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The development of microgravity cuisine is an interesting topic, especially when it comes to transferring simple processes like the successful thermochemical processing of muscle tissues (e.g. barbecuing of meat).

A man, who is a butcher and owns a small restaurant, and his friend, an astronaut qualified as an aerospace engineer, decide to do something nobody has done before: to host a barbecue for the crew of the International Space Station. Knowing that most of the food is provided in dehydrated or toothpaste form and a grill party would greatly improve the morale of the ISS crew, which is worried about their jobs due to yet another NASA budget cutback, mission control agrees and tasks the butcher-engineer duo with the design of the MEAT (Microgravity Edible Animal biomass Transformer) module.

The following clarifications are made:

  • A barbecue is a session of meat preparation, whereas the meat (mostly animal muscle and fat tissue) is altered in its consistency, taste and digestibility by means of prolonged contact with a strongly heated surface.

  • The meat, which is that of freshly slaugtered pigs, cows, sheep and chickens, may be transported to the ISS in refrigerated form but is otherwise unaltered. There are some sausages included in the package (a total mass of 50 kilograms). The meat is brought to the station ready for preparation, e.g. correctly cut up by trained butchers.

  • The MEAT module should be brought to the ISS by a small spaceplane along with the meat and assembled by means of EVA and Canadarm.

  • The module should be reusable.

  • It is up to you to decide how much meat is prepared in a "batch". Generally, the preparation time for a normal meal should not exceed 3 hours (from freezer to plate).

  • An astronaut with technical knowledge (and a passion for cooking) should be able to operate and program the module without extensive mission control input. The preparation time for a spontaneous BBQ should not exceed 24 hours.

  • The taste of the products of the MEAT module should be at least extensively similar to that of meat prepared under normal conditions.

  • The by-products (smoke, coal) should be dealt with properly.

  • Speculative technology expected to be avaliable in the aerospace sector by 2025 may be used.

Your task is to draft a design concept of the MEAT module and describe its function, under observation of above clarifications.

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  • $\begingroup$ Any limitations on size/weight of the MEAT Module itself? 50 kilos per BBQ - is that to be prepared in one session or can it (like a typical Earth-side personal backyard BBQ) be prepared in multiple batches - e.g., a few burgers at a time? "The meat, which is that of freshly slaughtered..." - can that be sent up already cleaned/prepped (e.g., the way I would purchase raw meat in a typical US supermarket) or does this have to be "side of beef" mode, which I think would be quite a problem for the astronauts - who unless they are hunters or butchers would require additional training. $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz Apr 20 '18 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ Can be prepared in multiple batches. $\endgroup$ – MedwedianPresident Apr 20 '18 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Why not just stick it in a sealed container out in direct sunlight for a bit? It'll get plenty cooked without insulation. This gives me a mental image of a couple of astronauts in EVA suits sitting in an airlock with hotdogs on sticks soaking up the sun. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Apr 20 '18 at 23:46
  • $\begingroup$ An enormous waste of resources. Space travel is used to transport only essentials. "a grill party would greatly improve the morale of the ISS crew" No one is sent up who is going to be anything but thrilled to be there - crew selection weeds out people who need cheering up regularly. It's a rare privilege they work darn hard to get. And everyone will not be cheered up if the crew includes any vegetarians or vegans. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 21 '18 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ @ShadoCat I want that on a T-Shirt!!!!! $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Apr 21 '18 at 21:01
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A good BBQ has a few key attributes (aside from starting with quality raw meat, which has already been arranged):

  • High and/or long-lasting heating. High heat for searing steaks and for cooking up burgers. Lower but longer-lasting heat for roasting a whole chicken, ribs and other large (especially thicker) items.

  • Smoke. Bad for you, but adds flavor. This can be from charcoal but with a has BBQ it is from meat fat/drippings that burn up.

  • Intense flavors - e.g., BBQ sauce. Sauce can always be added after cooking, but a good sauce on the meat while it is being BBQed can really make things great.

What you don't actually need is fire. Which is a good thing, because fire and space stations don't mix well. A space station with an uncontrolled fire - and any fire can become uncontrolled very quickly - is deadly. In addition to the possibility of burning up the station, the oxygen required would be a major drain on station resources.

But BBQ and broiling aren't so different. So we skip the traditional fire and figure out how to broil large (relatively) quantities in a space station that has limited power. That's where the arm, airlock, etc. come in.

The MEAT Module consists of a large sealed metal box. The inner section contains a series of adjustable metal grill racks. Unlike on Earth where the meat is simply placed on the rack and possibly covered (but with the cover several inches from the meat), in order to BBQ in microgravity every piece of meat is placed between two grills. That keeps everything in place while conveniently providing the all important "grill marks" on both sides of the meat without human intervention. Which is a good thing because...

