This article is based on research currently being conducted by author Maggie Coblentz at the Rhode Island School of Design. The viewpoints in this article reflect those of Coblentz, and will be further explored in her thesis, currently in development, which examines the ways in which innovative food design can improve the health and happiness of astronauts on long-term missions.
It’s 2034, and after nearly a year of travel, a crew of NASA astronauts have entered low-Mars orbit. Here, they will perform research to learn more about what it will take for humans to land – and stay – on Mars. With this information, NASA will begin preparing for the final step in its decades-long endeavor: successful descent, landing, and extended resource use on Mars. If all goes according to plan, the astronauts will return to Earth in 2036.
Exciting as this may sound, there are still a multitude of challenges to be overcome before a mission to Mars is possible. Of course, there are the technical feats required to enter the planet’s orbit – not to mention the profound financial cost of such an endeavor. But there’s also another factor to consider, one that is often overlooked by those with big dreams of widespread space travel: astronaut happiness.
Eating as Entertainment: Overcoming Boredom in Space
Boredom and depression are obstacles often faced by astronauts, particularly those on long missions – a detail that has not been ignored by those looking to Mars. Researchers are already studying the psychological and social effects of long space missions. The Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) Habitat, for example, is an analog habitat designed to mimic the conditions of a mission to Mars. Campaigns last 4-12 months and see crew members living together in close quarters and performing all the tasks associated with habitation on Mars.
The first HI-SEAS study, conducted in 2013 for four months, focused on a specific aspect of astronaut wellbeing: eating. In addition to comparing the psychological and physiological benefits of two food systems, the study looked at the feasibility of using hydroponics on Mars. Based on his experiences, HI-SEAS crew commander Angelo Vermeulen reported a need for spices and herbs, as well as comfort foods and higher-protein options.
Real astronauts have reported similar desires for better food choices that alleviate the monotony of space travel, remind them of home, and generally bring comfort and familiarity. Current space foods, which mostly consist of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs), provide nourishment – but they don’t address the larger role food plays in a person’s identity, and they don’t do much to bring comfort or joy. As the Mars race gains traction, designers must play with existing options and new possibilities to create food products that promote human connectedness while also fulfilling essential nutritional needs.
The Challenges of Space Food
Some barriers to designing satisfying space food are better known than others. It might be obvious, for example, that a spacecraft must be equipped with enough non-perishable food items to feed a crew for the duration of their mission (plus emergency stores), or even that eating certain foods without the aid of gravity is difficult. But what about the other less-known challenges?
For starters, reduced gravity affects the fluid distribution in an astronaut’s body upon arrival in space, leading to a change in taste perception, a temporary effect that could be reduced or altered by promoting interactions between different sensory modalities to improve taste perception. Additionally, while NASA’s current space food system offers some variability in menu items, the freeze-dried and pre-packaged MREs delivered in plastic bags do little to disrupt monotony or emulate the experience of preparing food and eating on Earth.
Another interesting phenomenon experienced by astronauts is the Overview Effect. Many who experience seeing Earth from orbit describe experiencing a feeling of heightened connectedness and a new perspective of time, life, and humanity. This profound feeling lies in stark contrast to the mundane food options available to those experiencing it. With such a powerful existential experience so common to space travel, it seems short-sighted to assume that the foods people enjoy on Earth would taste the same on another planet – context, after all, is key to the eating experience.
Martian Problems, Human Solutions
So, how can we play with space food to make it more enjoyable, both to prepare and to eat? How can we use food, that great unifier, to improve the entire experience of space travel?
First, we can look at how people eat on Earth compared to how they dine in space. On Earth, the methods for eating vary greatly depending on the food, who the eater is, and their cultural background. Think about how it feels to break a pistachio from its shell or to peel an orange. Consider how different it feels to lick an ice cream cone than it does to bite into a hot slice of pizza, or how satisfying it can be to twist spaghetti around your fork or bite into a crisp apple. In space, most food comes in – and is eaten directly out of – a vacuum-sealed bag. Providing greater variety in how food is delivered – in terms of both packaging and actual form – could be one step toward breaking the monotony around eating in space. What if astronauts could gnaw freeze-dried meat from an inflatable bone, or experience the texture of fresh fruit?
Next, we can consider context. Technological advances may be leveraged to create a more familiar context around mealtime in space. Using VR, we could create a stronger parallel between the joy we experience when eating on Earth and the necessity of maintaining caloric intake while in space. Imagine that while eating a freeze-dried lasagna bar, an astronaut could simultaneously see, through immersive VR, images of her mother cooking in her childhood kitchen. British chef Heston Blumenthal is already experimenting in this space with a theatrical restaurant called The Fat Duck, where sensory experiences are paired with certain dishes to evoke specific times and places. VR could also be used to determine which flavors astronauts will enjoy most while on Mars; if researchers were to pair the experience of immersive VR depictions of Mars with the eating of different foods, they could begin to predict how people might perceive taste on this foreign planet.
When considering context, the Overview Effect should not be ignored – what effect might routinized, banal eating experiences have on a demographic experiencing a heightened awareness of human connectedness and community? What existing symbols, textures, and cues from food will allow deep space explorers to stay connected with their past, and how can we abstract food in a way that tells new stories about humanity and life? Here, inspiration can be drawn from Central, a restaurant by Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz in Lima, Peru. Central serves dishes inspired by the diversity of life that thrives across the range of extreme altitudes in Peru.
Last but not least, we need to look at the social aspect of eating. To counter the effects of prolonged time spent in close quarters during a journey to Mars, we will need to embrace food design that encourages crew members to engage in food preparation and eating rituals together. How can we create food that is shareable, or food that is reminiscent of meals that are traditionally shared? In short, how can we design an eating experience that improves camaraderie and has positive social effects?
The connecting thread between these different challenges – thriving while living in space – is still an elusive concept to most. But the tasks and obstacles of everyday life are familiar to the many, and it is this understanding of ordinary human needs and desires that will allow us to improve the experience of space travel for astronauts. While the problems themselves are rooted in something quite foreign, the solutions belong to a much more familiar domain: human-centric design.