. Menus included shrimp cocktail, chicken and vegetables, butterscotch pudding and applesauce. Astronauts selected meal combinations as they pleased. The subsistence program was evolving and the Natick center continued in its supporting role.
With the Apollo program of the late 1960s, space subsistence quality and variety improved greatly. Hot water was available to rehydrate freeze-dried foods faster and improve the taste. The astronauts also carried “spoon bowls,” pressurized plastic containers that could be opened and the contents eaten with a spoon. Natick laboratories prepared irradiated foods for the Apollo missions which added more choices to the menu. A food pantry stocking more than 100 food items (including strawberry and peanut cubes, rehydratable spaghetti, salmon salad and 75 drinks) helps with the boredom of repetitive menu choices.
Food became a more critical and interesting subject with the coming of the Skylab project in the early 1970s, since the astronauts had to remain in space over 20 days at a time. Skylab was equipped with a dining area where astronauts could eat in a more conventional manner. Skylab also had a freezer and refrigerator which offered the crew some flexibility in meal choices and preparation. Skylab experiments showed a need to change the nutritional content of space foods. After long periods in space, astronauts lose calcium and other vital minerals.
Challenges in Space Subsistence
The forward march of progress leads us to the space shuttle program of today. Again, Natick laboratories helped NASA plan and program the shuttle food program. Lessons learned from Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab flights are used in today’s shuttle menu plans. Developing appealing, appetizing meals to meet all standards required for space flight is probably the greatest challenge facing today’s space subsistence program. The average shuttle meal is chosen six months in advance, specially packaged, weighs 3.4 pounds, is carefully tested for bacteria and microbes, and costs about $300. Currently, Boeing industries process and prepare the shuttle foods. With an average shuttle mission lasting seven days, a minimum of 147 meals must be chosen, tested and packaged for each flight. NASA places a premium on safe, appetizing, convenient and lightweight space shuttle meals. Several considerations for space subsistence include the following:
Astronauts lose their appetites in space. Senator E.J. “Jake” Garn (R-Utah) who flew on Discovery in April 1989 noted he was not interested in eating for most of the flight. “The view from space was so beautiful, eating was the last thing on my mind,” he said. The impact of this appetite loss is that NASA designs menus to provide 2,800 calories daily. These menus are comprised of about 16-17 percent protein, 30-32 percent fat and 50-54 percent carbohydrates. This is about the same ratio as the Army now uses in its Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs). In fact, some space rations are MREs. Brigadier General Robert L. Stewart, the Army’s first astronaut, counted MREs among his favorite space foods.
Bacteria multiply quickly in the space shuttle environment. Food lockers on the shuttle are near electronic gear that may reach temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the mission. Research continues in attempts to stabilize the effect of bacteria on subsistence in space missions.
Foods of a “crumbly” nature are still a problem on the shuttle, as they were on the first Mercury flights. Senator Garn noted how the astronauts constantly clean the cabin with a special vacuum to avoid getting “stray” crumbs and other items in their eyes or equipment. Liquids form spheres in zero gravity. Once spilled, liquids float around the cabin and must be captured with napkin wipes in mid-air.
Today’s Space Subsistence
Processing subsistence for space travel presents its own unique challenges. Most important is proper packaging and preparation. An astronaut who becomes ill with food poisoning could possibly die before receiving medical treatment. Today, the shuttle carries the following six different forms of foods.
Freeze Dried (or Rehydratable) Foods
Rehydratable foods are still common food in space. These foods are dehydrated by freeze-drying, air-drying and other methods. When the astronauts are ready to eat these items, they inject a specific amount of water into the container to restore the food to an edible form. On the shuttle menu, all beverages (coffee, juice and breakfast drinks) and some vegetables, cereals and meats are rehydratable.
Intermediate Moisture Foods
These foods include peanut butter, jelly and the dried fruits available at the supermarket. Intermediate moisture foods are usually selected for breakfast meals.
Most thermostabilized foods are better known as MREs to soldiers. Canned foods are also included in this category. Before these foods are placed on a flight, the square root of the entire lot is tested for bacteria. The most popular MREs in space are ham slices, frankfurters, beef with barbecue sauce, and turkey with gravy.
In irradiated foods, bacteria are killed by exposure to high energy rays. This allows storing the foods at room temperature with their natural moisture. The radiation does not make the food radioactive and does not alter the taste.
Natural Form Foods
These are foods low in moisture such as nuts, cookies, candy bars and crackers. The most popular foods in natural form on shuttle trips are cashews, cookies and peanuts.
Beginning with the fourth shuttle flight, NASA provided fresh foods such as sandwiches, fresh fruits and vegetables. The sandwiches are eaten as “launch snacks.” According to Senator Garn, fresh food made a notable difference at snack and meal times. Fresh items must be stable to avoid spoilage throughout the flight.
