Apple sauce? No thanks. Food sticks? Yuck! In NASA's recent Space Food Hall of Fame voting, those two foods came in dead last, losing out in popularity and influence to other astronaut foods like freeze-dried ice cream and Tang. NASA put together a history of space's most famous foods which explains why each is significant. Apple sauce, for example, was no great feat of food engineering, but it did keep astronaut John Glenn nourished as he became the first American to orbit the Earth. He squeezed the apple sauce out of an aluminum tube, the same way that CSA's Commander Chris Hadfield eats his Maple syrup.
Today, astronauts aboard the International Space Station eat like kings compared to the early Mercury and Gemini astronauts. What's surprising about NASA's brief history lesson is that astronauts have been eating pretty well for a long time. Some of the foods we most associate with astronauts--for example, freeze-dried ice cream--only went to space once, on Apollo 7. It survives today as a popular novelty shop item and space camp delicacy, but astronauts generally had better eats during the Apollo program.
The most popular entrant into the Space Food Hall of Fame are M&Ms (technically "candy coated chocolates, since NASA doesn't promote brands), which grabbed about 12.25 percent of the vote. M&Ms have traveled to space more than 130 times since 1981. They're perfect for their simplicity--easy to eat, tasty, and (we imagine) fun to play with in zero gravity.
The next most popular item, the Skylab food system, grabbed 12 percent of the vote. Skylab's food system shows off how advanced space food had become by the 1970s. NASA writes "The goal of the Skylab food system was to balance two things: the need for rigorous scientific experiments about the effects of spaceflight on the human body, and the need to make space food appetizing. In the relative roominess of the Skylab module, food scientists were able to try out a new food tray complete with heating elements and a collapsible drink bottle. Skylab also had a refrigerator and a freezer, and stirrups to allow floating astronauts to "sit" down together for a meal. Skylab had almost all the amenities of a terrestrial kitchen, even though it was orbiting more than 200 miles above the earth." It's not clear from NASA's site who was polled in this vote, though we hope it was astronauts and NASA food scientists.
The space shuttles focused on foods that could be rehydrated, since the electricity generated by its fuel cells produced water; astronauts were able to plan their meals before flying to space, which was a huge step up from the gelatin-coated food cubes of the earlier Mercury missions.
Some more space food fun facts: Tang came in third in the contest and is easily one of the foods (or drinks) most associated with NASA, but the space agency didn't actually invent Tang. It was created by General Foods in 1957, and according to NASA, Kraft Foods now sells over $1 billion worth of Tang annually. The space food stick doesn't quite have the same cultural recognition, but NASA writes that it "is considered by many to be the forerunner of today's energy bar."
And, finally, if you ever wondered whether a Japanese astronaut has made sushi in space--while wearing a chef hat--the answer is yes. Video of that below!