NASA Spoon-bowl

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On December 24, 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders broadcast a message to the American public from Apollo 8: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth" (Cortright, 1975). The three men, perhaps longing just a little more than usual for the comforts of home on Christmas Eve, then opened their thermostabilized flexible cans of turkey chunks and gravy and had their dinner.

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Compressed and dehydrated peaches for the Apollo 11 flight. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

NASA provided the meal as a gift – no rehydration required – a sacrifice of precious space and weight on the shuttle. And, despite worry that eating from an open container could contaminate the astronaut’s delicate environment, the men were given spoons to eat with. It was the first time astronauts had used an eating utensil in outer space and it marked the beginning of a major NASA food system redesign that accounted for social human behavior.

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Stainless steel spoon belonging to Command Module Pilot Michael Collins for use on the Apollo 11 space mission, July 1969. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The Spoon-bowl, a package designed for use on Apollo flights 9 through 14 allowed astronauts to dip spoons into flexible ‘bowls’ that contained rehydrated foods. The innovation was a nuisance for NASA nutritionists and food designers; a precisely engineered food system had been in place since the Mercury missions (1959-1963). But male anorexia became a chronic problem as flights grew longer and Astronaut’s interest in their meals all but stopped. They tasted terrible and looked unappetizing. The simple act of eating food (that looked like food) with a spoon, from a bowl, became a key component of maintaining the astronaut's psychological fabric during space travel.

The Space Race and National Identity

By 1968, when Borman, Lovell and Anders enjoyed their Christmas meal, America and Russia had been embroiled in the Space Race for over a decade. Early Soviet success with space flight pushed the United States to declare a race to the Moon - a finish line to which they sprinted. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the U.S. space program provided a platform upon which America could negotiate national identity within the larger context of safety, boundaries, and power.

And as humans broke free from the pull of our planet’s gravity, the concept of space – ‘Space’ – took on new forms and meanings. Arthur C. Clarke, inventor and fiction writer of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, wrote that “we have abolished space here on the little Earth; we can never abolish the space that yawns between the stars” (Clarke, 114). Communication technology had pulled people and countries tightly together; geographic expanses of Earth and the universe beyond contrasted ever more sharply. With unquantifiable amounts of space available, then, how could the Soviets feel so close?

Despite the incomprehensible limitlessness of outer space, the threat of the Soviet Union (and all of the dangers ascribed to it, including Communism and nuclear Armageddon) maintained intensity through media reports and propaganda. Invasion of the American airspace by Russian forces was already deeply planted in the national consciousness; fear of their symbolic claim to Space-in-general had dangerous implications. As the two nations conquered the Universe with every aeronautical achievement, the media eagerly relayed the adversarial competition. The threat of invasion created a psychological closeness that could not be diffused by any amount of space.

To combat the threat of physical, social, and political contamination by the Soviet Union, the United States constructed elaborate systems of barriers that could both keep out the unwanted as well as maintain the integrity of the interior. At the national level, the popular media created a distinctly American space program. TIME magazine, under contract with NASA for exclusive rights to report on the private lives of the astronauts, provided the American public with an image of the space program that embodied the American democratic, morally upright, ideal (Salo, 2). The public eagerly consumed carefully constructed persona of the entire program mediated through contracts and publications. NASA designed the space program in the context of attitudes that braced against invasion and contamination – an idea that translated into the design of the smallest items for space travel, and is perhaps most profoundly visible in the packaging of food.

Space Food (Pre) History

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Rendering of an ‘asteroid space ship’ created with the remains of a planet. Finkelstein and Taylor, 2.

Before sending the first man into space in 1959, debates between nutritionists, food technologists and NASA officials nervously predicted the dangers of eating in space. Would astronauts choke when swallowing in zero gravity? Could stray crumbs and juice droplets cause pneumonia if breathed in? Could edible food even withstand the extreme temperatures and pressure of space travel? Without the stabilizing forces of gravity, scientists worried that Astronauts – literally off-kilter – faced dire ends if food contaminated the environment that NASA took pains to sterilize.

With so many unknown factors, the food systems designed for space travel developed tentatively, improving slowly over the course of the earliest American Space missions, Mercury (1959-1963), Gemini (1963-1966), and Apollo (1961-1972). But even as men successfully orbited the planet, speculation about nutrition in space and its effects on the human body engendered enormous concern for its design implications. In a 1960 article, “Food, Nutrition, and the Space Traveler,” researchers from the Aerospace Medical Laboratory suggested that long-term space voyages would one-day be possible, and wondered: how could we fit enough food into the shuttle?

