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The Taste of Space 4: Cosmic Cooking

The gravity’s turned down low, the larder is packed with space-grown veggies, cultured meat and artificial protein: it’s time to get cooking in space. Astro-chefs have to improvise hard right now, but there are tools on the way which will revolutionise the way space travellers feed themselves.

I fell into a research vortex when I decided to write ONE post about space food, but it’s been a fascinating journey into a subject that most space fans a lot of writers barely consider. The tech and techniques for cooking in space are no less cutting edge than engines or lasers, especially when it comes to zero-gravity.

This is quite literally life support. Space food is tied into the technology that will supply air, water and fuel, as we learned in the last post on meat and protein for space travel. On a day-to-day basis, making food will be a lot more important than aliens or space pirates.

When it comes to cooking, there’s been so little practical activity that it’s 99% prototypes and imagination. Yep, we’ve arrived at science fiction.

NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus cooking on the International Space Station during the Expedition 18 mission in 2006
NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus cooking on the International Space Station during the Expedition 18 mission in 2006. Credit: NASA

Space cooking in 2023

The International Space Station is ill-equipped for astronauts who want to make their own food. You can warm food to about 80°C and add water. But things are getting better: the Chinese space station, Tiangong, has the luxury of a microwave oven and a kitchen table to prepare food, while the ISS now has an oven, of sorts.

That didn’t stop astronaut Peggy Whitson from inventing the cheese quesadilla (possibly as early as 2002) by heating cheese spread and salsa on a tortilla, or working out how to use the Russian food warmer to slow-roast garlic. It took two-and-a-half hours.

A few years later, Sandra Magnus arrived prepared to cook, with garlic paste, pesto paste, sun-dried tomato paste, ginger paste, a variety of mustards, mayo, horseradish, sweet and sour paste, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Like Whitson, she used leftover foil wrappings to slow-roast food and create a Christmas meal which has attained semi-legendary status. The menu featured mesquite grilled albacore steaks flavoured with a lemon, garlic and ginger paste, Russian crab salad with horseradish, and cornbread stuffing with rehydrated sausage, garlic and onion and honey.

In 2010, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi rolled — and ate — the first salmon sushi in space, but since then there’s been little to beat Magnus’s achievements. (I know that Chris Hadfield made some tortilla videos and Tim Peake had a bacon sandwich, but it was pre-made on Earth by Heston Blumenthal.)

JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi makes the first space sushi, a feat that’s yet to be repeated.

Sticky fingers

According to Sandra Magnus’s account, preparing her meals was as challenging as cooking them. Plastic bags doubled as mixing bowls, while duct tape stopped ingredients from floating away and made it easy to throw away the waste afterwards. It’s easy to imagine this being true long into the future, even if the waste is recycled.

Moisture is a blessing and a curse for food prep in zero-gravity, and probably in very low-g. The surface tension in water makes food stick to fingers, plastic bags or other ingredients, so you have to brush it off. And there it goes, floating away. Small, dry foods like freeze-dried scrambled eggs and tinned sweetcorn also stuck to surfaces until they were bound together with sauce.

Above all, your food has to stay in the bags, attached to duct tape or get eaten. No-one wants to breathe it in, or worse. Escaped food, says Magnus, is “bad style points”.

Rice balls, falafels, meatballs and anything else that holds together in bite-size chunks are likely to remain popular in zero-g cuisine. Spaghetti and noodles will be guilty-pleasures, slurped noisily from a packet in private.

The 3D food printer by Creative Machines Lab combines ingredients into edible dishes.
The 3D food printer prototype by Creative Machines Lab. Credit: Columbia University

Dial six for steak

One alternative to preparing food in zero-gravity is 3D printing that combines ingredients and delivers them, ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook. Cultured protein, mycoprotein and cell-derived meat are ideally-suited to use in 3D printers, mixed with flavourings and additives to look, taste and feel like other foods.

It’s the closest anyone is likely to come to a Star Trek-style replicator, adding variety to travellers’ menus. But it’s early days, with Earth-bound food printing still in the prototype stage. Space-ready models are a long way off, but there are tantalising hints of progress.

Aleph Farms has combined lab-grown beef with fat and artificial collagen to create the world’s first cultivated 3D-bio-printed ribeye steak. Food-grade printers that can make food at an industrial speed and scale are the next step. The steak still looks artificial, although that probably wouldn’t matter if it was all you could get.

Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab offers another vision of how 3D food printing might look. The printer uses tubes of ingredients like pureed carrot, vitamins and courgette, printing them one layer at a time. It even includes a laser that can cook each ingredient precisely, though it’s also a slow process. The results look like fake plastic food and the creators admit that the taste needs some work.

