The Space Idli Mission

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K Radhakrishna, the man who cooks up the things Indian astronauts will eat in outer space, also has made-to-order space rasgullas, curries, fruits and vegetables on his menu


In January 2010, five months after the unmanned moon probe Chandrayaan was abruptly terminated—a  year before its completion, since radio contact with the mooncraft was lost—the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) announced a manned mission to outer space. It would take off in 2016 and cost Rs 12,400 crore. Dr K Radhakrishna, additional director of the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) in Mysore, was then put in charge of another mission: preparing an Indian menu suitable for space.

The first items of the space menu are now ready—tiny idlis, the size of Rs 2 coins, accompanied by flaming orange sambhar powder and creamy coconut chutney dust. The idlis are cooked and dried using infrared radiation at a temperature of 700º C, and then further dried by microwaving. The moisture is zapped out of them, but not the taste, smell or nutrients. “They do, however, lose some of their colour,” says Radhakrishna. “It is slightly browned if you notice, not like the jasmine-white idlis you get here.” The idlis and sambhar are to be eaten after adding hot water; the coconut chutney needs only cold water. Each idli is 12 gm and swells to 25 gm when soaked in water. The desiccation makes it impossible for micro organisms like bacteria to grow and increases the idlis’ shelf life to more than a year. The removal of moisture also reduces the weight of food sharply, something crucial to the needs of both Isro and the armed forces. The sambhar and chutney are also dried completely with infrared radiation, a technology that has been used in the preparation of food over the past six years or so.

The pack, as it has been designed now, has ten such idlis. It is the equivalent of three normal sized idlis. “It is the perfect snack,” says Anil Dutt Semwal, senior category F scientist at DFRL, “And the cost, though I haven’t calculated it precisely, is minimal: Rs 8 or 10 for a pack.” He worked two months on creating the idli-sambhar-chutney pack and then sent samples to the Army. The reviews, he says, were “very good”. The technology can also be used for cooking vegetables—a powdered mix of spices becomes a curry once water is added to it.

Radhakrishna has also been working on space rasgullas. They look like white naphthalene balls and are freeze-dried from cottage cheese. Freeze drying involves chilling foods to temperatures from –20º to –40º C. It lets the moisture evaporate, but not the flavours. The rasgullas are then vacuum packed. The syrup comes separately as a powder that can be dissolved in water. “Rasgullas are ideal for space. They have a beautiful texture that doesn’t disintegrate easily like other sweets. It is compact. In space, it won’t do to have bits of food flying around. Remember, it is zero gravity,” says Radhakrishna. It took him a year-and-a-half to get the rasgullas right, and they have been ready for a while.  Nonetheless, he whittles away at the formula from time to time. There is still a battery of tests to be done before they are ready for space. “Chemical analysis to see they smell right and don’t disintegrate, physical analysis to ensure they look right, microbiological trials to confirm there are no micro-organisms, vibration studies to find out whether they can withstand G-forces at the time of launch,” he says, “This is routine for all foods, indeed materials, that are to travel to space.”

The programme’s biggest accomplishment, he reckons, is its space yoghurt. This was developed using pulsed electric field technology in which short bursts of electricity are passed through a fluid food. It renders microbes inactive but the tricky part is to keep the good bacteria alive. DFRL’s result, in Radhakrishna’s words, is “beautiful, beautiful”.

Radhakrishna is 58 now and due to retire on 31 March 2014. This space food project is his dream, and grants him a pretty good chance of an extension. Six months ago, he gave a 40-slide PowerPoint presentation to Isro on the programme. He asked for a budget of Rs 5 crore, three co-workers and a visit to Nasa’s food facility in the US. “It has been accepted on principle,” says Dr W Selvamurthy, chief controller of the life sciences department at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the parent body of DFRL. “As soon as the Government of India confirms the project, we will be officially a part of it.”

By coincidence, this is also Radhakrishna’s chance to finish what he started in his first years at DFRL. In 1983, the Government had commissioned the lab to prepare a couple of dishes for the Intercosmos Programme, the Indo-Soviet joint space flight that had aboard Rakesh Sharma, the first and only Indian astronaut to go to space. The lab was given a timeline of half a year, and pretty much the entire hundred-odd staff was roped in.  Radhakrishna was a freshman at DFRL then, a ‘B category scientist’ who had joined after completing his PhD in meat technology at the same institute. He was perhaps the juniormost in the team and also the odd jobs man. They came up with a pineapple juice powder, biscuits that look like cream crackers, and a mango fruit bar. Of these, the Soviet space organisation approved only the mango bar, a variation of the popular Indian treat aam papad, which Rakesh Sharma says was much appreciated up in space. “There, the taste buds somehow seek sharp tastes and this fit the bill well. My Russian colleagues raved about it,” says Sharma. Apart from aam papad, Sharma had a menu of over 80 dishes to choose from in his eight days aboard the spaceship. These included “pilafs, dry fruits, milk preparations, soups, honeyed breads”, all of which came from the Soviet mission kitchen.

