Several private space companies plan to send ordinary people into space in recent years, and the last decade is expected to be a decade of space tourism boom. Virgin Galactic has more than 600 customers waiting to travel in space aboard its suborbital spacecraft. In anticipation of the industry’s expansion, Bigelow Aerospace and others have even designed space hotels to provide accommodation for space tourists during their stay in orbit.
Figure 1: U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren is responsible for bringing fresh fruit from the Japanese cargo ship Kounotori 5 H-II to the space station
Research by the Tauri Group found that the main customer base for private manned spaceflight is wealthy, well-heeled individuals, many of whom are looking for more luxurious travel experiences after visiting the world’s best hotels and resorts. These people, who are willing to pay $250,000 to $25 million for a private space flight experience, are used to VIP treatment: not only to visit their destinations while traveling, but also to enjoy the best hospitality during their stay in terms of accommodation, amenities and meals.
Figure 2: Encapsulated space food, including food trays on the space shuttle
Given that most astronauts are now available in frozen and dry food and packaged in a manner similar to military ready-to-eat bags (MREs), private space providers will need to carefully consider what they can do to help the dining experience meet satisfactory luxury travel standards. Food has proven to be one of the most diverse and fundamental human experiences on earth, and the psychological benefits of sitting down to eat or drink should not be underestimated.
So far, space food has rightly focused on nutrition and convenience, as most astronauts are astronauts who need to perform scientific missions. However, in order for space tourism to appeal to the super-rich, spacecraft operators must begin to make their flights a quality passenger experience, rather than being limited to meeting minimum requirements. Exactly how can the industry make the leap from bagged fruit to fine dining?
It may be too early to imagine a five-star meal service in space, but we can look at several important space food experiments that have taken place over the past few years to get a first look at the future of the space flight diet:
1. Space Baking Biscuits
Figure 3: Chocolate cookies baked on the International Space Station using zero G Kitchen microgravity ovens in December 2019
Double Tree by Hilton has long touted freshly baked cookies as its signature delicacy. Now that the company has partnered with Zero G Kitchen to create a joint venture, Cookies In Space, Hilton’s famous chocolate chip cookies have recently become the first food baked in space.
Although baking cookies may not seem like advanced science, baking food in space is not easy. Traditional ovens rely on convection, a natural process of rising hot air and falling cold air, but do not convection without gravity. In addition, being in microgravity presents an additional challenge in keeping food the same while cooking.
All of this must be done with limited power support to avoid blowing the fuse to the International Space Station. To do this, Zero G Kitchen’s oven uses a silicone frame to secure the object in place during baking. The oven’s cylindrical heating coil surrounds the food in the center of the oven cavity, heating up slower than a normal oven to accommodate the power limits of the International Space Station.
Figure 4: Five doughs in silicone bags are sent to the International Space Station, waiting to be baked in a Zero G Kitchen microgravity oven
Zero G Kitchen’s oven was built in collaboration with NanoRacks, which is responsible for commercial plug-and-play payload interfaces on the International Space Station. The oven is the first in a series of appliances that Zero G Kitchen plans to develop as part of its space kitchen. The company said the appliances would eventually include “refrigerators, blenders, slow cookers, etc.”
The oven and related supplies were launched to the International Space Station in November last year aboard the Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft, which crews received and used to bake cookies in late December. Earlier this month, with SpaceX’s CRS-18 launch mission, baked cookies were sent back to Earth and professionals analyzed them to inform future attempts to bake in space.
2. ISSpresso and Space Coffee Cup
Figure 5: Samantha Cristoforetti, a European Space Agency astronaut, drinks espresso from a weightless cup
For many adults, there’s nothing better than starting a day with a new brew edified coffee. However, being in space may hinder this wonderful ritual, as until recently astronauts were forced to suck up all the liquid in plastic containers to prevent them from floating in microgravity.
Figure 6: Specially designed 3D-printed space cups are being used on the International Space Station
In 2008, IRPI, oregon, teamed up with NASA astronaut Don Pettit to find a better solution. The team proposed a coffee cup design that recreated the experience of drinking water from a cup on Earth using the effects of surface tension and wetting angles.
