While some of it sounds like it was devised by Willy Wonka himself, each item on the menu addresses one or more of the challenges for space cuisine and Robin Fegen, director of the Robin Collective, and chef on this project, was kind enough to talk Humans Invent through it.
Our ability to taste is diminished in space so flavours have to be much more intense. “We’ve always known that smell is very important in taste,” says Robin Fegen, “but you can’t smell very well in space because molecules don’t spread out in the same way. There’s also something to do with taste buds not working so well in zero gravity that they haven’t quite figured out yet.”
To illustrate this, the first thing on the menu is an intense cheese board. “We got incredibly strong cheese that had been aged for a long time. We chose cheese because it has four really important flavours; salty, sweet, fatty and umami. Then we added extra salt and monosodium glutamate and enhanced it even more so it was incredibly powerful.” This issue of flavour has been tackled differently by the Americans and the Russians over the years, says Fegen, “the Americans add lots of chilli to everything, whereas the Russians use loads of garlic. You can choose your path on that one.”
Another problem is that stray crumbs can cause havoc in zero gravity. To tackle this problem the Robin Collective employed a tried and tested technique used by Nasa. “Astronaut Helen Sharman told us that the Russians use bite sized pieces of bread as it has to have a crust all around so you don’t get the crumbs. The americans like tortillas.” says Fegen. “We used tortillas and laser etched a star map on to them just in case you want to know where you are.”
Mixing ingredients can be a challenge in zero gravity. “You can’t cook or mix things in space, so everything has to be pre-mixed. One of the things we did to show this was a breakfast bar made out of a full english breakfast liquified then dehydrated. We also made a sunday roast in the form of a pot noodle dish that you could pour water on and rehydrate yourself ”
Loose liquid is also a big no-no in space and must be contained. Fegen said, “We used a chilli broth and a garlic broth. You mix them with sodium alginate, which is like seaweed extract, and when you put them into a calcium bath they form a little layer of jelly round the outside, so they are still liquid in the centre. That’s spherification, and it takes a bit of effort. We use these molecular gastronomy techniques which means measuring everything on micro scales, because if you use more than a gram of something it’s going to cause problems.”
Having a sustainable food supply in space will become a necessity on longer voyages. Plants that can grow in zero gravity could provide this, as well as valuable nutrition in the form of fresh vegetables for astronauts on a predominantly freeze-dried diet. Project MELiSSA, whose partners include the European Space Research and Technology Centre, was set up to develop ‘regenerative life support systems’, which include growing plants in space and recycling water, edible biomass and oxygen from waste products. Vegetables from their top-ten list of plants that can grow in space were combined to make a taboulé for the space banquet.
“It’s kind of a compromise between healthiness of the plant and how hardy it is and if they think they can grow it in micro-gravity,” said Fegen. One important plant for the space diet is spirulina, described by Fegen as a ‘blue/green algal slime.’ It tastes awful but is 60% protein and a source of vitamin B12, which can’t be found in the plants on project MELiSSA’s lists. To illustrate that space tourism will be a luxury affair, with Virgin Galactic tickets fetching $200,000 a head, an alcoholic cocktail was included on the space banquet menu, containing spirulina for nutrition and colour and lime to mask its foul taste.
Due to the lack of gravity in space the body doesn’t have to work to keep itself upright. As a result astronauts experience some muscle wastage. “Your head is actually incredibly heavy and you’re holding it up the whole time on earth, but in space you’re not really holding it up at all,” Fegen told us. “They have these suits which slightly exercise your body as you move around. This helps the arms and legs but there’s nothing for your neck.” The Fegen Collective’s solution was to develop super-chewy chewing gum, flavoured with oregano and lemongrass, with antibacterial properties to clean your teeth – brushing your teeth with toothpaste is problematic in zero gravity.
How do you reduce the damage done to the body by exposure to high levels of radiation in space? Eat sherbet of course! “We thought, ‘what’s the most fun you can have with a dry powdered food?’ so we added ascorbic acid to sherbet because it’s high in vitamin c and anti-oxidants,” said Fegen. “There’s speculation that the strong radiation in space might cause problems, so having antioxidants would at least help by reducing the damage.”
Food in space in its current form can be unappetising as it is mostly in paste form or from a tube but the need to develop space food is not just about making it more palatable. “ Eating is incredibly important for the astronauts in terms of a social activity. Astronaut Helen Sharman said you could float off and eat something upside down on your ceiling if you wanted to, but three times a day they strap themselves around a table and they feed each other. They take it very seriously. It’s more important than you’d imagine.”
Reminding Astronauts of home is important when spending long stretches in space and a written letter from a loved one delivered to the International Space Station means more than an email. Fegen says, “Having something physical from earth, and having real food, is quite exciting.”