Astronaut food: customized nutrition in Space

Astronaut food: customized nutrition in Space

Food in space encompasses more than mere sustenance; it involves emotions, identity, and relationships. How can we replicate this experience in space to support the emotional and psychological well-being of astronauts? Deep Blue is pioneering technologies for producing personalized space food.


Astronaut nutrition: innovation and new technologies at the ASI Symposium

The Italian Space Agency (ASI) recently held a two-day symposium to explore the future of space food. Biologists, geneticists, chemists, and engineers presented the latest advancements in areas related to the consumption and production of astronaut food: superfoods, in-situ cultivation technologies, sustainability, and waste reduction. This topic is particularly pertinent for long-duration missions to the Moon or Mars, where regular resupply from Earth is impractical.

Linda Napoletano, director of the manufacturing division at Deep Blue and an expert in human-machine interaction, delivered a presentation titled ‘Food as Experience: Development of Technologies for Personalized Food Production in Space.’ Her approach emphasized that food nourishes not just the body but also the soul, relationships, and senses. The experiential value of food is crucial for astronauts, especially during extended periods away from home.


Space missions and settlements: the challenge of Astronaut food

NASA plans to send its astronauts to Mars by 2030. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) aims for the Moon, which it plans to reach by 2040. Meanwhile, interest and investments in space tourism are increasing: SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic want to take anyone (or almost anyone, considering the cost of a flight starts at $100,000) into space. Space exploration is an exciting endeavor whose success will depend mainly on technology: will it be sufficiently advanced and reliable to meet the challenges of space? We’re not just talking about rockets, shuttles, and space stations, but also the systems that will provide sustenance to the crew during long journeys (6-8 months to reach Mars, over 3 years to Saturn) and in the settlements that are hoped to be built on host planets.

Sustenance equals food, in its various forms. On the one hand, it is necessary to understand what to feed astronauts to ensure the right mix of nutrients, including resorting to genetic engineering to ‘amplify’ some nutritional properties of foods. On the other hand, it is necessary to start ‘space agriculture’: identifying the species best suited for cultivation in extreme conditions (microgravity, radiation, water scarcity, etc.) and using local resources; studying how to reuse waste biomass (the so-called bio-regenerative cycles) and minimize waste.

Sustainability is crucial in space, not only due to the obvious scarcity of resources. ‘Consuming food with a relatively low impact on the ecosystem is a factor that, in an era increasingly oriented towards pro-social attitudes, can contribute to creating positive emotions when consumed,’ says Napoletano. ‘This is an aspect not to be underestimated even in space missions, during which astronauts typically experience the so-called ‘overview effect’: a feeling of the fragility of the planet they come from, which emerges when they observe it from space. Recycling and reusing raw materials must therefore be integrated into the design of the culinary experience in space.’

Along with taste. NASA, in its Deep Space Food Challenge, encourages candidates to present ‘new and revolutionary food technologies or systems that require minimal input and maximize safe, nutritious, and appetizing food production for long-duration space missions.’ In other words, food must not only be nutritious but also enjoyable because it should make those who eat it happy.

And staying on the topic of well-being, we cannot ignore that food is also an experience. ‘Preparing a meal and eating are multisensory experiences capable of positively influencing a person’s mood as well as being an identity and social element,’ emphasizes Napoletano. It’s not us saying it, but those who are at home in space. ‘Occasionally, special meals were prepared using ingredients from their respective home countries, thus creating a moment of cultural sharing and emotional comfort in an environment so distant from Earth.’ It’s not talked about enough yet, but a challenge within the challenge is reproducing in orbit the experiential value of food, with all the difficulties related to the ‘hostile’ characteristics of the environment in which one finds oneself.


What do astronauts eat: microalgae, lab-grown meat, and wine pills

As research progresses, the space menu for astronauts begins to take shape. One thing is certain, they will eat microalgae: rich in proteins, they also contain antioxidants that help ‘fight off’ ionizing radiation. If that’s not enough, they resist extreme conditions and have a high photosynthetic rate, meaning they produce a lot of biomass. In a small space, and, those who work with it swear, they can be cultivated on Mars using regolith, Martian soil, astronaut urine, and carbon dioxide (the experiment has been conducted on the Chlorella vulgaris species, and there is already a patent pending).

