In January, fresh cookies were baked aboard the International Space Station for the first time.
Satiating our astronauts’ deepest food desires—from freshly baked cookies to crisp apples—is an exciting frontier for those whose jobs it is to prepare and launch more palatable food into space.
It’s certainly more exciting today than it was some 50 years ago. After all, the earliest astronauts flew missions that lasted just hours or days. (Even the longest Apollo missions to the moon took less than two weeks to complete.) And “with missions of such brief time spans, astronauts could forego gustatory delights for the duration of flight,” says Douglas Vakoch, Ph.D., president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), and an astrobiologist and psychologist. “With a successful splashdown, they would soon be back home for a celebratory meal with loved ones.”
Now, much of what astronauts eat comes in the form of prepared meals and shelf-stable snacks. Many of those items require only hot water to “cook” and are ready to eat in a matter of minutes.
The cookies “signify the first small step in enabling astronauts to make at least part of their food while in space,” says Angelo Vermeulen, a space systems researcher and biologist who worked with NASA to study the phenomenon of menu fatigue—or lack of interest in the same foods—during the first HI-SEAS Mars simulation mission. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vermeulen and his team found pre-prepared meals were less popular than meals astronauts could cook themselves.
Not only was the non-prepared food more exciting to eat—which led to less menu fatigue—but Vermeulen discovered there were social and psychological benefits to cooking, too. Cooking proved a creative endeavor and gratifying experience for the astronauts. And “preparing food for fellow crewmates is an act of caring with its own psychological impact,” Vermeulen explains.
With that knowledge, agencies providing food to astronauts are starting to talk about how food fits into what Ryan Dowdy, Ph.D., ISS Food System Manager at NASA, calls “space culture.”
“I think food has a big role in space culture,” he says. But it’s not easy to get the right ingredients into space, let alone the utensils and appliances needed to refrigerate and cook those ingredients.
As Vakoch explains, “The logistics of spaceflight prioritize astronauts’ needs over their wants. Astronauts often have to be satisfied with food that is merely palatable, not truly delectable.”
One request Dowdy says he often receives from astronauts is for more fresh fruit and vegetables. “They don't have large scale refrigerators or freezers,” Dowdy says. “And so, I think fresh fruits and vegetables represent a Holy Grail of space food.” Until recently, the agency wasn’t able to deliver even apples to the ISS without them arriving bruised from spaceflight. But the team was able to solve this, by developing a volumetrically neutral piece of hard plastic that could carry the apples into space.
On another recent flight, NASA sent up hard cheeses for the crew, replacing—for that day, at least—the shelf-stable cheddar cheese spread to which the astronauts had become accustomed.
And with the advent of the Commercial Crew Program, NASA can now put fresh food kits (that include fruits and vegetables) on every resupply vehicle launching from the U.S., Dowdy says.
But allowing astronauts to interact with these ingredients in new ways—as they were able to do when they baked those cookies—is the next food frontier. It’s an important psychological one.
“I think there's a huge amount of identity and culture associated with food that is important to translate into space,” says Dowdy. “The astronauts are incredible superhumans in terms of what they do. But at the same time, I think it's important the fuel that they are consuming is not just calories. What it comes in, what it looks like, how it tastes, the texture, the flavor—it can all remind them of home, of who they are, where they came from, and the reason they're up there.”
In the future, other baked goods, from baguettes to Bundt cake, could be made on ISS. The start-up Bake In Space is working on technology that would allow astronauts to, as the company’s name suggests, bake in space. And Vermeulen speculates there could be demand for so-called comfort foods—think: fries, burgers, pasta—alongside healthier options down the line.