May 30, 2024

Fun fact:

Have you ever wondered what a space ship or a space station smells like? If you think space stations and ships have a cold metallic fresh smell, similar to the fresh scent of disinfectants or air fresheners, then you are in for a stinky surprise. Although there are excellent filtration and ventilation systems onboard, the space stations, I guess, smell of every meal that has ever been eaten and every dump ever taken as you cannot crack open the window to let the stink out. Food once opened, in space, has to be completed whether one likes it or not because the leftovers will start rotting and stinking.

Source: https://giphy.com/gifs/space-pizza-TeeJEaWQtb9mg

Hi guys, it’s been a while since I wrote a blog. I was drowning in school work and had my exams. So all of you who know me, know I’m a foodie but the thing you don’t know about me is that I’m not any ordinary foodie, I’m a deep space foodie. Right from dehydrated mangoes and mashed potatoes to dehydrated ice cream (Fun fact 2: Astronaut ice cream has never been consumed by astronauts in space. It is very crumbly which makes it hazardous as bits of frozen dried ice cream can float in zero gravity and float into controls and cause various problems), I have tried almost everything, including Vulcan Plomeek soup, Bajoran Hasperat, Enaran Algae puffs.

Whenever I am speaking about food in outer space, I’m always met with a similarly worded stupid response: “Humans have ventured out in space for scientific exploration and discovery. Nobody goes to space for food!” I want to ask all of them that is it wrong to make a discovery or boldly go where no one has gone before with some good pasta or sushi at your side? Food, certainly, is a physical necessity but it also provides lasting memories, inspiring and uniting people from different cultures. According to me, the food should embody the majestic grandeur of the endeavour and the magnificence of the wondrous surrounding. Food defines an experience and provides a deeper insight into the place and situation you are in. It nourishes your body, mind and soul.

So why can’t you eat anything you want to like spaghetti or a pizza in space to make it a more enjoyable experience. Well, astronauts would love to but they simply cannot because of the practical problems and technological and physical limitations we face.

These limitations and problems have been the focus of space research for almost 5 decades. In the beginning, scientists wondered whether humans could eat and digest food in zero gravity because the human digestive system had gotten accustomed to function in Earth’s gravitational field. In the early 1900s, there was no way to duplicate zero-gravity conditions on earth. This led to many innovative experiments. My favourite one being the experiment conducted by the aeromedical doctor Hubertus Strughold, a.k.a Father of Space Medicine, where he numbed his butt with procaine (a local anaesthetic drug) and flew through a series of aerobatic manoeuvres. The lack of sensation on the butt was a decent substitute for the feeling of weightlessness. He said that the experience was “very disagreeable”.

Furthermore, you can eat everything in space but every kilogram that NASA or ISRO or any other organization that transports food to and from space costs thousands of dollars and so food has to be lightweight and compact. Moreover, the food should have a long shelf life (of at least 18 months) as astronauts spend months in space and food cannot be transported like every week. For this reason, most of the food is dehydrated, i.e the water is taken out making it lighter, more compact and increasing the shelf life. Sometimes, foods like meat are bombarded with radiation to increase their lifespan. There are 8 categories of space food: Rehydratable food (dehydrated food) like hot cereal and oatmeal, intermediate moisture food (not all the water is drained out to maintain the soft texture) like dried peaches, pears and beef jerky, thermostabilized food (food that can be stored at room temperature, usually in cans) like fruits, fish and pudding, natural form food (ready to eat) like nuts and granola bars, irradiated food (food sterilized by ionizing radiation) like smoked turkey, fresh food like apple and banana, frozen food (foods quick frozen to inhibit ice buildup) like quiches and casseroles and refrigerated food like cream cheese and sour cream.

Can you eat Pringles or Doritos or Oreos in space as they are compact, lightweight and have a pretty decent shelf life? Although you can eat Pringles, Doritos and Oreos in space, it requires a lot of effort and planning. The astronaut has to open the food packets near a vent so that the crumbs go in the vent. And then they have to clean the vent with a vacuum cleaner. This is because, in microgravity, these crumbs float and go everywhere, they can land up inside critical equipment or inside an astronaut’s lungs. This is the reason why most foods, in space, are mushy. In the beginning, food came in the form of squeezable purees and moisture bites like brownies and bacon squares. Even seasonings like salt and pepper come in a liquidized form! To prevent crumbs and liquids from damaging equipment and being inhaled, foods are specially packed and served from moving about the space shuttle or space station. Most of the foods are packaged with liquids. Due to cohesion, liquids, when freely suspended from their containers in micro or zero gravity, cling to themselves and hold the food together. Special straws are used for drinking liquids. These straws have clamps that prevent the liquids from spilling out due to capillary action and surface tension. Microgravity also affects utensils like knife, fork, spoon and scissors (utensils allowed aboard a space station). These utensils are stuck using magnets on trays when not being used.

