John Glenn was a true American hero in more ways than we might recognize.
The small-town Midwesterner grew up to marry his childhood sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor. He flew more than 150 combat mission as a fighter pilot during World War II and the Korean War. He served as senator to Ohio for 24 years and later tried to parlay that experience into a presidential nomination. And, of course, in 1959, he was chosen as one of America’s first astronauts and went on to become the first American to orbit Earth (circling the plant three times in 4 hours and 56 minutes, traveling at speeds over 17,000 miles per hour).
All of these things and more continue to make John Glenn a household name, even after his death in 2016. But what most people don’t remember about his illustrious career, was that John Glenn was also the first person to eat in space.
Before 1962 on board Friendship 7, no one knew if ingestion and the absorption of nutrients in zero gravity were even possible. But Glenn was tasked with finding out.
The first foods ever eaten in space were applesauce and a paste-like beef and vegetables, both packed in tubes, xylose sugar tables with water, and Tang (the orange-flavored drink powder mix). Afterward, Glenn reported that eating was relatively easy — even if the food options left a lot to be desired in the taste department.
What Glenn snacked on in space was certainly not the biggest news of the day — after all ‘First American to orbit Earth’ is a far more exciting headline than ‘Astronaut finds out Tang taste terrible’ — but the findings were none-the-less a huge deal. Glenn’s trip demonstrated that people could, in fact, eat, swallow, and digest food in a weightless environment. That meant humans could, at least as far as eating was concerned, sustain themselves for longer periods of time in space…
… Like say, on a trip to the moon.
In the space missions of the 1960s that followed, food was based on Army survival rations — mostly pureed foods in aluminum tubes sucked through a straw.
Thankfully, things improved.
NASA continues to this day to develop a variety of tasty, nutritious meals suitable for space. There is no refrigeration onboard the shuttle, so most food must be dehydrated then rehydrated to prevent spoilage. Today, astronauts can choose from many types of foods including fruits, nuts, peanut butter, yogurt, tacos, chicken, hamburgers, lasagna, mac and cheese, or shrimp cocktail, brownies, tea, coffee, or orange juice, to name a few.
Though if they’re really craving beef paste and Tang, NASA can still arrange for that, too.