Italian aerospace engineering firm Argotec has spent the past several months developing better food for space-dwellers.
Most of the food consumed by astronauts on the International Space Station is prepared by NASA or the Russian Space Agency.
Meals come in squeeze bottles and bags; crumbs and drips could be deadly if they floated into delicate machinery in the zero-gravity environment.
Nutrition is guaranteed, but satisfaction … not so much.
Living on the ISS is stressful—after all it is a tiny metal can 220 miles (350 km) above Earth; and, it can be lonely. With only six crewman aboard, astronauts might not see each other all day. Meal times might be the only time they meet.
After a long deployment away from family and friends, something as small as a favorite meal takes on major importance.
Argotec offers what are called bonus meals: space-ready versions of astronauts’ favorites, for that occasional gustatory—and psychological—boost.
Argotec has developed lasagna for Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, and also a dish of highly seasoned chicken, brown rice, and vegetables.
The company cooked up space-tiramisu for another Italian crew member, Luca Parmitano. They whipped up an orbital espresso machine for astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.
“Knowing how difficult it is for people (astronauts) to live and work very far away from home—but most of all in narrow, confined spaces, we’ve tried to come up with an idea to contribute to their well-being, their daily well-being. So we’ve started this new line that’s about space food research and development,” said David Avino, Argotec’s managing director.
“I can show off a little bit in space, inviting my colleagues to taste something that I really deem to be really representative of the Italian culture, of the Italian flavor, of the Italian way of life,” Nespoli said while serving his special lasagna to his fellow flyers.
Preparing food for space is not as simple as cooking on Earth. All food has to be either freeze-dried or thermostabilized—all the ingredients sealed in a plastic pouch and cooked together to kill all bacteria and break down enzymes which might cause decay.
Meat has to be irradiated, and most of the moisture has to be removed from anything else, to prevent rot.
Preserving flavor under those conditions can be difficult—and with a limited choice of menu items, meal time can become monotonous very quickly. Astronauts regularly swap their plastic pouches, seeking a bit of variety.
Argotec has been providing engineering support for the ISS since 2008. In that time they saw what a difference a favorite meal might make.
Argotec has recently branched out into the terrestrial nutrition market, with its line of Ready To Lunch space-meal packages available to consumers here on Earth.