Dinner on board space station: Beef burgundy or lobster?

Space agencies ensure astronauts can enjoy a quality meal at times amid hectic schedule

Employees at the factory canning space food for Mr Pesquet. The astronaut will not be dining on lobster and beef burgundy every day. These meticulously prepared dishes are intended for celebrations of special occasions like birthdays, with enough ser
A chef from French chef Alain Ducasse's team (above) preparing a low-temperature cooked salmon for French astronaut Thomas Pesquet at a canning factory in Pouldreuzic, near Brest, western France. "There's a lot of expectations when you send a Frenchman into space," said Mr Pesquet, who took off on a recent SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Employees at the factory canning space food for Mr Pesquet. The astronaut will not be dining on lobster and beef burgundy every day. These meticulously prepared dishes are intended for celebrations of special occasions like birthdays, with enough ser
A chef from French chef Alain Ducasse's team preparing a low-temperature cooked salmon (above) for French astronaut Thomas Pesquet at a canning factory in Pouldreuzic, near Brest, western France. "There's a lot of expectations when you send a Frenchman into space," said Mr Pesquet, who took off on a recent SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Employees at the factory canning space food for Mr Pesquet. The astronaut will not be dining on lobster and beef burgundy every day. These meticulously prepared dishes are intended for celebrations of special occasions like birthdays, with enough ser
Employees at the factory canning space food for Mr Pesquet. The astronaut will not be dining on lobster and beef burgundy every day. These meticulously prepared dishes are intended for celebrations of special occasions like birthdays, with enough servings for him to share. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A French astronaut who leaves Earth these days does not leave French food behind.

Here are some of the foods that Mr Thomas Pesquet, a French astronaut who took off on a recent SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station, will enjoy during his six-month stay in orbit: lobster, beef bourguignon (or beef burgundy), cod with black rice, potato cakes with wild mushrooms and almond tarts with caramelised pears.

"There's a lot of expectations when you send a Frenchman into space," Mr Pesquet said during a European Space Agency news conference. "I'm a terrible cook myself, but it's OK if people are doing it for me."

Space cuisine has come a long way since Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet astronaut who in 1961 was the first to reach space, squeezed pureed beef and chocolate sauce from toothpaste-like tubes. The food for John Glenn, who 10 months later became the first American in orbit, was not any tastier. He swallowed some applesauce.

Nowadays, astronauts get to share the culinary creations of their countries, and the world's space agencies are showing that while life in space is hectic, an astronaut should at least be able to enjoy a quality meal now and then.

That is why Mr Pesquet and his crew mates aboard the station will get to dine on dishes prepared by three separate French culinary institutions. "Obviously, all my colleagues are expecting good food."

Mr Alain Ducasse, a chef who operates renowned restaurants around the world including Benoit in New York, has collaborated for years with the French space agency to create menu items available to astronauts aboard the space station.

In addition, another Michelin-starred chef, Mr Thierry Marx, and physical chemistry professor Raphael Haumont of the University of Paris-Saclay have created some dishes specifically for Mr Pesquet. The two run the university's French Centre of Culinary Innovation and had cooked some meals for Mr Pesquet's first trip to the space station in 2016. (Mr Pesquet and Mr Marx had met by chance at a judo conference a few years earlier. Both are black belts.)

Mr Pesquet, a former Air France pilot, also asked Servair, a catering company for Air France and other airlines, to devise some dishes for him. "I've enjoyed their food for a long time," he said.

Mr Pesquet will not be dining on lobster and beef bourguignon every day. These meticulously prepared dishes are intended for celebrations of special occasions like birthdays, with enough servings for Mr Pesquet to share.

But even everyday space cuisine that the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) now provides for astronauts is "pretty fantastic", said Mr Shane Kimbrough, the Nasa astronaut who is commander of last week's SpaceX mission.

Mr Ryan Dowdy, who recently left Nasa after managing food on the space station for over two years, said there are some 200 items on the menu to ward off monotony. "There's no grocery store. You can't DoorDash anything. You got to make do with what's there."

He touts the pulled beef brisket and the macaroni and cheese as particularly scrumptious. "It needs to remind people of their experiences of eating food on Earth," he said. "It reminds them of all those good things in this really stressful space-flight environment."

Food in space cannot be exactly like food on Earth. Much of it is freeze-dried, with the water extracted, to reduce its size and volume. Other foods are heated to high temperatures to kill germs so that they can sit around at room temperature, sealed in cans and plastic bags, for a couple of years before being eaten. Space food should also not be crumbly, disintegrating into bits that could be inhaled or float into sensitive equipment. Astronauts inject water into the plastic bags to rehydrate dried foods. A forced-air convection oven heats other dishes.

For the health of the astronauts, the foods are usually low in sodium, sugar and fat. "They are high-performance athletes," said Mr Marx.

Alcohol is also prohibited - a particular challenge for French cuisine which prizes wine. Mr Marx did not leave out the wine from the mushroom sauce accompanying an entree of slow-cooked beef and vegetables. But then the alcohol was extracted through a spinning evaporator without removing the flavour. The sauce was then verified to be alcohol-free via a nuclear magnetic resonance instrument.

