Concocting a meal fit for astronauts

Scientists who develop meals for spaceflights face range of challenges

November 27, 2003|By Scott Gold | Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON - Vickie Kloeris would like nothing more than to suffer the traditional anxieties of Thanksgiving: Will the turkey be moist? Will the in-laws get along? But it's hard to concentrate on such mundane matters when you've got things on your mind like giving your soup enough viscosity so that it sticks to a spoon without benefit of gravity.

As the manager of NASA's space food systems laboratory, Kloeris is in charge of the agency's food production, including the irradiated turkey and thermostabilized candied yams that two astronauts will get to tear into today, 240 miles overhead aboard the International Space Station.

"They'll lay out a pretty good spread for Thanksgiving," said John McCullough, a NASA flight director.

Of the thousands of tasks performed at Houston's Johnson Space Center, few are as curious as those undertaken by Kloeris and her staff.

They are, first and foremost, chefs.

On a recent afternoon inside the laboratory-kitchen, two of Kloeris' assistants were dicing water chestnuts and discussing the virtues of the cumin. NASA's gumbo and its apricot cobbler are loosely based on the family recipes of food scientists Connie Oertli and Donna Nabors, respectively. Kloeris too is an expert cook at home; her husband, she says, fancies her lasagna.

But the three women are also scientists. Kloeris, who has been at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since 1985, has an undergraduate degree in microbiology and a master's degree in food science from Texas A&M University. She and her staff are fluent in World Health Organization formulas for determining salt content and counting calories.

But they must fold into their cooking considerations unnecessary to the earth-bound. Salt and pepper, for instance, can't be served in shakers because in space, the contents would scatter before making it onto the food. So each gets mixed with liquid - salt with water and pepper with olive oil - and placed in squeeze bottles. Astronauts then swab the mixture on.

Crumbs are also taboo. In microgravity, they would float forever. If enough crumbs built up, they could clog air filters or pose contamination risks.

So food must be designed with precision. Bread is baked so that each piece is surrounded in crust, akin to an unsliced hamburger bun, to avoid flaking. And crackers are baked into bite-sized pieces, so they are never broken outside the astronauts' mouths.

Preparing the food for astronauts aboard the space station often begins a year before it is to be eaten. Finished meals are shipped aboard Russian supply vehicles; the latest batch arrived in October, along with the space station's new two-man crew, astronaut C. Michael Foale and cosmonaut Alexander Yurievich Kaleri. The meals must be able to survive for months without refrigeration.

"It's a niche," Kloeris said. "That's for sure."

Before the advent of the space station, flights that lasted for just a couple weeks were considered long. Foale and Kaleri are scheduled to remain on the International Space Station for 192 days.

Such a mission often is the culmination of years of anticipation and training for the astronauts, but that doesn't make the time and distance any easier, NASA officials say. Holidays are especially hard, and engineers on the ground take great pains to make them special.

In addition to treats such as private videoconferences with family members, there is the holiday fare. Foale said he's building his Thanksgiving feast around the smoked turkey slices he has stockpiled.

But even today's space-age food formulas won't cut it as NASA looks beyond the heights reached by the shuttles and the space station - all the way, some believe, to Mars.

NASA's best estimates are that such a trip might take five years. Since most food designed for space travel doesn't have a shelf life longer than one year, radically new approaches are being explored - such as growing crops on board a spaceship.

Toward that end, Kloeris' staff has a new task these days - testing the shelf life of foods under a variety of heat and moisture conditions.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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