At the ASI symposium, there was also discussion about the ‘San Marziano’ nano tomato, enriched with antioxidants and resistant to space radiation, and the water lentil (Wolffia globosa), the smallest and fastest-growing plant in the world (doubling biomass in just over 24 hours), which is also hyper-proteinaceous, radiation-resistant, and produces no waste. And also about insect flour and lab-grown meat if one really doesn’t want to deprive astronauts of ‘meat.’

Finally, what could be better than a sip of beer or a glass of wine to complete the meal? Some have tried to grow brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) in microgravity conditions: they succeeded, even discovering that low gravity increases the speed of yeast propagation and fermentation (of course, we’ll need to figure out where to get the wort). Furthermore, even if there won’t be any toasts, swallowing ‘wine pills’ that actually taste like wine will give the impression of sipping a Cabernet. Then, once the technique is perfected (biofilm in which to encapsulate liquids), coffee pills, tea… spritz can be made. Let the party begin. Aside from the party, the solution is advantageous in various aspects: storage, transportation, and zero containers to dispose of.


The experience of space food, everyone to their own

“Arthur had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariable delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea”. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, 1979).

Douglas Adams had quite the foresight. We don’t have Nutri-Matic machines—yet—but fundamentally, the idea is just that: replicating personalized culinary experiences in space. As we’ve mentioned, food is a way to take care of astronauts’ psychophysical well-being. “Deep Blue has extensive experience in astronaut training,” explains Napoletano. “In our courses for the European Space Agency, we focus on ‘training’ teamwork, stress management, and frustration. To ensure the success of a mission but also make astronauts feel better. How can food contribute to this ’cause’? That’s what we’re pondering.”


Additive technology: astronaut food as a digital product

In the effort to translate the emotional and social experience of food into reality, ideas from other disciplines can be helpful. “In some research projects conducted at the European level, for example, STARHAUS, of which we are a partner, advanced production machines for personalized consumer goods are already being experimented with,” says Napoletano. “There’s nothing stopping us from ‘adapting’ these machines, which exploit typical principles and approaches of additive manufacturing, to produce personalized food in space from basic components.”

A chef-machine to entrust with our ‘recipes’: it selects and doses individual ingredients according to received instructions; assembles and mixes them to serve meals in compostable containers. “This solution, suitably adapted to the conditions of food production in space, offers the scalability necessary to meet the needs of any space mission,” adds the expert. “It adapts to the production of different foods, according to the needs and tastes of the astronauts, and could ensure efficiency in resource use, reducing costs and environmental impact of space missions.”

Designing these machines is a technologically complex challenge, also from the perspective of user interface, which must be flexible and immediate in use. “The design difficulties depend on the fact that the machine should manage the entire life cycle of food: from the introduction of semi-finished products to the production of the final ‘dish’ while optimizing waste management,” admits Napoletano. “Furthermore, it should be controllable from Earth, especially if we want to vary the diet of mission crew members without having to intervene on the machine itself.”


Human Digital Twins for Space food

Just as a product is ‘digitized’ by additive manufacturing, human experience can also become digital. Thanks to the use of multi-sensory virtual reality technologies, the emotional and psychological impact of food on the human mind and well-being can be studied, understood, and modelled by creating a digital twin or Human Digital Twins—a virtual copy that reproduces our behaviours.

“The possibility of generating and using Human Digital Twins to develop innovative solutions for the production and consumption of food in space is currently only a suggestion,” says Napoletano. “But thanks to these digital models, we can study the experience in a more ‘solid’ and replicable way, to better understand it but also to make predictions about how its food-related characteristics (quality, possibility of sharing or preparation) will influence the emotional component of eating, in order to perfect and customize the machines entrusted with the ‘construction’ of the experience itself.”

Hoping they are better than Adams’ Nutri-Matic machine, which in the end served everyone a cup of liquid that was “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”

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