"We want you to review something for us," says the email from the books editor. "It's called The Astronaut's Cookbook." At this point I know precisely nothing about this text but already I'm intrigued. This, perhaps, is an action-packed book full of "recipes" that spacemen use to get themselves out of the sort of super-tight spots that supersonic life-on-the-edge serves them up. "It's short, too," she wheedles. Exciting and concise: my kind of book already.
But when it arrives, I find that I should have been more literal in my interpretation of the title. You can forgive me for assuming that this may not have been the case. After all, someone would have to be crazy to try and publish a book of recipes for freeze-dried gloop. But, uh, no, that's exactly what it is. Page , for example, boasts a recipe for space-station corn comprising frozen corn, flavour granules and artificial starch (serves five, it says). Can't wait to wheel that out in place of the canapes at my next dinner party.
Then there are cubes made from peanut butter cookies; an illustrative photo is included. Imagine congealed vomit, set in an ice cube tray and then shrink-wrapped, and you're most of the way there. The list goes on: bacon bars, rice pudding, space station tapioca: the thing is a lexicon of barely palatable ingredients made utterly inedible by the process of irradiation and dehydration. The best thing you could do with most of these dishes is wrestle them out of their packaging and chuck them straight down the loo, thereby cutting out the middle man and saving him some time and unnecessary suffering.
But one suspects that the focus of this book is not to help you share in the culinary delights experienced by Buzz Lightyear and his shipmates on their way to infinity. Buried in among the recipes are some gems that space aficionados may usefully mine. Charles Bourland and Gregory Vogt, both veterans of the US space programme, take us through the history of space food and its steady evolution from utterly inedible gunk to today's grudgingly passable menu. Along the way they fold in a few neat anecdotes, including the tale of the late, great astronaut Sonny Carter and his efforts to get Texas barbecue into low-Earth orbit. And then there are their "Meet the astronaut" vignettes of flyers past and present, lending a little colour and backstory to a cast of space-flight veterans who ordinarily remain surprisingly anonymous to the wider public.
And so you're left with a book that I, as a space junkie, enjoyed picking through, full of "tales, recipes and more" as the cover suggests. But it is this structure, in which lots of disparate themes are folded together, that makes it difficult to get to grips with.
In summary, then, it's a bit of a platypus: odd in appearance and assembly; not sure what it really is, but it's fun to look at all the same. As a resource for educators or a text to add granularity to one's knowledge of the experience of space-faring folk, it works well. As something to buy at the airport book store or to sling in among the cookbooks in your kitchen less so; but then I suspect that neither Bourland nor Vogt intended you use it as a guide to throwing dinner parties.
The Astronaut's Cookbook: Tales, Recipes and More
By Charles T. Bourland and Gregory L. Vogt
Published 1 January 2010