Food is a symbol of cultural exchange,
even in space

astronaut, Naoko Yamazaki

Ajinomoto Co., Inc. newly established the Consumer Data Analysis & Business Creation Dept. in the spring of 2018. Its mission is to make the future of food enjoyable. In this series of FUTURE FOOD TALK, we shall look together at the different paths we should be taking by talking to people in different fields about the future of food.

As space travel and manned flight to Mars slowly becomes more of a reality, how will living in space affect the future of our food? Astronaut Naoko Yamazaki talks about the value of the dining table as a place of cultural exchange that doesn’t change, even out there in space.

Over 300 different types of space food

Ms. Yamazaki: Where I work in the field of space, food is important. It’s continually evolving. Space food is made up of cuisines from all over the world, with over 300 different kinds. There are dozens of Japanese space foods in lots of different varieties. When you think of space food you might imagine it to be something special, but because food that is good for space can also be used as emergency food in times of disaster or as preserved food, it’s actually not as strange as you first think.

Astronauts will try the food beforehand and choose their favorites, planning a week’s breakfast, lunch and dinner with the help of a nutritionist. When I went into space I brought with me some Japanese food like white rice, some curry roux and instant ramen as well as some yokan (azuki-bean jelly) and candy. I heard that Japanese curry tastes really good in space, and for me it’s the best food. We didn’t have much time for desserts during missions so it was useful to have something that could be eaten quickly.

Tests are taking place to produce sustainable food in the spacecraft.

Meals in space are currently made up of supplies from Earth. We are living in an artificial environment, like the spacecraft, with replenishments being sent to us. When I went into space I really understood that humans can’t survive without food.

However, the International Space Station (ISS) is also working on recycling, trying to become self-sufficient. For instance, urine collected in the toilet is distilled, sterilized and turned into drinking water. This is what I actually drank. Even in the air, carbon dioxide is chemically absorbed and recycled back to oxygen.

We are also working on ways to eat sustainably on a spacecraft. Some kinds of vegetables have started to be grown on board. Things like lettuce are grown using hydroponics and grow well enough to be eaten.

What we learn in space can also help us with our lives here on Earth. The spacecraft uses LED lights for plant photosynthesis, and vegetables are grown under a strange reddish violet light so that photosynthesis can take place more efficiently. Lettuce can grow 3 times faster than it does on Earth. The results of these kinds of experiments in space can be used for farming on Earth in the future.

We’re growing plants and vegetables in space that aren’t really related to our missions but we’re more than happy to do it. The inside of the spacecraft is a very inorganic, artificial environment. There aren’t any naturally growing plants or trees, no natural wafts of air. The air is recycled through an air conditioner. So in this kind of environment I’m really happy to get the chance to work with living things. I even find myself saying “good morning” to the plants and vegetables as I walk past them.

Meals in the spacecraft are a time for cultural exchange

Mr. Okamoto: What’s the dining table experience like in space with crew members from different countries around the world?

Ms. Yamazaki: The spacecraft is completely weightless inside so there aren’t any chairs. The dining table scene is pretty unique to space where you’ll see astronauts hanging from the ceiling, trying to stabilize themselves as while they eat.

Mr. Sato: Yeah, I guess chairs aren’t needed.

Ms. Yamazaki: There never was a dining table originally. Especially in the mornings and at lunch times, everyone is busy so they just have a quick meal. But at dinner time it’s become kind of a tradition to eat together and people say that it’d be a bit more relaxed if there was a table to sit at for dinner. One of the first ISS crew made their own table from things they had in the spacecraft and it’s still being used today.

When you eat food together with other people even in space it tastes good. I remember that someone said it was really quite moving to be eating food a little bit away from Earth with other people from different countries all around the same dining table. There’s a lot to talk about when astronauts from different countries share their own space food from home so I feel like food is a catalyst for cultural exchange.

Mr. Okamoto: You’ve really made me think about what the dining table means. What kind of reaction did you get when you served Japanese food to the other astronauts?

Ms. Yamazaki: Well, everyone was really happy when I brought out the hand-rolled sushi. After talking with Soichi Noguchi, who’d been in space a long time, we made hand-rolled sushi for everyone from the Japanese food I brought with me. We were able to put it together with some preserved food from the Showa (research) Station in Antarctica to make red bream boiled in soy sauce and Japanese omelet. I’ve got good memories of sitting with everyone eating the food.

Learning and experiencing things together through meals, thinking about the future of the Earth and what it has, even if it does sound a bit exaggerated. I think one of the easiest ways of doing this is through food. That’s how I feel from spending time in space.

Naoko Yamazaki
Born in Chiba Prefecture, Yamazaki was on board Space Shuttle Discovery in 2010, engaging in the International Space Station (ISS) Assembly and Supplies Mission STS-131. Since her resignation from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2011, she has served as a member of the Cabinet Space Policy Committee, Representative Director of Space Port Japan, a Director of the Japanese Rocket Society and Chair of its Sorajo Committee, Adviser to the Young Astronauts Club (YAC), and the Sora Tourism Council, among other titles. She is the author of How to Study to Be an Astronaut (Chuokoron-Shinsha) and other books.
Tatsuya Okamoto
Ajinomoto Co., Inc. Corporate Executive Officer
Ken Sato
Ajinomoto Co., Inc. General Manager, New Business Creation Group
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