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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.

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