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How STEAM Principles Determine What’s for Dinner in Space

Exploring space food with STEAM

The Mission Society is cooking up STEAM lessons with our second Mission Nutrition series. All summer long, we’re sharing delicious dishes and kitchen experiments that will transform young people into seasoned scientists, artists, mathematicians, and more. In this piece, we’re heading on a journey to space, and learning about the science behind astronaut food.

We’re lifting off and taking our STEAM learning to galactic heights! Every day, astronauts are making giant leaps for humankind, sharing incredible scientific discoveries and advancements that impact our day-to-day lives and learning journeys. In order to facilitate a successful space program, organizations like NASA invest in multiple scientific fields– like engineering, biological science, physical science, and mathematics. But did you know in depth research, experimentation, and innovation also goes into the food we send to space? 

If you’ve been to a museum and bought astronaut ice cream from the gift shop, you may have gotten a small taste of the thought that goes into an astronaut’s food. At NASA, The Space Food Systems Laboratory and Space Food Research Facility handle the “production and development of flight food, menus, packaging, and food-related hardware.” The roles of these scientists are invaluable, making decisions that profoundly impact the success of a mission. To do this, they use scientific principles that many of our Mission Society students may recognize–

Exceptional Engineering

Space food packaging has to be perfectly engineered to not add too much weight or take up too much storage space on a rocket. Since astronauts are eating in microgravity environments, the way packaging opens and functions, and the design and construction of utensils are all heavily considered.

Culinary Chemistry 

Food scientists delve into chemistry, ensuring meals have a stable shelf life. It is important for food scientists to understand the principles behind safe food preservation techniques like freeze drying, dehydration, and nitrogen packing. Scientists also have to problem solve and find the most practical ways to transform foods from freeze-dried to meal-ready while in space. 

Beneficial Biology

One of a food scientist’s most important considerations is the biological needs of astronauts. The first American astronaut to eat in space was John Glenn, who demonstrated to scientists at NASA that it was possible for the body to digest food in space. Now, continued research goes into studying human biology, because “food flown on-orbit is not only required to be nutritious, but it must also be appetizing.” 

Nothing makes it to the menu in space that hasn’t been deeply considered from the lens of a variety of scientific disciplines. This is why STEAM learning is so invaluable, as the principles behind these lessons play in-depth roles in many unexpected ways–from understanding the chemistry of cooking in our own kitchens to keeping space stations well-stocked and astronauts fed as they make ground-breaking discoveries. If you know a young person who is interested in space and food, NASA has an educator's guide about the topic. It includes even more information and fun activities for K-8th grade students. We hope this exploration reinforces STEAM lessons and gives young people an opportunity to experiment, use critical thinking skills, and possibly discover a new culinary passion.

To continue your culinary space exploration, learn more about NASA's Vegetable Production System, astronaut's orange drink of choice, and the special coffee cups made for space.

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