San Francisco CNN — When the first astronauts venture to Mars in the future, the crew will need access to healthy, fresh food — but there are no cosmic grocery stores along the way. And the round trip to the red planet is expected to take about three years.
Food is one of the many challenges NASA faces before sending humans into deep space, but it’s a big one. Nutritious food that also stimulates the appetite is necessary to keep astronauts healthy, and freeze-dried options won’t be enough.
This demand for nutrition is part of why NASA and the Canadian Space Agency began the Deep Space Food Challenge, an open call to experts around the world to develop technologies for keeping astronauts fed and healthy on long-term space missions.
The competition led the Astra Gastronomy team at Nonfiction, a design and innovation firm based in San Francisco, to develop the Space Culinary Lab. The compact kitchen-style system includes stations for growing algae and leafy greens, blending creamy coffee and even grilling meat.
“The idea here is to create a space kitchen,” said Phnam Bagley, cofounder of Nonfiction. “You get to prepare the food that you want however you want it. Bringing that level of agency to astronauts is where designers like us start.”
The Space Culinary Lab made it through the first phase of the Deep Space Food Challenge in October 2021. Despite not being selected during phase two, the design showcases some of the technology that could be used not only in space but also in resource-challenged environments such as refugee camps and food deserts on Earth.
The heart of the design is to bring “a bit of humanity to space,” with mix and match options so astronauts aren’t exhausted with the same flavors and textures as their taste buds become dull in space, Bagley said.
The lab provides ways the astronauts can also keep up a strong appetite to prevent weight loss and have access to fresh options to maintain optimal nutrition, which is crucial for their health as the crew ventures far from Earth.
Cooking in a space kitchen
The culinary lab is configured so the rounded design could slot into an existing spacecraft and would require few resources and little effort from the astronauts. The different modules included in the design are called munch, sizzle, yum and snap.
Snap provides a refreshing wall of green within the otherwise sterile environment of a spacecraft, where the astronauts can tend to microgreens grown without soil such as baby bok choy and butter greens. Pink lights provide the proper wavelength that accelerates the growth of the greens, and timed spritzes furnish the exposed roots with water and nutrients.
While the greens deliver extra flavor and healthy nutrients to a meal, there’s a psychological side to tending to the plants as well.
Astronauts living for six months or longer aboard the International Space Station have shared how growing, harvesting and eating fresh produce has improved their mood and brought out their nurturing sides as they incorporated caring for plants into their routines.
The culinary lab’s munch module offers another nutrition boost by growing microalgae in a bioreactor. The algae can be collected, dehydrated and mixed with fruit powders, spices, vinegar, oats and peanut butter for a tasty and nutritious snack.
This rendering shows what the Space Culinary Lab might look like inside a spacecraft. Courtesy Nonfiction LLC
Microalgae could help protect the astronauts as they leave the shielding effects of low Earth orbit and venture into the harsh radiation environment of deep space, Bagley said.
Rehydrated meats are something astronauts rely on as a source of protein. To make them more palatable, Nonfiction included sizzle as part of the culinary lab. The tiny microwave drawer, which resembles a convection oven, has glass plates and laser technology. Bagley demonstrated brushing a piece of rehydrated chicken with a blend of maple syrup and soy sauce, a combination that is “shelf stable and delicious,” she said.
As the meat warms, the “marinade” helps it caramelize, and a laser draws grill marks on the meat. (You can also draw your name or even a rendering of the “Mona Lisa” if it amuses you, Bagley said.) Sizzle can be used to warm and “grill” vegetables, tofu and tortillas as well.
Since astronauts struggle to sleep properly in space, they might also be relying on extra caffeine on the long journey to Mars. That’s where the yum module comes in handy. The creaming machine uses a steel probe to emulsify water and oil-based ingredients to create lattes, chocolate ganache and mayonnaise in a self-contained way.
Time for a taste test
The futuristic space food prepared using the culinary lab was available for a taste test at Nonfiction during CNN’s visit in March, including space coffee and algae mixed with different flavors.
The algae, rolled into balls or cubes after being blended with ingredients in a silicon pouch, can stay fresh for two to three days.
Two types of nutritional algae balls were on hand — one savory and one fruity. The end result resembled a snack for a long hiking trip, but it was surprisingly delicious and didn’t have an algae aftertaste.
Bagley and others at Nonfiction, including Mark Alexander, Mardis Bagley, Nadia Kutyreva and Fifile Nguyen, have tasted multiple flavor combinations to get the balance right.
“I think we’ve realized that if we put too many ingredients together, it confuses the flavor profile, and then the algae flavor comes back,” Bagley said. “We use two or three ingredients at once.”
One mix blended peanut butter, oats, onion powder and vinegar with the algae for a strong, savory flavor with a pleasant, sour finish. But the favorite was the fruity algae, which mixed in powders from freeze-dried strawberries, cherries and other fruits. The fruit powders masked the algae flavor and made it taste more like a slightly sweet treat without added sugars.
Then, coffee powder, hot water, ghee, coconut oil and lecithin were blended with the emulsifying probe to create a foamy brew.
“The mechanism agitates the liquids together,” Bagley said, “and creates this super creamy hot beverage, which is very satisfying in the morning.”