Tupperware Brands Evolves into a True Space-Age Company
“I think people still are a little bit surprised when they hear Tupperware is now considered, at least in NASA circles, a space-related company.”
David Kusuma was listed as a speaker at the 2017 International Space Station Research & Development conference in Washington, D.C., and attendees were wondering why. As a vice president of Tupperware Brands, he represents a company known for plastic food storage containers used in the kitchen — not on rockets carrying astronauts. But it all made sense when he gave his presentation.
“Tupperware is a brand not normally associated with the space industry,” Kusuma told the audience. “But I want to tell you about how technology and advanced materials have become part of our modern-day DNA.”
The $2.3 billion global corporation based in Kissimmee has become one of hundreds of suppliers that contribute to experiments in space. In fact, when Kusuma returned to the conference this July after not attending the event in 2018, people asked where he had been. Since his presentation, Tupperware Brands has been fielding inquiries from at least eight companies interested in partnering on aerospace projects. The company has become part of the club.
“I don’t know where this will go,” said Kusuma, who oversees research and product innovation for the publicly held company. “I think people still are a little bit surprised when they hear Tupperware is now considered, at least in NASA circles, a space-related company. We don’t know where we can take it from here, but it’s exciting that a number of aerospace companies are interested in working with Tupperware, especially on food related projects.”
The focus on aerospace is just one of the ways Tupperware Brands is staying current and has remained a technology and innovation company in addition to a household goods manufacturer.
Preserving the Planet
Kusuma was on stage at the 2017 conference with commercial R&D experts to discuss activities that were taking place in low Earth orbit and insights on the future of space travel. But to put Tupperware’s venture into space contracting into perspective, he began with a little history about the company.
Founded in 1948 by inventor Earl Tupper in Leominster, Massachusetts, the company became famous for its innovative sales techniques involving home sales parties where housewives and mothers invited friends to play games and, incidentally, buy pastel-colored containers that would keep food fresh in their refrigerators. Each container had a lid — or seal as Tupperware enthusiasts call it — that fit snugly and could be “burped” to let out air before sealing.
Today, more than 3 million independent sales people represent the direct-selling company worldwide — meaning about every 1.3 seconds there is a Tupperware party starting somewhere in the world, Kusuma told the audience. The company is still focused on improving the kitchen experience: It has been introducing technologies that let people use their microwave ovens to cook complete meals instead of just reheating food — even devices that allow for microwave grilling.
By the nature of its products, Tupperware products have always been a leader in sustainability because they can be reused for years and even generations. But the company has stepped up its efforts to help the planet by developing containers that preserve fresh food longer.
That’s because about 40 percent of food ends up in landfills in the United States, Kusuma said. Worldwide, people waste about 1.3 billion tons of food. Working with university researchers, Tupperware Brands has designed containers to hold specific fruits and vegetables with varying degrees of breathability that extend the life of each type of produce by as much as two or three weeks. It has also developed special containers with a membrane that regulates moisture to keep cheese fresh, and similar containers for bread.
The company also has tackled another global issue. About 1.8 million people worldwide live without access to safe drinking water. Tupperware Brands focused on water filtration technologies by working with industry experts, including former U.S. astronaut Dr. Story Musgrave. The result was the development of a personal water filtration system that uses a NASA technology: a ceramic shell with nanopores that remove pathogens from the liquid. Today it’s one of the company’s bestselling products.
From Earth to Space
About three years ago, NASA asked Tupperware Brands to work with the space agency on a project that optimizes the germination and growth of seeds into fresh fruits and vegetables in space. The goal is increasingly important because current and future space travel involve more astronauts staying away from Earth for longer periods of time, and fresh food in their diets has become more and more important.
The engineering for growing fresh food in space is tricky because plants require light and water — two elements difficult to provide in an enclosed space capsule in zero gravity. Astronauts aboard the ISS had already been growing leafy vegetables and flowers inside the Vegetable Production System, known as the “Veggie” facility. To reduce the frequency of watering plants in space, Dr. Howard Levine and a group at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) started exploring concepts for a “plant pillow” that would hold the root structure of the plants. It evolved into a semi-hydroponic design called the Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS).
NASA’s website explains the project this way: “Organisms grow differently in space, from single-celled bacteria to plants and humans. Future long-duration space missions will require crew members to grow their own food. Therefore, understanding how plants respond to microgravity and demonstrating the reliable vegetable production on-orbit are important steps toward that goal. Veggie PONDS uses a newly developed passive nutrient delivery system and the Veggie plant growth facility aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to cultivate lettuce and mizuna greens, which are to be harvested on-orbit, and consumed, with samples returned to Earth for analysis.”
