The First Restaurant in Space will be Lousy

I work in a building that has very few windows.   On top of that, the windows it does have run floor to ceiling and therefore do not open.   This latter fact is rarely brought up, though, as windows of that type are not expected to open. However, the environmental limitations of a closed system like that became particularly clear today as I prepared my lunch.  Intending to pan-fry some zucchini, I preheated a pan.   Realizing that I’d forgotten to put the oil in before heating it, I drizzled some olive oil into the cooking vessel before attempting to dump in the sliced fruit.  This was a mistake, as I quickly realized the pan was heated up well past the smoke point of the oil. The department’s small galley-style kitchen immediately filled with smoke which poured out into the office area, acting as a mild irritant to the people working in the office. (My apologies, if you’re reading this, ladies of the administration.)   Amazingly, the smoke alarm did not go off, for which I am thankful (as it would have rather inconvenienced the whole building).   The residual haze that lingered for the next quarter-hour, however, made me realize that cooking in a closed environment is lousy.

This is not to say that it isn’t done all the time. Ships’ galleys are usually fairly contained, but ventillation there is still a possibility, which is why cruise ships can serve fancy meals that require preparations that will inevitably produce smoke. Submarines and airplanes, however, are another story, and, though I have never eaten on a submarine, I have eaten in airplanes enough to know what to expect from a small kitchen in a closed environment — food that is practically unpalatable.   People in space (i.e. – astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts) face the additional burden of needing food that is shelf stable for a long time, that will not cause too much mess, that is packaged in materials that are lightweight and can be heated, and that will not produce too much waste. These restrictions eliminate from the menu a great number of tasty things (something the various space agencies have done their best to make up for… with a questionable amount of success).  Inevitably, however, there will be a tourist attraction in space — perhaps an orbiting space resort — and when that happens, what will people want? Something to stave off the boredom of space. Namely, gambling, as well as alcohol, drugs, and food. (And presumably space sex, but in terms of time spent in various activities, this is probably not going to win out for largest slice of the time pie.) In the beginning, of course, there will be too few people at the space resort to make it worth having a resturant attached, but in the more distant future, when hundreds might be in space at once, a restaurant will become inevitable. It’s easy to imagine that this first incarnation will strongly resemble a café serving nothing but astronaut food.   But, where a restaurant serving just astronaut food is certainly amusing for its kitsch value, tourists paying millions to visit a space resort will eventually want something up to their luxury lifestyle standards. (Which means: no microwave meals.)   This is going to be very difficult for a number of reasons.  In the first, smoke and fumes will quickly overwhelm a small, closed space. This might be countered by a heavy-duty air filtration system, but I’m concerned about where the intersection of suitably breathable environment and air filtration system energy requirements lies (with particular concerns over the operation and maintenance of any power-hungry systems in space).   Add to this water enough to cook a good meal and to clean up afterwards and you don’t have a trivial problem.   The second point is also a fairly big issue, and would take some clever engineering without introducing artificial gravity into the mix: most earth-bound cooking is based on principles of convection and of heat rising. It will probably take some time before equipment and cookware that can be used in space are worked out. Recipes and procedures that make good use of this cookware will probably bring additional delays.   Thirdly, staff will probably be short, as every extra body in space is massively expensive. Put this together, and you have trouble. A restaurant where the staff is short, and the people on staff don’t know how to cook, and where the restaurant is poorly ventilated.

Seems inevitable that the first space restaurant will be lousy.  Now, the first Space McDonald’s, on the other hand…

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