Sunday, June 29, 2014

Space Food

A company for the manufacture and distribution of space foodstuffs.

Within the next ten years a permanent commercial human population will be established in orbit and beyond. But how will these people be supported. An entire industry based upon the needs of these space residents and tourists will need to be created.

Food will be the most difficult consumable to supply to these space communities. People can live with stale air and recycled water but food has to be an experience filled with flavor  as well as nutrition. But creating something that meets those two criteria while, ideally, having a shelf life of months, without refrigeration, is a tall order. In the old days salted pork with an occasional orange was considered a complete meal, our more civilized society must create something better for our explorers.

Food in space has been a challenge that even NASA has not  met yet. While they have learned to freeze, vacuum seal, irradiate, and store food so that much of it will not spoil on a long trip, and even still have some flavor, there are some foods which we take for granted on earth that are considered  delicacies in orbit because they simply can’t be prepared or obtained in space. Baking bread is a supreme challenge which isn't completely solved.

All the deficiencies in the cuisine of the Void are opportunities. Food is something that is easily redesigned and adapted while also having infinite possibilities and potential. And the best part is the products are needed today and not only in space but right here at home.

Many facets of the space food industry exist. The potential for space gardens and specific tools for accomplishing the kind of culinary feats that are possible on Earth are all applicable, but for the purposes of this post we will focus on the opportunity for providing prepackaged food that is meant to be a meal “practically” ready to eat in orbit.

Here in the early days of the space industry which is heavily focused on tourism and government contracts the food will have to be of a special kind of hybrid. It will have to provide a pleasurable experience that is unique to space but also contain the nutrition to allow someone to live off of it. This will require that a space food manufacturer create an initial product that is almost nostalgic, the kind of freeze dried and in a toothpaste tube that tourists would expect on a trip so that they can feel like their image of astronauts. But this paste would still be something that someone who isn't  just in space to visit can live off of.

In order to cut on costs it would likely be something along the lines of a paste or solid bar that can be shaped and formed into whatever the customer needs. So just like ice cream, where you can use vanilla as a base for chocolate or strawberry, this Space Paste would contain all the nutrition a person needs but could be flavored and shaped into whatever the customer wants. Soylent is a current product that very nearly meets this criteria.

Such a product would also need to deal with yet another problem brought on by space food, boredom. How many people can say that they love to eat oatmeal morning noon and night. Food is something that adds excitement and interest to our lives. A space food that can be practical, in that is can be packed stored and provide nutrition, but also fills the human need for change and diversity in flavor, is exactly what is needed today. 

Fortunately, unlike so much of the space industry, the technology and products developed for space food will not trickle down to be used in the earth food industry as so many space developments are claimed to do. It would, instead, be immediately and directly marketable without having to redesign any part of it. Imagine extremely dense nutritional supplements that are able to be packed and stored for years while remaining light weight. Such products could be loaded into disaster relief trucks or into hiking backpacks. Any company that produces such wears would not have to depend solely upon the space industry to sustain itself.

The competition in space food will be fierce. While food designed for space is applicable on Earth, the reverse is also true to some extent. After all it would not take a great deal of effort for brand name protein bars and supplements to be customized for space.  And the infinite variation of food doesn't allow for much protection through intellectual property. But a small start-up can certainly gain ground by moving now and gaining contracts with the rising private launch companies , with paying customers who want their space peanuts during the flight.

A company dedicated to space food would be something that would certainly be able to diversify. While an initial product would want to be a catch-all design, all further developments could  range from old style toothpaste tubes of peanut butter to the creation of the most advanced recipes and cooking equipment anyone has ever seen. Really, the creation of food in space is one of the most difficult pieces of chemistry that anyone has ever had to undertake.

The market for space food has existed for some time. Space museums and other tourist traps have long provided freeze dried cuisine just like the astronaut used to make. In the actual industry the government space agencies have been the only providers of TV dinners fit for the space station. This won’t continue to be sufficient. Human traffic is only going to increase and NASA is continuing to lose their budget and is not prepared for food production in large quantities. Just as new launch vehicle providers need someone to make spacesuits they need someone to cook meals. It can and needs to be done today, and even if it means freeze drying your favorite smoothie blend, it would better than what the industry has available now.

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