Episode 3: Space Cuisine

“Space food has its own challenges. You don’t want to take a freezer into space. You need shelf stable ingredients. It’s a challenge to make food in space that tastes good and contains enough vitamins”, Vermeulen explains.” Astronauts will have to grow their own food, since bringing it from earth will make spaceships way to heavy. Recycling human waste in order to grow food is going to be part of our future.” In an ideal world a fully circular food system would exist. However, it’s not that easy, Vermeulen alerts. “I think we'll come up with a combination of both. Astronauts living in deep space will partially grow their own food and get resupplied by earth.”

The MELiSSA foundation (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) was established to gain knowledge on regenerative system, aiming to the highest degree of autonomy and consequently to produce food, water and oxygen from mission wastes. Vermeulen: “In the MELiSSA system all molecules leaving the human body are captured and gradually broken down by a series of bio reactors. The goal is to produce nitrogen and carbon as fertilizer for the plants. In turn, the plants will produce both food and oxygen for the astronauts.”

What will Humans eat in Space?
Animals are off limits. Vermeulen sees a big focus on plant-based food. “Life stock is not a good idea in space. Basically, they are not efficient; it requires a lot of resources in terms of space and energy to create a steak. This inefficiency is not compatible with the constraints of space.” Insect proteins, however, are a good alternative.

On earth, life stock plays a role in creating circularity. In space, their function can substituted by bacteria and insects. “I can also imagine regular composting. The challenge is to use all these different approaches, to balance them on a small scale.”

The act of sharing food with crew members has a huge psychological effect
Social Side of Food in Space
Having diner together and sharing experiences and thoughts about the day that lays behind you, isn't only about filling your belly. Eating is a social act and the art to connect and stay in touch. Vermeulen has participated in a NASA experiment researching the social aspect of food. For four months he lived isolated together with five others in a simulated Martian base on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.

“There is a risk of menu fatigue; astronauts getting sick and tired of eating the same kind of meals over and over again.” Vermeulen researched what would happen if you allow the space crew to cook their own food instead of providing them with ready meals. He found major benefits. Cooking stimulates creativity and conversation. “The act of sharing food with crew members has a huge psychological effect. It improves crew cohesion as well”, Vermeulen sums up.

A table in the International Space Station
Towards the end of the video Vermeulen comes up with a telling anecdote. “Initially, the designers left out tables. Terrestrial architecture, like floors, ceilings and tables doesn’t make any sense in space.” However, astronauts didn’t agree. At the end of the day, they want to ‘sit’ around a table and share food and stories.

“The dining table is so crucial for the emotional and psychological health of the team. I find it quite remarkable.” The rational design perspective of the space craft engineers doesn't comply with the astronauts' emotional perspective. “I think this intersection between engineering and culture is very interesting”, Vermeulen says enthusiastically.