The MEAT Module is loaded with meat on the racks. The racks are installed on a motorized rotisserie for even heating. The MEAT Module is sealed, pressure-tested and then sent out through an airlock for the Canadarm to grab it and place it in sunlight. However, while the MEAT Module has a large glass window on one side to admit sunlight for heating, the key is the second part of the system - the MEAT Amplified Glass Natural Integrated Furnace, Yaw-stabilized or MAGNIFY (OK, that's a mouthful, not easy to come up with a good Y word) which is a large glass lens that focuses sunlight into the MEAT window in order to produce heat levels necessary to BBQ meat. Fat/drippings from the meat will contact the inside of the MEAT Module and smoke pretty much instantly, providing the unhealthy but oh-so-yummy smoky flavor of BBQ. The MEAT Module window will include an automated windshield wiper of sorts to scrape drippings off the window during cooking to prevent blockage that would impair the effectiveness of MAGNIFY.

After the meat is fully cooked, the astronauts use Canadarm to disconnect MEAT from MAGNIFY and retrieve the MEAT module and enjoy their dinner.

Prep time is minimal. Figure one hour to prepare all the meat, including plenty of sauce (note that the sauce has to be on the thick side due to microgravity, but it can be spicy), another hour to load the MEAT Module and get it into the airlock. 30 minutes to deploy. Another hour or so to cook, more for ribs, less for burgers (after all this trouble, I'd go for the good stuff) and 30 minutes to disconnect, retrieve and open.

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    $\begingroup$ Rather than a lens, the module can be placed at the focus of a parabolic mirror. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Apr 21 '18 at 4:19
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    $\begingroup$ Such an awesome answer. You left me nowhere to go ;) $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Apr 21 '18 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides MAGNIFY was inspired by when I was much younger using a magnifying glass to burn various items on the sidewalk. A parabolic mirror just isn't the same... $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz Apr 22 '18 at 1:21
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The simplest device would be a version of a solar cooker. Since we want to cook meat, the meat needs to be prepared and sealed inside a cooking vessel, as exposure to vacuum would rapidly dehydrate the meat and result in something resembling a piece of leathery jerky. While some people might even enjoy that, we are talking about a BBQ party.

enter image description here

Earth based solar cooker

enter image description here

A Scheffler cooker. This reflector has an area of 16 m2 (170 sq ft), and concentrates 3 kW of heat

Placing the cooking vessel at the focus of a parabolic mirror will rapidly heat the meat inside. The vessel will likely need to be rotated so the heat energy is evenly applied through the meat, which is sandwiched between racks to hold it in microgravity (as described in another answer by manassehkatz).

A few refinements might include a means of adjusting the position of the cooking vessel relative to the focus point, as a means of controlling the temperature of the meat. Bringing the cooking vessel close to the focus will result in elevated temperatures to sear the meat, while moving it farther away will allow for slower, more prolonged cooking.

A ventilation system will be needed to circulate the air and more importantly draw the liquified fat and oils out of the meat. If there is no provision for this, the fluids coming from the cooking meat may simply remain as sizzling blobs on the meat, making cooking more difficult. As well, the ventilator can be programmed to release "smoke" into the cooking chamber, to provide desired additional flavours to the meat. I will assume the meat has been marinated and sauces applied prior to being loaded into the cooking racks.

A final refinement may be to have a digital camera inside the cooking chamber, so the astronaut/chef can judge the progress of the cooking, and apply any extra touches like extra "smoke" injections or delivering shots of sauce to the cooking meat as required. Like any real BBQ, other astronauts, NASA mission control, the ESA (as well as SpaceX in Hawthorn, CA) can also look in and provide commentary and advice to the cook during the process. The Russian cosmonauts are likely to look on in horror, but since they have an ample supply of vodka, bread and borscht to bring, they are more than welcome to join the party.

enter image description here

Houston, we have a problem.....

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This... Is actually the easiest question in the whole site.

The MEAT module composed of two parts:

  • A knob at some place in the ISS that is as far away from docking stations and solar panels as possible. The knob must be able to rotate continuously on its axis.
  • A sphere or cilinder, attached to the knob by a steel tether. This is the housing part of the module, and should require an airlock, as well as a cooling station (for beer) and cooking station (for the meat itself). It should preferably have a very large bathtub and a very powerful sound system, as well as the capacity to vent smoke (from coal and weed) to the vacuum outside.

All you have to do is spin the housing part of the meat module around fast enough that the people inside will feel at home in 1g.

With one gravity, air, alcohol, coal and proper equipment (even 50's or 60's technilogy within the module will do), it is up to the people involved how they will prepare the food. Wanna take a pig to the module and slaughter him there? You are a monster, but that can be done. Wanna receive your ham by whatever bastard child of Uber and SpaceX is hatched in the next decade? That works too.

P.s.: at some point people will be drunk enough to try and exit the module while it is spinning, on a dare. The airlock should be in the direction of the spin to reduce the chances of someone being thrown into space. Expect some Darwin honorable mentions and awards anyway.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you're going to use coal, you have to bring it up to the station. If you run out, the preparation for the next BBQ will require sending more coal up to the station (very likely more than the 24 hour limit). Also, a spinning module won't produce uniform 1g - the closer you are to the axis of rotation, the less gravity you'll feel. Unless the module is very large, standing up would likely make you feel sick because your feet would be experiencing a noticeably different amount of force than your head. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Apr 20 '18 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ One other small issue - getting the module spinning requires spinning something else in the opposite direction. I'd suggest that the module design include a fly wheel or something that it can use for that purpose instead of causing the entire rest of the station to start rotating. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Apr 20 '18 at 22:09
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The Meat module has several types of tasty products to deal with, It can be broken out into a handfull of modules that will give our lonely astronauts a lot of flexibility while keeping things safe from both a food handling and a space station not catching fire standpoint.

