This project is solving the Print Your Own Space Food challenge. Description
Food is around 70 - 90% water. Dry ingredients are relatively low mass compared to prepared foods, and water can be recycled, harvested from asteroids, retrieved as a by-product of hydrogen fuel burning, or gained in other ways. The key food nutrients and taste essentials are comparatively low volume and mass. A far larger, and more varying supply of food could be provided while boosting minimal mass from Earth's gravity well if the essential ingredients were stored and combined creatively with water as needed. Also, any waste food can be dehydrated and the water recovered, and then used to make more food.
Miniaturized food growing plants in space are certainly a sensible option for long missions, such as going to Mars, but no one is going to suggest that we have wheat fields or sugar cane fields in a space ship, nor are they suggesting that we ship chickens or cows. Yet, flour, sugar, dehydrated eggs and milk, could be shipped. In dehydrated form, sealed in light-fast, airtight containers, these foods could have a very long shelf life at room temperature. Shipping the dry main ingredients for most baked goods and sauces, plus spices and flavorings, would provide missing elements in an astronaut’s diet to nicely complement space plant grown food. Some shortcake with your strawberries, no problem. You want some croutons and ranch dressing with your space grown salad greens? How about nice, fresh bread and some mayo for your avocado and sprout sandwich? The replicator has got you covered.
Tea, Earl Grey, Hot. Yup, you can have that, too.
We came up with a design for a mechanical device driven by an application that would track food ingredients, food consumption, and nutrient needs, create a wide variety of fresh, delicious food as needed, and give astronauts a good option for maintaining health on long term space missions.
How it works: Our basic concept is to store dry ingredients, or possibly some small quantities of liquid or paste forms if that is more sensible. Vanilla extract would probably make more sense as a liquid, while salt would likely make more sense dry. Baking soda would definitely be used, not yeast, to avoid contamination risks and the challenges of keeping yeast alive. (Baking soda at low atmospheric pressures produces a lot of fluff in baked goods.) All of these ingredients would be stored in sealed, airtight containers to avoid oxygen or moisture contamination.
The application interface would show the available options to the astronaut based on that astronaut’s general preferences, nutritional needs, and the ingredients available. The astronaut would choose what they want, such as a pancake.
The ingredients for a pancake in the exact measurements needed would be injected into an enclosed chamber, water added, the ingredients mixed, and then the interior surface of the chamber heated up to a specified temperature for a specified amount of time.
When done, the chamber could be opened by the astronaut, a hot, fresh pancake removed and eaten, probably with a small amount of buttery sauce or maple flavored syrup which could be mixed and dispensed from a different cooking chamber.
The chamber would be closed again and flushed with water to clean the mixing and cooking surfaces. The wash water would be vacuumed into the water reclamation system for recycling.
This system could be used to make many different kinds of baked goods, sauces and such from a relatively limited set of ingredients. The base ingredients of most baked goods are remarkably similar, flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, etc.
In addition, if some of the cooking chambers had the ability to chill foods, cold or hot drinks, smoothies, milkshakes, and even ice cream, gelato or sherbet could be made with the same machine.
One of the advantages of 3-D printing technology in space is that it eliminates the need to ship many items that may or may not be needed, and instead, allows raw materials to be shipped. Only the specific item desired created when needed. This eliminates the need to boost mass for unneeded items, and allows a far more vast range of possible items to be available. Applying this to food, we considered that no one really knows what food they might wish to consume months ahead of time. Many different foods can be made from the same basic ingredients, water plus flour, baking soda, egg, milk, etc. All of those ingredients can be stored for a very long time in sealed containers at room temperature when dehydrated. This allows the particular food item desired to be chosen and made at the exact moment that the astronaut is hungry. No waste. Lots of options. Fresh-made food.
Modern drink machines no longer store hundreds of cans of a few different types of soda, with the manufacturer's best guess as to what sodas will sell in that location. Instead, they store a large amount of carbonated and un-carbonated water, and many small containers of various flavors. The interface shows the many options available with the ingredients stored, and the user gets to select exactly what they want, whether that's vanilla-flavored ginger ale, or cherry lemonade. The old way could never have handled that level of variety. This system allows for far less waste, far more variety, and very easy re-fill of just the flavors that are in need of refilling, through a cartridge-based system. Pop out an empty cartridge, pop in a full, hermetically sealed one. In the meantime, if a flavor is empty, that option will not appear in the interface as a choice. We took both the flexible, user friendly interface concept and the canister system concept from the drink machines.