The authors figured that the average human consumes approximately 550 pounds of oxygen per year, nearly one ton of liquids, and over 2,500 pounds of food. And then there’s the packaging, the storage space…it would be impossible to achieve the velocity required for the shuttle to escape the earth’s gravitational force. In other words, the technology for long-term travel was foreseeable, but they puzzled over the problem of keeping humans fed (and by extension, alive).

Despite ambitious notions of long-term food regeneration, early NASA nutrition reports more importantly recognized that food has deep psychological value – words like “acceptability” often surface in discussions on food design. They recognized eating as one of the few acts of mankind in space from which he can derive the pleasures of home (Finkelstein, 796). But – the use of utensils would not be possible. For example:

A number of interesting phenomena would occur when ordinary methods of eating and drinking are employed in a space ship in a state of weightlessness. If a piece of meat should slip while being cut, it would fly off the plate and splatter against the wall, bounce back and then continue to bounce back and forth off the walls, ceiling and floor. A fork full of peas raised to the mouth would continue in its upward flight to the ceiling and be reflected back, bombarding like buckshot. A cup of coffee raised to the mouth would result in the astronaut’s receiving the contents in his face (Finkelstein, 797).

Engineering Food, Engineering People

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Self-contained fecal waste unit from Apollo 11 mission. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Understanding food design in a closed environment, however, requires a look at the full nutritional circuit. For all input, there is output, and NASA nutritionists worried that foods incompatible with gastrointestinal functions would contaminate the shuttle with human waste. Food selection gave special attention to items that helped generate optimal output:

“Foods that were relatively bland and unseasoned; food that would not result in generation of noticeable quantities of gastrointestinal gas and flatus; foods that were completely digestible an readily absorbed in the small intestines; and foods that would result in feces of normal consistency, but that would cause minimal frequency and mass of defecations (Smith et al, 6).”

Natural human function presented a critical problem for space travel. Food was too messy; waste was too unpredictable. The confines of the shuttle were overwhelmingly limited, and even a fart disturbed the perfect mechanization of space travel. Containment thus became the cornerstone of food design: compactness, structural integrity, and density within systematic layers of plastic and foil. The Astronaut’s nutritional needs threatened the function of the machine, and so required the mechanization of the body and its fuel. By engineering food, NASA also engineered human function.

Conflict between the natural and the synthetic permeated larger contemporary discourse on design, notably in reference to the Machine Age, and technological advancements in food production prompted further thought on human nutritional requirement. The early NASA food system inspired further prediction on the benefits of synthetic diets, often discussed in the context of contamination and the containment of germs. Science writer Robert Prehoda in his ambitious Designing the Future (1967) believed that the engineering of food would help scientists create a ‘closed-cycle’ system in which waste could be broken down into reusable components. With virtually no fecal output, “germ-free explorers would not contaminate alien worlds” (Prehoda, 209).

The Human Problem

Although NASA scientists successfully engineered nutritionally optimal food items, they soon discovered the problem of human agency. As Dr. Malcom Smith, Chief of Food and Nutrition at NASA reported in a 1969 article for Nutrition Today, “Until recently, machines presented most of our problems. But now our machines are functioning flawlessly. The problems now emerging are human (Smith, 37).” While Smith declared the human problem relative to the act of eating – “progress toward extended extraterrestrial exploration may be no faster than our progress with the problems of advanced food technology” (Ibid) – he could have just as easily been speaking about the ‘human problem’s’ impact on the space missions as a whole.

As the Astronaut’s persona of explorer (the longtime romantic trope of the American pioneer) faded from the spotlight and gave way to media showcases of technological achievement, so did their celebrated cult of personality. LIFE magazine’s Space Race coverage shifted from private lives to national ‘firsts,’ and in doing so, the Astronauts became increasingly faceless, interchangeable, and ultimately industrialized (Salo, 36).