First: Induction Cooking Plates. Cast iron plates that can be adjusted to grab flat cuts of meat like steaks or even spatchcocked chicken. Current is passed through the induction plates that causes the cast iron part in contact with the meat to heat up to a specified temperature. This will be essential for getting the proper grill marks. If used in a small rotating chamber, fats and liquids will gently move away from the meat and element to be collected, possibly for later use.

Next: Sous Vide Use this method to bring the internal temperature of the meat up to a a safe point. Sous Vide uses a small heating element and an impeler (to keep the water moving) to create a very precisely controlled water (or other liquid) bath. Foods are vacuum sealed in plastic pouches or jars and submerged in the bath until the food and water temp are the same. The beauty of this method is that it can hold that temperature almost indefinitely with out loss of meat quality. Like Medium rare? Set the sous vide bath to 54 degrees c. Well Done? kick it up to 69 degrees c. I have seen pros and cons of searing the meat before and after a sous vide bath. I leave that to our culinarily minded astronauts. All that said, Sous vide can be time consuming, but it is also very forgiving. If you have to walk away from your cooking to tend with something else for a few hours, you don't ruin anything. Sous Vide can also be used to cook all of those wonderful irregularly shaped meats.

Finally: An Oven. refer to manassehkatz brilliant answer for this one (MAGNIFY still has me laughing), though it doesn't need to be very large. Why an Oven. Some of the wonderful parts of well Barbequed meat is the crispness of the outside of the dish. This can only be achieved by a hot, dry method. A small chamber that can reach adequate temperature to finish off dishes in a matter of minutes after internal temp has been reached via sous vide.

Sauces and marinades can be applied to the meat then sealed in the vacuum pouches prior to cooking. Or, if thick enough, applied just before popping into the MAGNIFY unit.

You now have not only given your lonely ISS folks a way to BBQ, but they also now have some means to cook all sorts of things. Maybe someone can send them some fresh curries next

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No Futuristic High Tech Needed

The unique flavor of BBQ is due to the assorted delicious carcinogens and carbon compounds transferred to the meat by the smoke from the coals. We most likely find meat prepared in this way delicious because for a few million years our earliest hominid ancestors used fire to cook meat. We quite literally evolved a pleasure response to the falvor to goad us into seeking the experience as often as possible thus motivating hunting behaviors and better propagating the species. Our hominid Ancestors were terribly dull and never bothered to try looking for meat in space, so the challenges or orbital meat cooking never crossed their primitive minds. Today we have propane burning BBq grills that utilize a bed of lava rock to spread wood-chips across to generate that evolutionary sought after flavor of wood-fire cooked meat without having to burn a bunch of primitive disgusting charcoal like filthy cave-dwellers.

Problem is, even glorious clean burning propane fired anything in space is a horribly dangerous idea. That's why our steaks are going to be cooked electrically. The device looks like a large VCR, it has a slot into which meat cartridges are inserted. (just a steak, fillet, or burger inside a metal grill-mesh box about the size of a VHS tape. Once the Meat cartridge is inserted the device's front door closes and seals to prevent anything flammable from combusting within the device. The electric heating elements heat up and begin grilling the steak to pre-programmed settings (rare-well done, medium well, etc etc). During the cooking a tiny amount of charcoal and a wood-matter of suitable smoking variety is burned inside of a small re-loadable canister within the cooking chamber by it's own smaller electrical heating element, the resulting smoke is circulated within the cooking chamber to enhance flavor.

Saftey Features! LOTS OF THEM!!!

The interior of this cooking chamber is monitored by a few cameras as well as several heat monitors that ensure the wood and charcoal are smoldering, not fully combusting. If at any point full-blown combustion occurs the first line of defense is that the entire device is completely sealed and insulated heavily as well as being tucked into another sealable flame-retardant pouch. Any fire ought to burn itself out fairly quickly with no oxygen to feed it. Next, the device contains within it several cylenders of CO2 and Halon, which can be either manually or automatically discharged should a fire occur further smothering and extinguishing flames. Tragically, this will ruin your steak, but it will also prevent you from turning into a piece of human BBQ by exploding into flames in a hyper-oxygenated environment so you will have to deal with it. This entire device shall only be operated within the disposable resupply module, should a fire somehow bypass all of these safety features the resupply module can be sealed off and it's atmosphere vented. Finally, if all else fails in some cosmically unfortunate explosion of Murphy's law the entire resupply module can be jettisoned from the station. You will be forced into the unenviable position of having to watch your thick juicy steak be horribly over-cooked and dried out as it burns up during reentry.

It could all utilize off the shelf level tech to accomplish your space BBQ and still be fairly safe and tasty.

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