Former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino blasted into outer space twice between 1996 and 2014. Both missions were to service the Hubble Space Telescope, including the historic final repair mission.
Massimino and I chatted over Skype about what it’s like to eat at zero gravity. He says the food in space is actually really good. Astronauts are given a combination of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and dehydrated items requiring water. But unlike the military versions of these foods, space food is custom cooked and designed at NASA’s food lab at Johnson Space Center.
“We have a food tasting session and you sit around this very nice table and they bring out samples of different foods that you can have in space,” said Massimino. “You rate them from zero to nine. Then they take all your information and a dietitian tries to figure out what would be the best stuff for you to eat based on your preferences. You can’t get all your preferences, you can’t have macaroni and cheese at every meal. They have to give you enough calories but also enough nutrition so you have a balanced diet. They’ll map out what your meals are going to be, they’ll give you your menu and give you all the food in your food locker.”
He says being so far away from home, sometimes for extended periods, comfort food plays a key role.
“The psychology of food is really important, particularly in times when you’re away from home or in a stressful situation. It’s not only the food itself, it’s also the sharing of the meal. Some other astronauts, before my time, flew on the Mir Space Station. One of the things we learned was they had a table. You really don’t need a table for your food because your food floats. All of our food has a little bit of consistency to it, a little bit of gravy or sauce or some liquid to it because liquid keeps things together. You don’t want crumbs because crumbs can cause problems. You can inhale them, they can get in your eye. But what they use a table for is a place to gather and have a crew meal together as if you’re a family. There is a comfort to that. On long duration space trips you can’t discount the importance of good psychological well-being. It not only makes you feel better about what you’re doing but also improves performance and food plays a huge role in it.”
He says food actually tastes different in space.
“When you’re in space your heart’s still pumping but the fluid isn’t being held in place by gravity so it tends to pool in your upper body and into your head. So you get a little more congestion in your head, you get a little stuffy. Because of that you don’t smell quite as well. So you’re not going to be able to taste as well. We tend to like spicier food because we can taste it a little bit better. Tabasco is a really important thing. Salt and pepper is available, but not in a crystal form, it comes in a liquid form. Shrimp cocktail is a very popular food because it comes with a very spicy horseradish.”
Flying into space is not for everyone. I asked Mike if he’s always been a risk taker.
“I am not a risk taker. I don’t like heights, I’ve never done any skydiving, I drive very slowly in a car and I’m generally very careful about things. But I’ve done very dangerous things by flying into space and also space walking. That’s because there was a reason to do it. The opportunity to go into space, for me, was a dream. A dream is worth the risk. I think that whatever you decide to do with you life you should feel that strongly about it, you should be that passionate about what ever you’re doing that you’re willing to take risks. I think you want to be doing something that you think is that important. So I am not a risk taker. I think that helps actually, being an astronaut, because being careful is really important. I think the reason we take those risks is because we’re trying to do something that we think is really important. I think our future as a species, as humans, is not going to be just here on Earth, but in space. That I think is so important that it’s worth risking my life for.”
To learn more about Mike Massimino’s experience as an astronaut, check out his book, New York Times Best seller, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. And listen to him on my podcast featuring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.