Sci-Fi Writers’ Amazing Old Ideas About Growing Food in Space

What's to come?
June 21 2012 1:36 PM

Beyond Astronaut Ice Cream

How sci-fi writers like Arthur C. Clarke imagined we would feed space colonists.

April 30, 1961 Philadelphia Inquirer.
A past vision of the future

Courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer via Matt Novak.

Read more from Slate’s special issue on the future of food.

When I was a little kid growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to love visiting the Science Museum of Minnesota. The appeal was twofold: the gigantic triceratops and the astronaut ice cream.

Astronauts need near-perfect vision, and as a four-eyed kid, I probably wasn’t going to be launched into space. But at least I could eat like them.

There’s seemingly nothing that binds us more as a species—or more to our planet—than food. We build events and magazines and TV networks around it. We all gotta eat, and doing so can often feel like one of the most humanizing experiences at your disposal when you’re a few hundred miles from Earth. (Or so I imagine. I still haven’t been to space.)

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Beyond the rocketry and such, food has presented one of the biggest challenges to human space exploration. Unlike robots, which don’t need to eat, drink, or even necessarily return to Earth, humans require fuel. And the prospect of space tourism—opening up new worlds even for those of us with myopia—makes figuring out how to feed ourselves in space even more important.

But the challenges presented by food aren’t only on the consumption end of things. Dr. Charles Bourland probably knows better than anyone just how difficult it is to make a palatable meal in space, having served as project leader of the NASA space food program from 1975-85. Now retired, I reached him at his home in Missouri.

I asked Dr. Bourland what the largest culinary change in the last 50 years of space travel has been. His answer: “the addition of the bathroom.”

“I’m sorry, the addition of what?” I said, not sure I heard him right.

WCS space bathroom.
The bathroom

NASA.

“The bathroom. The astronauts in Apollo [in the 1960s] just didn’t eat because they didn’t want to go to the bathroom. … They were taking laxatives and enemas and everything else before the launch, and they didn’t eat. And when they got into space, they didn’t eat. You know, it’s like sitting in a Volkswagen with three people, and one of them is going to the bathroom. The odor lingers in there forever. The air filters take it out, but it takes a long time to take it out.”

When they did drink in space in the 1960s, it was water often flavored with Tang, of course. (But contrary to popular imagination, it was actually developed in 1957, prior to the U.S. space program.)

Once better toilets were installed in the 1970s, Bourland says, the astronauts “started eating. At the same time, we discovered that you could eat out of open containers in zero gravity without any problem whatsoever as long as the food was wet.” This gave the United States an unexpected edge in the space race. When a cosmonaut visited the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston in the mid-1980s, NASA served him a shuttle meal. According to Dr. Bourland, “He said, ‘That’s fine, but you can’t eat that out of an open container in space.’ I said, ‘Well, we did it all the time!’ ” USA! USA!

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