Astronauts are allowed to bring food as a part of their personal allowance. Astronaut Catherine Coleman shaped rice into sticky rice balls and ate it with Thai curry which she brought as a part of her personal allowance. Although she described it as the best meal she had in space, she said that it took twice as long to eat dinner. As astronauts have a tight schedule, she said she would rather eat an energy bar as it is much more efficient. Time plays a major factor when designing space food menus. Even if we ignore the time factor and, suppose, provide a crumbless and compact dish like spaghetti, it wouldn’t be possible to cook it in space right now as there are very limited utensils available: scissors to cut food packets and spoon, fork and a knife to eat. Although, you can always use your hands right!! This would allow space travellers to get in touch with humanities most authentic foodways.

In the absence of gravity, body fluids pool in the head which is known to cause permanent vision problems and making it difficult to eat. As some astronauts have described, eating in space is like eating with a severe cold and a headache on Earth. This makes astronauts crave for stronger and sweeter tastes that cut through the congestion feeling and help the astronauts.

It is a known fact that under all circumstances of isolation or confinement in remote places, food becomes more important and takes on the role of maintaining group morale and productivity. This is because normal sources of pleasure are denied. So longer the confinement, more the value and importance of food. So what is the future of space food, when man boldly goes where no one has gone before. Now, as short and long term space travel to the moon and Mars are becoming a reality, it is of the utmost priority and significance to design healthy and nutritious food and make eating an enjoyable experience. Space food scientist should not only focus on the functional and nutritional aspects of food but also the texture, taste and presentation.

For the next phase, with missions lasting for years, a new serious problem arises: menu exhaustion and fatigue. One of the solutions is to 3D print food in space like a food replicator we have all seen and dreamed to use in Star Trek. Now that has become more essential and relevant than ever, companies like BeeHex have harnessed the technological power and printed a pizza and have also been successful in printing meat. The problems associated with adapting the technology for use in space is dealing with microgravity. Current 3D printer makes use of gravity to print food on the print beds, but in space, the printers would need to apply pressure and print food layer by layer on a sticky print bed. Without gravity it becomes complicated but it is possible. The other problem associated with food replicators is making a directory and programming the printers to print a wide variety of food. This also means a wide variety of raw materials will have to be provided which will take space, weight and money but will be lighter and cheaper than sending the actual food up there. Right now these printers can only print few food items but in the future, they will be able to print anything you want and will only take up the same space as your microwave at home.

BeeHex 3D printer printing a pizza.
Source: https://www.bizjournals.html

Another solution to enjoyable dining in space is growing your own food and cooking it. In season 4 episode 2 titled “Family” of the Star Trek: The Next Generation, we see Captain Jean-Luc Picard visit his family’s ancestral vineyard in France to recuperate after his fatal encounter and assimilation with the Borg. With his brother, he tends vines, harvests grapes and eats meals made from scratch. Combing back to Earth, he regained his sense of identity and meaning. Picard was fortunate to travel back to Earth and experience the old natural ways of living, but astronauts on long term missions or astronauts living on Mars or other planets won’t have that opportunity for a long time. Cooking food doesn’t only connect you back to the sense of humanity but also empowers you over your food, you can make your own food with innumerable variations and also it improves social cohesion between fellow astronauts by talking about and sharing food – It’s a human thing. Moreover, according to me, the imperfection and error involved in cooking food makes it delicious and not the 3D printed food with all ingredients exact to the gram and hot to the exact degree.

In space, hydroponic and aeroponic growth labs could allow astronauts to grow their own food like potato, rice and beans. Space agencies have yet to explore this avenue for the following reasons: Cooking food on board a shuttle or space station requires water and energy which are one of the most precious elements in space. It also requires a lot of time and astronauts are short on time. Additionally, it’s difficult to cook in microgravity… but Mars has about 38% gravity of Earth’s so like shown in the movie The Martian, cooking food could be a viable option on other planets far away from Earth.

Hydroponics Growth Lab.
Source: https://agfundernews.com

As humans are on their way to becoming interplanetary species, which involves spending a long amount of time in space away from the tiny blue dot we call home, we should focus and research on the production, packaging and consumption of food and make the overall process comfortable and delightful for the astronauts in addition to unravelling the mysteries of the universe by expanding humanity’s reach in the universe.

Maggie Coblentz, an industrial designer and researcher who uses food as a lens to explore the future of human life and culture in extreme environments, used molecular gastronomy to create food which is more enjoyable to eat. She made use of the direct spherification technique which utilizes calcium chloride and sodium alginate to turn liquids into squishy, caviar-like spheres that burst delightfully on the tongue. She injected a bead of ginger extract into a lemon-flavoured bubble or blood orange into a beet juice globule that would deliver a unique multi pop sensation to the astronauts. She even made algae-based caviar that is healthy as well as fun to eat. This is a fun way to express a person’s culinary creativity as well as create an enjoyable sensory experience for the spacefarers.

If you have any thoughts or ideas about how to make eating more pleasurable in space please comment below, or email me at dirghvshah@gmail.com, or tweet me at DirghShah.

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