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The Taste of Space 1: Contemporary Astro Cuisine

From food paste to replicators, our ideas of space food are a jambalaya of clichés and fantasies.

I’ve been researching the extraterrestrial cuisine to season scenes set around an off-Earth dining table in an SF novel set in the early 2100s. Neither the 1960s space race nor Star Trek give a useful picture of what’s actually like today, or what it’s likely to become.

Growing ingredients off-Earth, cooking in space and the experience of consuming food are all on the table when you think about a civilization spread across our solar system. It’s a topic that will take a few posts to cover, so let’s move on from the amuse bouches and sweep these food puns into the recycling bin.

For an appetiser, we’ll look at the orbital dining experience for space travellers in 2023.

The crew of ISS Expedition 20 share a meal in space.
The crew of ISS Expedition 20 share a meal in space. Copyright: NASA.

Space food in the 2020s

Space is a multicultural environment. Above our heads right now are now two full-time space habitats: the International Space Station (ISS) and smaller Tiangong. At any time, at least nine humans need to eat and drink in space. The foods available have moved on from the tubes of paste, packed lunches and bite-sized cubes supplied to early astronauts, but it’s still far from fine dining.

India is keen to join the spacefaring club within a decade, while private stations will increase demand for better food. Space tourism has finally found a regular platform with Axiom, bringing an end to the era of professional astronauts who are willing to endure basic nutrition for months on end.

The first challenge is to get food into space and keep it edible. You’ve got to serve it in a way that’s attractive, enjoyable and won’t litter your spaceship with decaying food scraps. For long-distance travellers, space will be a zero waste environment where you create as little trash as possible and re-use or recycle everything else.

Finally, there’s the problem of taste: fluid pools in odd places in your body in zero gravity, particularly around the head. Astronauts lose their sense of taste, similar to people with head colds. The solution is to increase the intensity of food tastes, but that’s often complicated by the food preservation methods and basic cooking facilities.

Eat yourself well

Providing good food for space travellers is vital to staying healthy as well as feeling good. Astronauts face microgravity, radiation, confined space, motion sickness and strange day/night cycles. They breathe a low-pressure atmosphere that is relatively low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide. Living in space affects gut bacteria, increasing the bad and reducing the good, hormones do strange things, the immune system plays up and they’re sometimes constipated. Ironically, they don’t even get enough sunlight.

Most astronauts lose weight over just a few months in space. They have to exercise a lot to stop their muscles and bones wasting away, but their appetites often decline, so they lose weight and need to eat even more to compensate for the exercise. It doesn’t help that space food wasn’t always very appetising.

Preserved, fresh or ready-to-eat

Astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS eat a combination of preserved, fresh, frozen and ready-to-eat pre-packaged foods. ISS residents prepare meals with rehydration chambers and oven-like food warmers, but there’s no freezer so they have to eat frozen foods once they’ve defrosted. Tiangong has a relatively advanced kitchen, with a refrigerator and a microwave.

Residents of both habitats eat canned food, dehydrated food, medium moisture food, natural food, refrigerated food, fresh food, irradiated food, and functional food. Medium moisture food is partially dehydrated to reduce microbial action. Functional foods are designed to meet a particular dietary need, such as providing vitamins or using probiotic yoghurts to improve gut health.

Radiation isn’t the dangerous monster that most people believe. It doesn’t make food dangerous and in the short term it can help to preserve it by killing microbes. In the long term, space radiation breaks food down and reduces its nutritional value, so preserved foods must be protected or used before they degrade.

Astronaut Sandra Magnus on the ISS with a tortilla made using space-grown chilli peppers.
Astronaut Sandra Magnus on the ISS with a tortilla made using space-grown chilli peppers. Copyright: NASA

The space food menu

Russian cosmonauts eat mostly canned, reheated meals, supplemented with dried and natural foods, but the international section has a much more diverse menu of more than 200 foods. Rich condiments like horseradish, BBQ sauce and chilli are also essential to providing a kick that cuts through the space taste deficit.

South Korea spent more than a million dollars to create space-ready kimchi and Japan has adapted traditional foods and drinks such as matcha, yōkan, ramen, sushi, soups, and rice with ume. Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal created a special menu for British astronaut Tim Peake in 2020, although it was all pre-packaged.

The food item requested most by astronauts is tortillas: they keep well and you can use them to create familiar foods from pizzas to crêpe-style desserts. Unlike regular bread and crackers, tortillas don’t create a lot of crumbs that float around the cabin. Beef jerky is a popular snack because it has a strong taste, although Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang had to swap reindeer jerky for moose when his American colleagues complained that it was too close to Christmas.

The Chinese station’s menu features more than 20 varieties of food, including zongzi (traditional Chinese sticky rice dumplings), spiced bean curd, fried noodles with shredded pork, bamboo shoots and brown sugar glutinous rice cake.

Future food hacks

The ISS and Tiangong crews have successfully grown plants including lettuce, rice, cabbage, onions, garlic and cucumbers. ISS residents have eaten tangy romaine lettuce, chilli peppers, tomatoes, pak choi and radishes grown in space. Fuiture trials will grow strawberries and wheat. They’ve also cultured protein-rich foods including yoghurt, kefir and a non-alcoholic yeast-based drink.

Astronauts have also become experts at hacking their limited cooking facilities in their spare time: Sandra Magnus became famous for scavenging tools and ingredients to create her own menu, while Chris Hadfield produced a series of in-space cooking videos during his time in orbit. We’ll look in detail at their achievements in a future post.

Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti drinks from the ISSpresso coffee machine
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti drinks from the ISSpresso coffee machine. Copyright: NASA

Something to drink?

Astronauts catching blobs of floating water has become a space flight cliché, but caffeine is the most popular space foodstuff aside from tortillas. Today, ISS astronauts can mix up flavoured drinks and instant hot drinks with powdered milk or creamer, and artificial sweeteners.

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti introduced the ISSpresso machine in 2015, which brewed fresh coffee, tea, hot chocolate and, um, broth. It came back to Earth in 2017 so they’re stuck with instant coffee again.

Carbonated drinks cause a unique problem in zero gravity: wet burping. It’s actually a kind of vomiting when the stomach’s fluids and gas aren’t separated by gravity. NASA discovered wet burping when a space shuttle took Coca-Cola and Pepsi up for the first time in 1985. Both companies have since tested space-safe dispensers for their drinks, but fizzy drinks remain off the menu.

NASA doesn’t send alcohol into space, but the Russians keep a tipple for special occasions. Most beers wouldn’t work well in space, but Vostok 4-Pines Stout is a rich Irish-style stout designed to reduce wet burps. It’s even packaged in a beer bottle that’s supposed to replicate terrestrial drinking. The beer has been tested on microgravity flights but it’s yet to reach orbit.

Barley has also been grown in space, but there are no plans — as yet — for a microbrewery on the ISS or Tiangong.

Space food fact or fiction?

Pizza Hut flew a pizza to the ISS in 2001. Just Eat refuses to deliver because Snoop Dogg is still angry with Russia over the death of Laika.

Grow your own space food

Long-distance space travellers and settlers will need to become self-sustaining. Next time, we’ll look at the science and technology that will provide meat and veg for a life among the stars.

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