Documents prepared by the NASA team addressing issues of food system re-design echo the annoyances caused by personality. Each man in space had likes, dislikes, and quirks. But the astronauts had been selected because they were super men; men that could both mentally and physically withstand the unknown extraterrestrial environment. In 1959, the American people watched with fascination as the space program whittled hopefuls down from 110 to the seven Mercury astronauts that would “ride the first manned satellites out of a ballistic missile blasted 125 miles into the sky (Witkin).” They underwent testing that proved their resistance to extreme stress, temperatures, acceleration and confusion. They pondered the question, “Who am I?” They were as super as humans could be.

Nutrition and the Psyche

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Beef with vegetables issued to astronaut John Glenn on the Friendship 7 Mercury mission. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

But fissures between the human and the machine emerged as quickly as technology progressed. NASA’s attention to “food acceptance” engendered extensive research that tested how the human psyche reacted to combinations of nutrition, confinement, and sensory deprivation. In short, they studied how people ate in the absence of ‘culture.’ In October of 1964, four male college students received $1,000 each from the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories for participating in a study that measured their reaction to six weeks of “freeze dehydrated foods.” They spent 28 days in a capsule made to simulate spacecraft and an additional 14 in confinement, during which they could not change clothes, brush teeth, smoke or bathe. They were declared “no worse for the wear.” The test subjects proved that, yes, one could survive on “astronaut food.” Yet, when astronauts went up into space they often exhibited signs of anorexia, leading to dangerous loss of body mass (not to mention a threat to the decidedly masculine image of the space program).

Scientists measured the success of the food program after each flight by noting the total quantity consumed, post-flight crew feedback, and changes in their body weight. But they understood that the data was flawed. Crewmembers often traded meals (and neglected to record them) according to preference. One report on the Apollo food program, reveals that a mission 7 Astronaut tried unsuccessfully to trade his crewmate his entire meal for a single serving of freeze-dried tuna. Scientists began to understand that “our intensive efforts to portion and balance in-flight nutrients are of little value if the food is not eaten.” Focus shifted from nutrient content to psychological acceptance – feelings of desire and pleasure complicated scientific engineering.

The Gemini, Mercury and Apollo Food Systems

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The complex organizational support system for the Apollo food system. Smith et al, 4.

Considerations put forward by the NASA nutritionists for food development emphasize their struggle to reconcile nutrition and culture in a highly systematized program. Not only did they focus on food preservation and stability at a molecular level, they also recognized that, “food habits and prejudices are highly individualized and deeply ingrained in the tastes of the intended consumers (the astronauts) and the interested nonconsumers (the program, system, and subsystem managers) (Smith et al, 1).” Thus, while the integration of personal preference within the food system actualized, the engineers interestingly diffused focus on the astronauts. The products of desire extended across the whole Administration, from management to shuttle operator, and in doing so, the cult of personality remained in its neutralized state.

Food in Abstraction

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Dehydtrated foods in packages designed for Gemini missions in 1965-66. Bourland, 2.

The foods against which Gemini and Apollo astronauts rebelled were heavily reliant on the freeze dehydration process, favored for its ability to maintain the original food’s color, flavor, and nutrient content (Richard, 53) Particularly during the Gemini space program, food designers faced stringent space and weight requirements. Freeze dried food is compact, lightweight, and could take advantage of the potable water created as a byproduct of the oxygen-making process onboard. Utilizing this technology, early in-flight food fell under one of three categories:

  1. bite-sized cubes
  2. freeze-dried packets
  3. semi-liquids in aluminum tubes (Space Food and Nutrition, 2)

Engineers specifically designed each package to prevent the food from contaminating the shuttle environment. Aluminum coated tubes, similar those used for toothpaste packaging, could be punctured with a straw at top for sucking out the semi-liquid or pushed out by squeezing from the bottom. Compacted cubes – solid foods compressed and coated with gelatin to prevent stray crumbs – were “vacuum packed into individual serving-sized containers of clear, four-ply, laminated plastic film for storage” (Space Food and Nutrition, 2). Astronauts provided their own rehydration in the form of saliva to make them edible. In all cases, the multiple package layers and the heavy aluminum often weighed more than the actual food, (Ibid).

As space missions became more ambitious, with extended flight times and maneuvers of increasing complexity, astronauts needed increased provisions of energy, fat, protein, minerals and vitamins. The thick, heavy packages of the Gemini mission constrained shuttle space. Food allowances for the Gemini missions stipulated 1.7 lb/man/day, 110 in (cubed)/man/day. This space/weight requirement included the multilayered packaging designed to withstand extreme temperatures, pressures, accelerations and vibratory conditions. In achieving this design objective, the resulting food had been wrestled into decontextualized and abstracted forms. Though the packaging mimicked familiar items – toothpaste or perhaps a bar of chocolate – the relationship between form and content felt foreign and distasteful.

