15 Altitude Studies: Airline Food and Space Food

Think about the food served on airplanes. This is not food designed to embrace the particular conditions of gastronomy at high altitude but an attempt to recreate café culture in the sky. Pigments are added to the carrots so they appear fresh. The lasagne is coloured to look as though oven-baked. Food becomes little more than a tool to manufacture normalcy at 30,000 feet and it is this performance to which all research and development capital flows.

The same is true of food designed for space travel – another possibility for culinary innovation, which reveals an archive of nourishment without desire. Despite the enormous fuel costs attached to every gram of a rocket’s payload, early cosmonauts and astronauts returned from space thinner than they should’ve. Spreads as thick and heavy as wax, tubes of flavored pastes and dehydrated potatoes impoverished spacefarers in more ways than one. Food is the nail on which human health, sanity, and societal harmony hangs. Without it, we soon break down.

Rather than simply “dealing with the limitations” of zero gravity culinary practices, might it be possible to pioneer a new type of preparation and eating unique to the context? Gastropod host and writer Nicola Twilley profiled the research of industrial designer Maggie Coblentz, who heads the food research at MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative:

Like generations of chefs before her, Coblentz began by taking advantage of the local environment. Liquids are known to behave peculiarly in microgravity, forming wobbly blobs rather than streams or droplets. This made her think of molecular gastronomy, in particular the technique of using calcium chloride and sodium alginate to turn liquids into squishy, caviar-like spheres that burst delightfully on the tongue. Coblentz got to work on a special spherification station to test in zero g – basically a plexiglass glove box equipped with preloaded syringes. She would inject a bead of ginger extract into a lemon-flavored bubble, or blood orange into a beet juice globule, creating spheres within spheres that would deliver a unique multipop sensation unattainable on Earth.

Coblentz is planning to send a batch of miso paste to the ISS later this year, to learn how its flavor profile changes. She has also developed a new way of consuming it. Pondering the station’s lack of cutlery, she struck upon the idea of creating silicone ‘bones’ – solid, ivory-colored crescents that resemble oversize macaroni more than the ribs that inspired them. Nibbling and sucking foods directly off a silicone bone might reduce spoon fatigue, she explained, and perhaps even put spacefarers in touch with humanity’s most ancient foodways.

Read “Algae Caviar, Anyone? What We'll Eat on the Journey to Mars” at wired.com.