HOUSTON – The smoked turkey resembles sliced deli meat but stiffer, the candied yams are bland inside, the green beans taste like they've been microwaved to death and the corn bread stuffing has a broth-heavy, institutional flavor.
Grandma's home cooking, it's not.
Then again, Grandma's Thanksgiving dinners were never irradiated, freeze-dried, vacuum-packed into plastic pouches and then launched into space to be served 220 miles above Earth. That's what the Turkey Day meals for the astronauts aboard space shuttle Endeavour have endured.
Endeavour's seven astronauts and the three crew members at the international space station will take a break from their chores and gather for their special meal Thanksgiving Day. The last time a space shuttle crew ate their holiday meal in space was six years ago.
"It gives us a moment to pause and reflect just how fortunate we are as a country and as global community," Endeavour commander Christopher Ferguson said from the space station. "We're thankful for that, in addition to the opportunity to fly in space."
Although there were only six Thanksgiving meals prepared, Ferguson said not to worry. They were scraping together turkey from the space station pantry so everyone could experience space's version of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, including the lone Russian, space station cosmonaut, Yuri Lonchakov.
"Now we have enough food for everybody on board, which is part of Thanksgiving anyway, sharing what you have," astronaut Stephen Bowen said Tuesday.
"It may be called space food, but it's actually, it's very good," Ferguson said, noting that many of the meals come from the military. "I'm from the Navy, and I like Navy food and I enjoy space food as well."
He added: "We'll have a true Thanksgiving feast.'
Instead of sitting at a large Thanksgiving dinner table, the astronauts will float around as they eat. The food pouches have Velcro tags which allow them to be attached to the astronauts' suits. The food also can be fixed to Velcro patches on metallic food trays, which each have a spoon, fork, knife and scissors tethered to them for cutting open the food pouches. The trays can then be strapped to the astronauts' laps or attached to a wall.
NASA works hard to give the astronauts a varied menu. Sixty new dishes have been prepared for astronauts in the last six years. Even so, it's hard to recreate the fresh tastes found on many Thanksgiving dinner tables, especially since NASA uses many industrial ingredients so the meals can be mass-produced.
"You lose those high notes of flavor," said Michele Perchonok, who manages NASA's food technology lab. "You're not going to get those nice, herbal, spicy notes that are really fresh."
The meals are light-years away from the mush squeezed out of aluminum tubes that Mercury astronauts consumed during NASA's first manned flights, or even the pureed shrimp cocktail and squeeze-tube apple sauce of the Gemini program.
Now the shuttle astronauts pick their daily menus before going up in space. The space station astronauts, who can live up to six months at the outpost, have a menu schedule that repeats every 16 days although they can make changes.
Historically, the space shuttles and space station have lacked a refrigerator for food, although Endeavour delivered a fridge for food and cold drinks during this mission. As a result, food taken up to space has to be bacteria-free. That is accomplished by either treating meats with radiation, dehydrating vegetables or heating other foods up to 250 degrees for a half hour.
Up in space, the dried foods are prepared by squirting hot or cold water into the food pouch. The other foods are heated up in the food galley's oven, basically a hot plate which uses a fan to circulate heated air.
For the Thanksgiving dinner, the smoked turkey was irradiated and the green beans and dressing were freeze-dried, a form of dehydration. The candied yams and dessert were heated.
A week before Thanksgiving, NASA gave reporters a taste-test of the astronauts' holiday dinner. The smoked turkey was slightly stiffer than deli meat, like after it has been left in the refrigerator a week past its expiration date. The candied yams had a syrupy sweetness outside that dissolved into blandness in the middle. The green beans with mushrooms tasted like they have been frozen and then microwaved to an inch of their life.
The saving grace was a sublime cranapple dessert. There was a tartness to the apples and sweetness to the cranberries mixed with pecans and syrup in a dish that resembles cobbler filling.
NASA takes special pride in desserts.
"All our desserts are wonderful," Perchonok said.