Soviet Counterparts

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Dried cubes of table bread manufactured for Soviet cosmonauts. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
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Cottage cheese in an aluminum tube manufactured for Soviet cosmonauts. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Initial American space food package forms, from the Gemini through early Apollo missions, are arrestingly similar to their Soviet counterparts. Aluminum tubes and freeze-dehydrated squares wrapped in layers of plastic are nearly indistinguishable. Only the enclosed meals and their graphic identification signify the items as Russian. Little information is available on early Soviet space food design, but the apparent similarities beg not only questions of exchange, but also simultaneous and coincidental inspiration.

Food Acceptance

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Crew members suffered dramatic weight loss during flights. Smith and Berry, 42.

Despite nutritional density, NASA scientists soon discovered major flaws in the food system. The process of rehydrating meals, known as reconstitution, cost astronauts excessive time and energy – sometimes as long as 30 minutes. That, and it just didn’t taste very good. (Or, as Apollo Experience Report authors put it, “a hard, compressed cube made of toasted breadcrumbs held together by a starch-gelatin matrix and coating does not taste like a conventional slice of toasted bread.”)

Observations of the Apollo 7, 8, and 9 missions showed very low food acceptance rates and prompted renewed efforts towards system redevelopment that aimed to address five key issues:

  1. Inadequate food intake
  2. Anorexia and nausea, food being a contributing factor
  3. Meal preparation and eating very time consuming
  4. Water for food rehydration unpalatable and “contained undesirable amounts of dissolved gasses”
  5. Malfunction of rehydratable food packages (Johnston et al, [?])

NASA Spoon-bowl

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Beef hash in a NASA spoon-bowl prepared for the Apollo 11 flight. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

After the morale-boosting success of spoon use on Apollo 8, NASA engineered and introduced the spoon-bowl package for the Apollo 10 mission (1969), which incorporated the regular use of a spoon for eating hydrated foods. The flexible package – referred to as a wetpack or thermostabilized flexible pouch - featured a rehydration valve at the bottom and a large “plastic-zippered opening” at the top. The new container had the major advantage of being able to hold meals with large chunks of meat and vegetables, instead of the former pastes and compressed powders (Johnston et al, [?])

The pouch – not really a bowl in the conventional sense – could be reconstituted with hot or cold water from a tap in the shuttle. The astronauts then kneaded the package to re-incorporate moisture. When fully rehydrated, they clipped off the top with a pair of scissors and ate with a standard issue spoon. But the relatively straightforward design concept required complex manufacture.

Design and Functionality

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Meal package for Apollo 11 flight. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Food system designers created the spoon-bowl with specific considerations, including substantial protective packaging, easy identification methods, reliable functionality and lightweight low-volume forms. (Smith et al, 7). Meal portions had to be modular, discrete, but also part of a cohesive whole – the meal a seamless unit comprised of many smaller parts.

Manufacturing systems for both the packages and the meals within became increasingly focused on sterility, ensuring that food remained ‘safe’ from contaminates. NASA closely observed food assembly workers and noted their “motivation, teamwork, medial examinations…[and] clothing control”; packaging environments monitored for sanitation schedules, air filtration, differential air pressures, and temperature control (Smith et al, 9). Food and package production in sterilized environments guaranteed safety on Earth, but the threat of contamination continued up in space. Spoon-bowl designers explained how the package could minimize the loss of food, even with an open container:

“The cut flap is held out of the way by mating Velcro patches on the flap and body of the package. Two parallel plastic zippers are incorporated at the top of the package. The use of two zippers effect a stronger temporary closure, and the lower zipper also serves as a place where excess food can be scraped off the spoon during consumption. Both zippers may be used for temporary reclosure of the package during the mealtime and for final closure after eating, before stowage of the used package with any food residue and a germicidal tablet. On each side of the package, a finger/thumb loop is available for use by the crewman for one-handed opening and closing while using the other hand to spoon out the contents in a rather conventional fashion (Smith et al, 26-7).”

