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The Taste of Space 5: Extraterrestrial Meal Times

The zero-g fryer is bubbling, the smell of fresh bread fills your spacecraft and a bell chimes the shift change. The crew gathers in the ship’s mess. We’ve gone from growing food and making meat to off-Earth cooking, so what will meal times look like in space?

The first question is when to eat.

In low Earth orbit, spacecraft see a day/night cycle every 90 minutes. The International Space Station uses Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is identical to GMT and equally inconvenient for NASA and Roscosmos. The lunar day is two weeks long, so residents might as well keep to their home time or follow UTC. Mars has a roughly 24-hour day that’s ideal for humans (just about the only thing that is). Everywhere else, space travellers will have to make their own time.

Nuclear submarines are submerged for months on end, so their shift patterns offer a good example of how to make your own time. The US Navy operates on three shifts of 8 hours, with meal times as shifts change that allow crew to mix. Typically, one waking shift monitors their stations (literally watching dials and screens), while the next performs any maintenance that’s needed.

Other habitats might conform to different patterns. For instance, two day shifts of 6 hours and a 10-hour night shift with a skeleton crew would look more like civilian life for large populations with families.

Pizza time on the ISS.
Pizza (tortilla) time on the ISS. Credit: NASA

Meal times on the ISS

Eating in space has come a long way from tubes full of food paste. Astronauts still drink through straws when they’re not performing tricks with floating balls of water — I wonder how messy they get rehearsing for those moments.

They rehydrate and heat packs of food as required, and tether them to surfaces covered in duct tape. Foods are eaten straight from the bag with a spoon or spread them on tortillas, which double as an edible plate or wrapper. Harvests of greens, tomatoes or other vegetable experiments add occasional variety to their menus, and there’s an unofficial exchange of goods between the Russian modules and the International section.

NASA banned alcohol from its spacecraft in 1972, when Earthbound busybodies objected to a bottle of sherry proposed for Skylab’s larder. Russian cosmonauts have never fallen foul of American puritans, so they’re occasionally allowed wine or vodka. I hope it’s also shared.

Although the cosmonauts and astronauts live, work and eat separately, they have to cooperate to keep the ISS operational. Meal times in the early years were an essential part of that cooperation, when the permanent crew was just three people — often an American, a Russian and and an international astronaut. Today there are at least six crew and, despite international tensions, it seems that meal times still bring them together.

Apollo-Soyuz test programme astronauts Stafford and Slayton holding up tubes of “vodka” aboard Soyuz
Apollo-Soyuz test programme astronauts Stafford and Slayton holding up tubes of “vodka” aboard Soyuz. Credit: NASA

A menu for zero gravity

How different will future meal times be from today’s zero-g dining? The ingredients might be hydroponic veggies and cultured protein, but the experience will be very similar:

Food spread on low-crumb flatbreads, with sweetened breads for dessert with fresh fruit bound by sticky sauces. Messier meals spooned from pouches or smothered in thick sauce to ensure they remain in a bowl while they’re eaten.

Self-contained, bite-sized foods will dominate a menu designed to avoid mess. Think of sushi, falafels, spring rolls, meatballs, bao, pakoras, sticky rice balls, cocktail sausages and small pies. Expert chefs will conjure fish sticks from the denizens of zero-g aquaria, fried in batter or baked in breadcrumbs. On the side, nutritious sweet potato fries or wedges.

Printing the impossible

The paradigm shift for space cuisine will be 3D printing. Food designers will learn to combine ingredients into tastes and textures that are impossible to achieve under gravity. Space might end up exporting exotic foodstuffs to Earth — after a lot of inedible experiments.

One biological certainty is that fizzy drinks become an unpleasant experience that everyone has tried once. Water will be mostly recycled, the taste disguised by fruit juices and nutrient-rich cordials. There’s flat beer and wine on special occasions, while carbohydrate-rich crops will lead to vodka, whisky and rice wines. Drinkers will sign out of all important systems before they partake, because drunk astronauts make poor choices. Drinking vessels might evolve from the coffee cups designed for the ISSpresso machine in 2015, which used capillary action to direct the flow, and filled from the bottom.

