Spaceflight is an adventure, but being so far away from home can come with its challenges. Astronauts have shared that familiar foods (ones they eat on Earth) can be a huge source of comfort in space, and will play an even more significant role on long-duration space travel and future life in space habitats. How can we meet the nutritional, performance, and emotional needs of astronauts, as well as future space travelers, through food? Currently, space food is freeze-dried and prepackaged before being sent up to the International Space Station to feed astronauts. However the advancement of deep space exploration and the development of an interplanetary space tourism industry will make new cultural events and experiences never encountered before in human history possible. How can we design new and unforeseen food products and systems that extend beyond basic sustenance?
Thoughtfully designed foods and culinary experiences could allow humans to feel more connected to their loved ones and histories on Earth, as well as promote the beginning of a food culture that fosters deeper relationships with new worlds. Food doesn’t just provide nourishment—it opens our imagination, engages our senses (see, smell, taste, touch, sound), and contains cultural heritage! A new and unique food culture will surely emerge as humans venture into new orbits. Help us create the future of food—in outer space and planet Earth!
At this moment in time, many of us across the world are being asked to stay at home and practice self-isolation to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Although this is very difficult at times, it could also be a time for self-reflection, deep connections, and new forms of curiosity and creativity. In a strange way, we are experiencing a version of what it might be like for an astronaut to live in an enclosed space habitat, physically separated from loved ones and aspects of their daily life on Earth. Home cooking can be an incredible way to seek comfort, express ourselves, connect with our roots, and experience the world through all of our five senses.
Staying at home means we may not have access to all the things and experiences we are used to, including food. Although this has forced many of us into new routines, this could be an opportunity to rethink the ways that we eat and imagine a better future through the lens of food.
There are a number of environmental factors that make food preparation and dining in space difficult! When designing foods or culinary experiences for the future of space travel and explorations, those considerations can be important to keep in mind. Here are some of those obstacles:
Microgravity affects fluid behavior, so you can’t pour or drink easily.
Space environments alter human physiology, dulling astronauts’ sense of taste.
Because it is so costly to ship cargo into space, foods must have a very long shelf-life.
Weightlessness affects the ability to homogenize or combine ingredients, so even salting a meal is impossible!
Food must not produce crumbs, which can stray into air filtration systems and damage costly equipment.
Size and weight of foods are vital because there is finite storage space on-board, thus meals are often vacuum-sealed, freeze-dried, and flat-packed.
Standard kitchen equipment used to store and heat food (including ovens and freezers) are not available due to storage constraints, energy constraints, and maintenance costs.
Processes that require microbial activity, like fermentation, are impossible on the ISS because the microorganisms required to carry-out these processes aren’t permitted.
New to space food and design? We’ve got you covered! Try using this worksheet!
Interested in learning more? The MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) developed a special space-focused ‘care package’ for Full STEAM Ahead! Here, you’ll find learning activities and design prompts that explore some of the research efforts currently underway at the SEI. This includes a chance to learn more about the future of life in space and on other planets, and specifically the future of meals and dining in those new frontiers.
Overview of Space Food
NASA Space Food - describes how astronauts eat aboard the space shuttle and the space station, and how food systems and menu items have evolved overtime.
NASA Food for Space Flight - overview of NASA space food system.
NASA Classifying Space Food - list of the daily space food and beverage menu items, and classification of space food into the major food groups found in the Food Pyramid Guide.
NASA Food Technology: Incredible Edibles From Space - outlines examples of how space food technology has benefited commercial products on Earth (e.g. advancements in food packaging, preservation, preparation and nutrition).
NASA Cosmic Cuisine - summary of how NASA space food scientists plan to feed astronauts on a three-year mission to Mars.
Plant Biology Overview - overview of plant growth in space (from plant life to the molecular level) for food consumption, with links to specific experiments.
Space Food and Nutrition: An Educator's Guide with Activities in Science and Mathematics - activities for k-4 and 5-8, and an in-depth background on the history and the classification of space food.
How Russian space food has evolved over the years - overview of Russian space food products and systems.
Food Supply To The International Space Station - describes the challenge and cost of supplying food to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
History of NASA space food video - video tour of NASA's Space Food Systems Laboratory.
Future of Space Food
Interplanetary Cookbook - a collection of recipes and designs for the future of space food, and the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative’s Open Call for Entries (deadline to apply: May 15, 2020). We’d love to hear from you! :)
Algae Caviar, Anyone? What We'll Eat on the Journey to Mars - describes new ideas about the future of space food for astronauts and space tourists.
PLIX Space Food Zine - a zine with design prompts and tips to help you prototype the future of life and food in space.
Space Food Experiences: Designing Passenger's Eating Experiences for Future Space Travel Scenarios - describes different research methods and techniques to make space food that is not only nutritious, but enjoyable.
Imminent Future of Food - outlines future food trends and food technologies with a creative spin!
Chris Hadfield's Space Kitchen - watch an astronaut eating in space
Heston, we have a problem...the top chef cooks for Tim Peake - a chef creates a custom meal for an astronaut to remind him of home
Kimchi goes to space, along with first Korean astronaut - learn how Kimchi, Korea’s national dish, was adapted for space
Here's what astronauts on the International Space Station eat for Thanksgiving - a description of how some astronauts eat on special celebrations
Zero G Kitchen Space Oven - overview of a new space-ready oven design that recently baked cookies in space
How to Drink Coffee in Space – ISSpresso & Zero-G Coffee Cup - video with a custom zero gravity coffee cup and espresso machine
These learning materials were developed with several partners, including the Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX), a project of the Media Lab Learning Initiative, and “Considerations for Dining in Space” by Doyung Lee.