The flavours also have to survive the sterilisation process - or what is called thermo-stabilisation. That usually means heating the food to 140 deg C for an hour, Prof Haumont said. "Can you imagine a cake or a piece of chicken or something like that on Earth? More than an hour of cooking at 140 deg C destroys the structure. So we have to rework the cooking techniques."

But instead of frustration, Prof Haumont described the process as "exciting" - playing with spices and ingredients not traditionally found in French food, like seaweed. "There are small tricks like this to produce umami that will reveal certain flavours."

Mr Marx's dishes were assembled in the cans by hand to offer the visual flare of fine dining.

Servair corporate chef Francois Adamski also had to experiment with his recipes. A risotto-like dish used einkorn, an ancient wheat grain, instead of rice, to add some crunchiness, and sauces were thickened so droplets were less likely to float away.

The history of French chefs cooking for astronauts goes back to 1993 when French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haignere returned from a visit to Russia's Mir space station and said everything in space went well except the food.

Mr Richard Filippi, a chef and cooking instructor in south-west France, heard Mr Haignere's complaints on the radio and contacted the National Centre for Space Studies - France's equivalent of Nasa - offering to help. Mr Filippi and his students then cooked up beef daube, quail, tuna and lemon confit, and other foods that accompanied French astronauts on subsequent missions to Mir in the 1990s.

When the French space agency looked to restart the programme in 2004 for the International Space Station, Mr Filippi had retired and suggested Mr Ducasse.

The first of Mr Ducasse's food for the agency was eaten in space in 2007. His team has now come up with more than 40 recipes for astronauts, including recent additions like flourless, gluten-free chocolate cake and vegetarian options like carrot clafoutis with smoked paprika and quinoa cooked with saffron broth and vegetables.

"We have a lovely lobster, with some quinoa, with a lemon condiment," said chef director Jerome Lacressonniere of Mr Ducasse's consulting company, which is producing the space food. That is despite having to cook it longer and hotter than would be acceptable at a Ducasse restaurant on Earth.

Despite the best efforts of the chefs and scientists, some things do not work. "At the beginning, we were trying to do a croissant," said French space agency scientist Alain Maillet, who works with Mr Ducasse's cooks.

The result, he said, was awful.

"It was not working at all. It was not possible to put a croissant in a can and have it thermo-stabilised."

Nasa continues to add to its space menu too. Perhaps befitting an agency of rocket engineers, the processes for creating the foods are recorded not as recipes but as specifications. The food is produced a few hundred kilograms at a time, and it has to be manufactured the same way each time.

"Just like any other piece of a rocket engine or a spacesuit, our food is government-certified space-flight hardware that fulfils a specific function," Mr Dowdy said.

One of the newest pieces of Nasa edible space-flight hardware is a sweet and savoury kale salad. With advances in food science, the kale, after adding 75ml of hot water and waiting five to 10 minutes, retains some crunch and texture.

"It's not like eating straight-up raw kale," Mr Dowdy said. "We developed a specific cooking and freeze-drying process that doesn't completely turn it to mush."

The astronauts at the space station do eat ice cream on occasion. There are freezers on both the spacecraft taking cargo to the space station and the space station itself. "If there ends up being a little extra space in a cold stowage area, then we'll try to fill that with a frozen dessert for the crew members," Mr Dowdy said.

With real ice cream available, there is no need in space for those blocks of chalky Neapolitan astronaut ice cream which parents buy for their children at museum gift shops. Indeed, in the 60 years of the Space Age, no astronaut has ever eaten astronaut ice cream, at least not in space.

The freeze-dried ice cream was indeed developed in 1974 for Nasa - for the gift shop in the agency's Ames Research Centre in California. The company that makes it, Outdoor Products of Boulder, Colorado, now sells a couple million of them a year.

Cargo missions to the space station also take up fresh produce like apples, oranges and tomatoes. Recently, refrigerated cheese has started going to space too, a request by Ms Shannon Walker, a Nasa astronaut currently at the station. Mr Dowdy worked with a Houston cheesemonger to find a Belgian Gouda.

"We actually developed a way to send refrigerated cheese as Class 1 government-certified space-flight hardware," Mr Dowdy said. "The crew members absolutely loved it."

Future food challenges will include cooking and growing crops. That will become crucial on longer missions like trips to Mars, where there will not be a continual arrival of supply ships. Already, astronauts have grown - and eaten - small harvests of lettuce and radishes on the space station.

Using an experimental zero-gravity oven, astronauts in 2019 also baked pouches of raw chocolate cookie dough, producing five cookies in all. The astronauts did not eat the cookies, which were sent back to Earth for safety testing.

But without gravity, ovens cannot work the same way. Other common cooking techniques like sauteing and stir-frying would be not only messy, with ingredients floating all around, but also potentially catastrophic if the flames spread out of control. The physics is also different, with heat transmitted through radiation and direct physical contact instead of the flow of hot air like in ovens on Earth.

"I can't wait to see what sort of innovative solutions we come up with to tackle that challenge," Mr Dowdy said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2021, with the headline 'Dinner on board space station: Beef burgundy or lobster?'. Subscribe