When NASA’s 1970s space station Skylab orbited the Earth, astronauts loved Rita Rapp’s homemade cookies so much that they used them as currency. “We could incentivize a fellow crew member to do something for us with a bribe of sugar cookies from our personal allotment,” said astronaut and physicist Owen Garriott. These men, trapped together on multi-week tours of duty, chose a very down-to-earth mode of negotiation. To them, Rapp’s cookies were as good as gold—just like her other creative ideas to give the astronauts food that was both nutritious and tasty.
A physiologist who planned astronauts’ meals from the Apollo program of the late 1960s through the early shuttle flights of the 1980s, Rapp never settled for making space travelers “rough it,” as John Glenn did when he ate apple sauce from a tube in 1962. For her, there was always a better way: She simply had to find it. Over and over again, she succeeded. Whether she expanded the variety of foods, offered seasoning options, preserved flavor by improving packaging, or changed preparation methods during flight, Rapp constantly sought opportunities to make eating a good experience for astronauts far from home, even if that required preparing food to please an individual astronaut.
Spiced fruit cereal fit NASA’s food guidelines well: It was lightweight, nutritious and could be packaged compactly. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is home to a small bag, which flew aboard Apollo 17, the last lunar landing flight. Curator Jennifer Levasseur laughs as she explains that the museum’s supply of popular astronaut foods is less comprehensive than its collection of rejects. “We only get what they didn’t eat. So the collection reflects the things that they either didn’t have time to eat, they weren’t interested in eating, or just flat-out didn’t like.”
Rapp joined the NASA Space Task Force in the early 1960s, where she worked to gauge the effects of centrifugal force on astronauts, and she designed Gemini astronaut exercises that involved using elastic equipment during flight to challenge muscles. As Project Apollo got under way, she became a member of the Apollo Food Systems team, which she would later lead.
Because of weightlessness, NASA began spaceflights with the simple idea that astronaut food had to be limited because of a fear that crumbs and other food detritus would fill the air. That’s why Glenn and later Mercury astronauts were forced to eat from a container resembling a toothpaste tube. As space missions grew longer and after Gemini 3 astronaut John Young smuggled a messy corned beef sandwich aboard, NASA tried to broaden the menu of real food by offering bite-sized food cubes coated with gelatin to avoid crumbling. Bite-sized pieces of fruit cake were popular in those years, but some of the gelatin-coated pieces were not big hits, and in those cases, Rapp said, “What we sent up, we usually got back.” During Projects Mercury and Gemini, there was no hot water aboard for food preparation, so astronauts often struggled with unappealing options.
The big breakthrough came on Apollo 8, which had hot water aboard. Rapp tried dehydrated food for the first time. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders enjoyed a Christmas Eve turkey dinner as they orbited the moon. “Understanding how things worked in space came gradually,” says Levasseur. Over the years, NASA had discovered that the surface tension of food would keep it on a spoon, so spoon bowls offered astronauts the ability to eat food in ways that reminded them of home. Comparing the astronauts’ meals to those of small children, Rapp said that the ability to use a spoon was “the difference between baby foods and junior foods.”
As spaceflight progressed, Rapp worked with others to make eating more normal aboard spacecraft. She considered food to be part of the “hardware” carried aboard spacecraft—and that definition is not far from the truth: Like any tool on a space vehicle, food had to be prepared to minimize its weight. She chose the food and worked with manufacturers to make sure it had the proper nutrients. Finding the best storage method for each item was a big part of Rapp’s job, and she packed food herself, while wearing a sterile suit to avoid the introduction of bacteria. A four-ply laminated film coating protected the food from loss of flavor and crumbling. Often, items such as cookies and other snacks were placed in flexible pouches to make more room as many items as possible. She established standards that her successors have worked to maintain. Today, at NASA’s Space Food Research Lab, “her role is now filled by multiple people who do each tiny part of the job that she was doing back then,” Levasseur says.
Most of her modifications aimed to enhance the quality of food available to all astronauts. Rapp understood that “it’s not just about nutrition. It’s about flavor. It’s about ease of eating it. It’s about making it like something you would have at home,” says Levasseur. Occasionally, Rapp tried to honor very specific individual requests. On Apollo 15, astronaut James Irwin requested "Soup Romaine" as prepared at Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales, Florida. The restaurant’s soup contained broth, mushrooms, spinach, carrots, garlic and other seasonings, and Rapp managed to offer a reasonable facsimile. “I like to feed the men what they like because I want them healthy and happy,” she told the Associated Press. Astronaut Charlie Duke, a Southerner, requested that grits appear on Apollo 16’s menu. Rapp tried several different ways to create something that passed for grits. The early batches “were just awful,” according to Duke, but Rapp continued trying until she had developed a good option that could be prepared in flight by adding hot water from the command module. “By the time we got ready to fly,” he said, “they were pretty good, so I ate all mine.” Apollo missions carried enough food to provide three meals a day for each astronaut and about 2,800 calories per day, although astronauts, like people on the ground, often substituted coffee for breakfast.
On the first shuttle flight in 1981, a food warmer was introduced to make the food more appetizing, and astronauts John Young (yes, the Gemini corned beef sandwich smuggler) and Robert Crippen enjoyed a dinner of shrimp cocktail and beefsteak. Condiments, such as ketchup and mayonnaise, became a regular part of the food supply on that flight, which carried only two astronauts for 54 hours and carried 20 pounds of food. Two years later, as Sally Ride would become the first American woman astronaut to fly in space, Rapp’s team was able to offer the crew 20 beverages and 75 types of food. On the last night in space, Crippen, who was the ship’s commander, said, “I think I personally have eaten enough of Rita’s food. I’m not sure I can get back into my flight suit.” Food came in five forms: thermostabilized, food like tuna that was typically canned but could be processed to be stored in lighter packaging without refrigeration; intermediate moisture, such as dried fruits; rehydratable or freeze-dried foods; natural form, including bread, cookies, and eggs; and beverages, which were powdered drinks.
Rapp received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and many other awards. A plaque at the Johnson Space Center in Houston honors her service. She died in July 1989, but her mission continues.
Even in the 21st century, NASA is still reaching for Rapp’s goal of providing steady improvement in food for astronauts. Some hurdles remain: “While we can manage to send humans 200,000 miles into the vast unknown and bring them home safely, it is apparently beyond our capacity (except for a brief time on the Skylab space station) to provide them with a functioning refrigerator while there,” one of Rapp’s successors, Vickie Kloeris, said in 2013. Skylab’s mission included nutrition experiments, so millions of dollars were spent to make that project work. Refrigeration/freezer appliances on the International Space Station are restricted to housing experimental samples. Improving food options for station travelers, who often spend months aboard, remains an ongoing challenge that builds upon Rita Rapp’s many contributions to the development of food science for space travel. American astronauts aboard the station have many food options, as well as the ability to season their foods as they like. They also have wet wipes to clean up their messes. Russian cosmonauts endure a more restrictive diet.
Rapp’s legacy helped to build today’s wide selection of foods, which allow astronauts to enjoy many of the same foods they eat on Earth. “In a way, the lives of the astronauts depended on her doing her job and doing it to make sure that they were going to have what they needed,” Levasseur says. “She was providing something more basic and human” than the tools created by NASA engineers. “Rita Rapp is the personification of making the things we do on Earth work in space.”