A Thanksgiving that's out of this world

Another slice of irradiated smoked turkey, anyone? Grab some more thermostabilized candied yams before they float away.

Thursday, Bill McArthur will enjoy smoked turkey with mashed potatoes. He's still making up his mind on the side dishes - probably corn and green beans. He plans to finish up with cherry cobbler for dessert.

But his meal will lack that "home cooked" ambiance most of us will enjoy. Mr. McArthur will be dining some 250 miles above Earth on board the International Space Station (ISS).

As far as culinary frontiers go, space cuisine is decidedly the final one. The most rudimentary elements of packaging, preparation, and even consumption of palatable food in orbit are still in their innovative stages.

Nevertheless, the variety, flavors, and textures available now have improved dramatically since American astronauts celebrated the first Thanksgiving in outer space during a 1973 SkyLab mission.

"It's not gourmet by any means," says Vickie Kloeris, the subsystem manager for NASA's Shuttle Food System program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "But the food is really pretty good, the flavor is pretty good."

Astronaut food is no longer the viscous, freeze-dried, or tube-served gruel of the popular imagination. Thanks to the efforts of Ms. Kloeris and her colleagues, who synthesize NASA's famous technical know-how with a French cuisinier's culinary instincts, American astronauts on the ISS can choose from among 180 menu items, and - like seventh-graders at any school cafeteria - can also trade with their Russian cosmonaut colleagues.

"That's a good thing," says Kloeris. "When you're up there for six months, it's better to have both food systems available because it gives you more variety to choose from."

While cosmonauts dine on items like black bread and borscht, astronauts can consume such classic, even nostalgic, items as beef tips with mushrooms, chicken à la king, M&Ms, Planter's peanuts, coffee, and lemonade.

Despite harsh-sounding treatments that may include sterilization through irradiation or thermostabilization (a preservation method that's like pressure cooking), as well as dehydration, food scientists feel that it's important to give astronauts a taste of home.

"We have no scientific data that says this," says Michelle Perchonok, the advanced food system "lead" at the Johnson Space Center, "but our gut feeling is that food plays a big role in the psychological health of the astronauts, especially on longer missions."

Cuisine selection and processing for space missions involve several major challenges.

First, the menus must be exactingly chosen to ensure astronauts receive proper nutrition. Second, the food must be sterile - free from any spoilage- causing bacteria - before they are put into vacuum pouches. Energy-draining refrigerators and freezers are out of the question on the space station. Space food must be almost completely nonperishable.

Size and weight restrictions are also paramount: Dehydration literally sucks the food dry to optimize storage space and reduce weight.

"This isn't just going to the pantry and getting the food out," says Ms. Perchonok. "It's a huge technical challenge to make sure the crew is happy and healthy."

Perchonok is part of a smaller NASA project with a longer-term scope: planning food for longer flights and more permanent missions to other planets.

"Once we're on the surface of the Moon or Mars, we'll need to start growing food," says Perchonok. Lunar Thanksgivings will probably be of the hydroponic, vegetarian variety. Farm animals will use too many precious resources on long-duration missions.

This year, as if part of a post-cold war Thanksgiving Day pageant, McArthur will break bread (read: "traditional" Thanksgiving tortillas) with Cosmonaut Valery Tokarev.

Here on Earth, a sampling of the Thanksgiving space fare - mailed "fresh" from Johnson Space Center in Houston - delighted palettes at the Monitor offices. The irradiated smoked turkey and thermostabilized candied yams were alarmingly tasty.

But it was the dramatic transformation of the dehydrated green beans with mushrooms that captured our imaginations. Upon opening, the side dish's pouch emitted a low whoosh like the sound of an industrial compressor inflating a truck tire.

And after adding 100 milliliters of hot water - yes, they were just like the ones Grandma used to make.

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