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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Now Even NASA's Going Gourmet

Posted By on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 5:30 PM

Mars? No, just a Mars simulation in Hawaii. - CREW MEMBER SIAN

Space: the final food frontier. Or at least for NASA, which has a few major culinary projects in the works that could eventually trickle down to us earthlings. It turns out that food's actually a big problem for long-term space missions, like trips to Mars -- it's heavy and spoilable, and astronauts begin to suffer from "menu fatigue" after weeks of eating the same pre-packaged foods and begin to lose weight. The agency is working on ways to make meals more appetizing without overburdening its space craft.

See also: Slimy Yet Satisfying: Could You Eat Insects For Dinner?

Nordic Food Lab Chefs Try To Make Insects Appeal To a Crowd

One of NASA's initiatives is the Hawaiian Space Exploration Analog and Simulation: a group of six people living in a geodestic dome on the slope of a Hawaiian volcano for four months developing a way to cook in space. The crew of scientists don't have culinary backgrounds (though they were put through the paces at cooking school beforehand), and are equipped with a stove, oven, microwave, breadmaker, crockpot, and set of ingredients that's actually way more diverse than my pantry.

After eating both pre-packaged and meals made from scratch (or "earthbound cooking," as the video about the project charmingly calls it), the team meticulously records their emotional and physical well-being, along with the amount of each ingredient in the meal and how much water was used to clean it up. If the experiment proves that the crew is happier and healthier thanks to earthbound cooking, it could be introduced into space trips.

A recent New Yorker article also touched on a few other food-oriented projects NASA has in the works:

"One of NASA's challenges for Mars ... is to come up with pouched foods that can last for up to five years. Currently, the agency has around seven meat items with that kind of shelf life; it is striving to develop new ways of processing, packaging, and storing these foods."

Seven meat items that last longer than many people's marriages? Terrifying.

Then, back in May, NASA gave a six-week research grant to Anjan Contractor's company, Systems & Materials Research Corporation, to develop 3D printing technology for space missions. But according to an Business Insider article, Contractor hopes the technology will feed the planet, not just a select groups of astronauts:

"He sees a day when every kitchen has a 3D printer, and the earth's 12 billion people feed themselves customized, nutritionally-appropriate meals synthesized one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store. Contractor's vision would mean the end of food waste, because the powder his system will use is shelf-stable for up to 30 years, so that each cartridge, whether it contains sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein or some other basic building block, would be fully exhausted before being returned to the store."

Sounds tasty, right? (Rob Reinhart, inventor of the Soylent diet that was all the rage on the Internet a few months back, would certainly approve).

The idea that we'll someday be printing dinner from "nutritionally-appropriate" meal cartridges seems about as ridiculous as the idea that we'll all be eating insects, but as the world population grows and fossil fuels dwindle, many, including the United Nations, believe we will need to turn to alternate food sources to feed the planet.

Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. NASA's R&D efforts have led to so many everyday objects that it publishes a magazine cataloging them, called, hilariously, Spinoff. Space blankets, freeze-drying, memory foam, cordless vacuums, scratch-resistant lenses, and smoke detectors were all created to deal with problems encountered in space.

There could come a day when chef-curated printer cartridges and sequences for printing them ("recipes") seem as natural as raw ingredients and cookbooks. Let's hope the Adrià brothers are still around when that comes to pass.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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