MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Space Shuttle Atlantis is back home after two weeks in orbit. It landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California after bad weather made a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida too risky. The Atlantis crews spent most of its time at the International Space Station, dropping off new equipment, experiments and, of course, food. And it's not just mashed potatoes in a tube anymore. NASA has put a lot of hard work into making space food something astronauts look forward to.

From Houston Public Radio, Capella Tucker reports.

CAPELLA TUCKER: At the Johnson Space Center, food scientists put a couple of spoonfuls of chocolate pudding into small plastic cups.

(Soundbite of food scooping)

TUCKER: Volunteer taste testers will decide which of the three options has the most flavor. But NASA doesn't want the testers to influence each other, so each sits in a private phone booth-like stall.

TUCKER: Ray Rodriguez(ph) makes himself comfortable and pulls the gray tray toward him. Each pudding sample is labeled with a number.

Mr. RAY RODRIGUEZ (Taste Tester): So I thought that the first one, 285, was more - had more flavor.

TUCKER: But there's not much difference between the gooey chocolate treats. NASA's Michele Perchonok says this taste test is about shelf life.

Dr. MICHELE PERCHONOK (Director, Advanced Food Technology Project, Johnson Space Center): It was made from cocoa powder and cornstarch, and depending on your sample, that cocoa powder and cornstarch had been stored for three years at 72 degrees...

Unidentified Man: Really?

Dr. PERCHONOK: ...or 95 degrees.

TUCKER: NASA food scientists want to know if the cocoa powder and other ingredients can be used in food on extended missions to the moon and Mars. Some of the food development is being done at Texas A&M University. The latest addition is cheese grits.

Ms. LORI NEISH (Bioastronautics Contractor, Space Food Research Facility): My great comfort food, I guess.

TUCKER: Lori Neish oversees the space food research facility. She and another NASA food scientist wearing lab coats and hairnets hand pour 300 pouches. Every pouch is measured and weighed before being put into a machine that sterilizes food for spaceflight.

Texas A&M student Monica Johnson(ph) helps with the development and is impressed with the quality.

Ms. MONICA JOHNSON (Student, Texas A&M University): Whenever I tell people that I make food for NASA, they think it's powder and like, eww, not very good food. But actually, I mean, the food that we do make is very good.

TUCKER: While NASA does still use the orange-flavored powdered drink Tang, gone are the days of food cubes and plastic tubes. Back at Johnson Space Center, food system manager Vickie Kloeris says today, the most requested item is freeze-dried shrimp cocktail. Kloeris says selecting food for space is challenging. For one, there is no refrigerator or freezer. Also astronaut-safe food just tastes different up there.

Dr. VICKIE KLOERIS (Manager, Space Food Systems Laboratory): When they go into space flight, initially, there's a fluid shift that occurs and the fluid moves to the upper part of their body so initially, they're very congested. So it's just like when you and I have a cold and things taste different to us.

TUCKER: Sometimes recipes have to be tweaked. For example, the cheese grits were not cleared for launch until the fat and salt were reduced.

Dr. KLOERIS: There's a lot of evidence that high sodium exacerbates bone loss and bone loss is one of the things that happens to people when they go into microgravity. And so we don't want to have a whole lot of sodium to make that worse.

TUCKER: One food item that won't likely be cleared for lift-off: pizza. Astronauts ask for it all the time, but pizza just doesn't taste right in pouches.

For NPR News, I'm Capella Tucker in Houston.

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