Natalie Hirsch held metallic-looking bags of pesto and tortillas inside the Canadian Space Agency’s headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. Hirsch is a fitness and nutrition expert at the Canadian Space Agency and on Thursday morning she presented and served a wide range of food that astronaut David Saint-Jacques will be bringing with him on his upcoming mission at the International Space Station.
The ISS already has a permanent menu, but the astronauts who inhabit it for months on end are welcome to bring foods from home that meet the stringent requirements of space travel—minimal crumbs, requiring little preparation, and so on—like pizza for Italian astronauts. Not surprisingly, some stereotypically Canadian foods will also be launched from Johnson Space Center and into the stomachs of ISS astronauts, as Saint-Jacques gets ready to spend six-and-a-half-months onboard, conducting health research and operating the Canadarm.
“My job is to coordinate to make sure we get Canadian food flying on the space station when we have a Canadian Space Agency astronaut flying,” Hirsch says after injecting tea into a plastic bag on a table inside the CSA’s test kitchen.
The Canadian Space Agency’s food lab, where Hirsch and the team evaluated which foods to send into space, looks more like a small office kitchen than an actual laboratory. This is partially because, Hirsch told me, it’s cheaper to find commercially available food that will survive in space than to create it from scratch in a lab. “We wanted to be able to provide a variety of products and when you look at the cost of developing novel menus, it can be quite high,” Hirsch explained. “If there’s a product on the market that meet the criteria, we fly those instead.”
For Saint-Jacques’ mission, ISS astronauts will have to settle for traditional Earthbound fare like leaf-shaped maple cookies, or eating maple syrup right out of a toothpaste-like plastic tube.
For the Perspective mission, launching in December 2018, Canada’s space foods were selected to suit Saint-Jacques’ personal preferences (he tested more than 50 products and rated them on a scale of 0-10) although showcasing Canada’s culinary culture was also a factor. In a very confident move, the CSA invited journalists to sample the Perspective menu in a small conference room, where I met Hirsch, that smelled unmistakably like cat food upon entering.
This was obviously due to Saint-Jacques’ apparent penchant for fish as well as the open cans of lobster and crab pâté, that also looked a lot like cat food in addition to the smell. It was essentially a tasting menu, like Noma, only in a drab conference room inside a government building.
This was no time to be wearing a food writer hat, as it became clear that serious concessions had to be made on the flavour front if we were to advance outward into space as a species.
“He prefers savoury products,” said Hirsch of Saint-Jacques’ tastes. “We’ve done a lot of work looking for more meal-time savoury products instead of sweet snacks. We have a selection of four different types of salmon. It looks like a lot of salmon when we have it on the table, but when you think over a period of six months, it’s nice to have a bit of variety. Especially for David wanting to share Canadian food with his crew members, salmon is a typical Canadian product.”
The biggest constraint for preserving food in space is the lack of refrigerators, which is why most food is canned or dehydrated and requires a shelf life of at least one year. Once a selection is made by an astronaut, the CSA sends these products to NASA for packaging. An alternative method of transporting food through space is in metallic pouches, which are more flexible than cans and allow for more interesting textures like lemon meringue pudding, salmon filets, and lasagne, which I was served as a kind of amuse-bouche. It tasted like a high-brow TV dinner, which is to say, pretty good.
Canada did once produce its own space food, by the way: the Canasnack, developed by the CSA in concert with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in 2007. According to the CSA, these low-crumb, high-shelf life maple cookies “not only represented Canadian identity, they also met NASA's criteria for nutritional value and proper storage.”
After the lasagne, I was served an onslaught of salmon, dehydrated vegetables, seafood pâtés, tortillas, and vegetarian pad thai, which ranged from really tasty (smoked salmon) to passable for Earthly consumption (pad thai) to confusingly bad (lobster pâté). I was given a refreshing plastic shot glass of cold tea to wash everything down. For dessert, I got nuts and dried fruits topped with chocolate sauce, which was by far the best-tasting course, probably because its ingredients were the most unaltered of all of the offerings. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the dehydrated, spicy “shrimp cocktail,” which is apparently quite a hit with astronauts whose ability to taste is severely hindered by zero-gravity.
Like any work settings, where many neglect the unwritten rule of “no fish in the microwave,” smell is taken into consideration at the ISS. So, with all of that salmon, will Saint-Jacques tarnish the reputation of the Canadian space program? Not likely, says Hirsch. “We look for food that usually doesn’t have a strong smell, but if the whole crew likes fish, then it’s fine,” she said, explaining that the ISS crew had already met on Earth and eaten together to make sure that they could handle the smell of each other’s foods.
All in all, the dishes chosen by Saint-Jacques and the CSA were more Swanson than Jetsons, but it’s a big improvement on the space food of yore, which was really only appealing to the children of the Cold War. The CSA’s choices also seemed to serve the double function of feeding David Saint-Jacques while showing off our food to the rest of the ISS astronauts, who will soon become acquainted with the joys of consuming straight-up maple syrup out of a tube.
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