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Astronaut chow: NASA makes giant leaps in space food

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Astronaut Edward T. Lu, science officer and flight engineer, eats a meal in the Zvezda Space Module of the International Space Station on Jun. 21, 2003.

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Astronaut Edward T. Lu, science officer and flight engineer, eats a meal in the Zvezda Space Module of the International Space Station on Sep. 1, 2003.

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Astronaut Edward T. Lu, science officer and flight engineer, eats a meal in the Zvezda Space Module of the International Space Station on Sep. 1, 2003.

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Astronauts John B. Herrington and Michael E. Lopez-Alegria, both International Space Station mission specialists, taste and rate food at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sep. 1, 2002.

Two hundred miles above the earth in zero-gravity, supper is a frustrating ritual. Salt sprinkles up and sideways as well as down. Forks can fly away if not anchored properly. And eating may not begin until astronauts are all strapped in.

But there is some consolation. Compared to 40 years ago, the menu is exquisite.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station can choose from a list of 180 food and beverage items – and that is just NASA’s contribution. The Russian Federal Space Agency adds another 100 dishes to the mix.

As missions in space have become longer--ranging from several weeks on the shuttle to six months on the space station--the choice in chow has proliferated and quality has markedly improved. Care packages even supplement the astronauts’ diet with deliveries of food items selected by loved ones back home. Offering delicacies is part of an effort to break up the monotony of a psychologically taxing job in a cramped environment.

“There is a huge psychological component to this that’s hard to measure,” said Vickie Kloeris, a food system manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Absolutely everything in their environment is dictated to them. Variety is key.”

John Glenn first squeezed applesauce from an aluminum tube in 1961, becoming the first American to eat in space. But progress in the early days of space food development was slow.

Throughout the early 1960s, safety was the focus, not diet. Mercury astronauts dined on bite-sized, gelatin-coated cubes that protected sensitive equipment from floating food crumbs. Water was spurted into plastic pouches of freeze-dried food to excrete an edible sludge.

Today’s cuisine is light-years ahead. Crews customize their menus through a pre-mission tasting ritual of hundreds of items. Capt. Michael E. Lopez-Alegria, who spent seven months on the space station last year, ranks the tortellini, seafood gumbo and chicken fajitas among his favorite meals. He particularly treasured the cottage cheese and nuts offered by Russian colleagues. “You have to squirt water into it and mush it around,” he said. “But boy, that’s delicious.”

Dr. Edward T. Lu, a physicist who spent six months in the space station in 2003, cited Russian lamb stew as his favorite. “Their soups are better,” he said of the Russian menu, which also includes a freeze-dried borscht. But he asserted that Americans reign in the dessert department with the ever-popular blueberry cobbler and yogurt-covered granola bars.

The motivation for space food’s giant leaps stems from psychology, where food diversity provides one way to break up mission monotony. “We are seeing it more profoundly in second timers,” said Kloeris. “We call it menu fatigue.”

Current astronauts can eat three square meals a day and not repeat a meal for a week. The space station now ranges from Mexican scrambled eggs to barbecued beef brisket to quiche.

The most popular item has traditionally been the spicy shrimp cocktail, said Kloeris. Astronauts’ noses become congested in zero-gravity when bodily fluids shift to the upper part of the body, temporarily numbing their sense of taste. “Spicier items taste better in orbit,” Kloeris said. “We have an étouffée that has a kick to it.” For the same reason, condiments like Tabasco sauce and horseradish are precious commodities.

NASA even caters for holidays like Thanksgiving. “We have an irradiated sliced turkey and a freeze-dried cornbread dressing,” said Kloeris. “We also have a sweet potato dish.” Dietary restrictions of Jewish astronauts can be problematic, though, as production facilities back on Earth are not kosher.

Despite advances in food technology, seemingly insurmountable problems remain. The inconvenience of vacuum-packaged, dehydrated meals and the annoyance of weightlessness still make eating a chore. The greatest complaint is texture, something even liquid salt and pepper cannot remedy.

“The rice up there was God awful bad,” said Lu, “It was like cardboard.” Fresh fruits and crunchy vegetables begin to rot after three days and refrigerators require too much power to last the lengthy shuttle trips, said Dr. Charles T. Bourland, a former manager for International Space Station food.

To compensate, NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency send food care packages along with other replenishables like water, oxygen, and toothpaste on a space “ferry” launched from Kazakhstan every three months. The cost? About $15,000 per pound.

“The bonus packages were definitely the high point of our experience up there,” said Lu, whose mother sent him a Chinese sweet bean dessert. “Those are a real treat.”

Lopez-Alegria received cured ham from cousins in his native Spain.

With the next generation of astronauts preparing for a trip to Mars, NASA scientists are working to make an even larger repertoire of meals for an arduous five-year mission. Refrigeration will still be out of the question and on-board space farming is eons away, said Bourland.

But the astronauts, whose mealtime scenery included frequent glimpses of planet Earth below, keep the culinary shortcomings in perspective. “It’s a pretty minor price to pay,” said Lu.

E-mail: mm3270@columbia.edu