To anyone who happened to be looking up that morning, perhaps from the deck of a boat off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the plane would have appeared to be on an extremely alarming trajectory. It rocketed into the cloudless late-summer sky at a 45-degree angle, slowed momentarily and leveled out, then nosed down toward the ocean, plunging 17,000 vertical feet in a matter of seconds. At the last moment, it leveled out again and began another climb, looking for all the world as though it were being piloted by a hopelessly indecisive hijacker.
Onboard the plane, the mood was euphoric and a little hysterical. The main cabin had been converted into a kind of padded cell, lined with soft white tiles in lieu of seats and overhead bins. Two dozen passengers, clad in blue jumpsuits, lay on their backs on the floor. As the plane neared the crest of its first roller-coaster wave, a member of the flight crew got on the PA. “Pushing over, slow and easy,” he shouted over the roar of the engines. “Release!” Moments before he uttered that final word, the passengers began to levitate. Their feet, hands, and hair lifted first, then their bodies, arms dog-paddling and legs kicking ineffectually as they giggled and grinned like fools for a fleeting, floating instant. “Feet down, coming out,” the crew member said 20 seconds later. The passengers hit the floor ass first and lay spread-eagled, staring at the ceiling.
The plane flew 20 parabolic arcs that day, for a total of around six minutes of weightlessness. Each time gravity loosened its grip, the blue-suited occupants frantically got to work on a range of activities and experiments. I hovered in the middle of the cabin, toes down, hair up, and took in the scene. Up by the cockpit, a square-jawed jock raced to strap himself into a vertical rowing machine. Not far away, a waifish young woman sculpted spidery 3D figures in midair with a hot glue gun, sucking on her lip piercing with a look of deep concentration. Behind me, toward the rear of the fuselage, the world's first musical instrument designed exclusively for performance in microgravity—a sort of metallic octopus called the Telemetron—emitted plaintive digital chimes as it spun. A woman wearing a seahorse-inspired robotic tail rotated serenely, twirling around its flexible ballast like a stripper on a pole.
A few feet away from where I hung, Cady Coleman, a former NASA astronaut with six months of spaceflight experience, took a nostalgic joyride, somersaulting and gliding like a pro. Nearby, silkworms in varying stages of development bounced gently in the hammock of their freshly woven cocoons, largely unnoticed inside a small acrylic box. I struggled to keep hold of my pencil and notebook as I watched industrial designer Maggie Coblentz, immaculately costumed in a Ziggy Stardust-inspired white jumpsuit and matching go-go boots, chase down and swallow a handful of boba pearls, nibbling at them like a goldfish.
The flight had been chartered by Ariel Ekblaw, the intimidatingly accomplished founder of the MIT Media Lab's Space Exploration Initiative. Ekblaw has a round face, long curls, and the earnest demeanor that comes with being a Girl Scout Gold Award winner and high school valedictorian. Her mother set the bar for overachievement in a male-dominated field: She was a reservist instructor in the US Air Force back when female trainers were unheard of, and she would have flown fighter jets if women had been allowed to at the time. But it was Ekblaw's father, a fighter pilot himself, who kindled her obsession with space. He was a sci-fi buff, and Ekblaw grew up devouring his paperback copies of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. She also watched Star Trek: The Next Generation at a formative age, imprinting on its impossibly optimistic vision of the future. After majoring in physics, math, and philosophy as an undergrad, she earned a master's degree in blockchain research. Then, four years ago, at the age of 23, she decided to return to her first love.
The Space Exploration Initiative's goal is to bring together “artists, scientists, engineers, and designers to build a real-life Starfleet Academy.” Ekblaw and her expanding team of more than 50 collaborators are getting ready for the day when humanity becomes a space-native civilization, as comfortable in the cosmos as we have been on Earth. “People say we're putting the cart before the horse,” Ekblaw concedes. “But the complexities of space are such that we really should be at least designing the cart while the horse is being prepared.”
