Science lab spotlight

What’s it like to design a meal that floats?

Taking a taste of the sensory research of Space Exploration Initiative’s Maggie Coblentz

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Coblentz uses her space food helmet and glove box for spherification during the zero gravity flight.
Courtesy of Maggie Coblentz

Just a few of the many harsh awakenings I’ve had during my time here on Earth: The tooth fairy is fake, climate change is real, and space food is not as pretty as pop culture makes it seem.

Stardust-sprinkled luminescent orbs and Dua Lipa-infused cotton candy are replaced with the reality of vacuum-sealed hunks of dehydrated meat and powdered stews. Today’s space food focuses on practicality over aesthetics, but behind what might look like forensic evidence lies meticulous engineering. Shelf stability, nutrition content, mass minimization for transport, and ease of consumability in a zero gravity-environment are some issues carefully considered by NASA’s food scientists. It’s a wondrous feat of engineering that, in the lifeless void of space, astronauts can still enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, albeit made with a tortilla instead of fluffy bread. (Like the ultimate neat freak, NASA doesn’t allow bread on space missions because it can make crumbs that can cause significant damage to equipment and human lungs as they float around.)

Given that we acknowledge the world-class science that goes into the development of these space foods, let’s set aside our table manners for a moment. What happens to astronauts when dinners, normally served off plates here on Earth, are instead squirted from shriveled plastic packages fitted with sphincters and tubes? When the movement and music of cooking is replaced with the injection of warm water into said packages? To answer simply, the astronauts are relatively okay; none have passed away due to food-induced insanity. But food and the customs around eating it are anything but simple. What is lost when traditional sound, sight, and smell are largely removed from their eating experiences?

What can be gained if, instead of warm water, the space food experience is injected with Earthly traditions or wholly new rituals?

Maggie Coblentz believes that by designing novel space food rituals, astronauts will not just be able to survive in space, but thrive there as well. For many, food is intimately tied with identity and emotion — it is even psychoactive. In Coblentz’s research at the MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative, she wonders how the power of food can be leveraged to improve the wellbeing of astronauts, with the potential to revolutionize their space lives and hopefully their research. As the future propels us towards a new era of exploration and tourism beyond Earth, these inquiries become ever-more timely and pertinent. 

Coblentz’s path to the Media Lab began without any connection to space or food. Out of college, Coblentz started her own jewelry company. While she loved making wearable fashion pieces, she yearned to tap into her problem-solving skills. She left her company and obtained a master’s degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). It was Coblentz’s love for design and cooking, coupled with her childhood camping trips, that led her to write her thesis on space food and other extreme environments.

“I grew up in Canada doing a lot of canoe tripping. Part of my role was planning all the menus with the limited resources that we had to carry with us,” Coblentz reminisces. She began to wonder how food functions in environments outside of the domestic kitchen, bringing people together without a traditional set of tools.

Today, Coblentz’s job description is “space sensory experience researcher.” When I ask her what this entails, she clarifies that she’s not a food scientist, although her work does include creating recipes and food preparation techniques. “My work is leveraging the amazing science that’s already happening. We have this food that will already help us survive, but what is the sensory and holistic experience that surrounds that, that can elevate it to a different degree?”

Coblentz has explored the influential power of virtual reality in the eating experience. During her time at RISD, she ran a blind wine-tasting event where participants tasted the same wine while looking at two virtual reality scenes — one of a lush Earth landscape and the other on Mars. Participants believed the wines were different depending on the scene they viewed, emphasizing the notion that food will feel significantly different on another planet. “If we understand the impact of different settings, we can design for it,” says Coblentz.

Coblentz ran another virtual reality workshop, hosted by the Space Exploration Initiative, with International Space Station (ISS) astronauts Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli. The astronauts visited their hometowns on Google Earth, honing in on their grandmothers’ houses and elementary schools as they ate an apple. While an apple may seem mundane, the particular food item was not Coblentz’s focus. Instead, she wondered, if you were on the ISS or in a space habitat far away from home for months or years, how would it feel to be able to eat your freeze-dried pizza while virtually visiting your favorite pizzeria in your village in your Italian hometown? Would it make you feel more connected? “There are a lot of space missions here on Earth doing similar experiments, not necessarily with food. There is power in virtual reality to reduce anxiety and depression,” she asserts.

Half of Coblentz’s research is solving near-term goals for astronauts, like her project on space fermentation to promote astronauts’ gut health and microbiome. The other half of her research is “a little bit down the line,” as she puts it, peering into what the future of space tourism might possess. In August 2019, Coblentz tasted such a future when she adorned a “space food helmet” whilst on a flight in simulated zero gravity chartered by the Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative. The helmet acted as an immersive floating “restaurant-for-one” where Coblentz enjoyed a multi-course menu that she fit with a lazy Susan so that the food could rotate around, aromas pumped inside, and one day it could even include video projections for a fully immersive experience. Inspired by a glovebox, she crafted the avant garde fishbowl-like helmet with two iris openings so that she could put her hands inside while preventing items from floating out.

