At Space Thanksgiving, They Don’t Actually Slice Turkeys with Lasers

BY: Nathalie Lagerfeld |
“Before being discovered by med spas, lasers were used exclusively for slicing turkeys during space Thanksgiving. Give thanks for lasers with this Groupon.” This joke has appeared at the top of hundreds—nay, thousands—of Groupon deals. I’ve always loved the image that it evokes: the Power Rangers Megazord sitting down to a zero-gravity feast with Voltron and friends and maybe a Jedi who casually flicks out a lightsaber to carve the bird. This year, though, I got curious about how Thanksgiving actually gets celebrated in space. After all, there are astronauts up in the International Space Station year-round. Here are the usual components of their Thanksgiving feast: "Precooked irradiated smoked turkey Since there’s no refrigeration on board the ISS, all astronaut food must have a long shelf life at room temperature. That’s easy for foods like crackers but more of a challenge for the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. Today, most meats served in space are thermostabilized—or precooked to remove harmful bacteria—a big improvement over previous preservative methods. Freeze-drying was the method of choice during the early Gemini (1962–1966) and Apollo (1961–1972) missions, since those spacecrafts’ fuel cells produced a lot of water that could be used to rehydrate food. Few astronauts seem to miss that era of tasteless and textureless zero-g dining. "I usually say we went from cubes and tubes to normal food that you eat from an open container," NASA food scientist Charles Bourland told (I will always savor the taste of astronaut ice cream, though.) Stuffing made from corn bread Avoiding crumbs is a major concern of NASA food scientists. On early missions, cookies were coated in gelatin to keep fragments from floating away into important equipment. Today, NASA employs less disgusting methods of crumb control. For instance, scientists craft Thanksgiving stuffing out of corn bread, whose moisture holds it together better than regular bread. You can read a recipe for the stuffing—which sounds like it might actually taste good—here. Real cranberry sauce In space, most spices are as dangerous as crumbs. At a normal meal, salt comes in a “watery solution” and pepper comes in oil. You can bet you don’t get to sprinkle a little dried thyme on top of your Thanksgiving meal. Luckily, gelatinous cranberry sauce can be served just as is. You can see little packets of Ocean Spray brand sauce in this photo. For more space recipes, check out The Astronaut’s Cookbook, authored by Bourland and his colleague Gregory Vogt.