Category Archives: space food
Back on November 21, I exhorted interlibrary loan to deliver The Astronaut’s Cookbook faster. This was eventually successful. Even now I’m resting my arms on it as I type. Regrettably, it’s also finals time, so I don’t have time to actually read this. Also, it turns out it came out in 2009, so I don’t know why I thought it was new. Anyway.
Somehow I think that’s not the recommended way to eat space food.
Also, this book is spiral-bound, like many of my mom’s cookbooks. This is appropriate because there are a lot of recipes in here, and I mean recipes you could actually make, not the NASA kind with the pressure valve. Although one recipe for bacon bars does call for 3,000lbs of pressure from a hamburger press (yields “more than you would want”), and one is a recipe for a Frozen Space Sandwich, which consists of making a sandwich, putting it in a baggie, and freezing it. I feel if you need a recipe to freeze a sandwich you might need more cooking help than this book can provide.
So today we’re going to just talk about Chapter 10!
Chapter 10 is called Future Space Food, and talks about many of the food-in-space challenges I’ve talked about on this blog, such as microgravity. Bourland and Vogt also point out that astronauts have enjoyed working with the plants when they’re been grown in space, as they’re “a pleasant break from what is an otherwise relatively sterile environment.”
Some other fun facts from Chapter 10:
Possible space agriculture crops, determined through research projects, include:
bell peppers, cabbage, carrots, beans, lettuce, green onions, herbs, peanuts, potatoes, radishes, rice, soybeans, spinach, strawberries, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and wheat
Personally I would shun the bell peppers, peanuts, and radishes (unless I suddenly turned out to like those in space); you?
As far as how much space (for agriculture) you need per person, given the right growing conditions:
…a sustainable diet for a single astronaut could be produced using only about 30 m2 of growing space.
That’s about 323 square feet, around the size of an 18ftx18ft room. You’d have to use the correct crops, including dwarf wheat, and you’d definitely be vegetarian. On the other hand, you’d be able to see exactly where all your food came from, and that would be kind of cool.
Recipes for this section include BBQ Tempeh, Tofu Brownies, Soy Bread, Hot and Sour Soup, Peanut Butter Cookies, Roasted Garlic Soybean Hummus, and Tofu Cheesecake, which: a) I’m suddenly really hungry for chocolate-chip oreo-crust cheesecake, and b) I wonder if it’s delicious and tastes like real cheesecake. I think many astronauts would be a fan of space cheesecake even if it was a little weird (I would be), but you’d have to get an oven up there, and a blender.
However the last instruction is “Serve well chilled,” which shouldn’t be a problem in space.
It’s a holiday weekend (just barely) for me, so today’s post is going to be short. Really short. It’s inversely proportional to the amount of pie I’ve eaten in the last couple days.
Pie is the perfect food.
Americans in space on Thanksgiving are experiencing a holiday that traditionally features a large meal in a place where meals are as compact as possible. NASA tries to help by providing a dishes similar to the traditional ones: this year they included smoked irradiated turkey, candied yams, and green beans with mushrooms. Thursday’s Thanksgiving for the astronauts on the International Space Station was actually kind of busy, as some crew members were leaving, so the crew celebrated a day early.
Preparing the space foods for eating is going to be another challenge. There’s the need for heat, for cleanup, and that ever-present pesky lack of gravity, at least while you’re between planets.
There’s also going to be the actual cooking.
Some people can prepare their meals confidently, with the knowledge that their food is going to turn out delicious. I’m not one of them. For instance, there was the Liquid Cookie Incident (I followed the recipe exactly. It was not my fault). Also sometimes I call my sister to tell her about an improvised meal that I thought was going to be delicious but turned out to be awful, and she’ll say something like: “Why would you even think that was a good idea?”
Any space missions won’t want to risk one of their astronauts being like me. There will probably be recipes (but not the liquid cookie recipe).
