In collaboration with le Parisien Magazine / Aujourd’hui-en-France Magazine
If I had been told, a few years ago, that I would celebrate my 39th birthday on the International Space Station, I would never have believed it … And yet, that is what happened: On Monday 27 February I became a year older in space. Coincidentally, a few days before a cargo ship sent by NASA arrived with a few surprises for me. Space-X’s Dragon brought fresh fruit, cheese, but most notably seven macaroons prepared specifically for me by Pierre Hermé, who was elected the best pastry chef in the world in 2016. I ate them in one piece!
To be fair, I did not have much of a choice. This kind of delicate cake has to be eaten in one piece so as not to crumble. This is the case for all foods. Unthinkable to let any pieces escape that would float and scatter and risk damaging the Station’s many electronic components.
That is why bread is prohibited on the International Space Station. We eat tortillas instead. These Mexican pancakes made with corn flour are very solid and allow us to create a variety of dishes: sandwiches, burgers, wraps… you name it! My preparations are quite nice, though I am not at risk of receiving a Michelin star any time soon. In the station, we prefer everything that is compact. The basis of our diet consists of cereal bars, biscuits and small snacks to nibble on during our daily activities. Mainly because we have limited space.
To ensure that we have enough to eat during the six months of our mission, NASA also provides us with dehydrated dishes. Chicken salad, shrimp salad, risotto… All of these are stored in small aluminium bags, which you need to connect to a hot water dispenser to heat them up. We press the button, which humidifies the package and just like that, dinner is ready! I’m not going to lie, dehydrated food is not my favourite. I find it a bit bland. But since we need to keep our spirits up and because our taste buds need a refreshing boost from time to time, we also have “ready-made meals”. No need for a plate in micro-gravity!
I feel lucky because a lot of my ready meals were prepared by none-other than Alain Ducasse and Thierry Marx, two famous French chefs who accounted both for my taste and the restrictions and conditions that we have up here in space. Thus, three of my favourite dishes were prepared and pasteurised so that no bacteria can spread out at high speed in the station: salmon filet with Chinese lemon confit, minced poultry and beef tongue with spicy sauce. To heat them up, I place these dishes into our electric oven for a few minutes. Then I take out the sachet, cut it open with scissors and then all that’s left to do is to eat my delicious meal with my fingers.
This may sound easy, but at first I struggled. I ruined many polo shirts when opening the food bags. It made my fellow astronauts laugh for a long time. Unfortunately, the six of us do not have a lot of meals together because our schedules are extremely busy. Nevertheless we make an effort to meet for dinner at least once a week.
This is always quite amusing as we try to recreate the spirit of a ‘real earth dinner’. When the Russians invite us over to their side of the Station, we bring chocolate for dessert, and vice versa. I think we all need this moment of conviviality to unwind. Now, fully aware of fulfilling the French stereotype, I must admit that the one thing I miss the most in those moments is a glass of wine. Though I do not drink much in general, sometimes you just feel like a drink. The problem is, alcohol is banned on the International Space Station, since we have to be able to deal with emergencies at any given time, day or night.
Instead, we consume a lot of tea, coffee and fruit juice. Everything is powdered, and has to be rehydrated. To save space, the water in the station is continuously recycled. When we go to the restroom, our urine is kept, cleansed and recycled so that it becomes drinkable. I was afraid of that before I left, but as one of my fellow astronauts told me once: “today’s coffee becomes tomorrow’s coffee.”