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The first spaceship with a cook aboard was the USS Voyager from Star Trek. The year was 1966 and the blond “Talaxian alien”, Neelix, prepared food for the crew thanks to a “material replicator” that allowed him to reproduce any kind of food by rearranging subatomic particles. With this system, Neelix could prepare sophisticated delicacies for Captain Kirk and his space journeys. A technology that, even today, remains purely science fiction.
And science fiction, in many ways, still remains steps ahead of the current state of science, despite the incredible feats that science has made. We’ve not gone much further than the Rhodiola rosea supplements that Russian astronauts take for the herb’s ability to improve inter-cellular reparations, and there hasn’t been much change in how or what astronauts eat at a space station, or even during a virtual mission on Earth.
At the beginning of this year, as a part of the International Russian programMars500 (that, together with the European Space Agency is preparing a mission to the Red Planet), a simulation of a journey to Mars – both the trip there and back – was undertaken. In the first eight months, four of the six cosmonauts involved suffered from stomach or intestinal problems and one of them actually had to abandon the project after only 90 days, as he’d lost 20 kilos due to poor nutrition. At this point, all of the participants requested that Italian food be introduced into the menu. At the end of February, to the delight of the cosmonauts, their daily diets began to include yogurt, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, chocolate-covered Panforte (a traditional Itlalian fruit cake), along with crackers, cookies and tisanes from renowned Italian companies. A party for the palate.
According to Michele Perchonok, a Top Advanced Food System Official at the NASA Johnson Space Center, any mission to Mars would have a minimum duration of two years – six months for the trip there, a year to stay, and another six months to return home – and would require some degree of self-sufficiency on the part of the astronauts. But how? By cultivating fruits and vegetables, preparing the meals from the spacecraft’s storeroom or parked on Mars. At the moment, experts seem to be considering foods centred around soy, pistachios, potatoes, tomatoes and wheat. Pistachios are particularly crucial because they contain an amount of fat at that aids in the digestion of wheat and potatoes, and soy is important as a source of protein that can be converted into flour, milk and tofu.
Another proponent of self-sufficiency, the engineer and American astronautSandy Magnus, was a member of the International Space Station from 14 November 2008 to 28 March 2009. Every day, when she’d finish her duties, Magnus would relax in the kitchen of the spacecraft and create aromatic mixtures like sauces made from garlic, olives and dried tomatoes and add them to the freeze-dried and dehydrated meals, in order to give them new flavours. Needless to say, this habit of hers was greatly appreciated by her fellow crew members. Because, beyond the inevitable problems of food conservation in zero-gravity space, there’s also a notable lack of taste in their food – and this is a factor that shouldn’t be underestimated. According to the Italian astronaut and astrophysicist Umberto Guidoni – who was a participant during two Space Shuttle missions and the first European to board the International Space Station – when you travel at supersonic speed, your head becomes stuffy and your nose closes up, rendering spicy flavours like shrimp cocktail with horseradish sauce even more valuable.
But what’s been the typical menu of the recent space missions? It depends if the mission is Russian or American. Russians seem to favour thick vegetable soups and frittatas made with bits of chicken or fish, while the Americans – for longer missions – provide around two hundred different foods, all of them cooked, dehydrated and packed on Earth in special lightweight plastic containers: from spaghetti and meatballs to steak and asparagus; from scrambled eggs to peanut butter and chocolate and cookies. Of course, on American space missions there’s also ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard, coffee and an endless supply of fruit juice. Every astronaut has the chance to bring aboard his or her favourite food, or the food that reminds them of their country of origin (unless it’s bread, which has been substituted with tortillas because stray breadcrumbs can damage the delicate instruments on board). Favourite drinks can also be brought on missions (but nothing carbonated), and all members are encouraged to bring a CD of their preferred music to keep morale high.
But despite this inviting option, the kind of spacecraft dinner described in the book, From the Earth to the Moon, written by Jules Verne in 1865 probably still remains as a dream to some of today’s space travelers. «Nothing was more excellent than their broth liquefied by the heat of the gas. Nothing better than these preserved meats. A few glasses of good French wine crowned the repast…»