How Astronauts Had Wine Banned From Their Space Menus In The 1970s

By Ajit Jha on February 2, 2014 2:05 PM EST

wine
In an effort to make food menus more appealing for American astronauts during the 1970s, food scientists introduced wine. However, it never made it into space due to a series of unforeseen circumstances. (Photo: Dave Dugdale, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the early 1970s, NASA began focusing on long-term space missions, hoping to go further than moon-focused missions. The most pressing challenge at the time was revamping the space menu. Food at the time was dehydrated or held in a pouch to be squeezed out. It was deemed nearly inedible for the majority of the team on the Gemini and Apollo programs, and NASA was looking to add some flair, including wine.

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NASA's spacecraft manager, Don Arabian, found that he lost "the will to live" when he tried eating the space food for three consecutive days, saying that "the sausage patties tasted like granulated rubber," according to Ben Evan's book At Home in Space: The Late Seventies into the Eighties. Evans, who was working on the food program with Skylab (The U.S.'s first space station), reported on his yearlong experience. "The situation had improved significantly; the station would include both a freezer and an oven, and foods would be provided in five varieties: dehydrated, intermediate exposure, 'wet-packed,' frozen, and perishable," he wrote, according to Gizmodo. The menu also included prime ribs, spaghetti, ice cream, and - briefly - wine.

Evans, working on food program with Skylab, the US's first space station reported his year long experience that "the situation had improved significantly: the station would include both a freezer and an oven and foods would be provided in five varieties-dehydrated, intermediate moisture, 'wet-packed,' frozen, and perishable." The menu included prime ribs, spaghetti, ice cream and alcohol for a brief period.

Charles Bourland, who spent over 30 years catering to space-goers at NASA's Johnson Space Center, recalled his experiences in The Astronaut's Cookbook. One of his tasks was to select wine for the Skylab missions. After consulting experts from the University of California at Davis, he decided that sherry would work best, because any other wine would need repackaging when flying. Sherry, on the other hand, is very stable because it is heated during processing, and consequently does not undergo changes. The astronauts could drink this repackaged sherry by simply squeezing it out of the bag.

The Milwaukee Journal was among the first to report the introduction of alcohol to astronaut menus in 1972. And Dr. Malcolm Smith, a nutritionist and a member of Bourland's team, cited the benefits of wine when used in moderation in space. However, a series of incidents stalled sherry's inclusion in space missions.

Early tests under weightless conditions produced unfortunate results: The wine in space created an awful stench. When NASA surveyed the space mission crew about the stench, they were pretty much ambivalent. Wine was taken out of the menu, however, when Gerry Carr, the commander of Skylab 4, said in a public lecture that publicizing alcohol on the menu attracted a slew of angry letters from people.

Within 10 days from that announcement, NASA's alcohol problem had ended. Kenneth S. Kleinknecht, Skylab's manager in Houston, said in a memorandum to the director of the Johnson Space Center that there was no need to including the beverage. Some of the reasons: It was an unnecessary expense; it didn't support nourishment or a balanced diet; public criticism and ridicule; and the likelihood of interfering with experiments. 

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