This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
In August 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov became the second human in space and the first human to vomit outside earth's atmosphere. He had a serious case of space sickness, but you couldn't really blame the guy considering the kind of food cosmonauts had to eat then: his predecessor in space, Yuri Gagarin, had to squeeze puréed meat from a tube into his mouth for lunch.
Since then, culinary circumstances in space have changed drastically—last year Samantha Cristoforetti became the first person to brew a proper espresso in space. In the past, research into space food had been mostly focused on technical aspects like weight, volume, and a long shelf life. The ingredients in space food are sterilized in an autoclave—a kind of pressure chamber. The food needs to last for two or three years and astronauts should be able to consume it without having to prepare it and at zero gravity. It needs to be packaged so it's easy to transport and store—since a space station is very cramped, every centimeter counts.
Faced with all those limitations, you'd soon forget that other aspect of food: that it's supposed to taste good. But luckily, more recently researchers in the field of space food are giving more attention to that particular part of the culinary space experience.
Argotec is an Italian company producing food for people in space, and its main focus is to make their dishes as tasty as possible. Like everyone, I too grew up dreaming of becoming an astronaut, so I'm very curious to see what's on the menu once you get to outer space. I went to the Argotec HQ in Turin, Italy to get wined and dined like an astronaut.
Appetizer: Barley and Prawns
You can't light a stove in space, so space food is ready to eat and dishes are packaged in vacuum bags. And there's no reason to bring out the nice cutlery at zero gravity, so astronauts eat from these bags directly with a spoon.
Given that space stations are so small and all the food is vacuum packed, it's notable that astronauts apparently do find room to stash some appetizers because that's what we're being served first. It might be space food but we're still in Italy. It's a salad of rice, prawns, and courgettes—a bit bland, but the Argotec employee explains that your perception of flavors changes completely in space. In the absence of gravity, your saliva becomes congested between the nose and the throat, which has a similar effect on how you perceive flavor as when your having a bad cold. One dish could taste like nothing to one astronaut and be an explosion of flavors to another—which is why it's important to provide a wide variety of flavors.
We take only a few bites to keep room for the rest of the courses. The first thing that strikes me about the barley and prawns is the consistency of the dish—the ingredients have largely retained their natural texture, which I wouldn't expect from food prepared in an autoclave. The flavor wasn't mind boggling but I had prepared for the worst, and rather than being the sort of thing that you'd only eat on a spacewalk, it seemed like something you could very well bring to a picnic.
The First Course: Rice with Chicken and Vegetables
After the appetizer we move to the first course: a dish of rice, chicken, and vegetables that isn't really a risotto and isn't really a chicken curry. But the rice is al dente, the meat feels like real meat and the vegetables have maintained the color they're blessed with here on God's green earth. It's pretty amazing, really.
And the flavor is intense, thanks to the fact that they've been generous with the turmeric. It's actually so heavy on the turmeric that it drowns out all the other flavors. Humankind has used spices to preserve food for centuries, and it's heartwarming to know that the tradition continues in the era of space exploration.
The Main Course: Sorghum with Beef
As a main course we're served beef and sorghum—a type of grain. The dish is tasty, its structure is great and it's my favorite of the day. While the other dishes were served on a plate, we ate the beef directly from the plastic packaging—just like astronauts do. The best thing about it is that when you open the packaging, the food clings to the sides of the inside. According to the Argotech people, this was the most vital part of the research into their dishes: how to make sure the food clings together and keeps the different grains from having a grain party, floating through your space station and getting in your machinery.
They figured it out (don't ask me how), and the technology is now being used for earthly means, like sustenance for people going on Arctic expeditions. That shouldn't come as a surprise, really: many civilian technological innovations are based on developments in space technology.
The Side Dish: Quinoa Salad
The quinoa salad is fine—it reminds me of the rice dish, but here the mackerel dominated and hid all other flavors. It was also apparently Samantha Cristoforetti's favorite when she was on the International Space Station. Cristoforetti wasn't just the first astronaut to brew an espresso in space, but she also was the first to "cook" there—in the sense that she chose and mixed what she wanted to eat from bulk packaging, instead of just having a ready made meal. That might not seem like much, but on a space station getting to choose what you want for dinner is a giant leap for mankind.
Dessert: A Chocolate Bar and Smoothie
For desert, we're having a chocolate-goji berry bar and an apple-pear-strawberry smoothie. The bar itself has a particularly uninviting greenish brown color, but it tastes okay—though not chocolaty enough for me. It tastes only of goji berries, so I figure the bar could make some yoga instructor very happy someday. A space yoga instructor.
The juice is exactly that—juice.
When people think about the future and functionality of food, images of protein shakes and pills that make any other kind of food unnecessary come to mind. But it's a comforting thought that engineers are working on space food that isn't just about the functionality. When sooner or later a mad visionary actually makes space tourism a reality for us mortals, it's nice to know we'll have something good to eat along the way.