Water is as important to the astronauts as to soldiers in the field. In space the astronauts drink water provided by shuttle fuel cells. Chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen produce shuttle electricity, and water is a by-product of the reaction. Nearly two gallons of water per hour are available for drinking, eating and washing. This is more than enough, so the remainder is released overboard. Foods are rehydrated through a special nozzle that fits into the packages. Astronauts select the amount of water desired and the nozzle shoots it into the package to prevent spills. The rehydratable food packages allow astronauts to “stir” externally, mixing in the water. When ready to eat, the astronaut removes the top of the package and eats the item normally as one would on earth.
Condiments and other Food Items
Condiments are also available to season foods. Salt and pepper are in liquid form to prevent free-floating salt and pepper crystals in the orbiter. Tabasco sauce is as popular with shuttle astronauts as with soldiers. Carbonated drinks are not carried on the shuttle. Dr. Charles Bourland, NASA food scientist, noted that some popular soft drinks were tested and proved difficult to digest because the bubbles stay suspended in the liquid.
Fruit bar snacks, designed for eating in a spacesuit without using hands, cost approximately $300 each. Astronauts eat these food bars before suiting up for extra-shuttle activities. BG Stewart said eating the bar inside a spacesuit would result in a mess in the helmet and not much food in the astronaut’s mouth.
Special foods were developed to make the astronauts feel more at home. Ethnic foods, tortillas and even ribs have also been processed for meals on the shuttle.
Waste is a familiar problem to Quartermasters who have operated field ration break points. Dr. Bourland noted that “astronauts always choose more food than they can eat.” The result is hundreds of food items returned from every flight. Most astronauts are too busy to eat and just do not get hungry. Senator Garn agreed, noting that if he flew on the shuttle again he would choose fewer items.
The problem of waste containers and food is magnified in space, since everything taken up must be brought down. Both wet and dry trash occupy a lot of room on the shuttle during missions and NASA engineers continue to struggle with this problem.
The space program has benefited enormously from Army subsistence technology. Natick pioneered freeze-dried food for soldiers in the early 1960s and NASA took advantage of the innovation. Since the early space flights, NASA has depended on Natick for food items that Army soldiers already ate on a regular basis to also meet space specifications. Army standards require foods to remain shelf stable for three years, NASA only one. In terms of a technology transfer from NASA to the Army, today’s soldier can thank NASA for the new MRE pouch bread. NASA wanted a stable, yet “normal,” bread for astronauts to enjoy. As this was a common complaint among soldiers in the field, the pouch bread quickly became a popular item in the Army subsistence program.
With the ongoing development of Space Station Freedom, the future will bring new challenges and missions for the space subsistence program. Right now, 28 constraints are considered in shuttle food program development. These constraints will be magnified when Space Station Freedom is built. A 14 -day galley resupply and 90-day mission/emergency menu are included in space station plans. The 90-day menu alone consists of over 14,000 separate items. The management of this subsistence supply mission offers potential opportunities for the Quartermaster Corps officer and noncommissioned officer.
Viewing the familiarity of the Quartermaster Corps with the space subsistence mission, as well as the cooperation that has historically existed between Natick and NASA, now is the time for the Corps to get involved in the expanded space subsistence program. Many of the foods soldiers eat in the field are proposed for space station use. Some of the problems discussed in this article are also familiar to Quartermasters.
Today’s astronauts are scientists, pilots, physicians and engineers. None are uniquely qualified to manage large inventories of subsistence items, something Quartermasters do daily. Until now, a few uniquely qualified individuals managing the space subsistence program served the needs of NASA well. The program is relatively small and does not require a long experience base in management of large inventories. Times will change with Space Station Freedom coming on line. Experience gained by Quartermasters through field assignments in subsistence could have potential application in space subsistence management. Subsistence assignments in the Training With Industry (TWI) program coupled with assignments to Natick could prove valuable not only to the Quartermaster officer but also to NASA. Now is the time for the Quartermaster Corps to explore new opportunities and expand the Corps’ horizons to the fourth dimension – space.
At the time this article was written: CPT Nanette Gallant was a graduate of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. She holds bachelor of science degrees in communications and physical education, as well as a master of arts degree in public administration from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri. She is a graduate of the Ordnance Officer Basic, Quartermaster Officer Advanced Airborne, Air Assault, Aerial Delivery and Material Officer and Jumpmaster Courses. Her previous assignments include Logistics Plans Officer, XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Battalion Maintenance Officer, Class V Platoon Loader and Company Executive Officer, Headquarters and Service Company, 407th Supply and Transport Battalion, 82d Airborne Division; and Petroleum Supply Officer, Materiel Management Center, 82d Airborne Division. She is currently assigned to 426th Supply and Transport Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky.