SOUILLAC, FRANCE — When John Glenn returns to space this week, his fellow astronauts might thank him for one thing that has changed since his historic 1962 flight: space food.
American astronauts are eating better these days partly because of a complaint by Mr. Glenn after the flight: He said he would have preferred a sandwich to the space-mush he was given.
But despite NASA's advances in galactic gastronomy, space food is still a frontier science, one that could use - of course - a French chef.
Enter Richard Filippi, a chef in this sleepy town in southwest France, who was inspired to create dishes for astronauts after a comment by a fellow countryman who had just returned from the Russian space station, Mir, in 1993. The astronaut had loved everything about the flight - except the food.
Mr. Filippi's reaction was typical of his country and of his profession. "Ce n'est pas possible [It is not possible] a Frenchman eating badly!" he remembers thinking. His next thought was more unusual: "Perhaps something could be done about it."
Thus was born the team of "gastronauts" who provide gourmet food for travelers on Russian - but not American - spacecraft. Filippi hopes to someday win over NASA to his cosmic cuisine.
Dining has been particularly tricky for those spending months at a time aboard Mir.
"On board there are not many ways to have fun," says Bernard Comet, of France's National Center for Space Studies (CNES), which provides funding for the classic French fare. "Eating is an important pleasure," he says.
Not necessarily, at least not to Russian meal planners. Standard menus aboard Mir include the unappetizingly labeled "meat in white sauce" and a few brownish slices of vacuum-packed Moldovan apples.
But serving palatable food to be reheated in outer space is a good deal more challenging than cooking at the corner bistro, Filippi discovered.
First, it has to be virtually germ-free. Then, it has to be solid - no globules of sauce to float around in a weightless environment. And finally, packaging must be able to withstand pressures rarely exerted by your average Parisian waiter: Tins and their contents go from 0 to 17,500 m.p.h. in eight minutes after takeoff.
But Filippi had most of what he needed on hand.
With 20 years' experience of restaurant cooking, he was teaching at a catering school in the heart of Perigord, a region renowned for its truffles and foie gras.
He had giant kitchens, sterilizing equipment, a biotechnologist as a colleague on the school staff, and ready helpers among his students.
He was also determined and, he says, "a little bit mad."
The first quality saw him through three years of bureaucratic battles with education-ministry and space-agency officials to let him try his hand at extraterrestrial gastronomy.
The second tendency leads him to cook quails in wine sauce, then to debone each quail, slice it up and reconstitute it perfectly, down to the tiny wings, in a 3.5 ounce tin.
No simple task
It took eight months of culinary experimentation before he got the hang of space food.
For a start, Filippi had to bring the germ level down from the 300,000 bacteria per gram allowed in ordinary tinned food in France to eight bacteria per gram.
You can do this by sterilizing the food for long periods at high temperatures, but then you end up with what the Russians serve. Instead, Filippi enforces maximum hygiene rigor so as to minimize the need for sterilization.
The night before a dish is to be prepared the school kitchen is scrubbed and disinfected from floor to ceiling and all the ventilation ducts, windows, and door jambs are sealed. All of the equipment is sprayed with a strong disinfectant. The cooks wear masks, gloves, and booties as if they were in an operating room and each knife, spoon, and potato peeler is washed with alcohol after every use.
Russian regulations demand that there be less than 1 percent of liquid in food served on Mir, so as to stop beads of it from floating into delicate equipment.
Filippi's rule of thumb test is that if you stand an open tin on its edge and a single drop falls out, it's no good.
Since he refuses to use solidifying additives ("Only natural products, only fresh products," he insists), Filippi has to cook his dishes long and slow, to reduce the liquids through evaporation.
He has also identified the foods that absorb liquid best: tuna, for example, which he cooks with a confit of lemon, or beef cheeks, which he stews gently for hours into a casserole.
Feedback from his high-flying customers has led him to go easy on the salt. In space, human tastes tend toward sweet foods and dairy products and away from salty or spicy dishes.
When it comes to packing the finished product into specially built lightweight tins, Filippi and his team are allowed a three-gram margin of error by the logistics czars of the Russian space program.
One way or another, 5 tins out of every 6 never make it into space - opened for various tests in Moscow, or rejected as not up to standard.
When they do end up in orbit, they are very special treats. Filippi and his students tend toward rich, traditional French cuisine such as duck confit (in which the meat is cooked and preserved in its own fat), squid in lobster sauce, or toffee rice pudding - hardly everyday dishes.
Instead, French astronauts - who can choose their menus before takeoff - open the tins on special occasions, and often share them with their Russian colleagues. "They are a morale booster," says Filippi.
He hopes that Michel Tonini, a French astronaut due to fly on the US space shuttle Atlantis next January, will take a few tins up and share them with his American copilots.
"I once tasted the food the US astronauts eat and it was not what you would call memorable," Filippi sniffs. "I ate some green stuff, but I couldn't tell you what it was."
With the aging Mir due to be abandoned soon, Filippi has his sights set on catering for the crews on Alpha, the international space station due to begin orbital construction next year.
He expects one of the food industry giants such as Nestle to win the contract to provide everyday food to the European astronaut who will be on board, but Filippi hopes to be asked to go on providing dinner-party fare.
"What we cook," he says, "you would not say it is space food. It tastes of Earth."