As the billionaire rocket bros never tire of reminding us, we stand on the cusp of a new era of space travel. In the coming decades, there will be celestial cruises aboard Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. There may be off-world factories and lunar mining operations, courtesy of Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin. There will probably be hydroponic grow houses at Elon Musk's SpaceX colony on Mars. Even the bureaucrats at NASA have grand plans for the future. But while a new generation of aerospace engineers toils over the tech that will get us into orbit and beyond—reusable launch vehicles, rocket-bearing planes—an important question remains unanswered, Ekblaw says: “What will delight humans in space?”
Even in the near term, this is not a frivolous concern. A one-way trip to Mars will take about nine months, which is a long time to spend inside a hermetically sealed tube hurtling through a cold, dark void. Like all animals, humans require stimulation; without something to break the monotony, most of us end up like a tiger pacing its cage—stressed, depressed, and prone to problematic behaviors. Indeed, many scientists believe that boredom is one of the most serious challenges facing future spacefarers.
Until now, design for space has focused on survival. But Ekblaw thinks it's possible, even essential, to imagine an entirely new microgravitational culture, one that doesn't simply adapt Earth products and technologies but instead conceives them anew. Cady Coleman amused herself by playing her flute on the International Space Station—another astronaut brought his bagpipes—but future travelers might instead pick up a Telemetron. They might wear clothes spun of special zero-g silk, or sculpt delicate forms that couldn't exist on Earth, or choreograph new forms of dance, assisted by their robot tails. They might, in other words, stop seeing themselves as homesick earthlings and begin to feel like stimulated, satisfied spacelings.
Whatever else they do, they'll require nourishment, which is why food is a central focus of the MIT program. NASA and other government space agencies have traditionally treated food as a practical challenge—an extreme version of provisioning for an outback camping trip. But while a highly trained astronaut might be able to subsist on space gorp without losing her mind, what about a civilian with a one-way ticket to Mars? Coblentz, who is leading the Space Exploration Initiative's gastronomic research, argues that, as much as art or music or movement, good food will enable us to thrive as we leave Earth behind. It has always been the glue that connects us to each other and to the environment around us. Our pursuit of food has shaped the evolution of our sensory apparatus—the very tools through which we, as a species, perceive the world. The choices we make every day about food selection, preparation, and consumption lie at the foundation of our identities and relationships and affinities. As the Italian historian Massimo Montanari succinctly put it, food is culture.
This truth will surely endure into our interplanetary future—even as far as the 24th century, if Ekblaw's beloved Star Trek is to be believed. When Captain Jean-Luc Picard narrowly survives an attempted body-snatching by the Borg, a group of pasty techno-supremacists who invade his mind with nanoprobes and threaten to steal his humanity forever, the place he goes to recuperate is his family's ancestral vineyard in France, where his brother still works the soil, tends the vines, and harvests the grapes, and where the meals are made from scratch. Picard was lucky: Real-life spacefarers won't have the option of hightailing it back to Earth to regain their sense of meaning and identity. They'll need to make it fresh in whichever brave new world they find themselves. As Coblentz puts it, “What will the terroir of Mars be?” To find out, she's compiling a speculative guide to the kinds of culinary tools, tastes, and rituals that might help humans feel at home in space—an interplanetary cookbook.
Coblentz grew up just outside of Toronto and spent her summers canoe-tripping in the Canadian wilderness. After high school, she studied design in New Delhi and New York; she favors the all-black wardrobe common to the field. Yet her love of backcountry exploration has translated into a fascination with extreme environments. Before she came to MIT, she investigated the role that food plays in prisons and on the battlefield. Still, outer space presents challenges all its own; before she could begin developing interplanetary recipes, some market research was in order. And so, on a sunny morning in September, she invited Cady Coleman, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, and a handful of MIT colleagues to a daylong workshop at the Media Lab.
The focus group gathered in a fluorescent-lit conference room decorated with large-format photos of lollipops and Buffalo wings and coiled spirals of salami. On the table, Coblentz had laid out small plastic cups of M&Ms, freeze-dried cheese bites, and Tang; these would serve as both snacks and design inspiration. Nespoli showed up with props of his own—some silvery foil packets from NASA's current menu rotation; some cans filched from the Russian supplies and the European Space Agency, including one simply labeled SPACE FOOD; and a translucent plastic package filled with what looked like yellowish plugs of ear wax but were apparently dehydrated mashed potatoes. “Nobody goes to space for the food,” Coleman said.