The IBM Watson recipe recommender (link in references) stores a list of what ingredients are available and recommends a recipe that would make good use of those ingredients. With a database filled with ingredients, constantly updated as the ingredients get used, a list of available food options could be displayed to the astronaut. When the astronaut makes a choice, the instructions passed to the machine would be very much like a recipe. Amount – ingredient, Amount – ingredient, … Temperature – Time.
Advantage: The psychological impact of having just what you want made hot and fresh, whether it's pancakes with syrup in the morning, or a chocolate banana coconut smoothie, could be huge. All sorts of studies have been done on the impact of good, fresh food on morale. Getting to choose exactly what you want and getting it fresh-made at that moment would be a best case scenario for astronaut morale.
Advantage: There would be very little food waste, since people would be able to specify exactly what they wanted to eat at that moment, and exactly how much. Food would be prepared in single serving portions to be consumed immediately.
Advantage: Nutritional value could be calculated and tracked by the application. If astronauts are not consuming enough B vitamins, for example, extra B vitamins could be added to virtually any recipe. Vitamin D and other bone retention vitamins could easily be included in recipes. If sodium intakes are too high, foods could be made with reduced salt. All without the astronaut having to worry or do anything special.
Advantage: Densely nutritious, but not very tasty foods, like spirulina that are relatively easy to produce under space conditions, could be mixed with other, more flavorful foods to have tasty results with boosted nutritional value.
Advantage: Food storage containers are a high source of waste mass, but are currently necessary for maintaining pre-prepared food over time. Storing ingredients in modular bulk containers would vastly reduce packaging mass, while providing the same sealed food protection.
Advantage: People’s sense of taste tends to be affected by the congestion and other physiological changes that occur in space. The ability to choose what you wish to eat at that moment, and adjust to match changed preferences, is a big advantage. Meal plans chosen on the ground pre-launch may not appeal when it comes time to eat them.
Advantage: A custom option could be provided for astronauts to modify existing recipes, add a bit more spice, cut back on the sugar, add more of a favorite ingredient, whatever they would like. This could help keep variety and interest in the diet.
Advantage: Celebratory or holiday foods could be included in the recipe database and offered specifically on particular dates. Chocolate cupcake on your birthday. Turkey flavored stuffing and pumpkin spice bread or pudding on Thanksgiving.
Advantage: Astronauts tend not to consume enough calories in space. The food replicator is especially good at providing fresh baked goods and other high calorie foods that are particularly appetizing when just prepared. Hot, fresh biscuits dripping with honey butter or gravy, cupcakes with icing, etc. Tempting astronauts with fresh baked bread that makes the entire ISS smell like heaven seems like a very good way to encourage more calorie consumption.
Advantage: Astronauts tend to be very busy in space and not have time to spend preparing food. Part of the reason astronauts don’t consume as many calories as would be good for them is that their schedules tend to be very full. The food replicator would prepare all food automatically. Astronauts make their choices then go on with their business until their food is ready to be eaten.
Advantage: Currently, astronauts must do a food log to track what they eat. Not necessary if the food replicator could track their food consumption. Only if they did not eat what was made, or if they ate something else would they have to log it.
Possible modification: Allow fresh or new ingredients to be added and logged in the database. There should be a way to weigh and track any food not eaten, or additional food consumed, so the database is kept up to date. If the mini strawberry plants produce fresh strawberries, no reason why an astronaut couldn’t add a few to a banana-flavored smoothie to make it strawberry banana. It would be good if the database could track the additional calories and nutrients. Currently, astronauts do a food log. This would take the place of that, and be more detailed and accurate.
Possible modification: Maybe add a coating of butter, or other appropriate gooey topping as a standard last step on crumbly foods (syrup, icing, gravy, sauce, etc.) to reduce the crumb factor.
Possible modification: This system might be paired with a wearable that could monitor bone density, sugar levels, etc. The information could be fed back to the database, and the database could adjust recipes accordingly to address the problem.
Possible modification: If there was any possibility of bacterial contamination, a UV light could be added to mixing or cooking chambers to make absolutely certain the food was safe for consumption.
One thing to watch: Careful dispensing of ingredients from individual containers would be necessary to keep air from contaminating the ingredients. A lot of design attention would need to be paid to the valves or airlock or other way that dry ingredients are dispensed to make sure the ingredients are not contaminated.
License: MIT license (MIT)
I've Got The Ingredients. What Should I Cook? Ask IBM's Watson - http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/10/27/359302540/ive-got-the-ingredients-what-should-i-cook-ask-ibms-watson
Space Travel and Nutrition - http://www.faqs.org/nutrition/Smi-Z/Space-Travel-and-Nutrition.html
Nutrition in Space - http://ftcsc.ag.iastate.edu/media/anderson.pdf