Back in the early days of space travel, astronauts squeezed most of their meals out of tubes. A sugary, orange-flavored drink, sold commercially as Tang, was considered a tasty treat. Food was fuel, and little more.
However, eating in space has become much less a chore now. In fact, astronauts can dine on a variety of freeze-dried meals after they’ve been rehydrated with hot water. And, as of a few years ago, crews in the International Space Station (ISS) are able to savor a taste of food that’s actually fresh.
“On the space station right now, they are growing vegetables, lettuce in particular,” says Carie Lemack, CEO of DreamUp, a public benefit corporation that provides space-based education and research opportunities for students. “We’re seeing the space salad. That’s remarkable.”
Lemack will discuss the successes and challenges of producing food in space this Friday at Future Con, a Smithsonian magazine event that celebrates the intersection of science, technology and science fiction. Future Con is a part of Awesome Con, Washington, D.C.’s annual comics and pop culture convention at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center from Friday, March 30 to Sunday, April 1.
Researchers have their sights set on a space cuisine that is anything but bland, experimenting with whiskey distilled in space, cheese fermented in microgravity and basil grown in a hydrofuge. Lemack will be joined by Sam Anas, a scientist who has been researching plants for more than 40 years and is now a senior agricultural biologist for BASF, the German chemical company, and Valkyrie Falciani, who while a student at Stockton University in New Jersey helped develop an experiment, “Spores in Space,” that was conducted on the space station last year.
Growing like spaghetti
For all its progress, space gastronomy remains a work in progress. But it’s a high priority for scientists because the ability to grow plants in space, particularly in harsh environments, is essential for both deep space travel and the establishment of colonies on the moon and Mars.
Both Anas and Falciani know from personal experience how challenging something as simple as growing a sprout of vegetation can be in microgravity. Anas describes a set of experiments he conducted just last month. He explains that ordinarily because the roots of a plant are more geotropic, or more affected by gravitational pull, they grow down into soil. A plant’s shoots, by contrast, are more phototropic, meaning they move towards light.
But in microgravity, things change. Light becomes a stronger force. Instead of growing down into the medium, or soil, the roots, as Anas puts it, “might just go anywhere.”
“In one case, we reversed things so that the light fell where the roots would ordinarily go,” Anas says. “And the shoots went down into the medium, while the roots were growing in the air in the closed container. Then we added color to the medium to make the soil dark to see what effect that would have on the growth of roots and shoots. And, the seeds didn’t want to produce leaves in the dark medium. So, both the roots and the shoots started growing in the air towards the light.”
Falciani reiterates the point that without gravity to give them orientation, plants in space can “kind of grow like spaghetti.” That can add stress to the process and make them less productive.
“And there’s a problem with water in space,” she adds. “It kind of sits wherever it’s placed. It doesn’t drain down into soil. You have to give it some kind of projection. With our experiment, the astronauts just shook a little tube, and that gave the water enough movement to saturate what we needed it to saturate.”
Specifically, Falciani’s experiment, developed with classmate Danielle Ertz, was designed to study the effects of microgravity on fungal spores. They sent to the space station a container with three sections—one held flax seeds, another fungal spores and the third was filled with water. The spores needed to combine with the flax seed to grow, and the water was required to activate the process. After an astronaut mixed the three elements, the tube was set aside for 30 days in space. The same was done with an identical container back in the lab in New Jersey.
Once the container was returned from the ISS, it was determined that while the fungal spores were still viable, they hadn’t grown. Falciani says they’re trying to figure out why that happened, but they do know that under the microscope, the spores that were sent into space now look different than the ones kept on Earth. She reports that they’ve seen a higher number of reproductive structures in the space spores, and they’re still trying to determine why that’s the case.
Life off Earth
That analysis of puzzling results is a standard part of the scientific process, something that’s a key aspect of the student research projects that DreamUp supports. To date, the corporation has launched more than 375 experiments into space from nearly every state and a dozen countries, offering the needed hardware, guidance in designing projects and technical support in getting astronauts at either the ISS or on Blue Origin's New Shepard space vehicle to participate in the research.
“A movie like The Martian made people start thinking more about food in space. It brought to light how it isn’t simple,” Lemack says. “There are marked differences between living and working on Earth versus in microgravity versus on Mars. That’s something we need to be thinking about, and it’s a huge opportunity for students to play a role.
“Our real goal,” she adds, “is to build a pipeline of students who are prepared to live and work in space. And that doesn’t just mean scientists and engineers. It means people who can communicate about what goes on in space. It means chefs and gastronomists. Any profession we have here on Earth needs an analog in microgravity."