Spice bombs, 3D printed snacks and VR family meals? New research sheds light on how today’s astronauts may become tomorrow’s gastronauts.

Co-authored by Professor Marianna Obrist, University of Sussex 

In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to consume a meal in space. While he probably understood that beggars could not be choosers, meat paste and chocolate sauce squeezed from a tube was probably not a great culinary experience.

Since then, technology has transformed our ideas of space travel, including how we prepare and consume food.

A new generation of astronauts and space tourists might still prefer a menu more suited to their needs and context, instead of older NASA favourites like «dehydrated shrimp», «orange drink», «xylose sugar tablets» and «thermostabilised chocolate pudding».

But how can we provide genuinely exciting and mouth-watering food that can also stir up happy memories of a home millions of miles away, in the confines of zero gravity, and the restricted room of a spacecraft?

Food as enjoyment

Most of the research on space food have focused on the functional and nutritional aspects of astronauts’ cosmic cuisine, and not the human experience of eating in space. Considering the increased possibility of short and long-term space travel to the Moon and Mars, space food experiences arguably deserve more attention.

Together with our colleagues, we conducted a study where we aimed to envision a future that complied with all the nutritional requirements of a space traveller, but also one that considers food not only as a means for survival, but also as a source of enjoyment and also to address sensory, socioemotional, and environmental needs of space travellers.

Our goal was to capitalise on recent technological advances, including 3D printing and virtual/augmented reality, in order to design better eating experiences.

Three ideas

Based on our findings, we developed three technology design concepts that integrate and tackle functional, sensorial, emotional, social, and environmental aspects of eating in space:

  • Spice bomb mixing: People desire a variety of tastes, but space travel poses two challenges: Solid spices and ingredients are not common, because they float. Secondly, astronauts have reported a diminished flavour perception caused by stuffiness of the nose. This idea addresses both issues, by proposing a dedicating mixing pod where solid spices would dissolve into the food, injecting it with both flavour and texture.
  • Flavour journey 3D printer: You know when you are miles away from your family, but still miss their cooking? With this concept, an astronaut could order a favourite treat from family or friends, before a food printer would recreate it inside the space shuttle. Potentially, your loved ones could send you a surprise meal, based on your preferences, which you could enjoy as a «bar» that integrates several courses in one print.
  • Earth memory bites: How can we help astronauts who would like to share food from their home region together with their friends from Earth? We propose small bites that contain distinct flavours from different regions and cultures, or even flavours you remember from a specific time on Earth (e.g. a wedding or birthday). By combining eating with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology, you could even eat together with friends and family. Music, atmospheric light, temperature, and humidity could also be used to recreate distinctive Earth settings.

Food for thought

Since the early days of space exploration, there have been much innovation in space programs around space food systems. Without NASA’s Apollo programme for example, millions of people would not have ready meals and microwaves in their homes.

This teaches us that innovations of space food technology could become a natural part of our everyday eating habits, at least in the not too distant future.

We believe our research can contribute to these innovations in research and development, while also making a case for a more experiential and multisensory approach to designing future eating experiences in space.

Reference:

Obrist M, Tu Y, Yao L and Velasco C. (2019). Space Food Experiences: Designing Passenger's Eating Experiences for Future Space Travel Scenarios. Front. Comput. Sci.

Full article here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomp.2019.00003/full

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