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This is how the Apollo mission changed Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner wouldn't be the same without a trip or two to the Moon.

More than 50 years ago, humanity landed on the Moon and changed our understanding of our place in the universe forever.

But that's not the only thing that lunar road trip indelibly altered — the Apollo mission also changed Thanksgiving.

As astronauts prepared to venture out on their journey to the Moon, NASA needed to ensure they could take food on their three-day trip without getting sick. That's why the space agency developed the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, which is still being used to keep packaged food safe today.

In the early 1960's, NASA started testing ways to safeguard food for the Apollo mission.

The space agency came up with a three-step approach, according to NASA:

  • Identify points in the food production process where hazards could be introduced
  • Determine how those hazards could be prevented
  • Monitor these critical control points with frequent measurements
A turkey sandwich packaged by NASA for the Apollo astronauts.NASA

The food that astronauts brought onboard the Apollo craft had to be packaged and stored properly, and essentially non-perishable so it could last for the whole journey. There was no room for refrigerators on the spacecraft, after all.

But the new approach wasn't reserved for astronauts' meals. Soon after, the food industry began applying NASA's highly meticulous system to the food gracing Earth-bound tables, too.

After a food-poisoning outbreak at a fast food chain in 1993, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made NASA's system the basis of regulation for the meat and poultry industry, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required the system be put in place for all seafood and juice producers, too.

In 2011, the FDA phased in similar requirements across all remaining food producers registering with the administration. It also required importers to verify that foreign manufacturers also comply with the requirements.

“It’s one of these things where we maybe don’t appreciate the benefits, we just take them for granted now, because [the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system] is so ingrained in how we produce food,” Alice Johnson, vice president of food safety and quality at Butterball Turkey LLC, said in a statement.

Today, all the companies that provide food for the Thanksgiving table comply with the system that NASA put in place 50 years ago for the Apollo missions. The turkey has been cleared of toxic residue, and the cranberry sauce has gone through a thorough process of filtration, according to NASA.

The way astronauts consume food is still evolving, however. Today, astronauts onboard the International Space Station are starting to grow their own food using small, LED-lit chambers to cultivate lettuce and radishes.

As we face the realities of climate change and the toll on global food production, these techniques will inform how we grow our food in the future, too.

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