Coblentz began by making her pitch. Humanity's off-world survival, she said, will depend on a diet that can nourish not only travelers' bodies but their minds and souls. Space food must inspire and unite; it must reflect both the grandeur of the endeavor and the majesty of the surroundings. Coleman, a kind-faced, nurturing type who wore a T-shirt depicting a Martian mountain range, nodded. Nespoli, a rugged former special-forces operator from Milan, raised his heavy eyebrows in polite skepticism.
Undaunted, Coblentz invited Coleman and Nespoli to describe their culinary experiences aboard the International Space Station—the challenges, the frustrations, and the highlights. “You know, people ask me, ‘Why don't you cook pasta in space? You're Italian!’ ” Nespoli replied, still seemingly determined to deflate Coblentz's grand aspirations. “And I'm like, ‘Well, I would love to. But you simply cannot.’ I think you will not understand food in space unless you start understanding some of the practical problems that make food in space what it is.”
Those practical problems have been the focus of sustained research for more than half a century. In the earliest days of the original space race, scientists worried that it might not be possible to eat in zero g at all. The human digestive system evolved to function in Earth's gravitational field; prolonged weightlessness might cause choking, constipation, or worse. The problem required research, but at the time there was no way of duplicating the proper conditions on Earth. “Gravity as a physical factor of environment has the outstanding property of being omnipresent and everlasting,” a 1950 technical report explained. “Not a single individual has as yet been away from its influence for more than one or two seconds.”
The scientists attempted a number of workarounds, the most memorable of which involved a German-born aeromedical doctor, Hubertus Strughold, numbing his buttocks with novocaine. Once anesthetized, he had a pilot fly him through a series of acrobatic maneuvers, reasoning that the lack of any seat-of-the-pants sensation would be a decent substitute for weightlessness. According to contemporary accounts, “he found the experience very disagreeable.” (Strughold was one of many former Third Reich scientists who were brought to the US after World War II to work on the space program. Although he was revered for decades as the so-called father of space medicine, his reputation has since been tarnished by his alleged association with Nazi war crimes. He denied any involvement.)
By 1955, the Air Force had refined the art of parabolic flight and could reliably provide up to 30 seconds of microgravity at a time. Although some test subjects initially struggled, choking and gasping when they tried to eat or drink, it was clear that scientists' earlier concerns had been overblown. Still, there is a reason planes like the one Ekblaw chartered are known as “vomit comets.” Somewhere between half and three-quarters of all spacefarers suffer from what NASA calls space adaptation syndrome, triggered by a sudden lack of data from the otoliths. These ancient organs in the inner ear, made up of tiny crystals of chalk embedded in a gelatinous membrane, normally tell the brain where it is in relation to Earth's gravitational field.
Most astronauts get over their motion sickness within a few days, but nausea is far from the only hunger suppressant they face. For one thing, there's no way of cracking a window in space, which means the enclosed environment could easily smell, as Ekblaw described it, “like everyone who has ever been there, every meal that has been eaten, and every dump that has been taken.” Coleman was quick to point out that the ISS has an excellent filtration system, but the fight against funkiness never ends. “They tell you if you open a package of food you have to eat it, all of it, if you like it or not,” Nespoli said. “Whatever you have left over, it will start rotting and it will stink. And you are a good disposal machine.” This organic tendency in food—its inevitable trajectory toward decay—is a major headache for space agencies. When Nespoli asked to bring aged Parmigiano-Reggiano aboard the ISS, NASA said no, because the artisans who produced the cheese could not provide its expiration date. (He had better luck with lasagna.)
Mitigating the malodor, but reinforcing the appetite loss, is a condition known as “space face.” In the absence of gravity, body fluids pool in the head. This is the suspected cause of the irreversible vision problems reported by some astronauts, but it also means that, for many, eating in orbit is like eating with a severe head cold here on Earth. Astronauts have reported cravings for stronger tastes that cut through the flavor-muffling congestion. Coleman says she “liked sugar up there a little bit more” and began taking her coffee sweetened; her crewmate Scott Kelly, who'd never much cared for desserts on the ground, became something of a chocoholic during his year aboard the ISS.
