Astronaut menu escapes limit of freeze-dried food


When he's shuttling through space, astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman starts his day with a cup of Kona coffee. Pilot Ken Bowersox prefers oatmeal sweetened with brown sugar. Payload commander Story Musgrave likes grits. With butter.

Mmmm, good.

For their 11-day mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, the crew of the shuttle Endeavour may not eat like kings, but the menu goes beyond meat and potatoes or freeze-dried beans. It's ethnically diverse, nutritionally fit and personally selected by the astronauts.

While nearly every food group is represented, your basic white bread is not. Crumbs can be a problem in space. So the astronomically correct gourmet chooses flour tortillas instead -- the easier to spread your peanut butter, my dear.

"Making a sandwich is a four-hand operation," explains Billie A. Deason, a spokeswoman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

For a sweet treat, NASA food specialists suggest cookies that astronauts "can pop into their mouth, like Lorna Doones," Ms. Deason says.

And why fuss with salt and pepper that may never land on one's beef tips with mushrooms? Liquid condiments are the staple on the shuttle table.

The eats are not all rehydratable, thermostabilized or irradiated. This space pantry boasts Granny Smith apples, two boxes of Wheat Thins, bags of carrot and celery sticks, Goldfish crackers, two kinds of Lifesavers, two jars of crunchy peanut butter, bananas ("in varying degrees of ripeness"), even Swiss chocolate (perhaps for mission specialist Claude Nicollier, a native of Vevey, Switzerland).

Dinners aboard Endeavour will be a worldly affair: teriyaki chicken one night, beef stroganoff the next, a little turkey tetrazzini.

To quench a thirst, the crew can choose from lemonade, a variety of fruit drinks, coffee or tea. The snackers can munch on granola, dried apricots, macadamia nuts, trail mix or shortbread cookies.

Each astronaut's food is packed in a drawer and color-coded. The cutlery has magnets -- the better to stick to one's food tray. The food containers fit snugly into slots on the trays. The trays have Velcro strips so the meals can be attached to an astronaut's pants or the wall (also adorned with Velcro).

While there is no refrigerator or freezer aboard, there is a convection oven to heat food. Usually two crew members prepare the dinners, which take about 45 minutes. Some dinners are wrapped in foil packets that can be heated. Rehydratable food comes in a container similar to Jiffy Pop -- water is injected into it, and the packet puffs up under heat.

But the toughest thing about dining in space, says Ms. Deason, is "having enough hands. . . . It's not just like grabbing peanut butter and crackers on Earth."

The advantage to space dining? No dishes to do.

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