Top Chef contestants compete to make astronaut meals

Sept. 1 episode of Bravo's reality show, 'Top Chef', featured a space-food challenge from NASA. The winner, Angelo Sosa, will have his short rib dish flown into orbit.

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    Russian cosmonauts Vladimir N. Dezhurov (left) and Mikhail Tyurin celebrate Thanksgiving aboard the International Space Station in 2005. The reality TV show Top Chef featured a space-food challenge, with the winner having his dish served to astronauts in orbit.

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It will be bon appetit in orbit for some lucky astronauts who will soon savor a space meal of short ribs dreamed up by a contestant on television's "Top Chef."

A Sept. 1 episode of the Bravo cable channel reality show featured a special space food challenge from NASA for the five remaining "chef'testants." The winner, Angelo Sosa, will have his short rib dish prepared by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and flown on a future space shuttle mission.

NASA also invited Sosa, who now advances to the final four of this "Top Chef" season's cooking tournament, to come see one of the two remaining shuttle launches blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The final shuttle missions are slated to launch in November of this year and February 2011.

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After he was announced the winner of the contest, Sosa was ecstatic.

"My food is going to be in outer space!" he said.

Space food has come a long way since the Apollo era of the 1960s and 1970s. Sosa's short rib dish competed against two fish filets, a Moroccan lamb pairing, and a sirloin selected by contestant Kevin Sbraga to remind astronauts of back-home grub. [Top 10 Space Foods]

Among those who tasted the cosmically inspired dishes during the show were former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and current astronauts Leland Melvin and Sandra Magnus. The 'Top Chef' cooks received the challenge at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland during a video message from astronauts Timothy "T.J. Creamer and Tracy Caldwell Dyson on the International Space Station.

While chowing down on the competing recipes, 'Top Chef" judges wondered about cutlery in space, and the astronauts agreed on the importance of spoons in weightlessness.

"I still have my spoon from Apollo 11," Aldrin said of his July 1969 moon landing mission with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins.

Magnus, who spent 4 1/2 months on the space station during her recent mission, said crunchiness is a "texture we miss in space." Rehydrated food loses its snap, and several of the dishes – including a sirloin topped with crispy onion rings – would not come out as nicely in a kitchen above Earth.
Today, the menu for astronauts includes 180 food and beverage items. These include tomato basil soup, chicken fajitas, shrimp cocktail, scrambled eggs and beef tips with mushrooms.

Astronauts can also munch on nuts, granola bars and cookies. Beverages come in powdered form and include coffee, tea, apple cider, orange juice and lemonade.

One astronaut, veteran spaceflyer Don Pettit, has even invented a zero gravity coffee cup that allows people in space to drink liquids without a straw by using surface tension to keep it from floating away.

Whenever possible, NASA tries to provide astronauts with meals that look and taste like those on Earth, space agency officials said. Astronauts have said that when they're in such an unfamiliar environment, food is one of the main things that remind them of home, they added.

Prior to shopping for and preparing their meal ideas, the "Top Chef" contestants received tips from NASA food scientist Vickie Kloeris. They were restricted by the same nutritional guidelines that NASA food scientists follow in the Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston. The "Top Chef" production crew, accompanied by head judge Tom Colicchio and the five contestants visited Goddard and filmed in the Network Integration Center.

She advised that high-sugar foods, complicated sauces and large food chunks tend not to do so well during the freeze-drying process that makes food space-worthy.

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