But the “practical problems” Nespoli alluded to exert by far the biggest effect on astronauts' diet. Every pound that NASA transports to and from space costs thousands of dollars, which means food must be lightweight and compact. It also has to last a long time. Like Nespoli's mashed potatoes, many of the dishes on offer—shrimp cocktail, chicken teriyaki, or one of a couple hundred other options—come dehydrated. And they tend to share another property too, Coleman said: “Everything is kind of mushy.” This is a side effect of NASA's all-out war on crumbs. On Earth, crumbs fall; in microgravity, they can end up anywhere, including inside critical equipment or astronauts' lungs. On the earliest space missions, food came in the form of squeezable purées and “intermediate moisture bites” such as bacon squares and brownies, which were coated in a crumb-proof layer of gelatin. Today's menu is more expansive, but certain foods, like bread, remain off limits. In its place is the all-purpose flour tortilla, to which rehydrated sauces and stews adhere thanks to surface tension.
Although it's possible to eat, say, Fig Newtons or Doritos in space, Coleman said such friable indulgences require careful planning. “You really need to open them near a vent so that any crumbs go on the vent,” she explained. “Then you take the vacuum cleaner and you vacuum the vent, like a good space station citizen.” (Identical rules apply to clipping one's fingernails.) Even so, astronauts often notice little edible-looking things drifting by. In Kelly's 2017 memoir, Endurance, he relates a stomach-turning anecdote in which the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti confesses to having eaten an unidentified floating object she thought was candy but turned out to be garbage.
Nespoli's longed-for spaghetti is not crumbly, but even if he did find a way to cook it, there would be no appropriate way to eat it. For the most part, space cutlery has been reduced to a pair of scissors, for opening packages, and a spoon, for scooping out their contents. (As it happens, Nespoli's ancestral compatriots were the first Europeans to adopt the modern fork. It was a multi-tined improvement on their previous tool—a combination ravioli spear and spaghetti twirling rod.) The process of cooking is similarly simplified. On the ISS, the astronauts typically rehydrate their food by adding hot water from a nozzle mounted on the ceiling, then kneading the package. Dinner is ready to eat at this point, but most dishes are apparently greatly improved by also being warmed inside a slim aluminum briefcase with a heating element in the middle. “This is where it gets crazy,” Nespoli said. “You have a space station that cost a gazillion dollars, built by engineers that can build the most amazing things, and the food warmer is a briefcase that takes 20 minutes and only fits enough food for three people at a time.”
As a result, finding something to eat in the storage containers, rehydrating and kneading it, then warming it can easily take 30 or 40 minutes. Astronauts are always short on time; their days are tightly programmed by mission control, and overruns on repairs or science experiments frequently cut into their already limited window for meals. During the Media Lab focus group, Coleman described a favorite dinner that involved molding rice into sticky balls and then mixing it with Trader Joe's Thai curry, which she'd brought up as part of her personal allowance. “I really loved it,” she said. “But it took me probably twice as long to eat dinner when I did that.” Especially toward the end of her mission, she was more likely to eat a food bar instead, “because it was just efficient.”
By this point in the meeting, Coleman and Nespoli had rattled off an extraordinarily long list of challenges and constraints. Finally, though, they made the admission that Coblentz had been chasing all along: Food was an important part of daily life in orbit—and the subject of many of their fondest memories. Coleman said their entire crew, even the cosmonauts, made a point of eating together on Friday evenings. “It's how you become a team,” she explained, to Coblentz's evident delight. Coleman opened her laptop and flipped through her favorite photographs from her time aboard the ISS. One showed the kitchen table, which juts out into the corridor between the Russian and American segments of the station. “Everybody had bruises on each hip—one for the way there, one for the way back,” she said. “It was exactly in the way.” Of course, there's no real reason for a table to be horizontal in space; packets of food and drink have to be secured using Velcro either way, so it could just as easily lie parallel to the wall. But Coleman said there was an unspoken resistance to such an arrangement. The crew needed a place to “hang around,” she explained, and to ask that most human of questions: “How was your day?”
