Most of us losers who've never left this planet often imagine space food to be strictly rehydratable pasta and freeze-dried ice cream. While that is partly true, there have been numerous advances in the culinary field for astronauts in recent years. The tubes filled with meat puree from the Yuri Gagarin era are out, and more appealing, some might even say bougie, meals are in. This is largely thanks to the NASA Advanced Food Technology Project, which helps astronauts enjoy dishes that are more or less similar to what we eat on Earth.
In 2013, commander of the International Space Station Chris Hadfield showed us that living in a capsule orbiting at 250 miles from the Earth's surface didn't mean he couldn't celebrate Easter. During the same trip, he also posted videos of himself preparing tacos with honey and shrimp cocktails. Today, NASA plans to print 3D pizzas, German engineer Daniel Schubert is looking into growing vegetables on Mars, and some students in Colorado are working on a robot gardener capable of growing lettuce. A few months ago, chef Alain Ducasse sealed a partnership with the French National Centre of Space Studies (CNES) and French brand Hénaff—who are renowned for their pâté.
I had a chat with Quentin Vicas, the project manager for Alain Ducasse's company, to learn more about the gourmet meals that will be eaten a few hundred miles above our heads.
VICE: How did you start working with the CNES and Hénaff?
- Quentin Vicas: We started working with the CNES in 2004. It took us about two years to send the dishes into space . Since that day, we haven't stopped developing food menus for astronauts. Our dishes are currently being developed in the laboratory for Research and Development at the Hénaff factory located in Pouldreuzic, Finistère [a department of French Brittany].
Turns out that all the food that goes in outer space must be certified by Russians and Americans, who have extremely high standards. In France, only one company had the USDA certification, and it was Hénaff. That's why we got in touch with them.
So it's not your love of Breton pâté that led you to work with them.
- No, but I must admit that it was a pretty good fit—chef Alain Ducasse has known the brand for a long time and he adores it. And people from Brittany tend to be extremely pleasant, which is a bonus.
What kind of food will you be sending to outer space?
- It will be exclusively cooked meals—we try to do things that would appeal to an astronaut that has been trapped in space for a long time— someone who would have a certain nostalgia for earthly food. So we're basically cooking tasty family dishes.
The CNES understands that food has a real moral and physical impact on astronauts. There is something depressing about eating freeze-dried goods every day . After six months in space, it can even cause atrophy of the muscles.
We started by sending roast quail, swordfish, lemon confit, and tuna casseroles—loads of dishes that were strong in taste, just so astronauts could have the pleasure of getting together for a nice meal.
Our program is called "special events meals," because we are not trying to replace the daily food provided by the Russians and the Americans. We just try to celebrate special events—the arrival of a new astronaut, a spacewalk, a birthday... They are basically meant for exceptional circumstances, although our meals can also be used in the context of physiological experiments .
What are these experiments?
- There isn't a specific research program at the moment, but I do not exclude the possibility. We did it back in 2008 for a research on the precise definition of astronauts' nutritional needs and the monitoring of nutrients in the astronauts' assimilation process.
They used our recipes, so we knew the nutritional content and energy intake of each meal. This simply allows scientists to refine the experience of living in space.
Are there specific CNES instructions you need to follow?
- Of course. It is absolutely necessary that our meals don't make anyone sick. During the manufacturing process, we must be very careful about anything that has to do with hygiene, even more drastically than in a professional kitchen. We sterilize and disinfect everything we can to minimize the risk of bacteriological contamination. We also avoid watery foods that can damage the cabin, as well as dry ingredients that can make crumbs.
What are the steps between the planning of a meal and it actually being sent to space?
- First, Ducasse works on the recipes. After a phase of validation and tasting by astronauts and CNES officials, we start working on a menu. Then, we produce the meals. Once the courses are completed, we send them to the CNES, who are in charge of getting approval from Russian and American authorities.
Depending on the departures of the supply ships, the dishes are sent to Baikonur or the United States, from where they will be taken to the station along with supplies, equipment, etc. This means that astronauts have the option to eat properly between each refueling every three months, or something like that. But when their cargoes are empty, they are forced to return to a somewhat daunting diet.
What have you planned for the next shipment?
- Recently we cooked lamb shoulder with sage and tomatoes. We also tried a Breton lobster with quinori, seaweed, and lemon. And we prepared a beef bourguignon as well as a meager fillet from the Arcachon basin with mashed potatoes. We must have 25 recipes like this, which also include side dishes and desserts. There's even a chocolate cake and a cheesecake.