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This Year, No Turkey Feast For Shuttle Astronauts

Food scientists at NASA have spent years creating special Thanksgiving dishes for zero gravity, but the seven astronauts orbiting Earth in space shuttle Atlantis this year won't get to enjoy them.

That's because a schedule slip late in the game made it difficult for NASA to change the astronauts' customized menus, which had been selected months before.

"They didn't know they were going to be up there for Thanksgiving," says Michele Perchonok, shuttle food system manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Their mission was postponed about four days, and so they were supposed to be home for Thanksgiving."

Thanksgiving celebrations in outer space have been going on for decades. Back in November of 1973, during the Skylab 4 mission, Ed Gibson spent the holiday spacewalking. "I do remember at the end of the day we did have a Thanksgiving dinner," says Gibson. "All I remember of it was turkey."

Space food used to be "cubes and tubes," but meals in orbit have evolved. The approximately 200 different food options offered by NASA now include an array of familiar holiday foods in space-age packaging.

Last year, the crew of space shuttle Endeavour enjoyed a full menu of all-American fare including irradiated smoked turkey, thermostabilized candied yams, rehydratable green beans, freeze-dried cornbread dressing, and a cran-apple dessert.

This year, though, none of the astronauts' personalized menus shows any turkey for Flight Day 11, Meal C -- otherwise known as Thanksgiving dinner.

"We weren't able to quickly change out any food" when the schedule changed, says Perchonok. The astronauts had made their personal menu choices long before and all the food was already stowed.

Possibly they could have stashed last-minute holiday items in the fresh food locker, if the crew had really wanted them. "That becomes a decision by the crew or by the commander," she says.

Before the flight, when space shuttle Atlantis commander Charlie Hobaugh was asked about the possibility of spending Thanksgiving in orbit and whether he'd arranged for special holiday food just in case, he said, "you know, the season is whatever the season is. It could be Christmas, could be Thanksgiving, who knows? We're just always pleased to be in space."

"And I don't care what they give us," he added. "It could be beef brisket. It could be tofu. It doesn't matter to me. We’re going to enjoy ourselves no matter what we do."

Hobaugh's own menu for Thanksgiving night says he'll be having rehydratable vegetarian chili, and thermostabilized chicken fajitas. "You know, Thanksgiving isn't all about what you eat. It's the people you spend it with," Hobaugh said from orbit on Tuesday. "We're just going to have a great time."

The crew will be busy on the holiday as they make preparations for their scheduled landing back on Earth on Friday.

But if any of them gets truly desperate for a small taste of Thanksgiving, they can turn to crewmate Mike Foreman. His menu for the day just happens to include a thermostabilized apple cranberry desert.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner may be a big job for you, but imagine how much harder it would be in space where you'd have to try to prevent the bread for your stuffing from just floating away. NASA's food sciences lab has spent years creating special Thanksgiving dishes for zero gravity, but the seven astronauts in the shuttle today will not get to enjoy them. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce investigates.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thanksgiving celebrations in outer space have been going on for decades. Back in November of 1973, during the Skylab 4 mission, Ed Gibson spent the holiday spacewalking.

ED GIBSON: I do remember, at the end of the day we did have a Thanksgiving dinner.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Do you remember what it was like?

GIBSON: All I remember of it was turkey.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Space food used to be cubes and tubes, but meals in orbit have evolved. Michele Perchonok manages the shuttle food system for NASA at Johnson Space Center. She says they can now offer astronauts an elaborate menu of familiar holiday foods in space age packaging.

MICHELE PERCHONOK: The major Thanksgiving kinds of food - and remember we're in Houston, so it's a southern influence - smoked turkey; which has been around a long time. It's one of our irradiated items. Candy yams; which has been around for a few years. Cornbread dressing; which is a freeze-dried item. Our candied yams are a thermostabilized pouch item.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And a freeze-dried vegetable; like green beans almandine. Last year, the crew of space shuttle Endeavour enjoyed a full menu of all-American fare. NASA posts astronauts' menus on its Web site. If you look at this year, you'll see that no one on Space Shuttle Atlantis is eating turkey. How is this possible?

PERCHONOK: They didn't know they were going to be up there for Thanksgiving. Their mission was postponed about four days, and so they were supposed to be home for Thanksgiving.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Perchonok says her team meets with the crew about a year before the scheduled flight so the astronauts can taste foods and create their personal menus. Within a month of the mission everything is stowed away for the trip.

PERCHONOK: Because it was more of a last minute - at least in NASA terms - a last minute change of date for the launch, we weren't able to quickly change out any food.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says, ok, maybe they could've stashed holiday items in the fresh food locker.

PERCHONOK: If we really were pushed and the crew had said, gee, we really, really, really have to have it, that becomes a decision by the crew or by the commander.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The commander of Atlantis is Charlie Hobaugh. On Tuesday, he floated with his colleagues on NASA's TV channel and took questions from earth- based reporters, including my hard-hitting Thanksgiving question.

You've said there'd be no special Thanksgiving foods, and I'm just trying to understand why. Was there really no time to stow holiday foods on board when the schedule changed, or did you just decide you didn't want the crew to be eating stuff like freeze-dried cornbread stuffing?

CHARLIE HOBAUGH: I'd have to say more the latter.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says whatever food services packed up for them...

HOBAUGH: That's what we're eating.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hobaugh's own menu on flight day 11, better known as Thanksgiving, says that for dinner - what NASA calls meal C - he'll be having rehydratable vegetarian chili, and thermostabilized chicken fajitas.

HOBAUGH: You know, Thanksgiving isn't all about what you eat. It's the people you spend it with.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And Hobaugh says his shuttle crew is like a second family. Plus, if any of them gets truly desperate for a small taste of Thanksgiving, they can turn to crewmate Mike Foreman. His menu for today just happens to include a thermostabilized apple cranberry dessert.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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