Rita Rapp: The Martha Stewart of Astronauts

Martha Stewart is an icon in the American food scene. Much could be said about her stellar contributions to every American household table, particularly on the number of dishes she has introduced to every American mom, which have become national sensations as soon as they were televised.

In as much as Martha Stewart elevated the quality of food served in every American table, Rita Rapp has been doing the same thing; only, she’s doing it for the astronauts America has been sending out to space since the era of space mission began in the late 1960s.

Food in Space

What everybody probably is not realizing is that food in space is not particularly palatable. Astronaut food is not meant to give satisfaction taste-wise, but to provide needed sustenance to astronauts throughout their mission in space. Early food options were paste-like substance placed in containers similar to toothpaste tubes.

As space mission grew longer, NASA started offering real food options, initially with bite-sized food cubes covered in gelatin to contain the crumbs inside. But most of the gelatin-covered food items were not very well received by astronauts. To sum it up, astronauts are presented mostly with unappealing food options.

Rapp Started Making Food Experience Better

However, Rita Rapp did not stop herself from improving the quality of food offered to astronauts. Rapp joined NASA in the early years of 1960, where she started as a physiologist. She later becomes the leader of the Apollo Food System team, whose primary goal is to create food options to astronauts, which are light and compact enough to bring to space.

A big advancement came when Apollo 8 mission was underway. This mission was the first to have hot water aboard, making it possible to bring dehydrated food to space for the first time. As more missions are carried over, understanding of how things work in zero-gravity came gradually. Later, it was discovered that food surface tension helps in keeping it propped on a spoon. It was a monumental event, food experience wise, for astronauts as eating using a spoon reminded them of home.  

Rapp mainly pushed for that normal human eating experience astronauts would want once in space. Focusing most of her efforts in enhancing the food quality given to astronauts. To achieve this, she worked with numerous people, included manufactures to ensure food items have enough nutritional content while still keeping the weight at a minimum.

Creating the optimum food storage method to preserve the food’s flavor was a big part of her job. She has standardized food packaging that would, later on, be improved by her successors. Items such as cookies, which is a big hit among astronauts even making it a currency of exchange, were contained in flexible pouches.

Come 1981, food options have grown to have five forms: thermostabilized, intermediate moisture, rehydrated, natural, and beverage. This a far cry from the initial food items available to astronauts.

For her outstanding service, Rapp was awarded, among many others, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. She passed away in 1989, but the legacy she left behind will be forever memorialized.