The Apollo 8 Christmas Dinner Surprise: Turkey and Gravy en Route to the Moon in 1968


On Christmas Day in 1968, the Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were delighted to find a surprise in their food locker: a specially packaged Christmas dinner, complete with red and green ribbons.

This "homemade" meal, as similar to a traditional holiday feast as NASA could muster for space travel, lifted the crew's spirits and whetted their appetites.

In addition to its culinary appeal, this meal also marked an important moment in the development of space food.

During their journey to the Moon, the Apollo 8 crew experienced a loss of appetite. Food scientist Malcolm Smith later detailed the crew's minimal food intake.

Flight surgeon Chuck Berry expressed concern that Frank Borman, in particular, consumed the least on the second day with only 881 calories.

Borman attributed this to the unfit nature of much of the food provided.

The crew avoided compressed, bite-sized items and faced another challenge: When rehydrating their food, the food often absorbed the flavor of its packaging rather than retaining its original flavor.

During the 1960s, astronauts and personnel at the Manned Spacecraft Center expressed many complaints about the food provided.

Before the Apollo 8 mission, Apollo 9 astronaut Jim McDivitt took matters into his own hands by writing down his in-flight meal preferences on the back of the Apollo 8 crew menu.

He urged the food lab to "minimize" the amount of compressed, bite-sized items and include more meat and potato dishes.

Expressing his concern, McDivitt wrote, "I feel very hungry, and I'm afraid I'll starve to death on that menu."

In 1969, Rita Rapp, the physiologist leading the Apollo Food Systems team, approached Donald Arabian, head of the Mission Evaluation Room, to evaluate the four-day food supply to be used in the Apollo missions.

The Arabian, who is known for his adventurous tastes and humorously describes himself as a "human garbage can", was surprised to find the food lacking in taste, aroma, appearance, texture and flavor.

At the end of his four-day evaluation, he concluded that "the pleasure of eating had been lost to such an extent that interest in eating had essentially diminished."

When the Apollo 8 crew uncovered their Christmas surprise – a specially prepared meal with ribbon – their joy was genuine.

It turned out to be an absolute space feast: turkey with gravy, cranberry sauce and even grape punch! So good, in fact, that astronaut Jim Lovell couldn't resist contacting Mission Control to share his good fortune.

"It seems we may have been a little rude to people dining at home," he said with a laugh to capsule communicator Mike Collins.

“Right after our TV broadcast, Santa Claus threw a TV dinner for each of us, and let me tell you, it was excellent! Turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce – everything works.

In response, Collins expressed delight at hearing the good news but shared that the flight control team was not as lucky. Instead, they were "eating cold coffee and baloney sandwiches."

The food on Apollo 8 marked a significant success. Before this mission, astronauts' food options were limited to freeze-dried items that required rehydration and foods compressed into cube form.

Most food was heavily processed. However, NASA introduced a new concept for Apollo 8 with the "Wetpack": a thermostabilized package containing turkey and gravy that retained its natural water content and could be eaten with a spoon.

While astronauts had previously consumed thermostabilized pureed food during Project Mercury missions, they had never before enjoyed solid pieces of meat such as turkey in space.

On the Project Gemini and Apollo 7 missions, astronauts used their fingers to eat bite-sized cubes and zero-g feeder tubes for rehydrated food.

The inclusion of the wetpack on Apollo 8 was the result of years of development.

US Army Natick Labs in Massachusetts created the packaging, and the US Air Force conducted several parabolic flights to test the feasibility of spoon-feeding from packages in microgravity.

The new improved food proved to be a real morale booster for the astronauts.

Its appeal arose from several factors: the new packaging allowed them to see and smell the turkey and gravy; The texture and flavor of the meat remained unchanged by the addition of water from the spacecraft or the rehydration process.

More importantly, the crew can skip the process of adding water, kneading the package, and waiting to consume their food.

NASA acknowledged that the Christmas dinner highlighted "the importance of food presentation and serving methods."

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