Zero-Gravity Gourmet

Is outer space the next frontier for haute cuisine?

A corned beef sandwich caused quite a bit of trouble for astronaut John W. Young at the 1965 Gemini 3 launch. Before takeoff, Young had bought the sandwich from a Florida delicatessen and stuffed it into his flight suit. In orbit, he pulled it out of his pocket and began to chow down—not a great idea. The sandwich sparked a congressional investigation into who had brought the contraband on board, resulting in a formal reprimand for the astronaut. Government officials claimed that the sandwich’s crumbs could have damaged the shuttle’s equipment.

It’s hard to blame Young for sneaking a snack—early space food was atrocious, consisting of puréed meals in toothpastelike tubes or worse. “[We’d] compress a sandwich into a cube, which we would enrobe with oil or starch. It would be bite-sized, so it was very easy to eat,” says Michele Perchonok, PhD, who manages the space-food program at NASA.

Though modern astronauts still can’t take a sandwich from their favorite deli on a space mission, NASA and other space programs have vastly improved upon the “cubes and tubes” cuisine forced on the earliest space pioneers. Today, NASA astronauts pick from more than 200 menu items before they leave—choices that are very similar to earth food, says Perchonok. “They have meatloaf, lasagne, vegetables, and even chocolate cake.”

The shuttles aren’t equipped with refrigerators, however, so all meals must be safe to store at room temperature for 12 months; food supplied to the International Space Station has to be able to last for 18 months. As a result, most food is freeze-dried and packed in vacuum-sealed pouches, and must be mixed with hot water before eating.

In spite of these restrictions, it seems that suddenly, space food is the new haute cuisine. Recently, celebrity chefs, including Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray, have sent their own culinary creations into space with NASA’s assistance. And in April, Hungarian billionaire Charles Simonyi paid more than $20 million to go into orbit through the tourism agency Space Adventures. He ate well. With help from girlfriend Martha Stewart, he brought a freeze-dried feast of quail roasted in Madiran wine, duck confit with capers, chicken parmentier, apple fondant, rice pudding, and semolina cake with dried apricots.

“Charles wanted to treat the crew,” says Stacey Tearne of Space Adventures. “He was only in space for 14 days, but the crew is there for six months. He was thinking about what they would miss from Earth.”

Simonyi’s feast came courtesy of Alain Ducasse Formation (ADF), the famous French chef’s consulting group. The European Space Agency (ESA), an intergovernmental space program headquartered in Paris that was established in 1975 and now has 17 member countries, requested ADF’s help with developing “special event meals” for its crews several years ago; the astronauts now have an arsenal of 13 gourmet recipes to choose from. “We try to give astronauts meals that look as much as possible like … something you could have at a restaurant,” says ADF’s space-food manager, Quentin Vicas.

ADF has no intention of replacing the astronauts’ standard meals with its upscale fare, though. “The meals are there for special events like birthdays, or the changing of a crew. We don’t want to be the everyday meal of astronauts, because that’s something the Russians and Americans take good care of. We want to be there for psychological support and the good moments,” says Vicas.

Nor does the group plan to expand into the consumer market. In an interview with CNES Magazine, Alain Ducasse said that, because of the expense and effort required to produce the meals, “the project was intended as … a fascinating foray into nutrition in extreme conditions.” He did admit, however, that Prince Albert of Monaco had taken some of ADF’s meals on a North Pole expedition.

ADF is also developing food for Mars expeditions—a task with some especially big challenges. A round-trip voyage to the red planet takes a full year, and astronauts are expected to spend at least 18 months there, for a total of two and a half years beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The estimated food required for a two-year journey for a team of six astronauts would literally weigh down the shuttle if you tried to take it with you, says Joseph Marcy, a food science specialist at Virginia Tech. So it will be essential for the crew to grow and cook some of its own food at the Mars space station.

With this in mind, ESA has selected nine ingredients that could be grown in greenhouses on Mars: spirulina, rice, onions, tomatoes, soybeans, potatoes, lettuce, spinach, and wheat. Ducasse has developed recipes that could be made with these things, including “Martian bread” with green tomato jam, potato and tomato mille-feuilles, and gnocchi made from spirulina algae. ADF still has plenty of time to perfect the recipes, though—the ESA’s first manned mission to Mars is scheduled for 2033. In the meantime, ADF provided several meals to earthbound French adventurers Olivier Pezeron and Arnaud Fauvet for their 2005 skiing expedition in Greenland.

Also in the works is a “food replicator,” which Boston-based research firm Icosystem is developing with a grant from NASA. It’s a compact machine being designed for the space shuttle that will be capable of re-creating typical Earth foods with unconventional ingredients—for instance, a pound cake without butter, which can’t be used because it would spoil during the long journey. It will mix, boil, and bake within separate chambers, so a human being never has to lay a hand on the work in progress.

If you’d rather not wait to see what the future holds, hop on a plane to Shanghai, China, where upscale restaurants serve dishes made with the coveted Purple Orchid III potato. Grown from seeds that mutated from radiation exposure aboard the Chinese space mission Shenzhou VI, the bright purple spuds are, quite literally, out of this world.

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