Maggie Coblentz

INTERPLANETARY GASTRONOMY



Space food from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) AND the European Space Agency (ESA).







What can we learn from food origins and gastronomy to create a new narrative for space exploration?




To support future crews in a new era of space exploration, space agencies need to address the complex requirements of long-duration missions, and this includes how to provide crews with safe and nutritious food for survival. When engineering constraints are the main driver of innovation, what perspectives are at risk of being lost?  

An exploration of the unique food and material culture of low Earth orbit. Through the lense of food, this investigation prompts a more nuanced debate about health and nourishment.










Left: Space food package and tortilla spin in microgravity in the ISS.

Right: In weightlessness, food sticks to itself.









An Interview with NASA Food System Manager Vickie Kloeris.




Vickie Kloeris is a food scientist and worked as the manager of the International Space Station Food System at the NASA Johnson Space Center for over thirty years. She shares her experience working with NASA and astronauts to produce food for the ISS. 

April 20, 2018



What is NASA’s current space food menu?

NASA’s current space food system offers roughly 200 food products and beverages. Common menu items include tortillas, egg omelets, butternut squash, and baked chicken. The food is freeze-dried and prepackaged to be consistent with the demands of present day space travel. 



What is the proces of freeze-drying? 

Freeze-drying is a low temperature dehydration process that allows food to maintain the majority of its nutrients.



What are NASA’s priorities for the space food program?

NASA’s main goal for preparing food for long duration space travel is making nutritious shelf stable products.


What is one of the biggest challenges when developing food for space?

At NASA, we’re producing food from a microbiological perspective that will remain safe to eat for up to five to seven years, and the challenge is quality control. We’re are able to control microbiological growth by various means of thermo-stabilization, freeze-drying techniques, and lowering water activity. What we cannot stop are the chemical changes that occur and overtime this will change the quality of the food in a negative way. The flavor, texture, and overall color and appearance will degrade overtime.



How does NASA address the emotional and social aspects of food?

NASA addresses the psychosocial aspect of food by allowing astronauts to augment the standard menu with crew specific containers. For a six-month stay in the space station, they get nine personalized foods. They can handpick the contents from the standard menu, or choose off-the-shelf grocery store items if they meet the packaging, shelf life, and microbiological requirements. These often include favorite cereals or candy bars.



Tell us about how astronauts prepare aboard the Internatinoal Space Station.

The ISS is equipped with a rehydration station and oven warmer that uses contact heating. All foods must be scanned so that astronaut diets are monitored, and there’s a lof of overhead to eating in zero gravity. One of the biggest challenges is mixing things together and transferring the contents of one package into another. There are no plates! Food is eaten directly out of the plastic packaging with scissors and a spoon as the main utensils, but they do also have forks and knives available.



How do astronauts dine? 

The kitchen module in the ISS plays a critical role in bonding and cultural exchange between astronauts. Early on, when the ISS was small and under construction, the three crew members in orbit would dine in the Russian service module. As the station got bigger and accommodated six crew members, a second food preparation area was built in the US segment. Back when everyone was dining in the Russian module, sharing was easier, but now the astronauts are known to host one another in their respective eating areas and setup weekly joint meals. Astronauts share in the debriefs the importance of these collective meals for crew morale overall.



 






Nicola Twilley (center) records retired NASA Astronaut Cady Coleman (left) and retired ESA Astronaut Paolo Nespoli (right) at a workshop hosted by Maggie Coblentz at the MIT Media Lab.







Designing Space Food with Astronauts Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli 




In September 2018, retired NASA Astronaut Cady Coleman and retired ESA Astronaut Paolo Nespoli participated in a workshop on eating and cooking in space, hosted by Maggie Coblentz at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, US. 



Centered on the astronauts’ experiences living in the space station, the workshop brought together a group of scientists, engineers, artists, and designers, to think about the role of food in the International Space Station. Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli both shared insights about the challenges of eating in microgravity, where everything is fixed to surfaces with velcro, the salt is liquid, and learning to take smaller bites to avoid crumbs from floating away.

Not disimilar from Earth, social dining is extremely important. Coleman and Nespoli remember hosting the Russian astronauts in the US dining module, taking requests for steak from NASA’s menu. When the ISS was first built, it did not include a dining table. The crew made their own by fixing a piece of scrap material to the side of the station.  

Zero-g environments have a degenerative effect on the nutritional value, colour, and textures of foods. Coleman described how food tasted like cardboard in the ISS. “Something called ‘space face’ happens when fluids shift in your body and it feels like your eating with a head cold.” In microgravity, aroma also dissipates in all different directions making it difficult to smell. 

Nespoli missed the anticipation of a meal. The sound and smell of fresh coffee being breweed.  





Retired NASA astronaut Cady Coleman uses Google Earth to simulate the experience of virtually visiting home from the ISS. 












Left: MIT Space Exploration Initiative parabolic flight in August 2019. 

Right: Cobentz Space Food helmet on parabolic flight in August 2019.





By Maggie Coblentz

This research was supported by the MIT Space Exploration Initiative.






Learn more about Maggie Coblentz’s parabolic flight research.


Copyright Maggie Coblentz, 2022.