Nespoli's favorite ISS snapshots involved food too, in a way. He pulled up an image he captured of clouds over Lake Garda, Italy. “That looks like a margherita pizza,” he said. “And then the next picture—that looks like a quattro stagioni pizza.” Earth was pizza, pizza was Earth, and both were entirely out of reach. This was the obstacle Coblentz was determined to surmount.
The first people ever to leave Earth orbit and strike out into space were the three crew members of Apollo 8. They were surprised to find that the most compelling thing they saw on the quarter-of-a-million-mile-long journey lay in the rearview mirror. “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth,” astronaut Bill Anders wrote 50 years after the mission's end.
It was Anders who captured the iconic “Earthrise” photo on Christmas Eve of 1968: a shiny blue jewel wreathed in clouds, floating above the pockmarked lunar surface, alone in the pitch-black void. Reflecting on the image in 2018, he recalled the powerful emotions that led him to ignore his assigned task—documenting potential landing sites—and turn his lens toward home. “Once-distant places appeared inseparably close,” he wrote. “Borders that once rendered division vanished. All of humanity appeared joined together.” His sublime experience, an overwhelming feeling of oneness coupled with a sudden awareness of Earth's beauty and fragility, became so common among future generations of astronauts that it earned a name: the overview effect. It offers an escape from the confined, smelly conditions, the mushy, repetitive meals, and the endless checklists. When Coleman was aboard the ISS, she played her flute in the Cupola, a windowed observatory purpose-built for world-watching.
On a journey to Mars, or beyond, that will no longer be an option. Psychologists have no idea how the so-called break-off phenomenon—the sense of detachment that can arise when our planet slips from view—will affect future astronauts' mental state. What's more, any communication with the now-invisible Earth will be subject to as much as a 45-minute lag. Kelley Slack, one of the experts on NASA's Behavioral Health and Performance team, recently told NBC, “It will be the first time that we've been totally disconnected from Earth.” Since the summer of 1975, when NASA convened a group of experts to discuss permanent settlement in space, researchers have warned of a psychological condition called “solipsism syndrome,” in which reality feels dreamlike and lonely astronauts become prone to self-destructive mistakes. Mars could be the theory's first real test.
“Food assumes added importance under all conditions of isolation and confinement because normal sources of gratification are denied,” Jack Stuster, an anthropologist and NASA consultant, wrote in Bold Endeavors, his 1996 book on the behavioral issues associated with extreme environments. “Usually, the longer the confinement, the more important food becomes.” Managers of offshore oil rigs, supertankers, and Antarctic research stations all appreciate the importance of food to maintaining group morale and productivity in isolated, remote, and confined situations. Stuster noted that “food has become such an important element onboard fleet ballistic missile submarines that, for years, meals have been served at cloth-covered tables in pleasant paneled dining rooms.”
Outer space is perhaps the most extreme environment humans will ever confront. To mitigate the inevitable burnout, NASA has developed a range of what it calls “countermeasures.” During his yearlong mission aboard the ISS, for instance, Scott Kelly tested a pair of rubber suction trousers, designed to combat fluid shift. (Afterward he reporting feeling, for the first time in months, “like I wasn't standing on my head.”) He and his crewmate Kjell Lindgren, the man with the bagpipes, also grew and ate some red romaine lettuce—a first for American astronauts.
Research by Marianna Obrist, a professor of multisensory experiences at the University of Sussex, suggests orbital agriculture could be a promising countermeasure. “In a way, that appreciation of what it takes to grow food and how wonderful and alive fresh food tastes—that's something you don't often think when you are eating here on Earth,” she told me. Perhaps a crunchy leaf of romaine could serve as the edible equivalent of the overview effect. For the foreseeable future, though, onboard farming will never provide more than a tiny portion of a crew's dietary requirements. The MIT team will have to look elsewhere.
Obrist's recent work has documented exactly the void that Coblentz is trying to fill. In anticipation of mass-market space tourism, she and her colleagues conducted a survey in which they asked ordinary people about the eating experiences they would want on a flight to the moon or Mars. The responses were clear: For the shorter lunar trip, travelers were perfectly happy to provision themselves like campers, provided there would be treats. But when it came to the longer Mars journey, the respondents said they'd require a wide variety of flavors, textures, and temperatures. They also felt it would be important to re-create some of the rituals and environments that accompany eating on Earth.