In 2015, when the Italian company Lavazza introduced an improved version of its Expso coffee machine called ISSpresso to the space station, IRPI saw a great opportunity to test its design. As part of NASA’s 2015 Capillary Experiment Beverage experiment, the company sent six cups that officially became qualified hardware on the station after successful inspection by astronauts stationed on the International Space Station.
3. Vostok Space Beer
Figure 7: Unlike ninkasi beer made from yeast (into space in 2015) or Bridgeport Brewing’s first IPA (craft beer that went into space in early 2018), Vostok is the first beer designed for space consumption
Just like drinking coffee in the morning, sitting down for a cold beer is a enjoyable experience. However, beer bottles face the same problem as coffee cups in microgravity, i.e. open bottles do not prevent the beer from drifting away at will. In addition, gas and liquid do not separate in microgravity, and bubbles in beer tend to stick together to form a huge gas ball, leading to an uncomfortable situation in many people who drink beer, also known as “wetting.”
In 2010, the founders of The Australian company 4 Pines Brewing Company and Saber Astronautics began working together to produce a beer that could solve these problems. To reduce the likelihood that the product will cause “wet hiccups”, they reduce the carbonization and enhance other flavors to supplement the beer with smaller bubbles. They then installed a plug-in on the bottle similar to a rocket fuel tank and used it to pull out the drink along the exit “valve”.
Figure 8: The interior design of the space beer bottle
In 2018, the team launched the Indiegogo campaign to fund testing and flight certification for their products. Unfortunately, the fund-raising campaign was not successful, raising only 3 per cent of the $1 million target. Despite this, the team continued its efforts, including two manned parabola flights to verify the availability of the bottle.
4. NASA’s VEGGIE Experiment
Figure 9: Tokyo Bekaana cabbage grows in NASA’s vegetable unit
As described in The Martian, one of the biggest challenges to long-term space missions is getting food in space. For most of the history of space flight, astronauts consumed all the food they had packed and shipped from Earth. The lack of direct sunlight in most space habitats and the water supply away from Earth pose sanomore as a major challenge to building space-based crop-growing infrastructure.
While it is possible to grow crops on Earth, the high cost of putting cargo into orbit (currently nearly $60,000 per kilogram using the SpaceX cargo Dragon spacecraft) hinders the possibility of humans using these methods to expand their long stay in space. Currently, the ISS program spends $3 billion to $4 billion a year on NASA to sustain up to six people in orbit, much of which can be attributed to the resupply of food to the station. In order to reduce costs and make space tourism profitable, more sustainable in-orbit food production methods are needed.
At the beginning of this century, NASA began testing potential solutions with its Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE). Deployable hydroponic plant growth units are able to produce salad crops using their integrated lighting and nutrient delivery systems and rely on the ISS’s cabin environment for temperature control and carbon dioxide supply. In addition to supplementing the space station’s food supply with fresh vegetables, vegetable units may have mental health benefits associated with recreational gardening.
By January 2020, four VEGGIE experiments had been launched to the International Space Station. Although the results of the psychological benefits of the device have not been made public, experiments continue to measure the impact of lighting, fertilizers and environmental conditions on the quality of crop production.
As these experiments continued in orbit, the researchers continued to examine the effects of food on personal well-being and group dynamics. While the psychological impact of eating in space has not yet been quantified, facilities such as NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration and Simulation (HI-SEA) have made preliminary ground observations on the benefits of eating fresh meals in confined spaces for a long time. Some preliminary studies have shown that people who eat their favorite foods have improved morale and productivity, and that teams that cook together have better team cohesion.
Figure 10: Participants in NASA’s 8-month HI-SEA mission in 2015
Although not all space analogy studies are directly applicable to space travelers, it is clear that the quality of a person’s food and beverage directly affects their satisfaction with living conditions. As humans extend their presence beyond Earth, care must be taken to ensure that human factors are not overlooked in the design of everyday experiences. If new technologies must be developed to suit human preferences, investments should be made in the first few years of the technology plan.
The next decade will undoubtedly be a defining moment for space tourism, and commercial space companies must seriously address the question: how can a satisfactory quality of experience be provided to passengers in costly space tourism?