Space food has come a long way since the early days of Tang orange drink and mushy meals packaged in aluminum squeeze tubes.
When astronaut Chris Hadfield takes over as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station, he'll likely find the food's improved since the last time he was up there.
Astronauts on the space station now have access to more than 300 food and beverage items, mostly provided by NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency, including everything from U.S.-made tomato basil soup and chicken fajitas to Russian pork goulash and jellied pike-perch quenelles.
"We do have more and more variety than we've ever had before," says Vickie Kloeris, manager for the ISS food system at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
According to the Canadian Space Agency, NASA provides almost all of the food consumed by Canadian astronauts. So when Mr. Hadfield, the newly named commander, joins the space station in December, 2012, he'll likely be feasting on the same meals as the rest of his international colleagues.
Fortunately for him, NASA scientists are constantly trying to replicate what's available on Earth.
In recent years, the U.S. agency has worked with culinary celebrities such as Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray on one-off experiments in space-ready cuisine. Now, scientists are trying to reproduce an elaborate dish created by Top Chef contestant Angelo Sosa and featured on last week's episode of the reality-television program.
Ms. Kloeris says they are currently deconstructing Mr. Sosa's winning lacquered short ribs with pea puree, pickled mushrooms and horseradish crème fraîche to ensure it can be transported and consumed in a microgravity environment.
The aim is to give astronauts a final product that tastes similar to the original dish by the next space mission in November, or the one in February.
Space food these days is good, Ms. Kloeris says. But make no mistake: "There is no way a chef would call it gourmet."
Space food must be able to withstand temperature changes and be easy to reconstitute and serve months later, since astronauts can be in orbit for six months at a time.
With Mr. Sosa's dish, for example, "we're having to change things about the recipe so that it will freeze-dry," Ms. Kloeris explains. "For instance, the meat is going to have to be cut into very small pieces. It cannot be intact short ribs. It won't freeze-dry that way."
Different components of the original dish were served at differing temperatures, but the final version must include all the elements in a single package, to which astronauts need only add hot water.
Other space-food challenges include bread, says NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries, because it tends to release a lot of crumbs that can clog up the space station's vents.
"Probably one of the most popular breads in orbit is the tortilla because it's not a crumby type of food - and I don't mean that in the quality," Mr. Humphries says.
Food also tastes different to astronauts in orbit, Ms. Kloeris says. She compares eating in space to eating while suffering from a cold.
"They're eating out of a funky little package instead of a plate like we do down here, so it's harder for them to get the aroma of the food. Plus in microgravity the heat doesn't rise like it does down here," she says, so the aromas don't waft up to the nose. "Also, they're in a closed environment where who knows what other smells and odours compete."
That's why astronauts typically prefer spicy foods that have a strong aroma, she says, adding they also tend to miss crunchy textures, as their processed meals typically lack the crispiness of fresh produce.
While NASA's and Russia's space programs each contribute about half the food on the space station, Canada's own space program has yet to successfully launch its own food kits.
According to The Canadian Press, the federal government spent more than $400,000 to develop Canadian meals for astronauts, only to have the project halted in late 2008 when the two researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada moved on.
In the end, only a few commercial items such as maple-leaf-shaped cookies, smoked salmon and beef jerky have been sent to space, The Canadian Press reported in July.
Ms. Kloeris confirmed the Canadian Space Agency has sent "special commercial items" when Canadian crew members have joined space missions, and said she expects a similar arrangement will be made when Mr. Hadfield flies. But she referred further questions to the space agency.
Agency officials did not respond to questions by press time.