In short, Coblentz said, making better space food means thinking bigger than countermeasures. “If humans are going to thrive in space, we need to design embodied experiences,” she told me. She has even looked to zoos for inspiration. “For predatory animals like tigers, instead of just throwing a carcass into their cage, they might have a hunting contraption that drags and twitches the meat,” she explained. “They're manufacturing this more challenging experience to make eating more engaging for the animals, and I wondered what the space food analogy might be.” Hiding food around a spacecraft to encourage foraging behavior might not be feasible, she concluded, but what about meal preparation? What kinds of culinary transformations are possible in space—and what kinds of rituals could be built out of them?
Like generations of chefs before her, Coblentz began by taking advantage of the local environment. Liquids are known to behave peculiarly in microgravity, forming wobbly blobs rather than streams or droplets. This made her think of molecular gastronomy, in particular the technique of using calcium chloride and sodium alginate to turn liquids into squishy, caviar-like spheres that burst delightfully on the tongue. Coblentz got to work on a special spherification station to test in zero g—basically a plexiglass glove box equipped with preloaded syringes. She would inject a bead of ginger extract into a lemon-flavored bubble, or blood orange into a beet juice globule, creating spheres within spheres that would deliver a unique multipop sensation unattainable on Earth. And unlike their terrestrial counterparts, Coblentz's spheres would float rather than sit on a plate, meaning they could be appreciated in 360 degrees, rather than 180, and garnished accordingly. The entire process, as whimsical as it might seem, could offer future space travelers a welcome chance to express their culinary creativity and enjoy eating as a sensory experience, even if “space face” means the flavors themselves are subdued.
Coblentz also had weightier weightless recipes in mind. Many of Earth's most deeply comforting foods rely on the byproducts of microbial digestion. Because metabolism works differently in microgravity, for microbes as well as humans, the resulting flavors might differ too. What would a wheel of space-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, a loaf of space-risen sourdough bread, or a tube of space-fermented salami taste like? Coblentz is planning to send a batch of miso paste to the ISS later this year, to learn how its flavor profile changes. She has also developed a new way of consuming it. Pondering the station's lack of cutlery, she struck upon the idea of creating silicone “bones”—solid, ivory-colored crescents that resemble oversize macaroni more than the ribs that inspired them. Nibbling and sucking foods directly off a silicone bone might reduce spoon fatigue, she explained, and perhaps even put spacefarers in touch with humanity's most ancient foodways.
Coblentz has also considered sending brine into orbit, to evaporate into salt. As Phil Williams, who recently launched the world's first astropharmacy research program at the University of Nottingham, told me recently, “One of the problems of making crystals on Earth is that you have convective currents.” Driven by gravity, these currents affect the quality of crystal growth. “You can get far bigger crystals with fewer defects in microgravity,” he said. Chefs and foodies already pay a premium for the large, hollow pyramids of Maldon sea salt, a shape preferred for its crunch, its intermittent bursts of saltiness, and its superior adhesion to baked goods. No one yet knows what culinary properties the crystalline perfection of space salt might possess. Many pharmaceuticals rely on crystallization too, and any alteration in those structures can change the drug's therapeutic effects. “There may one day be compounds that we can only make off-planet and bring back,” Williams said, conjuring up a dazzling vision of the future in which drug factories and gourmet brine ponds orbit Earth.
In the weeks leading up to the parabolic flight, as Coblentz surveyed her prototypes, she decided she'd like to spend her precious moments in zero g actually eating stuff, not just fiddling with the spherification station. She would set aside time to inject a few test spheres, but for now she was more interested in replacing some of the ambiance, texture, and flavor that astronauts complain is missing aboard the ISS.
“I've designed a special space food helmet and a tasting menu,” she told me on our last call before we flew. “Have a light breakfast.”
As astronauts and entrepreneurs alike are fond of saying whenever something goes horribly wrong, “space is hard.” The same rule seemingly applied to MIT's zero-gravity flight. Initially slated for March, it was delayed for months, owing to a government shutdown, scheduling conflicts, and then at the last minute—with all the passengers, including the silkworms, ready to go—the FAA's refusal to recertify the plane until a single part was replaced. Finally, the morning dawned. I ate a quarter of a bagel, applied a motion-sickness patch, and boarded the team bus to ride up to an airstrip at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire.
