Iron Chef Orbital Edition

If you are a normal human you have the ability to cook your food. You may not have much food to cook, but you do have at least a rudimentary ability to prepare and eat food. What about in space? How do our current space peeps cook? How are we going to cook once we head out into the black? Lets explore a possible future.

The Fun Part

June 10, 2029
International Space Station, Low Earth Orbit

“Well this is going to be tricky” Jackie thought. How exactly am I going to mix this in here?

As Jackie looked at the pan holding the chocolate, butter and sugar, she realized that making the cake from scratch may not have been the best idea. Especially since the pan wasn’t even really ‘holding’ the ingredients…it was just sitting there while the ingredients sort of floated above it.

Well, I guess I could just throw the ingredients in the convection oven for about five minutes, and then try and blend it all together somehow. It wasn’t like anyone was going to have another cake to compare this to up here.

After the quick melting of the ingredients, Jackie tries to put the (mostly) unmixed, mix into her blender; quickly learning that the blender only actually mixes things when there is some sort of force pulling the ingredients towards the blades at the bottom.

“Maybe” she thought, “I should just give up on trying to bake a cake, and just work on dinner”.

“Or” she muttered, looking at the chicken cordon bleu recipe she brought from home, “I should just focus on making the dehydrated food edible”.

The Real Deal

While Jackie’s cooking experience above may have seemed a little silly, there is unfortunately more truth to it than you might want to believe.

How we do it now

So long as we are being honest with each other, there isn’t much ‘cooking’ happening up in space. A few years back chef Heston Blumenthal collaborated with a Canadian astronaut to design a better menu for the astronauts; however according to Blumenthal there was basically nothing but obstacles all the way. First among the obstacles were the tools available.

The two cooking related tools currently on the station are the index finger (for hooking ringpulls) and a pair of scissors (for opening pouches). Otherwise meals are heated in a compact convection oven about the size of a briefcase.

“Space food is very, very controlled,” says Blumenthal. “All this red tape! You’ve got to get [each dish] past the UK Space Agency. Then the European Space Agency. Then Nasa. And the people in these organizations who are involved with food, they’re… they’re engineers.” Not chefs, he means. Not gourmands. “They consider food to be fuel, basically. A lot of freeze-dried stuff. Tins. Pouches. I was shown these packets from the ISS with big Russian writing on the front. Stuff that looked like you shouldn’t be putting it in your body at all.”

This two-year project was challenged as much by Blumenthal’s personal resistance to dullness as by any agency’s red tape. Space food has to be dull, to an extent, because neither pizzazz nor subtlety can be absolutely trusted up there…yet. Early ideas included sending up smells in spray cans, to be spritzed around the ISS while eating, better but NASA was not into that.

What NASA had been into was function over form. As recently as the 1990s it was being openly proposed that valuable storage room be saved on board spacecrafts by finding ways to reconfigure astronauts’ waste. One strategy meeting at Nasa, apparently, ended with a pilot saying: “We are not eating shit burgers.”

Since the 1990s, few astronauts have bothered experimenting with cooking in space. A notable exception was Sandra Magnus, the flight engineer for ISS Expedition 18.

Magnus undertook a number of cooking experiments, aided by cutting boards and bowls that she anchored down with copious amounts of duct tape. Perhaps the most impressive was her re-purposing of the ISS food warmer to make roasted garlic and onions, an operation she achieved by using foil packets saved from previous heat-and-serve meals to run vegetables through the food warmer again and again for hours at a time.

What other limitations are there?

Taste and preparation are not the only two factors you have to think of when approaching the problem of cooking on space. The physics of cooking itself are altered by the conditions of space. Our cooking techniques are honed at Earth’s gravity and, when we take those techniques to other gravities, the results can be surprising.

Jean Hunter, a professor at Cornell who studies how food and cooking work in space, explained how even something as simple as making a hard-boiled egg becomes difficult without Earth’s gravity to aid in the boiling process.

“The problem with cooking in space is that there’s no gravity,” Hunter told an interviewer. “If you wanted to boil an egg, for instance, the vapor and the liquid won’t separate. Rather than the water boiling like on earth where the bubbles rise to the top and release steam, what you’d get is more like a can of soda flowing over. It would be very difficult to cook with it.”

Historical Analogues

Explorers and travelers throughout history have had to develop methods for preserving food and carrying enough food for their journeys. This problem was especially difficult during the time when people made long sea voyages on sailing ships. Great explorers like Columbus, Magellan and Cook carried dried foods and foods preserved in salt and brine.

But by the time the British Empire ruled the seas things had gotten quite a bit better. British warships were some of the best equipped and provisioned ships during the age of sail. For instance packet boats from England brought fresh food to the Channel Fleet and some captains kept gardens ashore along their assigned cruising lanes to supply the crews with vegetables.

The officers were the best off, but even the common sailors had their food prepared on a main stoves or baked/roasted in one of the ship’s smaller ovens (like the ones shown here)

While other nation’s navies food quality and quantity varied, the general trend was moving from the dried or pickled food of the 1400s to the kitchen prepared food of the 17-1800s.

Likely next steps

Ok so great – sailors in the good ole days went from eating hard, dried food to having a chef prepare their meals in a kitchen, often using freshish food. What does that mean for us?

I gave the examples of the age of sail because it is likely a similar progression to what we will move along. Right now the height of ‘kitchenware’ in space is a convection oven, which while useful, is not exactly the only cooking implement spacers will want.

In the next 10-15 years expect a contained stove type system to be introduced whereby induction type heating element is used to cook food in a pan. A system which uses forced air to ‘push’ the food into the pan may be one solution to keeping the food from floating away. Another is to have the food packaged in a magnetic container and just remove the lid for cooking.

Simultaneously I expect the increase in wealthy space tourists to spur innovation in Earth to orbit food transit, where fresh foods can be more readily transported into orbit. This will open up new possibilities for cooking, even with a limited ability to heat the food.

Next Time

So one of you all pointed out to me that while I addressed how drinking in space will affect our bodies, I provided very little useful information about HOW to drink in space. To correct that, next time lets explore ways we can get trashed while travelling thousands of miles an hour in (or out of) orbit.

If you want to point out any other things I am forgetting, feel free to contact me below. Otherwise – check out some of my other posts on growing food in space, or what happens when your blood stops being on the inside of your skin while you are in micro-gravity (cause that is a good thing to know when we are talking about getting trashed).

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