As a sample, NASA has posted a recipe. For cornbread stuffing.
|Cornbread, prepared, crumbled||39.50||869.00||12 cups|
|Chicken broth||40.90||899.80||3 3/4 cups|
|Onions, chopped||10.47||230.34||2 1/2 cups|
|Celery, chopped||6.15||135.30||1 1/2 cups|
|Butter, unsalted||2.52||55.44||1/4 cup|
|Poultry seasoning||0.11||2.42||1 1/4 tsp.|
|Black pepper||0.07||1.54||1/2 tsp.|
|Parsley flakes, dried||0.04||0.88||2 tsp.|
|Sage, rubbed||0.04||0.88||1 tsp.|
They’re a little bit more intense about precise measurement than most home cooks.
This recipe comes with a home translation, for preparing your own NASA cornbread stuffing. Actual NASA recipe formulations, like this one for crawfish etouffee, are way more entertaining:
3.1 Combine flour, NATIONAL 150, CLEARJEL, Creole seasoning, salt, garlic powder, onion
powder, and cayenne pepper; mix thoroughly.
3.2 Add the flour-starch blend to the water reserved for the slurry and mix well. Set aside.
3.3 Add the water, wine, parsley, Tabasco, garlic, butter, tomatoes, yellow onion, celery, green
bell pepper, and green onion to the kettle; mix to combine.
3.4 Start low agitation. Open steam valve with pressure gauge set at 10 psi.
None of my kitchen utensils have a steam valve with pressure gauge.
In other recipe news, in 1981:
NASA asked Natick Laboratories to develop a contingency ration that would meet and retain 100 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) and maintain consumer acceptability under ambient storage conditions for three years.
The chosen food: fruitcake.
The AP asked them to break it down for at-home cooking. And they did.
Now you know what to make all your random acquaintances for Christmas this year!
More recently, a Top Chef contestant won a contest to get his recipe for “ginger-lacquered short ribs with pea puree, pickled mushrooms and horseradish creme fraiche” to fly on Discovery at the beginning of December, with some modifications.
This post prompted by the release of The Astronaut’s Cookbook, a book that I don’t actually have yet (faster, interlibrary loan, faster!
In real life, the furthest humans have been from Earth is the moon; all these questions about space agriculture are for hypothetical future travel. In fiction, of course, that is so very not the case.
Let’s take this opportunity to look at how science fiction people of the future farm (or don’t farm) their space food.
Star Trek totally cheats.
When you can just tell your food to the replicator and it appears, there is very little need for space agriculture. Though several of the Star Trek ships did have hydroponics gardens for fresh/fruit vegetables, they weren’t mandatory. Since hydroponics avoids the dirt question and gravity and lighting on Star Trek ships is pretty much like it is on Earth, there aren’t a lot of obvious challenges here.
B5 grows some of its own food in Red Sector, meaning the station can (at least theoretically) support itself. Of course, “supporting itself” and “having delicious food always available” are totally different: there’s bribery required to get the ingredients for bagna caude, illegal on-board coffee plants using up valuable station resources, and do you know how difficult it is to get eggs out there before they spoil?
Look! Gardens! Give them a break on the CGI, it was 1995.
Serenity, unlike the Star Trek and B5 ships, is a run-down civilian ship, not a big shiny military/government ship, and it isn’t big enough to have a garden; we (or at least I) don’t know a lot about the insides of the big ships owned by people with money. We do know that a crate of apples is generous (and, considering who it’s coming from, freaky).
There’s also such a thing as Nutrient Bars aka foodstuffs, which don’t seem promising as far as indicating the widespread presence of space agriculture.
Battlestar Galactica (new version)
Battlestar Galactica is a show so depressing that I stopped watching after about half a season, so I’m not surprised.
There’s also an episode that features crackers, which are only a very tiny step above the food cube.
We’ve now reached the limit of my easily accessible space TV knowledge, and so far the plants-in-space as food source has come down on the ‘no’ side. Most of these shows expect that the ships will be moving quickly and frequently between planets with food sources–so there’s no need for them to grow their own food.
