Yummy French cuisine livens up life in space
IT'S your 150th day in space, and life is starting to resemble the movie Groundhog Day - a repetitive daily routine interspersed with tugs of longing for life back on Earth.
Then, all of a sudden, things start to look up.
Mission Control has declared that today will be a "special day", and you can look forward to a lip-smacking, finger-lickin'-good gourmet meal at the end of it.
This is where France's space chefs come in.
In an initiative backed by top-of-the-line cuisinier Alain Ducasse, a team of cooks design and make "Special Event Meals" to enliven the nutritious-but-often-dull freeze-dried diet of life in space.
About once a month, as the distant Earth rolls slowly beneath them, astronauts can feast on roasted quail, Breton lobster, hand-reared chicken from the Landes, casserole of Burgundy beef cheek, Riviera-style swordfish or duck breast in a caper sauce.
Dessert could be a lemon-cream cake, chocolate cake, or "millefeuille" (literally, "thousand-leaf") puff pastry with fruit and cream filling.
As with almost everything connected with space, preparing food to be consumed in zero gravity comes with a range of challenges.
Rule No. 1 is safety, said Mr Lionel Suchet, deputy head of France's Toulouse Space Centre, who launched the programme.
Because of a "no bacteria" requirement, the food must be handled in an ultra-clean environment.
Another potential devil is texture. Ingredients that provide a pleasant feel in the mouth on Earth could be lethal in space, Mr Suchet said.
"Food can't be too dry, breaking up into crumbs that astronauts can inhale," he said.
"At the same time, you can't have it too liquid. If food is too runny, you get 'Captain Haddock Syndrome'," he added.
This was a reference to an episode in one of the Tintin cartoon books, where a character's whisky rolls up disconcertingly into a ball as their spaceship speeds to the Moon.
"Captain Haddock Syndrome" may sound fun...but the balls of liquid can cause short circuits if they touch electronic gear."
Then there is ease of use. The food must fit in ultra-light aluminium tins that can be reheated on an induction cooktop.
And the astronauts must be able to consume the contents one-handed, using a spoon. Anything with bits that are too big, too tiny, too fiddly or need to be cut is a no-no.