“I had this idea that astronauts consume some sort of specially potent pill which satisfies their hunger, but I realised when we worked on the Indo-Soviet mission that it is all a myth,” says Radhakrishna. Food has been a part of manned space missions more or less from the start. In 1964-65, Sujoy Guha, professor at IIT Kharagpur, was invited to Nasa as a spectator to group discussions on manned space missions. He was then working on his PhD at St Louis University, and had been selected for a Nasa fellowship. “In those days, astronauts were given a virtually zero fibre content diet because the technology of hygienic defecation in zero gravity had not been worked out,” says Professor Guha, “I think that the almost no passage of stools for many days led to an accumulation of toxic products, which to some extent caused the medical problems the astronauts faced: constipation; accumulation of toxins; and the possibility of peptic ulcers because in zero gravity conditions, the distribution of food and acid mass within the stomach would differ from what it would be on earth.”

Before they could live down the triumph of the mango bar, DFRL was commissioned in 1985 to prepare a full menu for an Indo-US seven-day space programme titled ‘Mission 61 I’ slated for May-June 1986. The Indian objective of that programme was to launch satellite Insat 1C, the payload. Two Indians, NC Bhat of Isro and P Radhakrishnan of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, were selected in 1985 to travel to space as payload specialists. They also trained for a secondary assignment of sorts: performing yoga exercises in space as part of DRDO’s life sciences agenda.

The lab had 14 months to work on the project and the confidence of a successful mission behind them. Sights were set higher, a comprehensive meal plan from morning tea to dinner with desserts was worked out, and meat was included on the menu. Radhakrishna, with his specialisation in meat, had a more meaningful role this time. As many as 17 dishes were prepared, including chicken pulao, peas pulao, lemon rice, chicken masala, something called peas cheese, chapatis with yeast, kheer, sooji halwa and three types of juice. Thirteen of these were approved by Nasa.

“The sooji halwa, especially, was very good. So fresh, just like my wife makes it,” says NC Bhat, over the telephone from Bangalore. In comparison, the food prepared by Nasa that Bhat and P Radhakrishnan tasted on their orientation visits to the US was less memorable. “It was bland. We tasted some juice, pineapple juice I think. They also had some small biscuits. It was good, but not as tasty as the Indian food.” What was more interesting was the gee-wiz packaging of the American food. “We pressed a button and a pouch of biscuits shot out. You had to open it in a certain way. Food for these missions has special packaging that has to be discarded properly. In zero gravity, you can’t have empty packs and leftovers floating around.”

Scientific packaging design is an important part of the programme in India too. After the DFRL works out a menu, it figures out the smartest way to pack the food, the kind of material to be used and the sealing technique. It then lays down the specifications, and assigns the actual job to an industrial packing unit. “Our packaging was comparable to Nasa’s,” says Bhat, “We felt we were not far behind [in technology].”

“I remember liking the chicken pulao, lime rice, chapati, kheer and fruit juices,” says P Radhakrishnan, the other payload specialist selected for the mission.

On 28 January 1986, Nasa’s space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven members on board. ‘Mission 61 I’ was delayed and ultimately shelved. But the exercise was not entirely a waste; DFRL got feedback from Indian astronauts who underwent simulation exercises: they sorely missed buttermilk, yoghurt and pickles. In the years since 1985, it has worked on developing all three as space foods and they are now available for missions.

The yoghurt especially makes Radhakrishna beam. His menu also allows for fresh produce. He points out a box of freeze-dried jack fruit on display on the campus; it looks like chunks of desiccated coconut and weighs less than a newspaper. On being watered, it can be eaten like slices of fresh fruit or added to custard or some other pudding. “Of course, the menu will depend on the astronauts selected and their taste preferences. Also, we need to know things like how long the mission will be,” says Radhakrishna. But he is certain that idlis will be on the menu, their being so popular. In 2010, the DFRL’s then director AS Bawa also announced that they might create a dosa for space. “It is quite possible with the technologies we have,” says Radhakrishna, “We need to work out the most convenient size for it. It would be unwieldy to eat a large dosa up there.”

Even without a space dosa, Radhakrishna can expect the gratitude of generations of Indian astronauts for all that he’s done over his 28-year career with DFRL. “It’s a matter of national pride that our astronauts can travel to space, and so can our food, which will sustain them,” he says.

The effort has had its amusing moments too. In 1985, Radhakrishna had just had an arranged marriage, and as a newbie working on the Indo-US space mission menu, he also had to buy daily groceries for the project (for professional cooks enlisted by DFRL for the initial stage of food preparation). His newly-wed wife noticed that he used to leave home at 6 am, go to the market to buy groceries, and return home only around 10:30 pm. It was enough to arouse her suspicions. And then there was the fact that his father and uncle ran an Udipi restaurant in Mysore. “She thought I shopped in the morning and came home after cooking three meals at the lab. She thought I was a cook,” he says, laughing.