Space food: from apple sauce in tubes to Heston sarnies

Tim Peake; right,. bacon sandwich
Space snacks: astronaut Tim Peake's first meal in orbit was a bacon sandwich Credit: Rex

Astronaut Tim Peake is adjusting to life in space like any Briton settling into a new home - with a bacon sandwich, and a cup of tea.

But this isn't just any bacon sandwich. It was created in conjunction with celebrity chef and culinary wizard Heston Blumenthal, who helped design a menu for Peake during the astronaut's six-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS).

And that simple cup of tea? It's a gravity-defying comfort that astronauts have previously struggled with. After all, they're  around 400km from the nearest kettle.

Peake won’t be eating Heston Blumenthal’s gourmet space cuisine everyday - but seven meals from a chef who’s restaurants Peake would probably have to book now to enjoy when he comes back to Earth in six months’ time isn’t bad.

Heston Blumenthal has been developing food for the mission Credit: Andrew Crowley

The food enjoyed by astronauts has improved vastly since the 1960s, when the space industry took off. Even a decade ago, the likes of Heston's Eton Mess and tomato soup – foods he created with the aim of “reminding Peake of home” – would seem almost as unlikely as meeting an alien.

But these developments run parallel to other technology. With better rockets comes better sustenance on voyages. In 2015/16, it appears, anything is possible for food that is literally out of this world.

A tin of veal, from a Soviet mission in the late 1960s Credit: NASA

Jennifer Levasseur PhD, a specialist at the Department of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum in the US, told Telegraph Food: “Just like the vehicles and other equipment, space food has gotten better over time.

“It went from being simple purees in tubes to regular meals in ‘Thermostabilized packaging’ that can be eaten straight from the container with a spoon or fork. Most tastes can be accommodated easily now and the choices are nearly endless.”

In the beginning, Dr Levasseur explained, food was “fairly basic.” Its purpose was to provide nutritional needs while not making a mess. Plus, it needed to be light, survive at extreme temperatures and not float away. John Glenn was the first American to eat in space, on aboard Friendship 7 in 1962. His meal? Apple sauce from a tube, squirted directly into his mouth.

Using water to rehydrate freezedried food was key to giving astronauts something more, a process which became possible around the time of the Apollo missions (1961-75). The Apollo crews were the first to have access to hot water. But it wasn't until the Skylab and Shuttle missions – post Apollo - that "wet foods" in pouches appeared, allowing astronauts to tuck into everything from scrambled eggs to macaroni cheese.

Turkey and gravy, which flew on Apollo 11 in 1969 Credit: NASA

But there’s more to making space food than clever packaging.

“We learned about how as the blood circulates more in the head than on Earth, the sense of taste is diminished and spicier foods are more desirable,” Dr Levasseur added.

“Now, hot sauce and other things like mustard and spices are commonly available or possible to add to foods, and things like tortillas have cut down on the need for making bread that doesn’t crumble and clog up filters.”

NASA’s Sandra Magnus has documented her culinary adventures perhaps more than most astronauts. She spent 134 days in space before returning home in 2009.

She wrote at the time: “When you think about it, food is an important part of our lives. Family gatherings center around food, the celebration of major life events and milestones involves food in one way or another and have you ever noticed that when you invite people over somehow everyone always ends up in the kitchen?

Packaged food from a modern mission Credit: NASA

“The same holds true for us here on the Space Station. Food is important and ends up usually being, maybe not an issue, but definitely a topic of discussion one way or another, for almost every crew.”

Magnus  worked mainly on a ten-day rotating menu, with dishes produced by both the US and Russia. In the past, food varied significantly between Russian and US crews – Soviet tearing bread, for example, against American turkey in gravy.

But Magnus didn’t just rely on the people on the ground to create food in packets . She experimented in zero gravity - and it  sounds like she’d give even Blumenthal a run for his money. Tortillas were a particular favourite springboard for her inventions.

“Even a 16-day menu and [with] personal preference food thrown in, the food can get monotonous," she explained.

“But on a tortilla you can take a pouch of black beans, add some cheddar cheese spread, and some hot sauce or salsa, and presto, a whole new taste!

“I have put apple sauce with peanut butter on a tortilla, beef enchiladas with tomatoes and artichokes (one of our dehydrated vegetable dishes) with salsa on one, tuna with mayo and mustard as another experiment, vanilla pudding with strawberries (it turns out the tortillas are better as a base for fruits and puddings than the waffles are), just to name a few."

Asparagus from the US's first Shuttle mission in 1981 Credit: NASA

And what's next? “The next big leaps in space food will really be the ability to grow food in space,” said Levasseur.

They are working with lettuces right now, and testing the viability of the system developed for long-term cultivation of vegetables in the microgravity and zero-g environments of space.

“You have to pack everything you need while on Earth, so taking seeds to grow rather than full plants or packages of food would really change our ability to live long-term on spaceflights to and from the Moon or Mars.”

An artist's impression of what a cultivation area for vegetables might look like inside a space ship Credit: NASA

Peake’s food on Christmas Day probably won’t be quite the same as sitting down at the family table, candles lit, to a meal of (slightly dry) turkey and a mound of roast potatoes all covered in goose fat. But Dr Levasseur said that the Brits’ Christmas dinner on the Space Station  - which will include a Heston Christmas pudding - will be “very familiar” to a holiday meal on Earth. Far from that crumbly ‘Astronaut Ice Cream’ Father Christmas might have got you as a child.

Tim Peake has been in space for: