A French astronaut leaving Earth these days leaves no French food behind.
Here are some of the foods Thomas Pesquet, a French astronaut who took off for the International Space Station on a SpaceX rocket Friday, will enjoy during his six-month stay in orbit: lobster, beef bourguignon, cod with black rice, potato pie with wild Mushrooms and almond tarts with caramelized pears.
“There are many expectations when you send a Frenchman into space,” Pesquet said at a European Space Agency press conference last month. “I’m a terrible cook myself, but it’s okay if people do it for me.”
Space cuisine has come a long way since Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet astronaut who first went into space in 1961, pressed pureed beef and chocolate sauce out of toothpaste-like tubes. The food for John Glenn, who 10 months later became the first American in orbit, was no tastier. He swallowed some apple sauce.
Nowadays, astronauts can share the culinary creations of their countries, and the world’s space agencies show that although life in space is hectic, an astronaut should at least be able to enjoy a quality meal every now and then.
Because of this, Mr Pesquet and his crew members on board the station can enjoy dishes prepared by three different French culinary establishments. “Obviously all of my colleagues expect good food,” he said.
Alain Ducasse, a chef who runs world-renowned restaurants including Benoit in Manhattan, has worked with the French space agency for years to create menu items for astronauts aboard the space station.
In addition, another Michelin-starred chef, Thierry Marx, and Raphaël Haumont, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Paris-Saclay, have created some dishes especially for Mr Pesquet. The two run the university’s French Center for Culinary Innovation and in 2016 had prepared some meals for Mr Pesquet’s first trip to the space station. (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 develop some dishes for him.
“I’ve enjoyed their food for a long time,” he said.
Mr. Pesquet won’t dine on lobster and beef bourguignon every day. These carefully prepared dishes are intended for celebrations on special occasions such as birthdays and offer Mr Pesquet enough portions to share.
But even the everyday space kitchen NASA offers astronauts these days is “pretty awesome,” said Shane Kimbrough, the NASA astronaut in command of the SpaceX mission on Friday.
Ryan Dowdy, who has just left NASA after managing groceries on the space station for more than two years, says there are around 200 items on the menu to ward off monotony. “There’s no grocery store,” he said. “You can’t do anything with DoorDash. You have to get along with what is there. “
He advertises the pulled beef brisket and the macaroni and cheese as particularly tasty.
“It has to remind people of their eating experiences on earth,” he said. “It reminds you of all the good things in this really stressful space environment.”
However, food in space cannot be exactly like food on earth. Much of it is freeze-dried, extracting the water to reduce its size and volume. Other foods are heated to high temperatures to kill germs so they can lie around in cans and plastic bags at room temperature for a few years before being eaten. Space foods should also not be crumbly and break up into pieces that can be inhaled or entered sensitive equipment.
Astronauts inject water into the plastic bags to rehydrate dried food. A convection oven heats other dishes.
For the health of the astronauts, the foods are usually low in sodium, sugar and fat.
“You are a high-performance athlete,” said Marx.
Alcohol is also banned – a particular challenge for French cuisine, where wine is valued. Mr. Marx didn’t skip the wine from the mushroom sauce that was part of a starter with slow-cooked beef and vegetables. Then the alcohol was extracted through a rotating evaporator without removing the aroma. The sauce was then verified to be alcohol-free using a magnetic resonance instrument.
The flavors also have to survive the sterilization process – what food scientists call thermal stabilization. That usually means heating the food to 140 degrees Celsius, or 285 degrees Fahrenheit, for an hour, said Dr. Haumont. “Can you imagine a cake or a piece of chicken or something on earth?” he said. “More than an hour of cooking at 140 destroyed the structure. So we need to revise the cooking techniques. “
Instead of frustration, Dr. Haumont described the process as “exciting” – he toyed with spices and ingredients traditionally not found in French food, such as seaweed.
“There are little tricks like this to make umami that reveal certain flavors,” he said.
Mr. Marx’s dishes have been hand-crafted in the cans to provide the visual flair of fine dining.
François Adamski, Servair’s head chef, also had to experiment with his recipes. A risotto-like dish used einkorn, an ancient grain of wheat, in place of rice to add some crispness, and sauces were thickened so that droplets were less likely to float away.
The history of French chefs cooking for astronauts dates back to 1993 when a French astronaut, Jean-Pierre Haigneré, returned from a visit to the Russian Mir space station and said everything went well in space except for the food .
Richard Filippi, cook and cooking instructor in southwest France, heard Mr Haigneré’s complaints on the radio and turned to the National Center for Space Studies – France’s equivalent to NASA – and offered help. Mr. Filippi and his students then cooked beef, quail, tuna, and lemon confit and other foods that accompanied French astronauts on later missions to Mir in the 1990s.
When the French Space Agency wanted to restart the International Space Station program in 2004, Mr. Filippi had retired and proposed to Mr. Ducasse.
Mr Ducasse’s first meal for the agency was eaten in space in 2007. Mr Ducasse’s team has now developed more than 40 recipes for astronauts, including recently added products like flour-free, gluten-free chocolate cake and vegetarian options like carrot clafoutis with smoked paprika and quinoa, cooked with saffron broth and vegetables.
“We have a nice lobster with a bit of quinoa and lemon spice,” said Jérôme Lacressonnière, chief director of the Ducasse consultancy that makes the space food. That is although it takes longer and hotter to cook than would be acceptable in a Ducasse restaurant on earth.
Despite the best efforts of cooks and scientists, some things don’t work. “At first we tried to make a croissant,” said Alain Maillet, a French space agency scientist who works with Mr Ducasse’s chefs. The result is terrible.
“It didn’t work at all,” said Dr. Maillet. “It wasn’t possible to put a croissant in a can and let it stabilize.”
NASA continues to expand its space menu. Perhaps fitting an agency of rocket engineers, the processes for making the food are not recorded as recipes but as specifications. The food is produced a few hundred pounds at a time and must be made the same way each time.
“Like any other piece of a rocket engine or space suit, our food is government-certified space hardware that performs a specific function,” said Dr. Dowdy.
One of the newest pieces of edible space hardware from NASA is a sweet and savory kale salad. With advances in food science, kale retains some crispness and texture after adding 75 milliliters of hot water and waiting five to 10 minutes.
“It’s not like eating raw cabbage,” said Dr. Dowdy. “We have developed a special boiling and freeze-drying process that does not turn it completely into pulp.”
The space station astronauts occasionally eat ice cream. There are freezers both on the spaceship that bring cargo to the space station and to the space station itself.
“If there is a bit more space in a cold storage space, we will try to fill it with a frozen dessert for the crew members,” said Dr. Dowdy.
With real ice there is no space required for the blocks of chalky Neapolitan astronaut ice cream that parents buy for their children in gift shops in the museum. 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 actually developed for NASA in 1974 – for the gift shop at the agency’s Ames Research Center in California. The company that makes it, Outdoor Products of Boulder, Colorado, now sells a few million of them a year.
Freight missions to the space station also pick up fresh produce such as apples, oranges and tomatoes.
Chilled cheese was also recently launched into space, a request from Shannon Walker, a NASA astronaut currently on the station. Dr. Dowdy was working with a Houston cheese merchant to find a Belgian Gouda.
“We actually developed a way to ship chilled cheese as state-certified Class 1 aerospace hardware,” said Dr. Dowdy. “The crew members absolutely loved it.”
Future food challenges in space include cooking and growing plants. This will be vital on longer missions like trips to Mars, where no supply ships are constantly arriving. Astronauts have already grown – and eaten – small crops of lettuce and radishes that were grown on the space station.
In 2019, the astronauts also baked bags of raw chocolate cookie dough using an experimental weightless oven and produced a total of five biscuits. The astronauts did not eat the cookies that were sent back to Earth for a safety check.
But stoves cannot function the same way without gravity. Other common cooking techniques like frying and roasting would not only be messy with the ingredients floating all over the place, but also disastrous if the flames spread out of control. The physics is also different: heat is transferred through radiation and direct physical contact instead of flowing hot air like in ovens on earth.
“I can’t wait to see what innovative solutions we can develop to meet this challenge,” said Dr. Dowdy.