When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961, he was also the first person to eat aboard a spacecraft. Gagarin dined on beef and liver paste, followed by chocolate sauce, squeezed into his mouth from aluminum tubes.
Things have changed significantly since then, but it’s been an evolutionary process. The first batch of American Mercury astronauts also ingested food from tubes (John Glenn was limited to applesauce), but the longer missions featured free-dried dishes reconstituted with water from the ship’s onboard supply. The Apollo moon missions relied on freeze-dried foods as well, but the choices had increased to 70 items. A freezer was added to Skylab, America’s first space station, allowing for a much greater range of culinary options.
With the International Space Station, dining in space escalated to another level. Since 2004, none other than superstar chef Alain Ducasse has been developing dishes for the module. He is assisted by Thierry Marx, head chef at the Paris Mandarin Oriental and the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant at the Eiffel Tower. For French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who arrived at the ISS on a SpaceX rocket several weeks ago, the menu will include boeuf bourguignon, lobster, cod with black rice and almond tarts with caramelized pears. On a previous mission, Pesquet had macarons delivered to celebrate his birthday.
Certain foods do better than others in space. Over time, bread has proven unreliable, since the crumbs that break off can circulate in the weightless cabin and threaten the spacecraft’s electronic equipment; tortillas have become the go-to alternative. Alcohol is forbidden. While foods have to be low in sodium, sugar and fat, dishes tend to be bland and need to be spiked with salt, pepper and hot sauce to liven them up. One of the biggest drawbacks has been the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables; on longer missions, the crew has successfully grown lettuce and radishes aboard the ISS.
Prior to each mission the astronauts visit the test kitchens at NASA, where they can sample recipes and plan out menus for their time in space. Since the crew is international, they have the option of including typical dishes from their native countries, including Malaysian satay, kimchee and sushi. It may not be equivalent to Ducasse’s three-star palaces in London or Monte Carlo, but it’s a long way from applesauce in a tube.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.