How would you feel if your daily meals consisted of bacon squares with freeze dried scrambled eggs, rehydratable mac ’n’ cheese, and rehydratable chocolate pudding? This isn’t the menu of some new restaurant faffing around with molecular cuisine, but what astronauts have had to eat from the Apolla era to the Shuttle era all the way till today. You may think it doesn’t sound too bad, but that opinion would no doubt change once you’ve eaten 6 months worth of it! How does one get by this astronaut problem of having to eat dull, tasteless food? You hire Heston Blumenthal to work with you of course!
This collaboration between the UK Space Agency and Blumenthal lasted for two years and the journey will be aired on Channel 4 on March 20th. The programme “Heston’s dinner in space” shows what happens when Blumenthal’s peculiar, innovative and bizarre cooking meets the UK Space Agency’s red tape, all the while Major Tim Peake watches in the hope that he will have something tasty to eat for his 6 month stay in the International Space Station.
The big question Heston faced is how does one actually get food into space that will be safe for astronauts to eat? The staff at NASA may have blown tourists away with their freeze dried ice cream bars, but they are engineers not chefs, so they see food as fuel, not something to be enjoyed. Although, their opinion may change if the NASA canteen started feeding them sandwich cubes and bread covered in lard, typical food dishes for 1960s astronauts.
Heston’s preliminary discussions with NASA had him arguing that food should be a multi sensory experience for the astronauts and that they should send up spray cans to be sprayed around the space station while they eat. We would love to have been a fly on the wall for that meeting! Sous vide cooking was no doubt shot down extremely early as even the smallest chance of food poisoning among the crew could be truly devastating. While ingredients like beans, cabbage, brussel sprout and broccoli need to be avoided as having a bunch of gassy farting astronauts in a confined space could make the 6 month trip feel like an eternity.
To ensure astronauts won’t get food poisoning, meat needs to be sterilised with ionising radiation, fish and fruit are stored in tin cans, and Capri-Sun style pouches are used to store dishes like beef stew. Any dishes that Blumenthal sends up need to be something that Tim Peake will actually eat, otherwise they will be taking up extremely valuable space that is in short supply. What dishes did the UK Space Agency end up agreeing to send up with Major Tim Peake? Beef stew with truffles, wood smoked salmon, sausages and mash, thai red curry, and key lime pie all made the list of acceptable dishes. These foods all conjure up memories of Peake’s past, the idea is that by eating them they will help keep his morale up while also being delicious. Famous French chef Alain Ducasse, who has previously worked with the European Space Agency, has sent up dishes like quail roasted in wine, duck breast confit, and a semolina cake with dried apricots. All these dishes are a far cry from eating scrambled eggs that are as hard as a table.
When mastering these dishes, the key lime pie was turning into a messy liquid like substance when pouched, while the mashed potatoes ended up turning black in colour due to moisture migration. You wouldn’t want to be opening up these pouches in space and seeing that for the first time!
Heston’s pièce de résistance came in the form of a bacon sandwich, a particular food vice of Tim Peake’s. If Heston had any hair, the creation of this dish would have no doubt left him bald by the end of its creation. In the end, to make it space stable, the sandwich had to be heated at 140 degrees for 2 hours. Surprisingly, it ended up tasting good, not unlike a typical supermarket BLT, and something Tim Peake will include in his food allowance in the future.
NASA has been responsible for some amazing technological advances, but this time they needed an outsider who was looking in to make some serious progress in the diets of their astronauts. Astronauts across the world can say goodbye to cornflakes and bacon squares, and hello to supermarket quality bacon sandwiches!
Tune into Channel 4 on March 20th at 7pm to watch Heston’s space