Talking to the Experts: NASA Dietitian Barbara Rice

There's more to space food than the freeze-dried ice cream for sale at space museum gift shops. I spoke with NASA dietitian Barbara Rice to find out how astronauts prepare for their missions and what they really eat in space (Hint: That ice cream isn't even on the menu.)

There's more to space food than the freeze-dried ice cream for sale at space museum gift shops. I spoke with NASA dietitian Barbara Rice to find out how astronauts prepare for their missions and what they really eat in space (Hint: that ice cream isn't even on the menu).

Space Food Basics

Before the first humans went into outer space, many experts wondered if it was even possible to swallow in a place where there’s no gravity. In August 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov proved it was doable when he became the first person to eat food in space. The first U.S. astronaut to take an extraterrestrial bite?  John Glenn, who ate applesauce on the third manned Mercury mission in 1962.

Today, commercially available products make up most of the shuttle food program.  Cookies, crackers, nuts and powdered drinks can be eaten as-is, but others, like veggies, need to be further processed by freeze-drying  or thermostabilizing. Dietitians like Barbara Rice recommend that processed foods high in fat and sodium be kept to a minimum in the astronauts’ eating plans.  So, what else does a NASA dietitian do? Rice answered our biggest questions about space food.

Q: What is your role as the dietitian with NASA? Do you only work with astronauts or with the entire team who makes space travel possible?

I work as research dietitian in the Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory at the NASA Johnson Space Center. I collect and analyze data about the food intake of subjects on the ground as well as crew members on spaceflight missions from preflight, in-flight and post-flight periods. I plan menus for certain research studies and work closely with the registered dietitian who plans the flight menus.  I participated in the development of the nutritional recommendations for extended-duration space flight and provide diet-related nutrition counseling to the astronauts.

Q: I hear the astronauts have a long and grueling training period to get prepared for their missions. What are their nutritional goals during this time? The primary goal is to consume a normal, healthy diet.  There is no set preflight training meal; we encourage eating as usual. For the International Space Station crew members, we do evaluate typical intakes, and also track blood and urine tests preflight to be sure we send them off in good nutritional status.

Q: Many of us have visited various space museums throughout the country and seen the freeze-dried ice cream sold at the gift shop. There must be more to “space food” than that! Could you tell us what’s on the menu when astronauts are in space?

The freeze-dried ice cream is not a space flight item. Below is an example of a space flight menu:

Blueberry raspberry yogurt
Granola with blueberries
Orange drink

Beef fajitas

Grilled chicken
Macaroni and cheese
Green beans with mushrooms
Candy-coated chocolates
Tea with lemon and sugar
*Menu from Nutrition Today 42: 106, 2007
Q: What are some of the astronauts’ favorite dishes or some of the most popular foods among the astronauts?

Tortillas and shrimp cocktail are two favorite foods.

Learn more about NASA and their Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory on their website.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »

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