We clearly won’t have that option, and we can’t really take the Star Trek route, either: the replicator is not, for example, in PC World’s Star Trek Tech We Use Today (Almost) list. The closest to what we have is Babylon 5, and B5′s pretty similar to Earth in regards to growing conditions; plus, as I mentioned, it’s supplied by off-station resources as well.
It’s interesting to think that as far as future space tech we apparently give so little thought to something as vital as food, though perhaps not surprising, given the handwaving approach often taken to other important basics like artificial gravity and faster-than-light travel. Unless your show is about launching interstellar travel for the first time, details like food supplies, which are presumably routine, aren’t terribly dramatic compared to, say, epic space battles.
But I think that interval between the first off-Earth/moon exploration and humans being all over the place while ships zoom around between them would be a cool place to explore (preferably on a ship featuring space farms).
And if I didn’t cover your favorite show’s space food… share with a writeup in the comments!
So it turns out that getting food for our space travelers of the future is only part of the problem. You have them pick their favorite meals… grow a fresh crop of cowpeas or strawberries or whatever… and then they get up to space and they don’t like their favorite food anymore, or something they previously disliked becomes delicious. Then you’ve got astronauts living on Mars and depressed because they hate all their food.
Okay, it sounds crazy. But the taste thing actually happens, and no one’s sure exactly why.
One possible explanation is nasal congestion. In microgravity, fluid in the body is redistributed to the upper part of the body, and the resulting fluid buildup can produce an effect kind of like having a head cold. As we all know, a bad cold can seriously interfere with your sense of taste, since smell makes up a significant part of your taste experience.
Astronaut Scott Parazynski told Scientific American (article also linked above) that while he believed in the nasal congestion explanation, the smells in the shuttle were also “distracting.” On the other hand, in the same article astronaut Clayton Andrews reported altered taste preferences though he was only congested part of the time.
Regardless of why it happens, many astronauts experience a flavor dilemma in space. So spicy stuff is popular; for example, read this report from Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson about how important condiments are to her crew (motto: “It’s all about the sauce”). In 2002, Whitson (who loves shrimp on Earth but can’t stand it in space, with the reverse true for peanut butter) joked with the shuttle Atlantis that she “wasn’t opening the hatch unless they had salsa.” (They had salsa.)
With the possibility of touristy-type spaceflight edging ever nearer (at least for wealthy people), people are on top of preparing items for space consumption. Items like beer.
Yes, 4-Pines Brewing Co in Australia has produced a beer specially created for consumption in the taste-challenged non-atmosphere of space. It has a lower carbonation factor (since microgravity doesn’t allow the CO2 bubbles to be freed by burping like they can be on Earth) and, allegedly, stronger flavor for “astronauts’ less-than-refined palates.”
I couldn’t find any support for the idea reported in many of the space beer articles that taste buds are “numbed” by spaceflight or for the claim that taste loss is due to the tongue swelling (as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald), so if you turn up anything please share in the comments.
Recently in Senegal there was a conference: the World Cowpea Research Conference.
Seriously, I think there might be a conference for everything.
But into those stories crept a paragraph along the lines of this one from ScienceDaily:
Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is on the cowpea bandwagon. With the plant’s ability to produce nutritious leaves in only about 20 days, NASA scientists are considering sending cowpeas to the international space station, where they could be cultivated to provide food for astronauts.
NASA has cowpea studies available from the 90s, and has more recently been testing their LED space lighting arrays on crops which included cowpeas, so I personally wouldn’t apply the term “bandwagon.” “Renewed interest,” perhaps.
Cowpeas are protein-licious (about 25% protein), which might come in handy considering that livestock would be even trickier to handle in space than a greenhouse. The quote above is probably based on this 1996 study by Ohler et al at the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Bioregenerative Life Support at Purdue, which concluded that a 20-day harvest cycle was most efficient for food production… if you ate the plant itself, instead of cultivating it for beans.