Nuclear engines are another game-changer that can provide constant thrust and a sense of gravity. Ships might use spinning sections that impart centrifugal force, but it’s a solution that breeds other problems. Fusion-powered torch ships could deliver an Earth gravity of thrust — although I like The Expanse’s solution that this is limited to military vessels and rich civilians who can afford the fuel. So maybe it won’t be much different from eating on a moon or planet.

The 3D-printed coffee cup in use on the ISS.
The 3D-printed coffee cup in use on the ISS. Credit: NASA

The first food on the Moon

Shortly after landing on the Moon in 1969, Buzz Aldrin conducted Holy Communion with consecrated bread and wine brought from Earth:

“I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”

Buzz Aldrin

Religion aside, it’s a vivid passage when you imagine the small silver chalice Aldrin’s pastor had given him for the mission, Armstrong seated quietly beside him.

The first true meal on the Moon was breakfast. NASA served bacon squares with apple sauce, peaches, sugar cookie cubes, pineapple grapefruit drink and coffee.

Sadly, because America is obsessed with achievements (first, biggest, fastest…well done, have a gold medal), I’ve found very little detail about the quality of the experience compared to eating in zero gravity. Did one-sixth of Earth gravity help the twelve lunar visitors to regain their sense of taste? Was drinking as easy as on Earth or somewhere in-between? Buzz Aldrin may be the only man alive who knows what wine tastes like on the Moon. I hope someone has asked him.

Messy eaters not required

Settlements on the Moon, Mars and elsewhere will hopefully have more room for growing food. The diet will be richer in fresh produce and less reliant on pre-packaged or printed food.

Does that mean you’ll be able to eat from plates and bowls with cutlery or chopsticks? The chances are that meal times in any gravity will probably be easier, but food will remain hard to control. Sauces will splash further and crumbs will drift into distant corners, so foods designed for zero-g would also work well in low gravities. It might be possible to cook on the hob, but only with a lid on the pan. Open frying would be very messy.

If you pour a drink too fast, it may arc gracefully above the cup and splash down. Get wrong, and your drink will loop over onto the table or onto your hand. Designers of jugs, cups and bowls will need to model pouring in lower gravities. A jug designed for the Moon may not work so well on Mars or Callisto.

The galley of the Rocinante in The Expanse.
The galley of the Rocinante in The Expanse. Credit: Amazon

Space food in sci-fi

This isn’t a media review, but food and drink has become a moment I watch out for in SF. Often, there’s a convenient amount of gravity when space travellers eat in science fiction, or they simply suck food from tubes. I love Star Trek, but it’s far future fantasy when it comes to food. They have replicators, wiggly alien foods and artificial gravity everywhere. Every planet has Earth gravity.

For All Mankind is about as hard SF as a TV series gets, but the eating scenes I remember rely on pre-packaged tube-foods and conveniently high gravity for the Moon and Mars. The show’s alternate history is too close to our present, so there hasn’t been enough time to develop in-space agriculture and cuisine.

The Expanse, set 200 years from now, showcases a spacious galley aboard the Rocinante, complete with microwave, food dispensers and a couple of mini-greenhouses. On-screen meals include Naomi Nagata’s Red Kibble, a spicy Belter staple, and Alex Kamal’s Mariner Valley Lasagna (named after a vast canyon on Mars).

There are lots of great zero-g scenes and frequent mention of the magnetic boots they wear in ships. Either the Roci is always under thrust or the ingredients contain a lot of iron, because no-one struggles with floating food.

There is a zero-g scene around the table on Camina Drummer’s Belter ship in season five, but they eat and drink from tubes. Tycho Station and the various asteroid settlements all employ spin gravity. You never see liquid curve as it should under Coriolis force, but those settlements are also probably impossible, as Scott Manley points out.

Scott Manley deconstructs the spinning asteroid space station trope.

Where have you found striking or believable examples of space food in the near future? How do you think our cuisine will evolve as humanity expands across the planets? Leave your comments below.

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