Americans watched astronauts happily demonstrate the spoon-bowl by video broadcast from the Apollo 11 mission: “Can you believe you’re looking at chicken stew?”( While new ‘normal’ eating procedures emerged and astronauts showed enthusiasm – both through public demonstration and weight maintenance – the design was nevertheless awkward to handle and use. Psychologically, the package increased appetite; physically, it complicated both the eating and manufacturing process. For astronauts, using a utensil required the facility of both hands. Only one dish could be handled at a time and the labor expended for reconstitution remained as it was. For NASA, the spoon-bowl meant increased production time and expenses.

The End of the Race

During 1969, the year of the spoon-bowl, the world witnessed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. America had ‘won’ the Space Race and NASA likewise prepared for a dramatic shift in the focus of their space program. With the competition over, missions transformed from technological race to data collection sessions. NASA prepared for two new projects: the Skylab (1973-1974) and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (1975), a first-time collaboration with the Russian space program. Each of the efforts – one national and the other international – generated distinct food systems that retrospectively articulate the spoon-bowl’s particular historical meaning.

Skylab food

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The Skylab food heating and serving tray. NASA

The NASA Skylab food system came closer to the traditional American meal model than any that preceded it. Reminiscent of airline meals, astronauts pre-selected menus before flight that consisted of dishes arranged in stackable trays. The nature of the space facility – no longer a shuttle but a research center – permitted room for a kitchen and dining area where crewmembers could prepare meals, ‘sit’ around a table (using footholds), and eat together (Bourland, 272). They used knifes, forks and spoons to eat from fully opened aluminum cans submerged into corresponding cavities in the Skylab food warmer tray (Heidelbaugh et al, 55).

Apollo-Soyuz food

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Apollo-Soyuz crews inspect food items during a pre-flight training session, 1975. NASA
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Apollo-Soyuz crews sharing a meal in space, 1975. NASA.

The food system for the American-Soviet collaboration, however, combined new and old packaging technologies – with Skylab warmer trays noticeably absent. Astronauts and cosmonauts ate from both pull-top aluminum cans and Gemini-era tubes and dehydrated bars. If Space Race design embodied concepts of containment and protection, Apollo-Soyuz systems reflected those of tentative exchange. Conversations between America and Russia during early project development focused on technical issues: after a decade of entirely independent design could the two programs be compatible – even in the most practical sense? The answer to that question required an intimate exchange of highly technical information, from ship components required for docking to personal health and hygiene items (Ezell & Ezell, 99-110). The space programs accomplished this collaboration between and around diplomatic meals when Americans and Russians visited each others’ facilities. During one such meal, the Russian General Kuznetsov, “wanted the U.S. representatives to convey to their leaders the necessity for keeping space endeavors peaceful; he expressed his hope that space would not be turned into something evil…[the meal was] followed with a toast comparing the histories of the United States and the Soviet Union, in which he stressed the similarities of the two countries and their aspirations.” (Ezell & Ezell, 110). The rhetoric of sameness and shared history carried over to food system design in much the same way as difference and separateness had once done.

Images of the American and Russian crews eating and inspecting food together thus took on a symbolic meaning: after decades of ideological and cultural separation, the men broke bread on a public international stage. In response to a post-flight press conference asking how he liked American food, cosmonaut Valery Kubasov diplomatically replied that,

“an old philosopher says, the best part of a good dinner is not what you eat, but with whom you eat. Today I have dinner together with my very good friends Tom Stafford and Deke Slayton because it was the best part of my dinner”(Ezell & Ezell, 338).“

During the mission, each country brought their own national dishes to the ‘table,’ but all were contained in identical package forms, making (at least from the outside) the American and Russian foods nearly indistinguishable. This intentional ‘sameness’ favored a unifying exterior over the distinguishing transparency of the spoon-bowl or the cultural familiarity of the Skylab tray. Though the Cold War continued for another twenty odd years, this partnership in space represented a brief respite in the conflict, signifying the end of the Apollo spoon-bowl and the beginning of cooperative space travel.

Works Consulted

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Bourland, Charles T. “The development of food systems for space.” Trends in Food Science & Technology, vol. 4 (Sept., 1993): 271-276.

Bustead, R. L. and J. M. Tuomey. “Food Quality Design for Gemini and Apollo Space Programs.” Report presented at Technical Conference Transactions, New York, NY, 1966.

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