While the rest of the world focused on the space race between Russia and the United States, Paul Lachance, PhD, an Air Force Aeromedical Laboratories biologist, worried about the safety of the food astronauts were eating during a mission.
Explore this issueApril/May 2012
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“I did not want a telephone call at 2 o’clock in the morning from Chuck [Charles A.] Berry, who was the chief medical officer of NASA, telling me that his astronaut or astronauts were sick and had stomach problems and were having a hard time holding things down,” Lachance told interviewer Jennifer Ross-Nazzal in a May 2006 interview for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. “We have to realize that this was the first time in the history of the American—or of the food industry in the world, in fact—but for the United States, that zero pathogens in foods [was required].”
This started Lachance, a former NASA flight and food coordinator from 1963-1967 and a PhD professor emeritus of nutrition and food science at Rutgers University, on the road to being a pioneer developer of HACCP, a method NASA has referred to as “the most revolutionary institutional innovation to ensure food safety of the 20th century,” according to a 2009 profile of him in the Saint Michael’s College Magazine.
HACCP, which aims to identify potential food safety hazards and apply critical control points to reduce threats, has since expanded well beyond NASA to become a staple safety method at consumer food processing plants worldwide. Lachance, a native of St. Johnsbury, Vt., has been credited with developing HACCP, along with his collaborating scientists at the U.S. Army Laboratories in Natick, Mass., and Howard Bauman, PhD, a microbiologist who led Pillsbury’s work to develop space food for astronauts.
Keeping Space Crews Safe
While completing a tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force Aeromedical Laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, Lachance became aware of the issues involved in producing astronaut food. That lab also supported the pre-flight feeding of Mercury mission astronauts, according to historical information from NASA, which recruited him to become the flight food and nutrition coordinator at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. While there, he revamped the food systems for both the Gemini and Apollo space programs.
When Lachance arrived at NASA in September 1963, he started evaluating the Gemini and Apollo food systems, which were still in early development. A NASA history book, “How Space Food Standards Impacted the Food Industry and Changed Food Safety Standards,” described Lachance’s contributions. Most of all, he wanted to avoid putting the crews at risk, “and he began thinking about the potential microbiological, physical, and chemical dangers space foods might pose. Microbiological hazards became an overriding concern after NASA found that many of the ingredients they purchased were contaminated with viral or bacterial pathogens. There had to be some way to minimize or eliminate these hazards, Lachance explained.”
Pillsbury had been a NASA contractor since 1959, working on cube-sized foods that would not crumble in zero gravity but provided adequate nutrition to the astronauts. Lachance added strict microbiological requirements for space food, including limits on pathogens. It had become clear to him, Dr. Bauman, and the Natick lab scientists that traditional quality control methods couldn’t meet the standards, so they searched for a better system to assure food safety. At the time, no one knew how to conduct a thorough hazard analysis, but eventually a suitable model, called the “modes of failure,” was adopted. Microbiologists examined each food item and analyzed the potential areas of concern during manufacturing, then scoured publications to make a list of potentially hazardous ingredients that contained viral or bacterial pathogens, heavy metals, other hazardous chemicals, or physical hazards.