Fact: Humans need food and water to survive. On Earth as in space. Yet you don’t often find talks of food in science fiction – a passing mention at best and pills are often used – while finding and preparing food in space or, worse, on another planet would present rather a crucial challenge to explorers.
Space food has made a lot of progress since the dry freeze stuff they used to feed the Apollo guys with but food on board the International Space Station (ISS) still has to come largely out of pre-cooked/frozen microwaveable meals in pouches that can be sucked at, for reasons of microgravity. Chefs have been called upon to prepare Christmas or New Year’s Eve special meals for the Station but they still come mostly in that easy to eat format. Some adventurous astronauts do try cooking – most of them are scientists to some degree or another so enjoy twisting their brains over a problem – but the experiment is still not part of their daily exercise problem, possibly because they do have easy access to supplies from Earth. And yet cooking in space presents a real challenge and one that must be tackled for human exploration missions.
So you send your heroes on a deep space mission. Far away from home and its comfort. What could be better for the soul – and stomach – than the perfect dish of pasta?
Let’s explore the recipe: what does it take?
Well. How about pasta itself? No worries there, the astronauts (in particular if some of the crew are Italian) would have smuggled the right stuff in the luggage allocation, along with the required amount of salt. Terrestrial proven shapes might not be adequate for space use but let’s get back to that later, as our cooking heroes are faced with the biggest challenge of all: Cooking the pasta.
Check the instructions on the packet. They require that your astronauts bring a large amount of water to a boil.
First problem: Where will they get those three or four litres of water from?
The ISS (and any other spacecraft of your choice, in particular if bearing human or humanoid creatures) does carry water supply for drinking. However, for long term missions, the volume of stock available is not sufficient and therefore most waste water from urine and moisture condensed from the air (coming from simple human breathing) is purified and reused.
Do your heroes really want to cook their pasta in this? There are little viable alternatives: Yes, there is ice on a lot of planets – or fluids in the Orion Nebula – but who knows what this might contain as micro-particles, nutrients, germs or alien life – or if it is in fact made of water at all – so the recycled fluids solution might be the safest bet. In fact, your would-be-cooks’ problem might be more one dealing with taste as purified water is rather bland and totally deprived of any nutrient, and your adventurers might need to add extra salt, if not whole series of minerals to bring the water back to a normal state and nutritional value.
Second problem: Bringing the water to a boil. Which spells playing around with tools but more important still, playing with ambient parameters.
Cooking anything on some planets is nearly impossible: Don’t bring a gas cooker to Saturn; with a 97% hydrogen atmosphere, you’d end up blowing up quite a large chunk of the galaxy – and think about the resulting embarrassment… (or do it and enjoy the aftermath)
If you think a gas cooker is a little cartoonistic an approach, do remember that any electrostatic/electromagnetic discharge in such flammable environment might set it ablaze. So do think your equipment accordingly.
Moreover, on the ISS, another spacecraft, or on the surface of a planet, the astronauts will often suffer from an instance of partial or total microgravity. Or, in some cases, be crushed by atmospheric pressure.
A litre of water on Earth has a boiling point of 100°C (212°F) at sea level atmospheric pressure (about 1 bar) but any changes in the pressure will affect this: a lower figure would mean a longer time needed to reach the boiling point while higher pressure will increase the speed accordingly.
If and when the water is finally boiling (don’t rush it – try to boil water on Mars, with an ambient pressure of 0.007 and an mean surface temperature of minus 63°C might well take you ages – Get some snacks for your cooks while they wait), the heroes will be required to throw in a handful of coarse salt and then the pasta. Well. That’s what mama’s recipe is saying but should they try to open the container in microgravity environment they’d have to start chasing their randomly moving boiling water about. Unless the action is taking place on Venus, where they wouldn’t probably left with much between the effects of the average temperature (482°C – Cool your water to boiling temperature) and that of the enormous pressure (92 bars! Do your cooks have a cooking pan/container that can withstand this? Never mind about it being non-stick, they’d have to scrape the fluids from within the metal work…).
As an afterthought, maybe it would be easier for them to chuck the pasta and salt together with the cold water at the start and use some sort of autoclave. Of course the discerning gourmet would have the trouble of checking the al dente status of the food but a few months on the same planet (or the same orbit) should allow for plenty of trials and errors. In particular as far as errors as concerned. To the point where your astronaut might be out of pasta (there are limitations to the amount each astronaut is allowed to take along – just like on a low cost flight, actually) and suffer from acute depression.
Sauce? You can’t have pasta without sauce. Well, the good news is that sauce can easily be provided via those standard frozen space food pouches. The tricky bit being the actual mixing of pasta and sauce together. Possibly – again – you’ll need to cook the elements together. It can be done, some earthy apparatus are already achieving this feat of engineering. It needs a good steering mechanism as microgravity will not necessarily let the elements mingle and stick together, although humidity might help. New pasta designs might have to be derived, to allow more sauce gathering and keeping.
And then your valiant cooking explorers will be left with the last step: eat their hardly deserved dish of pasta. Chasing the dish about in microgravity could make interesting scenes. Is someone playing “The Blue Danube”, yet? But whatever you plan them do next, avoid the temptation of a food fight. Gravity and air resistance/drag would completely take all the fun out of it. And besides, your astronauts have had way too much trouble to prepare that simple dish already to be wanting to waste it thus…
Last minute: Weirdly enough, while I was going the last edits on this, the European Space Agency published this video on food and space: