Eating in outer space has never been easier or more enjoyable for astronauts. Gone are the days of subsisting on nothing but pureed meals that had to be squeezed out of tubes like toothpaste. Thanks to advancements in space cuisine, astronauts can enjoy dishes like macaroni and cheese, shrimp cocktails and even pizza while exploring the solar system.
But eating among the stars is still much, much different than dining on earth. Here are 5 ways that eating in space is insanely different than grabbing a bite on earth.
1. Food is wetter
Watery pasta or soup is a sign of a bad cook on earth, but in space, pretty much everything you eat tends to be a bit liquidy. And that's not because it's prepared poorly. The liquidy texture is actually a safety feature.
"All of our food items have a little bit of liquidy consistency to them," former astronaut Mike Massimino told WIRED. "If you were just to get a bunch of Cheerios on a spoon without any milk on them, they're going to be floating around. You're going to be chasing them. So [cereal] comes with a little bit of dehydrated milk added to them, and then they will stay [in one place]."
That might seem counter-intuitive to anyone who's spilled milk in their life. But fluids work differently when there's no gravity. Instead of sloshing and dripping all over the place, fluids bind together in space because of their surface tension. And that tension also keeps meals together.
"There's no gravity working on this stuff, and so the surface tension is almost like a glue," Massimino explained. "That surface tension [will make] those molecules stick to the spoon....That will act as the glue, so you don't lose this stuff. So it all has that liquidy consistency."
2. Crumbs are evil
The liquidy consistency of space meals not only keeps food in place; it also eliminates one of the biggest problems caused by eating in space: crumbs.
On earth, the worst crumbs can do is make your home look a bit messy (or make you feel a bit itchy if they sneak down your shirt). But in space, crumbs are a menace. Thanks to the lack of gravity, crumbs don't fall. They float. That means they can easily cause trouble by getting into the worst places - even your eyes, according to Massimino.
To limit the amount of crumbs that food can generate, astronauts can't bring common kitchen staples like salt and pepper shakers when they travel to space. So if they want to add some flavor to their food, they have to use liquid salt and liquid pepper to their meal.
They also can't bring loaves of bread for several reasons.
"Bread - for the amount of room it takes up - it doesn't give you the nutrition you might want, and it also provides crumbs and it can go stale, so it's not the best."
That's why astronauts use tortillas instead.
"A tortilla's nice and thin, you can stake 'em together and get a couple thousand of them in one area," Massimino explained, adding that one side effect of that effecient approach to stocking space pantries is that astronauts often miss burgers and sandwiches after a while.
3. Straws come with locks
Grabbing something to drink is a bit more complicated when you're exploring the solar system. Drinks aren't served in glasses or mugs in space like on earth because neither comes with a secured top to prevent the fluid inside from floating out of the cup and damaging the equipment that you need to survive in space.
So astronauts have to drink out of little baggies full of liquid. And to do that, they need straws. Not just any straws either. These ones come with special locks on them.
"After you finish taking a drink, you lock the straw," Massimino said. "If you do not lock your straw, there is the possibility of that liquid getting out of the top of that straw."
And he's not speaking hypothetically. That actually happened to Massimino once. "I was hit in the eye with a drop of hot coffee because one of my crew mates didn't lock their straw...Locking your straw is the sign of a good astronaut."
4. Doing the dishes is easy
It might sound like everything that involves eating in space is difficult, but that's not the case.
"It's much easier to clean up in space than on earth," Massiminio said.
That's because most meals come in disposable containers, so instead of doing the dishes, you just have to decide whether your package goes in the bag for wet trash or the one for dry trash. Dealing with that trash differs slightly depending on whether you're on a space shuttle or a space station. There are no garbage trucks in space, so astronauts on shuttles need to compress their trash and store it on board to dispose of after returning to earth.
Things are a bit easier on space stations. Astronauts receive supplies regularly on cargo containers that can be reused as trash bins after they're unpacked. Once they're full, the containers can be released into earth's orbit, which will pull them down till they burn up in the atmosphere. Much easier than hauling garbage to the curb every week.
The only dishes that need to be cleaned and reused are utensils like spoons. The process is pretty straightforward, but it definitely won't sit well with germaphobes.
"To clean off your utensils, you generally lick them clean as best you could to make sure that you can just take a Handy Wipe and clean it off as best you can. And then you would throw that Handy Wipe in the trash," Massimino said.
5. Playing with your food is WAY more fun
Eating is tough in space, but playing with your food is effortless. Since everything floats, you can attack a slice of pizza like a shark, or you could release a handful of M&Ms and gobble them up like Pac-Man.
And some astronauts get even more creative, especially when it comes to playing with water.
"The way liquid behaves in space is that it forms a bubble," Massimino explained. "It'll hit something and then splatter, but when it's floating, it's more or less a bubble. One of my friends...got a pretty big ball of water going, and he put a Swedish Fish in it, so he had an aquarium floating around."
You can check out some mesmerizing shots of astronauts playing with their food in the clip below.