Patsy Westcott September 01, 2017

Tomato soup, mackerel curry, Eton mess… the spaceman diet has come a long way from the tubes and cubes of yesteryear, as Patsy Westcott discovers.

When British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake presented Adele with her Global Success BRIT Award earlier this year, she cried, “Tim Peake I love you! Good luck! I hope you’re OK and not too hungry!”

The singer-songwriter is not alone in her fascination with the British astronaut’s food – or potential lack of it. But she needn’t have worried. With a mouth-watering menu catering to his personal tastes and carefully tailored to meet his nutrient needs, Major Tim is unlikely to starve.

Peake’s menu features a ‘Great British Space Dinner’ – including a three course meal of tomato and basil soup, mackerel curry and Eton mess devised by British schoolchildren in collaboration with Michelin-starred chef, Heston Blumenthal - ‘to remind him of home.’ Beef stew with dumplings followed by chocolate mousse with space dust popping candy is another offering.

It’s a far cry from early space flight food which consisted of distinctly unappetising tubes of apple puree and bite-sized flavoured cubes, rehydrated by saliva when chewed. “The first astronauts were essentially on ‘camping trips’ lasting just a few days,” explains food historian Dr Jane Levi, who has made a special study of space diets. During the 1960s Space Race, the powers-that-be were more interested in getting astronauts up there than on providing them with inviting foodstuffs. And, says Dr Levi, “They were mystified when they rejected it.”

‘Space flight anorexia’ was coined to describe the loss of appetite and disinclination to eat that the astronauts suffered, despite plentiful food supplies. Caused by microgravity, changes in the light-and-dark cycle, and exposure to radiation, the condition meant longer space flights triggered a re-think of astronaut diets. A daily calorie shortfall of around 1,330 calories a day for the average astronaut weighing around 70 kg – just short of the number found in a Big Mac Meal with a can of Coca Cola – lead to weight loss, nutrient deficiencies and potentially devastating effects on stamina and performance.

Things started to look up in the 1970s, as former astronaut Dr Rhea Seddon, doyenne of three Space Shuttle flights, recalls in an article in the journal ‘Nutrition’. Dehydrated casseroles, soups, vegetables and drinks were complemented by dried and fresh fruits, vegetables, puddings and ‘candy’. Crew members were allowed to take shop-bought items of their choice, such as ‘snack cakes’ (similar to iced sponge fingers) and peanut butter, and real efforts were made to accommodate their favourite foods.

In the same article, fellow physician and NASA astronaut Dr Joseph Kerwin remembers the food on the US 1970’s Skylab as ‘awesome’. “Most was excellent or at least tolerable”, he says, although there were exceptions. “Bread that has been vacuum-packed and stored for months looks and tastes like paste,” Kerwin comments. And, he adds, “Some of the vegetables were losers. But most of the food was great, and some world-class - especially the home-made butter cookies, of which not a crumb remained after our first mission.”

Better dinners

Fortunately for Tim Peake and his fellow astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), today’s food offerings are not that different from earthly fare. Frozen veg and desserts, chilled food, fruit, and dairy products all feature together with salt and pepper, and condiments such as ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Unmanned spacecraft such as the ESA’s Transfer Vehicle or the Russian Progress ply the route between earth and the ISS to ensure they have a supply of fresh fruit, water and ready meals.

“Astronauts dine on three meals a day plus a snack just as they would on earth,” explains dietitian Abigail Wilson. “The main difference is that food preparation has to take into account the challenges of low-gravity and preservation.”

‘These days astronauts are carefully assessed to determine their nutritional needs and monitored before, during, and after spaceflight to ensure they get enough energy, protein, vitamins, minerals and micronutrients,” she adds.

Bodily changes

One of the main goals of Peake’s mission is to study the effects of long periods of microgravity on the body; essential knowledge if humans are to embark on even longer journeys to Mars. Known physiological changes include alterations in blood chemistry (caused by changes in the way the body metabolises iron), and increased levels of radiation and stress caused by lack of oxygen, which can result in cell damage. And, of course, there’s the well-known bone and muscle loss resulting from zero gravity. Astronauts lose one to two per cent of bone mass for every month they spend in space, and, even with exercise, they can lose 30 per cent of muscle strength after 110 to 237 days in space.

This makes it all the more vital for astronauts to consume a healthy diet. “It’s especially important that they get enough calcium, folate, and vitamins D and K, which are all bone and muscle building nutrients,” observes Abigail Wilson.

“Most of their nutrient needs can be met from food, but vitamin D is supplemented because spacecraft are shielded to block ultraviolet light.” Vitamin D is mainly made in the skin from the action of sunlight. And as she points out, “Blood levels of some nutrients, such as vitamin D, may continue to be low even when astronauts receive supplements.”

Mission accomplished

Food has long been at the heart of space exploration. Indeed, as Dr Levi observes, had humans been unable to eat and digest in space, today’s long-term missions would have been impossible. But it’s about more than food as just fuel. As she explains, in space as on earth, food is an expression of and a showcase for a nation’s culture and way of life.

Tim Peake’s first meal when he reached the International Space Station in December at the start of his six-month mission was a very British hot bacon sarnie and a cuppa, while at Christmas he enjoyed a Sunday Roast (in a helmet-shaped pie), a Heston Christmas pudding and a selection of bite-sized treats shaped like planets devised by the schoolchildren.

Exercise matters

But it’s not solely about diet. In space as on earth, an equally important part of the health equation is exercise. As physiologist Dr Naomi Brooks, who has studied the bodily changes that take place in space explains, “Spaceflight is similar to prolonged bed rest in its disruptive effects on the body. And these can adversely affect an astronaut’s ability to do mission-specific tasks as well as to respond to emergencies.”

It’s not all glamorous spacewalks and free-floating around the space craft at the ISS. Astronauts need strength for the many tasks they have to perform, such as using a robotic arm to seize visiting vehicles and dock them to the Space Station. To help offset loss of muscle and bone, Dr Brooks explains, “they must do two hours of vigorous exercise a day, from lifting weights in a special weightlifting gym that uses vacuum tubes to simulate weights, as well as working out on a treadmill and exercise bike.” In Tim Peake’s case, he is also training to run this year’s London Marathon on the ISS treadmill.

Peake is due to return to earth on 5th June and food is sure to be part of the celebrations. We can only wonder what he will choose for his first earthbound meal in six months’ time...

Our experts

Dr Naomi Brooks is lecturer in health and exercise sciences at the University of Stirling.
Dr Jane Levi is a visiting research fellow at King’s College London.
Abigail Wilson is a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

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Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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