This entertains me especially considering that the ScienceDaily article described the vegetative portions of the plant as “leaves and stalks that serve as especially nutritious fodder for cows.” I mean, yes, that’s why it’s called cowpea, but still. Ohler et al inform us that the leafy parts are nutritious for the Homo sapiens in the audience as well:
Like the protein in seeds, cowpea leaf protein complements that of cereal grains (Maeda, 1985). Leaves also are a good source of minerals, specifically Fe, Ca, K, and Zn (Imungiand Potter, 1983). Raw leaves are high in vitamin C, carotene, and folacin, although 80% of these vitamins can be lost during cooking.
One of the problems mentioned in the above news articles as facing earthbound cowpea cultivation is weevils, which eat the dried beans when they’re being stored in traditional bags. One remedy, ScienceDaily says, is
a three-layer plastic bag that shuts off the oxygen required to fuel a weevil population explosion.
You know what else shuts off oxygen? The vacuum of space.
While I regret the missed opportunity to write about space weevils, I doubt that cowpea weevils will be a big problem for astronauts. Though it did make me wonder: you know how when it’s really cold out you can just store stuff from your freezer on the porch/windowsill/roof? I mean, unless it would attract bears or raccoons or something. Which are also not a problem in space. Is there anything to prevent astronauts from hanging their food stores on the outside of the ship, aside from the access issue? Is there a reason to do it? It would free up room inside. But what if your food was hit by a meteoroid?
I kind of want them to try anyway.
By the way, the cowpea is also called the black-eyed pea.
…Look, there are a lot of way more annoying Black Eyed Peas songs I could have chosen. This one even included a guy in a spacesuit. Relevant!
I have a conflicted relationship with the Red Cross. On the one hand, I like donating blood (provided that I never actually see the needle), and believe it’s the right thing to do and indeed that I have a responsibility to do it. On the other hand, I wish they would stop calling me at totally inconvenient times, and that the finger stick didn’t hurt so much, and that I didn’t fail the hemoglobin test so often.
In space, this might get weird for me, because of space flight anemia.
Even in the 60s, they noticed that astronauts who spent time in space often had decreased red blood cell mass afterwards:
FIG. 1. Red blood cell mass changes after spaceflight. Each point represents one individual. Data are expressed as percentage of change from preflight red blood cell mass (mL/kg of body mass).
(from Smith, linked above)
Interestingly, despite invoking the word “anemia,” which to me suggested that the astronauts had iron levels that were too low, Smith says that:
Although the weight of evidence now indicates that iron storage and availability increase during space flight, space food systems provide excessive amounts of dietary iron (about 20 to 22 mg Fe/d).[13 and 26] Expert panels have recommended that iron intake of men and women be reduced to less than 10 mg/d during space flight.  Even with the typically reduced, overall dietary intake, iron consumption exceeds this recommendation ( Fig. 3A). Dietary fiber intake decreases during flight compared with before flight (Fig. 3B), further increasing the risk of elevated iron absorption.
Overdosing on iron can actually be dangerous, in that it can kill you. Could be awkward in space.
Also, it appears to be the case that anemia refers to the amount of red blood cells you have, not your internal iron content, explaining why it’s called “anemia” even if they have extra iron.
So why does it happen? I was struggling through a bunch of blood terminology I didn’t understand until I found this abstract, italics added by me for the important parts:
Upon entering microgravity, the blood volume in the extremities pools centrally and plasma volume decreases, causing plethora and erythropoietin suppression. There ensues neocytolysis, selective hemolysis of the youngest circulating red cells, allowing rapid adaptation to the space environment but becoming maladaptive on re-entry to a gravitational field.
“Hemolysis” means that the cells break open and their contents go floating happily into the bloodstream. Red cell count: decreased. Cue anemia. On the other hand, these people at the Vanderbilt Center for Space Physiology suggest that it’s just decreased production, not hemolysis, that causes space flight anemia.
As pointed out in one of the articles above, it’s hard to study because opportunities to fire people up into space and test their blood aren’t just lying around. Nevertheless, that it happens is pretty clear, so before our future space travelers set out we’ll have to figure out how to deal with it, as will Space Red Cross.