A multi-sensory experience was an elegantly terrestrial prelude to her meal. Coblentz listened to the sound of onions frying and filled the helmet with the scent of mirepoix and sautéed garlic and onions — a custom aroma made in collaboration with the International Flavor and Fragrances. “I created this immersive kitchen environment that you would not typically have in space to see whether that would increase appetite through the anticipation of a meal.”

The snack-and-sail experience began with the adage of a champagne toast, consumed in popping candy-form instead of from a crystal flute. Because carbonated beverages are not recommended in space due to how they interact with the body, Coblentz wanted to capture a similar staccato sensation with the candy. “I’m trying to break apart all the rituals of eating. What makes it feel celebratory?” The texture, the fizz, the sounds, the tradition — recreating that for the context of space was Coblentz’s mission.

The champagne was followed with homemade algae “caviar,” made via spherification, offering a fresh sensation of bursting, contrasting the mushy, uniform texture signature to many space foods. The space caviar looks like a collection of fragile, miniature Earths, paying homage to the feeling of astonishment astronauts often experience when looking back at our pale blue dot of a planet.

Coblentz also brought along her “silicon bones,” a food utensil that she created to emulate the primeval experience of gnawing the remnants and gritty bits of food. She coated the bones in miso paste as a precursor for a future project where her team is sending miso to the ISS to see how umami flavors evolve with fermentation. Due to shifting bodily fluids in space, flavors become muted, like eating with a severe cold. Now imagine that experience lasting for months on end on space missions. Incorporating the strong flavor profile of umami into dishes might help make food more palatable in space.

Coblentz thinks that while it’s quite unlikely that a future astronaut will wear such a helmet on mission, the project was of concept and springboard for unlocking the possibilities of zero gravity sensory modalities. “Perhaps astronauts will use their own headphones to listen to food because they often suffer from loss of appetite,” Coblentz postulates.

Coblentz also used her limited time on the zero gravity flight to attempt making the algae caviar spheres. She injected a prepared syringe of liquid within a drop of the calcium solution, then fished out the polymerized ball from the floating “bath” — an inception remix on the spherification process. “I’m coining this ‘anti-plating’: thinking of new ways of plating food where you don’t need a flat surface,” Coblentz says. “It can be spherical, or a 3D shape where you could put food on all different sides. Imagine having your salad dressing on the inside as a sphere, and then the lettuce on the outside.”

The zero gravity flight isn’t actually zero gravity. It is actually parabolic, where zero gravity is experienced just at the peak of the parabola, for roughly 17 seconds. In between the peaks of zero gravity, there is hypergravity where the aircraft accelerates quickly. Before the flight, Coblentz prepared for the swift pacing constraint by running through the spherification process on Earth like a drill. Each step was written down, even actions like “pick up the syringe.” While hypergravity unfortunately squished the caviar, the experience was like no other for Coblentz.

While taking a Willy Wonka-meets-extraterrestrial-science approach to space food design is both beautiful and intriguing, some people question whether food is really anything more than fuel. Can’t astronauts adapt to subpar eating experiences, just as they militantly adapt to living in a floating box, albeit a very fancy box?

Coblentz acknowledges that not everyone likes food and admits that the importance of food in one’s life is highly subjective, but its tremendous influence on emotions, behavior, and cognitive performance isn’t to be overlooked. Coblentz’s passionate belief in the importance of crafting rich food cultures places her work as the antithesis of Soylent-like products. Ready-to-go and all-in-one meals are the epitome of the modernist North American pursuit of efficiency, uniformity and optimization. “Although Soylent has succeeded in creating a community in and of itself, is this the community and future that we desire?” A similar question can be asked about space food.

Recognizing the steep barrier to entry in ideating the future of space food, Coblentz is also in the process of creating an open-source interplanetary cookbook, where she hopes to collect recipes and eating tools for life in space from the public. In democratizing humanity’s space future, she asserts that hearing from a plethora of perspectives that different communities and cultures have to offer is a must.

“Taste is often the last sense experienced in a meal. All of the senses must be considered when designing food and eating experiences,” Coblentz states. At our next meal, perhaps we can all put on our Coblentz hats. No, you don’t need a space food helmet. What I mean is, imagine what your meal would be like if it were to be eaten within a helmet with irises or while floating, if it were made without access to a gas stove, thousands of miles away from the scents of paper grocery bags and frying spices, if it were enjoyed in a capsule surrounded by the orange-red dust of Mars. What habits would be transposed, what rituals lost, what customs newly developed? Food customs reflect our value systems, and Coblentz’s work reflects a hope for a space food future that promotes social interaction, emotional health, and connection in the isolating backdrop of the space void.