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You Can Now Eat Russian Space Food—But Do You Want To?

You can now buy the same kinds of pasty tube foods available to Russian cosmonauts. But why are we so obsessed with astronaut food, anyway? And do they really eat freeze-dried ice cream?

Hilary Pollack

Hilary Pollack

Photo via Flickr user Thomas Ornston

For children of the 80s and 90s, few things rivaled the gimmicky pleasure derived from snacking on freeze-dried "astronaut ice cream," despite its obvious inferiority to actual ice cream in nearly every capacity. Sure, you don't have to refrigerate it, but it's chalky and crumbly, feels like nails on a chalkboard when you bite down, and leaves behind an uneasy film on your tongue. And oddly enough, it only seems to manifest in Neapolitan flavor.

Is Neapolitan considered the most diplomatic, benign, and universally acceptable of ice cream flavors? Where the cookies 'n' cream at? (Thank goodness that—though lesser-known—mint chip astronaut ice cream is, actually, a thing.)

Photo via Flickr user Ruth Hartnup

Astronaut ice cream. Photo via Flickr user Ruth Hartnup

Regardless of its quirks and faults, space-friendly ice cream is still popular—and readily available—to this day. Why? Because of its sci-fi appeal. Though astronauts today are hardly the celebrities that they were in the 60s and 70s, their strange and somewhat high-tech lifestyle, suspended miles and miles and miles above the Earth's surface, continues to be a source of intrigue. They are a very brave, very privileged, and very resilient group of elite men and women; there's a sense that they will face things unimaginable to the average person, on entirely other planes of scariness, beauty, and existential curiosity.

Or maybe we just love a good old-fashioned novelty food.

Starting this month, Moscow's All-Russian Exhibition Center has begun selling the cuisine of cosmonauts to the public, which is apparently hungry for what essentially amounts to savory toothpaste. Available for 300 rubles apiece (roughly US$4.50), each tube contains the same sustenance "enjoyed" (maybe?) by Russian cosmonauts who live on the International Space Station.

Should you decide to forgo your standard spoon-and-fork fare in favor of the food that people eat when they have no choice in zero-gravity environments, you can feast on 11 different pasty combinations, including marinated meat and vegetables, a cottage cheese dessert with "sea buckthorn" fruit, and a purée of apricot, apple, and blackcurrant. Yep, it turns out that astronauts are not only eating Neapolitan ice cream for every single meal during the months or years that they're suspended in orbit.

And, thankfully, astronauts aren't restricted solely to tube-food. Squeeze tubes have been popular food-delivery choices since the first NASA space missions, but they're merely one option among many other types of packages and pouches. And astronauts are eating more than just glorified baby food. Spaghetti, teriyaki beef, cashew chicken, meatloaf, scrambled eggs, and even coconut cream pie are just a few of the options for the Americans floating around up there.

Russians, however, prefer goulash, fish, borscht (which, naturally, does still come in a tube) and other homeland dishes. According to the Space Foundation, other nations have similarly adapted their domestic cuisine for in-flight enjoyment: "When China launched into orbit in 2003 for the first time, Yang Liwei brought yuxiang pork, Kung Pao chicken, rice and Chinese herbal tea. Japan sends sushi, ramen, yokan, and rice with ume for its astronauts."

The key is reducing the need for utensils—or the risk of setting the spacecraft on fire.

Smithsonian notes that "in the highly flammable, oxygen-rich environment of a [spaceship], no packaging or utensils can run the risk of creating a spark. Famously, a corned-beef sandwich was smuggled aboard Gemini 3 by pilot John W. Young." NASA was less than pleased.

So sure, you can have a taste of Russian astronaut food if you want—but you're not really getting the good stuff.

And we hate to tell you, but astronauts never really ate much of that freeze-dried ice cream—it was discontinued after a single mission.