Mankind will take one small step toward the dream of living and working in space this June, when the first parts of the International Space Station go into orbit. And chefs here on Earth already are looking a decade beyond that, fashioning new recipes based on crops that could be grown in space.
The idea is to move beyond sanitized steak or rehydrated broccoli in plastic pouches and offer fresh greens and foodstuffs made from wheat and soybeans grown on the surface of another planet or moon. In other words, extraterrestrial food will become more Earth-like.
"We are looking to deliver to the astronauts not just nutrition, but eating pleasure," says Jean Hunter, who heads a project at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., that is developing vegetable-based recipes for long-term space missions.
The longer astronauts are in space, the more important food is to the quality of life, Professor Hunter says. Astronauts tend to eat at least one of their three daily meals together to socialize and build camaraderie. On longer missions, they will want more variety, including occasional special meals with ice-cream desserts and other treats.
"You can put up with just about anything for up to six months," says Norm Thagard, the first American astronaut to live on the Russian Mir space station. "But for over six months, you have to pay a lot of attention to quality of life things, including food."
Since Professor Thagard's 1995 mission, space food has continued to improve. Astronaut Terry Wilcutt, who was on the recent 89th Space Shuttle mission, had a choice of dried apricots, pecan breakfast rolls, tortillas, shrimp cocktail, and even brownies. Also tickling his taste buds were some fresh foods, coffee, and cashews.
"We're trying to move away from camping and freeze-dried foods to Earth-like foods," says Charles Bourland, manager for space-station food at the Johnson Space Center Food Lab in Houston.
The biggest challenge, he says, is to get food people will eat, and to get enough of it. Space travelers now are limited to about 4 pounds of food per person per day, including about 1 pound of packaging. On multiyear missions, astronauts may not be able to carry enough food, and care packages on restocking flights will be expensive. Not to mention that eating food at the end of its five-year shelf life isn't a very appealing idea.
Victory gardens on planets
That means astronauts eventually will have to grow food in space and use new recipes to prepare it. The Cornell researchers, using a three-year grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, recently began to develop recipes that astronauts will be able to prepare from crops grown on space farms. These include wheat, potatoes, rice, soy beans, peanuts, salad vegetables, and fresh herbs, all to be grown hydroponically in artificially lit, temperature-controlled space habitats.
Such colonies are expected to be on the surface of planets or moons in about 20 years. Conditions in the colonies will be luxurious compared to the tiny galley aboard the space shuttle.
Astronauts will have access to most of the comforts of home: a microwave convection oven, toaster, pressure cooker, rice cooker, bread machine, and a machine to make tofu and soy milk.
Scientists are examining both traditional and new approaches to food processing. One of the new technologies involves using microorganisms to help convert wheat straw and other crop residues into oil, and surplus wheat and potato starch into sweeteners. The food also is part of a bioregenerative life support system in which plants and microorganisms will regenerate air, water, and food for the crew.
Since the cost to transport food for years-long missions is expected to be astronomical, the aim of Cornell researchers is to have only about 10 percent of the calories in its dishes come from Earth-made foods.
"Our goal is to develop a database of food-processing information and a menu of about 100 primarily vegetarian recipes based on crops raised in space," Hunter says. A space farm the size of a football field could feed 10 people, she says, adding that plants grow well in zero gravity.
Astronauts Shannon Lucid and John Blaha ran a successful wheat-growth experiment aboard Mir. The test was designed by scientists at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory, one of several universities working on space food. Tuskegee Institute, for example, is focusing on sweet potato-based foods.
Johnson Space Center, Purdue University, and Rutgers University are among other research organizations trying to create better eating in space.
So far, Cornell has come up with new recipes - based on vegetables or their extracts - including seitan (wheat gluten) tacos, carrot drumsticks, a vegetable sandwich, tempeh (soybean tofu) sloppy joes, and tofu custard pie.
Hunter's team is developing foods that use as much of a plant as possible with minimal waste. Currently, they are focusing on wheat extracts such as seitan, a gluten made by washing whole wheat. Leftover starch from seitan is being used to produce amazake sweetener.
Amazake is an important potential substitute for sugar, which is heavy and bulky to take into space. It has a unique flavor similar to honey and a texture like pudding. Although astronauts only get about one-third of the 125 pounds of sugar the average American consumes annually, sweeteners and other condiments are important because many foods taste bland in space.
Testing space recipes
To help make sure foods made with amazake are tasty, Cornell has rounded up a panel of student and faculty volunteers to test the recipes.
So far, the foods have received mixed reviews. "I liked the tofu custard pie. The sweet foods were the best," says Jim Finlay, a fellowship coordinator at Cornell's East Asia Program.
But other taste testers found amazake's flavor too overpowering or not sweet enough. On a scale of 9, with 9 being the best, the tofu custard pie ranked a 5.42 among testers. Bread made with amazake, however, got a high 7.13 rating.
"We're struggling now with the sugar issue," says Rupert Spies, head chef of the Cornell project. "Amazake doesn't work in ice cream or other desserts because it has an overpowering flavor. We need a neutral sweetener."
Bob Marra, a PhD student in micrology, didn't like the soy taste of the tofu custard pie and the carrot soup. But he did like the vegetable sandwich made with amazake bread and other dishes. "Provided they really can grow things in space, I think there's a lot of promise for the food."
Mr. Finlay agrees. "I think I could get by on what they have here," he says. "But I could see that after eating this food, you'd crave a pizza."
The Perfect Sandwich for Those Picnics in Space
Oven Roasted Vegetable Sandwich
(Based on a recipe by chef Rupert Spies, Cornell University)
1 large red bell pepper
1 medium zucchini
1 medium yellow summer squash
8 ounces oyster or shiitake mushrooms
1 cup chopped vidalia or other sweet onions
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
12 slices best quality whole-wheat bread
4 ounces combined alfalfa and radish sprouts
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Seed and cut bell pepper into 6 pieces. Cut squashes (on the bias) into long1/4 inch thick slices.
Whisk vinegar, oil, salt and pepper together in a bowl. Reserve half of this marinade. Add vegetables including garlic, but not sprouts, to one half of the marinade, let sit 5 to10 minutes.
Drain and place vegetables on a cookie sheet(s). Roast vegetables for 30 to 40 minutes or until soft. Remove from oven and place them in reserved marinade. Marinate for several hours, or overnight, before serving.
Lightly rub marinated garlic on one side of each slice of bread. An additional teaspoon of marinade may be used to coat the bread.
Layer roasted vegetables on bread; top with sprouts and a second bread slice.
Makes 6 sandwiches.