We gathered in a hangarlike space haphazardly furnished with plastic tables, folding chairs, a metal detector, and an x-ray machine. Staff from Zero-G Corporation, the company operating the flight, issued us our blue onesies, complete with name badges, and our boarding passes. Flight ZG491 was scheduled to depart at 9 am.
As the passengers suited up and checked their experimental equipment one last time, the preflight briefing began. There would be no somersaults, no flipping, no spinning without permission—seriously, no horsing around of any kind.
“Don't look down,” one staffer warned. “You'll feel like your eyeballs are falling out.”
“Don't take off a ring and try to float it while you take a picture,” said another. “There's still a wedding ring in there somewhere from the last guy that tried that.”
After the briefing, I tried on Maggie Coblentz's food helmet, a sort of giant plastic goldfish bowl with two hand holes carved out. “It was injection-molded for me by people who make aquariums,” she said. “When you put it on, you're in a world of your own—and it catches crumbs. I've tried it in bed.” There was a built-in lazy Susan on which she had mounted five small containers. I spotted boba pearls in one and Pop Rocks in another. The hardware was spray-painted an Instagram-friendly rose gold.
We went through our own private TSA security line, after which Coblentz handed me some contraband boba pearls. As a potential hazard to the equipment onboard, they were approved for flight only on the condition that they remain contained within her helmet. I didn't have a helmet of my own, so I stashed them in my breast pocket, sealed it with velcro, and boarded the plane. Several rows of seats were installed at the back, and we sat and listened to a modified safety spiel. If the airplane lost pressure, we were told, oxygen masks would not drop automatically; instead, we would have to make our way over to the oxygen boxes mounted along the center aisle and walls. After a perfectly normal takeoff, the seat-belt sign switched off and we all moved forward to our appointed stations, next to the bolted-down equipment.
On the first weightless parabola, my shoelaces came undone. They remained that way for the duration. My instinct was to swim, but that didn't work. Moving gingerly, I hovered to one side, trying not to get in the way as Coblentz injected her spheres. (We wouldn't be eating them on the flight, mostly because there wasn't time to fish them out of the plexiglass box; still, the experiment would serve as proof of concept.) She was struggling too, her arms visibly shaking as she tried to control the speed at which the liquid came out of the syringes. Before either of us had any idea what was going on, it was time to serve the tasting menu.
Coblentz put on her helmet and immediately relaxed. She told me later that it functioned almost like noise-canceling headphones, allowing her to focus on eating amid the uproar. She piped in a soundtrack of frying onions, then opened a canister that released a matching scent—an attempt to increase her appetite and induce salivation, both known to enhance food enjoyment. The helmet became both restaurant and plate as she unleashed a handful of Pop Rocks and boba pearls and chased them in circles. Immediately, Coblentz sneezed: Most of the popping candy appeared to have gone straight up her nose. I set loose my contraband pearls and promptly lost half of them; perhaps they would reappear on a future flight. The few that managed to connect with my mouth bounced around on my tongue, a sensation that made me snort with laughter.
As we entered our final few parabolas, Coblentz sucked miso paste from her silicone bones. I floated the length of the cabin, marveling at an agility and grace I'd never demonstrated on Earth. Behind me, two unfortunate researchers were hunched, barf bags in hand, stricken by space adjustment syndrome. For the rest of us, weightlessness was over far too quickly.
Back at the airfield, Zero-G had laid out a sandwich buffet for our “regravitation celebration.” I dragged myself to it, heavy-limbed and slow. As I lifted my turkey club baguette to my mouth, I could hardly believe I'd have to eat this way for the rest of my life. At least for now, the psychological benefits of earthly terroir seemed hardly worth the price of being permanently rooted to the ground. I glanced at Coblentz. She was draped over a chair, eyes closed, with a huge smile. Slowly, her right arm floated up and she began gently combing Pop Rocks from her hair.
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Nicola Twilley is the cohost of Gastropod, a podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. She is at work on two books, one about refrigeration and the other about quarantine.
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