Fry me to the Moon

For those without lasers, cooking in space comes with numerous challenges. There’s little or no gravity, power is rationed and you can’t open a window when you burn the food.

New equipment on the ISS also has to meet a lot of safety rules. Fire in space is definitely “bad style points” (although flames in zero gravity are strange and exciting things). Components and materials shouldn’t get so hot they catch fire, and open flames are out. Red buttons or lights are also banned because red indicates an emergency.

A microwave oven seems obvious. Taikonauts on Tiangong have one, there are still no official plans to put on on the ISS. The need for hundreds of Watts in power is a major obstacle, as are venting steam safely and the strange chemistry and physics of cooking in space. Please China, publish your research.

The European Space Agency has studied a far messier and potentially more dangerous cooking process for spaceflight: frying. Professor Thodoris Karapantsios from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and his team built a space-safe module to video potatoes frying in weightlessness. They ran initial tests on a “vomit comet”, an aeroplane that creates bursts of weightlessness by flying in parabolic arcs. It turns out that zero-g frying is all about bubbles of liquid, which detach from the potatoes as they cook. The team hopes to run future tests aboard the ISS.

Frying in zero-g is perfected sometime in the next two hundred years for The Expanse series. Red Kibble, a dish made of deep-fried, heavily spiced red bean paste balls, features in both the books and TV show.

Steam bubbles escaping as potatoes fry in oil and the gravity changes.

Orbital ovens

Ovens are another hot topic for space cooking research, with two technologies in competition. Conventional ovens rely on convection — hot air rising — to move heat around, but that needs gravity. In zero-g, energy is either conducted through the air or it radiates directly from the heating elements.

The Zero G Oven arrived on the ISS first, installed in 2019 for an experiment sponsored by the DoubleTree hotel chain. It uses electric elements to create a pocket of air at up to 177°C (350°F) that cooks food in special pouches which allow steam to escape while retaining crumbs. Astronauts baked cookies at different times and temperatures, then returned them to Earth for a taste test. NASA gave them pre-packed cookies to compensate for enduring the tantalising smell, but it was a lucky escape. Only one of the cookies was properly baked. The inventors hope to trial grilling, pan and griddle cooking in the oven on future missions.

Their competitor is garage inventor Jim Sears, whose SATED oven is a finalist in NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge. Jim’s oven uses ceramic elements which can reach 220°C but can’t get any hotter — a key fire safety feature. The oven spins to create artificial gravity so that ingredients stay in the right place and food reaches high temperatures. On Earth, Sears has made pancakes, omelettes, inside-out pineapple cake and cylindrical pizzas. If all goes well, SATED could fly by 2025 and win approval for astronauts to cook by the end of the decade.

The Zero G Oven with one of the cookies, ready for baking in space in 2019.
The Zero G Oven with a cookie ready for baking in space in 2019. Credit: Zero G Kitchens

Lunar loaves

I love home-made bread and my bread machine has made me a lazy, happy baker. Space ovens are a step towards space bread-making, but the humble loaf is a triumph of biology and chemistry that’s easy enough to get wrong on Earth. You’ve got to knead the dough to build structure from the gluten in the flour, then make it rise using yeast or a leavening agent like bicarbonate of soda. This produces bubbles of carbon dioxide which are trapped by the gluten. Baking is merely the end stage, and one that’s proving hard to reach.

Spacecraft and habitats won’t be short of carbon dioxide, and we’ve already seen finalists in the Deep Space Food Challenge using this to feed protein-producing bacteria. In 2012, student Sam Wilkinson suggested using this to create a lower-temperature “crock-pot” style bread.

His recipe combines carbon dioxide, water and flour under pressure to make a fast-rising dough that bakes at 120°C (250°F), saving a lot of power over traditional baking. Crock-pot bread usually has a delicious crust, although it doesn’t solve the problem of crumbs floating around in zero-g. Wilkinson’s proposal won a NASA Space Apps contest but has yet to rise further than a concept video.

A more ambitious scheme came from Bake In Space, a German company founded by former ESA astronaut Gerhard Thiele. They built a space-ready oven and planned to demonstrate the entire bread-making process in space, beginning with a baking test in 2020.

Future experiments would trial mixing and kneading dough, grinding grain, then harvesting and separating grain from pre-grown plants. The final test would produce enough grain to bake three small loaves. Sadly, Bake In Space didn’t harvest enough funding to reach orbit.

Ovens aside, bread is still the final frontier for cooking in space.

Next course: meal time

The farmers and chefs have done their work and the food is ready. But meal times in space may be a very different experience, whether it’s zero-g or the low gravity of other moons and planets.

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