At Tupperware Brands, a team of four led by Kusuma was assigned to work with Techshot, an aerospace solutions provider based in Greenville, Indiana, that guides numerous contractors through the processes of getting their research and products into space. “We were asked to work with them because of our long-term focus on food preservation and food-safe materials,” Kusuma said. “It was an opportunity to do something new and highlight the fact that we are cutting-edge.”
The team visited the space kitchen at Johnson Space Center, which brings in astronauts prior to their launch, and gathers information from them about their favorite meals before putting together recipes with proper nutrition that will work in space. The food is then prepared for the space station and launched from KSC.
Together, the Tupperware Brands and Techshot team further developed Levine’s rough prototype into a new device that consists of as few parts and components as possible — a requirement for industrialization and manufacturing. Up to six of the devices can be installed in Veggie at one time.
“Like the plant pillows, the PONDS devices are single-use items, which can be discarded after the plants are grown and harvested on-orbit,” according to a press release about the project. “However, unlike the plant pillows, PONDS can also be returned, refurbished, and reflown in space.”
The first batch, launched in April 2018, achieved 100 percent germination of the seeds, but the devices were using more water than the plants required. NASA asked the team to refine the function. Version 2.0 consisted of not one but three different solutions, so NASA sent four of each, for a total of 12 units, on the next mission to the ISS, launched in April 2019. All of those seeds also germinated, but the soil was left too dry. Version 3.0, to be launched in early 2020, produced tomatoes in about 90 days and is being tested with other seeds.
One of the team’s biggest thrills, Kusuma said, was sitting in with NASA personnel as they spoke with the astronauts on the space station. The Tupperware team was not able to ask direct questions but could have those questions relayed to the astronauts, whose answers were beamed back to Earth via video on a screen at KSC. “Tupperware had great interactions with both Techshot and NASA,” Kusuma said.
One of the measures NASA uses to determine whether a project is successful is the ability for it to be commercialized to improve life on Earth. The space agency focuses on developing technologies that are for space use and research. The PONDS project could someday turn into a future line of products for Tupperware.
“The greater opportunity is that we have a chance to look at how to use this technology in people’s homes,” Kusuma said. “People want fresh vegetables all the time but don’t necessarily have a lot of space for growing them, especially in urban kitchens.”
A Long Journey
This isn’t the first time Tupperware Brands has worked with NASA. The journey started about 15 years ago, when the company was invited to work with aerospace company Boeing to create storage systems inside Orion, the successor to the space shuttle, and new spacecraft designed to carry astronauts and cargo to the ISS and beyond. There was a cylindrical-shaped storage space below the floor of the crew cabin, and containers had to be pie-shaped to be lifted in and out of the vehicle through an airlock, Kusuma said. Boeing wasn’t selected for that project, so Tupperware’s role as a subcontractor partner was cut short.
The next opportunity came in 2005 when the European Space Agency contacted Kusuma about a project involving the University of Udine in Italy. The ESA wanted a container that fit a very specific set of dimensions, and it would be going to the ISS aboard a Russian TMA-6 rocket. The container was to be used in stem cell research to determine how cells multiply in weightlessness, looking forward to long-term spaceflight.
Kusuma looked through Tupperware’s master database of about 10,000 molds and found a match. The normal Tupperware materials would not be hardy enough to withstand the rigors of space travel, so the company customized a special one for the ESA.
“It was the first time we had ever been connected to a spaceflight operation,” Kusuma said. “Every time the Tupperware container moved, I got an email like, ‘The TMA-6 has docked with the International Space Station, and the Tupperware container has been moved into the Aquarius Incubator aboard ISS!’”
The container’s mission lasted 10 days, and Kusuma recalls his phone ringing about two weeks later: “I actually got a call from the project administrator from the ESA. He said, ‘I’ve got your container here. Everything went well. Would you like it back, or can I sell it on eBay?’” Today the container sits in a display case in a hallway at the Tupperware Brands headquarters.
Will a PONDS container also be on display there someday? It might be too early to say. For now, Tupperware continues to launch new innovations on Earth as well as in space.
“Tupperware products have included smart technology features for nearly 70 years,” Kusuma said in a press release announcing the PONDS project. “Our product evolution goals have always been to meet today’s needs for consumers, whether that includes microwaveable grills or food processors that require no electricity; we are proud to now say that this includes sustainable vegetation growth in space. This has been one of our most exciting and unique collaborations, and we are honored to have worked alongside NASA and Techshot on the advancement and success of the PONDS project.”