Space food one giant leap for ramen makers

by Atsuko Kawaguchi

Kyodo News

Japan is set to start supplying new food to the International Space Station next year, including ramen, curry and rice, and mackerel cooked in miso.

They are all on the list of 28 Japanese space food items approved last year by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which wanted to include not only traditional meals but also normal household fare.

Russia and the United States are the only nations providing food out of the 15 countries taking part in the construction of the ISS, a project begun in 1998 and scheduled for completion in 2010. Japan is in charge of building the manned experiment module named Kibo.

The regular menu is repeated over a cycle of a little more than two weeks, which prompted some astronauts to call for more variety. Those aboard the ISS either for a long stay or on a short assignment have breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack daily.

One day in June, 10 astronauts, including Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide, 39, gathered for an evening meal aboard the ISS. Some had spent seven hours engaging in extravehicular activity. Silver, transparent packs of space food were pasted to the table to keep them from floating around in zero gravity.

Three of the 10 were U.S. and Russian astronauts on an extended stay aboard the ISS. The remaining seven had come on board the space shuttle Discovery. The astronauts reached for their favorite edibles, including beef stew and mashed potatoes.

Shoichi Tachibana, chief of JAXA’s health-management team, said: “Space food is the ultimate preserved food. There are quite a few limitations to prepare it. The foods can’t be put together without sufficient skills.”

One challenge, he said, was to make food that could be kept at room temperature for long periods of time without a refrigerator.

Tachibana, 52, said space food consists of freeze-dried items eaten by rehydrating with hot water, and provisions packed in retorts and cans. They are considerably different from food on Earth, he said.

The synthetic resin packs used to contain space food are designed to endure changes in pressure and temperature. The openings are made of silicone rubber, which helps protect the package when hot liquids are injected by needle.

Astronauts drink beverages and soup directly from the packs. Although they can eat solid food with a spoon, it must be sufficiently glutinous to prevent it from scattering in zero gravity.

Researchers at the central research office of Nissin Food Products Co. in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, had no place to turn to when their founder, the late Momofuku Ando, declared in 2001 that the ramen inventor’s next goal was to develop noodles for astronauts.

Shinji Matsuo, chief of food development, recalled his first reaction to the statement: “Initially, my image of space food was that it was in a tube.”

After trial and error, researchers devised a way to make bite-size balls of ramen that could be coated with egg white to preserve their spherical shape even when rehydrated and prevent them from scattering.

The technique was based on a ramen-making patent Nissin already held.

The problem of preserving ramen at room temperature was overcome by using opaque packs to shut out light.

Matsuo, 48, said it wasn’t remarkable that Nissin’s space food received approval from JAXA because Nissin has “the accumulation of history of 50 years for ramen and the technique of making things.”

The price of Japanese space food ranges from ¥1,000 to ¥4,000 per item because they are order-made.

A JAXA official said the technology of making food for astronauts “could be utilized on the ground” too feed the bed-ridden or people with osteoporosis.