In space there is no space to waste. Each of the 388 cubic metres of the International Space Station (ISS) is vital for the astronauts who live there, for their equipment and experiments. The efficient handling of waste and resources is paramount. With these objectives in mind, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet has hypothesised a way of limiting waste coming from packaging materials by recycling or eating them.
Back from his first visit to the ISS, which lasted from November 2016 to June 2017, Pesquet noted how packagings take up too much space, considering that those currently in use in the ISS are made with grey foams produced with oil derivatives. Toulouse Space Center (CNES) answered Pesquet’s comments by creating recyclable, biodegradable or edible packaging prototypes. These prototypes are being tested in the context of the Alpha mission, which has sent Thomas Pesquet back in space for six months starting 22 April 2021. Among the components used to produce these packagings are sweets such as gingerbread and madeleines, which have been chosen because of their superior mechanic properties if compared to other food such as rice crackers, corn cakes, sandwich bread or fruit-based paste. To give an example: the lid of a transport bag is made of almond cake, its bottom of madeleine, the sides of gingerbread. As a matter of fact, among the difficulties encountered in the production of these packaging materials, there was the necessity to be resistant to the vibrations developed during a space launch. The use of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) also goes in this direction. It is produced by bacterial fermentation and the result is an organic-based, biodegradable foam that isolates astronauts from vibrations during the ascent to ISS with Elon Musks’ Space X rocket. This bioplastic is indigestible for humans, but it is 100% recyclable, so it could be used to make a 3D printer work, or to cultivate plants.
Thomas Pesquet will verify if the edible materials have successfully protected the items that have been transported, inspecting both container and content, then filling out a detailed survey form. The astronaut will not be able to taste these products during his mission, because the process to obtain authorisation is long and complex. The aim at the moment is to verify the resistance of the materials.