- Astronaut food is often dry, slimy, or just plain disappointing. But French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who launched aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship in April, wanted gourmet French dishes to share with his crewmates.
- So three French dishes launched to the International Space Station with Pesquet and his crew: beef bourguignon, einkorn risotto, and crêpe Suzette. All are packaged in sterilized, vacuum-sealed aluminum pouches.
- I tasted the three dishes, and found them surprisingly palatable. All the food had strong flavors, especially the wine-heavy bourguignon and the bright-orange crêpe. In space, astronauts’ sense of smell is inhibited, which makes it harder to taste food.
- The einkorn provided a little crunch – which astronauts often miss – but otherwise the food’s texture was mushy or chewy, and there wasn’t much color. These are the tradeoffs for making space-ready food that can sit at room temperature for two years.
- Here’s the full taste test, along with photos of the space food.
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“I can tell you the food isn’t great in space, from what we’ve tasted so far,” Jared Isaacman, a billionaire businessman who’s preparing to launch aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship next month, recently told me.
Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have long relied on canned food, tortillas, and rehydrated meat.
Professional astronauts tend not to bad-mouth the food that NASA scientists have spent years designing for them. But journalists and food critics on Earth don’t mince words.
“Space food tends to be dry. Or else slimy. Or else just weird: different enough from the product it’s trying to emulate that it serves only as a sad reminder of what it is not,” Megan Garber, a staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote in 2013. She summed it up as “pretty horrendous.”
But some space food is getting better. Astronaut Thomas Pesquet launched to the ISS in April with some specially commissioned French meals in tow.
Before becoming an astronaut, Pesquet worked as a commercial pilot for Air France. As he prepared for his second spaceflight, he remembered the food he’d eaten on those planes.
So he reached out to the food provider, Gategroup, to see if they could make traditional French cuisine for space.
Pesquet wanted some signature French dishes to share with his fellow astronauts on special occasions.
So when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship launched with its second full crew — a mission called Crew-2 — it carried 40 pouches of the new food. Another 160 pouches remained on Earth.
I tried those dishes myself after Gategroup sent me packets from the same batch that launched aboard Crew Dragon.
These three pouches make up a full meal: beef bourguignon, einkorn risotto, and crêpe Suzette.
Pesquet chose the dishes from among nine options because he thought they would best represent “the French terroir and gastronomy,” Chef François Adamski told me.
Other options included lentil salad, duck with orange sauce, veal blanquette, and lemon tart. Pesquet tasted each dish in its original, fresh iteration, then in its packaged, sterilized, ready-for-space state.
“He was very happy when he ate all the dishes,” Adamski said. “But he really preferred the three dishes he chose, obviously, because for him they were the most powerful and the most flavorful.”
On the ISS, astronauts slip the pouches between two hot plates to warm them up. I dropped mine in hot water for about seven minutes each.
The food is cooked before it goes into the aluminum-and-plastic pouch, then a sterilization process cooks it a second time once the pouch is sealed. So it just needs to be warmed up.
The pouches go through a sterilization machine with high temperatures and high pressure. That affects the flavor, but it makes the food safe to store at room temperature for up to two years.
The last time I ate “space food” was during a field trip in elementary school when we had “astronaut ice cream” — a dish which has never actually traveled to space. So I had no frame of reference for how this meal would taste.
First up: beef bourguignon. The beef was shredded finely and accompanied by bacon, mushrooms, and glazed onions.
Scissors are required to open the vacuum-sealed pouches. If they had perforation or another easy-open mechanism, the food wouldn’t store very well.
The beef smelled strongly of wine. Food on the ISS is required to be alcohol-free, so Adamski cooked all the alcohol off the dish, rather than skipping the wine.
“For Americans, it doesn’t seem like a big constraint,” Deborah Rolland, who helped translate for Adamski, told me. But for French food, she said, “this was a very difficult thing.”
Each of these recipes calls for alcohol: The beef bourguignon is cooked with red wine, the risotto with white wine, and the crêpe Suzette with Grand Marinier. It’s a dominant smell and flavor in all three dishes.
Being in space diminishes astronauts’ sense of taste, so food has to have strong flavors.
On Earth, gravity pulls on fluids throughout your body, drawing them towards the ground. But in the microgravity of the ISS, those fluids flow freely. That means astronauts’ sinuses and nasal cavities get filled with fluid, similar to when you have a cold. Their stuffy noses tend to dull a lot of smells and, therefore, flavors.
“Your sinuses are pounding and you can’t really taste your food. It’s like that the whole time,” astronaut Chris Hadfield told Slate.
As a result, the beef bourguignon tasted so salty that it made me thirsty. The beef was nice and chewy, though – not the mush I’d feared.
There were visible chunks of onion and mushroom. I did wish for carrots to add some texture.
I’m no culinary expert, but overall I thought it was pretty tasty, especially if you account for having a dulled sense of taste in space.
Otherwise, anyone eating this on Earth should prepare to drink lots of water and maybe have bread on the side.
Next dish: risotto with Périgord black truffle. Traditional risotto is made with arborio rice, but Adamski used a firm wheat grain called einkorn.
Of the three dishes, Adamski is most proud of this one. The sauce had to be thick, he said, to survive sterilization and storage. Compared to the bourguignon, this creamy risotto had a mellow flavor. The buttery truffle stood out.
Astronauts have to eat a lot of mushy food. Einkorn adds a little crunch and keeps the risotto from turning to goop.
“We wanted to have different kinds of textures,” Marjolaine LeGuellec, the engineer behind the Gategroup meal, told me. “So the chef used natural ingredients that have crunchiness and keep crunchiness even with the sterilization process, like einkorn.”
Many crunchy foods, like chips, can’t go to the ISS because they create too many crumbs. Floating crumbs can get lodged in computers and equipment.
Astronauts eat the food straight out of the packet, but I emptied them onto a plate. I added a quarter for scale.
The portion sizes were more on the European side.
Traditional toppings for dishes like these, such as parsley or other fresh herbs, are very rare in space. Astronauts don’t get many fresh greens.
A recent experiment on the ISS, however, grew vegetables that the astronauts ate as a side dish: “Amara” mustard and “extra dwarf” pak choi.
“Delicious, plus the texture or crunch,” NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins wrote in experiment notes after tasting the mustard plant.
Finally, it’s dessert time. The crêpe Suzette with orange zest was flambéed in Grand Marinier. It was very orange-y.
The orange smell hit me as soon as I cut the pouch open. It was the dominant flavor, too.
The crêpe did not stay intact when I scooped it onto my plate, though to be fair, it wasn’t designed to be eaten this way.
This was nothing like crêpes I’ve had before. It had a mealy texture. I have a sweet tooth, though, so that didn’t bother me much. Any crêpe left in liquid for months would probably end up with this texture, no matter how sterilized it was.
“You never really get to perfection,” Adamski said.
“We went as far as we thought we could to be representative of the reality of that dish as consumed in a restaurant,” Adamski added.
“Whatever we do, we always have the constraint of the sterilization,” LeGuellec said.
Overall, though, the space food impressed me.
It was better than some frozen dinners I’ve had here on Earth.
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