Good Eats in Space | Vol. 4 / No. 2.4

Photo: Marco Gomez, CC BY 2.0

So seeing as we’re still in no shape to talk about the election (that will come tomorrow… probably… yes?) and Richard has a bazillion things to do, I’m talking over Thursday’s post. You get twice the Elle this week! See, not everything is terrible. (Everything is still terrible.) But to take our minds off of the terrible things, let’s learn about something that is really cool and ridiculously complicated: eating in space.

If your childhood was like mine, you had a space unit in elementary school where your teacher handed out carefully apportioned pieces of freeze dried food that was “Just like the astronauts eat!” The astronauts in my youth apparently only ate vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry tasting… things… but they were so cool. According to Ria Misra, astronaut food has both advanced from that point and… not. There are 200 core foods that astronauts eat, in specially-designed packages that let them be reheated or serve as rehydration chambers. If the astronauts request additional food from the Space Food Lab (which is in charge of all this, and also sounds like where you go when you simultaneously want to be an astronaut and a chef) they get small extras like condiments for the otherwise largely bland space food.

And when the Space Food Lab approves core foods as well as the extra food, they actually have a lot of things they have to take into consideration: weight of the food, storability of the food, and even whether or not the food produces crumbs. In normal Earth gravity, you spill some crumbs on yourself, you brush them off, and your cocker spaniel eats them. (At least that is how it works at my house.) But when you’re in zero G, those crumbs can just… float. Everywhere. Like in your eyes. Or onto pieces of equipment that are worth more than my life.

But you can’t expect astronauts to settle for simple things. You’ve seen The Martian. You know about the potatoes. Misra writes,

It’s not so surprising that—when you gather a group of engineers and research scientists, and trap them in a metal tube for months at a time high above the Earth’s atmosphere—they might start figuring out ways to tinker with their environment. Astronauts stationed for long stints on the International Space Station have come up with a few clever food hacks to add some unexpected zest to their meals.

As we have all learned in shop class, you do not leave inquisitive people, food, and machinery alone together without expecting something cool and potentially dangerous to happen. The mad food genius Sandra Magnus figured out how to do do everything from roasting garlic to working with other astronauts to put together a Christmas meal that included “grilled albacore steaks, a dressed up cornbread stuffing, and crab salad.”I can’t put together a Christmas dinner that includes those things And I’m allowed to have a stove. Sometimes.

But cooking in space is not just about finding creative workarounds for things, as if you were on Cutthroat Kitchen but every challenge was “do this with no tools!” Astronauts face another challenge: there’s no freaking gravity. You may not have realized it, but gravity has a gigantic effect on how cooking food actually works. Food reacts to the presence or absence of gravity, which can make cooking a little bit, how shall we say… extra-science-y. For example, boiling things sans gravity basically doesn’t work. The bubbles don’t rise to the top, so you just get a roiling bubble mess.1

But the astronauts aren’t satisfied with just figuring out how cooking works in zero gravity. They want to figure out how cooking works in different gravities. Like say, the ones on Mars and the Moon. (Which is useful, you know, in case any large, angry, orange men start a nuclear war because someone made fun of his hands on Twitter and we need to create emergency colonies and oh look I’m changing the subject back now.) Researchers at the European Space Agency and Greece’s Aristotle University experimented with gravity and Earth’s favorite side dish: french fries. They discovered that three times the Earth’s gravity produces the perfect, crispy french fry. But after that point, the fry falls apart. It can no longer maintain fry form and becomes fry-mush.

However, this only tells us if cooking is possible in space and in possible future colonies. When it comes to plans for long-term missions and colonization, you also end up with the same problem I’m currently having in my apartment: where in God’s name do you put all the stuff?! Packaged food has a shelf life of only a few years, and pre-packing enough food to last even that long could be a nightmare for space agencies, let alone the multiple-year missions that would probably be required if astronauts were actually supposed to settle for any amount of time on Mars. So astronauts are now trying to even grow things in space, with some success!

If we’re going to expand manned space exploration into manned space colonies, we have to account for all the vagaries of space, as well as all the vagaries of human behavior. Sure, it’s probably technically possible to ask the astronauts to subsist entirely on a nutrition supplement like Soylent. It is also probable that doing so will lead the astronauts to snap like dry and brittle twigs, until they’re just floating around muttering “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Simple pleasures like cooking are important for a sense of normalcy (or so I’ve been told by people who actually cook). Even simpler pleasures like a variety of food are crucial to making life feel less dreary, and also so that you don’t get turned off to food altogether. Cooking and growing food in space isn’t just a fun side-note to the astronauts’ missions; it’s also a crucial element in letting us take the next step in space exploration.

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1. Editor’s note: “roiling bubble mess” is now the official nickname for 2016

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Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not distracting herself from the awful things in the world by writing about astronaut ice-cream, she studies gender in popular culture.

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