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Thanksgiving in space: What's on the menu? (+video)

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will enjoy smoked turkey, candied yams, and green beans, and mushrooms, all without gaining a single pound. 

What's Thanksgiving like in space?

In a sense, not too different from the first Thanksgivings in America, says NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, commander of Expedition 42 aboard the International Space Station.

After all, the English settlers of Plymouth Colony were pioneers in an unknown land, crossing vast oceans to explore new worlds – not unlike astronauts of today.

"The first thing that comes to mind is going all the way back to those early settlers when they endured some really rough times, crossing the ocean and getting started in an unknown land," Wilmore said in a recorded message from aboard the International Space Station

Of course, not everything is the same. While early settlers may have feasted on wild fowl, venison, corn, beans, and mussels, and modern Thanksgiving tables aren't complete without turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes, astronauts aboard the space station will be cutting open bags of freeze-dried, irradiated, and thermostabilized foods on Thursday.

What's on the space station's menu this Thanksgiving?

According to NASA, the meal will include smoked turkey, candied yams and green beans and mushrooms. The meal also will feature NASA’s own freeze-dried cornbread dressing – just add water. Dessert features thermostabilized cherry-blueberry cobbler.

Each food item comes in its own vacuum-packed single-serve packet, so astronauts simply cut open the packet and eat right out of it, no preparation or cleanup necessary.

Thanksgiving is often a work day in outer space, but astronauts don't seem to mind.

"People often ask us what it's like to be onboard ISS for the holidays," NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins said in a 2013 Thanksgiving video beamed down from the station. "Though we miss our families, it's great to be in space. As astronauts, this is what we train for and this is where we want to be."

And space food has come a long way since the early days of space travel, says NASA food scientist Vickie Kloeris in an interview with Space.com.

"I've been working with space food about 28 years," Kloeris told Space.com. "Preservation methods that we've used over the years haven't changed all that much, but the variety has grown a bunch over that time because we've gone from short duration shuttle flights to six month stays on the International Space Station."

"We now have about 200 different foods and beverages that are part of our baseline food system for the International Space Station," she added. "Included in those are a variety of traditional type Thanksgiving items. For instance, we have sliced turkey that is thermostabilized – it's in a pouch so they warm it up and cut the pouch open and eat out of the pouch with a fork," Kloeris said. "We also have some of the traditional side dishes. We have cornbread dressing freeze-dried – they add water on orbit. We have mashed potatoes – no gravy, unfortunately."

Of course, preparing food for astronauts can be challenging. There is no fridge or freezer in the craft, so astronauts cannot enjoy ice cream or other frozen products. 

New arrivals to weightlessness usually say they feel congested. That's because, when you're standing on Earth, your body is constantly pushing your various internal fluids upward, against gravity. For your first few days before you regain your equilibrium, your body will keep pushing fluids toward your head, where they remain, blocking your sinuses, and, crucially, your sense of smell. To compensate for the microgravity-induced blandness, NASA often packs extra condiments to help spice up space food.

That may explain why historically, one of most popular items has been freeze-dried shrimp cocktail.  The horseradish provides a little kick for flavor-starved astronauts. And tortillas are the most versatile, stable bread item, adds Kloeris. Unlike bread, they don't produce crumbs, so crew members usually use tortillas for roll-up sandwiches. "We never can seem to get quite enough tortillas up there to satisfy crew," she says.

Astronauts craving something fresh may have something to look forward to in future Thanksgivings.

NASA is experimenting with growing sweet potatoes in outer space, according to a NASA blog post.

"The sweet potato may be one of the crops chosen for crews to grow on deep space missions. It provides an important energy source - carbohydrate - as well as beta-carotene," the post explains.

Sweet potatoes are also able to adapt to a controlled environment with artificial sunlight, such as in outer space. It's also able to grow in a variety of situations.

While the food may be a bit different in outer space than on Earth, there is at least one giant perk to enjoying Thanksgiving in space: astronauts can eat as much as they want without gaining any weight.

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