By Yoshikazu Tsuno
Nissin Food invented instant noodles and sparked a 65-billion pack-a-year global industry.
To celebrate Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi's trip aboard the American shuttle Discovery, the company developed a special zero-gravity, ball-shaped version of the usually dangling noodle that space-travellers can eat with a fork.
Space Ram, unveiled by the firm hours after Noguchi and his six fellow astronauts blasted off on Wednesday, comes in four different flavours - soy sauce, miso, curry and pork broth.
Noguchi helped test the early stages of the astro ramen, which astronauts can open and eat normally rather than suck through a tube like other space meals.
The soup is thick enough to prevent spilling, Nissin said, while the noodle balls retain their shape after being re-heated.
Boiling water is not used in space so Space Ram can be heated with water of 70°C, thanks to a unique blend of flour and starch, it said.
On hand for the unveiling of Space Ram in Osaka was Nissin founder Momofuku Ando, who invented the world's first instant noodle in 1958 and came up with the noodles-in-a-cup version in 1971.
His Cup Noodles have swept the planet - and been widely replicated - with the Nissin group now boasting annual sales exceeding about R17,7-billion.
Nissin have now patented the space-noodle technology, but for the moment there are no plans to put it on - or even floating above - grocery store shelves here on Earth.
The firm put a 10-member team in charge of developing Space Ram with help from Japan's space programme.
Ramen's entry into the stars was only part of the excitement in Japan over Noguchi, who is the sixth Japanese to enter space.
"With that knowledge, technique, brains and physical strength, he is a superman in all respects," said Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who the government said may chat with the ramen-eating astronaut while in space.
The Discovery is the first US shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster in 2003 and its launch had already been delayed from July 13.
Giant outdoor screens in Tokyo showed the liftoff live at midnight Japanese time, with spectators clapping with joy and snapping pictures with their mobile telephones.
In the western Japanese town of Taishi, around 150
people, including former classmates, gathered at Ikaruga Elementary School where the future astronaut graduated.
"Go for it, Mr Noguchi!" the children shouted in unison as they held up pictures with space themes, according to a town official.
The 40-year-old was already inspired to be an astronaut when he started school.
Noguchi, then an enthusiastic fan of the British television series Thunderbirds, wrote in a composition that he wanted to be "a rocket pilot as I would be able to know a lot about space".
Noguchi is set to make three space walks lasting about 20 hours with team-mate Stephen Robinson during the 12-day mission. - Sapa-AFP