This story originally featured on Mel Magazine.
According to the history books, the first man to eat pizza in space was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachov on May 22, 2001. It was part of a promotional stunt by Pizza Hut, where the pizza chain paid a million dollars to the Russian space program to include one of their pizzas with a shipment of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). But while it’s true that this was the first pizza delivered to space, the honor of being the first man to eat pizza in space doesn’t actually belong to Usachov. Instead, that distinction goes to a pizza-loving American astronaut from Ohio, though you won’t find this in any of NASA’s official files.
In 1990, Cornell graduate Don Thomas was chosen by NASA to be a mission specialist in the organization’s 13th group of astronauts. Before his retirement in 2007, Thomas was part of four missions in space, three aboard Space Shuttle Columbia and one aboard Discovery. He’s spent 44 days in space, and has orbited the Earth nearly 700 times. Now, Thomas works as a motivational speaker and is the author of Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission.
Yet there’s one accomplishment of Thomas’ that, until now, has gone unrecognized. While he’s told the story to friends, tweeted about it once and has mentioned it during speaking engagements, he’s never before told the whole story about how, on April 5, 1997, aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, he became the first man to eat pizza in outer space.
For the first time ever, here’s the full story, with all the gooey details.
I love pizza. It’s one of my favorite foods. That’s really how this all started.
There’s a lot of preparation that goes into every aspect of a spaceflight, and the food is no exception. One week before launch, the other astronauts and I would quarantine so that no one caught a cold or anything. We’d live in this dormitory for three days at Johnson Space Center, and then we’d fly to the Kennedy Space Center, which is where we’d spend the last three or four days.
During this time, the food preparation people in the dormitory prepared all the meals. You could make requests, but they didn’t want you ordering Chinese food or pizza or anything like that because they didn’t want to risk food poisoning. You couldn’t even have leftovers—they’re very careful.
In addition to that, they also prepared a sandwich for you for the day of the launch. They don’t always get eaten, but sometimes, we’d be laying on our backs in the cockpit for four or five hours thanks to a weather delay, so they’d allow us to take a sandwich in case we got hungry.
We put the order in for these sandwiches well beforehand—before we’re even in quarantine, if I remember correctly. On my first mission, I asked my commander, “Hey, can I get a slice of pizza?” He said, “No pizza,” so I settled for a turkey sandwich.
I don’t know why he said, “no”—that’s one of the great mysteries of space travel, I guess. But when I didn’t get the pizza, out of slight protest, I requested pizza-flavored Goldfish crackers for the mission. That one was no big deal because we flew with Goldfish crackers all the time, so I just asked for a different flavor.
On my second mission, I didn’t ask about the pizza, but on my third flight, I tried again. This time, I didn’t directly ask my commander, but when the food prep people asked me what I wanted, I said, “How about a slice of pizza?”
On the day of the launch, they made a little, six- or seven-inch pepperoni pizza for me and put that in a Ziploc bag, which got placed next to my seat in the cockpit.
We launched on April 4, 1997. There were no delays, so I didn’t reach for that pizza while we were on the launchpad. For that first day, typically people aren’t feeling that great, so there’s not a lot of eating going on. I think I had my pizza the next day for lunch, actually.
I always thought that a slice of pizza would be the best thing to eat in space because, with a sandwich, there’s crumbs from the bread, but with pizza you have the congealed grease and the cheese. So I figured, “What could be better than a slice of pizza?”
And it proved correct! When I took the pizza out of the bag, there were no crumbs. I took some pictures to document the occasion, then I ate it. I don’t have a lot of recollection of the pizza itself—it just tasted like cold pizza—but I enjoyed the act of doing that. How it actually tasted was secondary.
The mission got cut short after four days. It was supposed to be a 16-day mission, but there were some mechanical problems. Eighty-eight days later, they re-flew us to do the mission all over again. I had a pizza on that flight as well, so I actually had pizza in space twice.
A few years later, Pizza Hut delivered that pizza to the ISS, and everyone thought that was the first time someone had pizza in space, but nope. It had already been done, and I’ve got the pictures to prove it. It’s nice to finally set the record straight. As far as I know, I’m the first to take a pizza into space. I’m not the first on the moon, I’m not the first to orbit the Earth, but I did eat the first pizza in space.
I say that, of course, in jest. This is the fun, human side of traveling in space. It’s serious work, but every now and then you can have a little fun. I love pizza—it’s a comfort food and when you’re in space, that kind of comfort food is a connection with home.