HOUSTON (AP) _ Space food has come a long way from the bland applesauce that pioneering astronaut John Glenn squeezed from a tube while in orbit 39 years ago.
These days astronauts aboard the International Space Station for months at a stretch nosh on such comfort foods as meatloaf, beef stew and bread pudding. The fare may not look pretty, but it is the real thing.
``It's not like chicken _ it is chicken,'' Internet entrepreneur Dayna Steele Justiz of Houston said of NASA's culinary concoctions she sells to the earthbound at thespacestore.com.
Justiz, whose husband, Charlie, is a test pilot for NASA, sells overruns of actual ready-to-eat fare the space agency's food contractor prepares for astronauts on space shuttles and aboard space station Alpha.
A great deal of the chow consumed by shuttle crews is dehydrated and needs water, unless astronauts prefer it dry. But food contractor Johnson Engineering is continually adding more fully cooked, ready-to-eat entrees, desserts and side dishes so astronauts facing long stints in orbit can get more of a taste of home.
``It's pretty darn good, actually,'' said astronaut Susan Helms, who arrived home in August after more than five months aboard the station with astronaut Jim Voss and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev. ``All three of us on the flight ended up eating quite a bit of it.''
Station astronauts consume a 50/50 mixture of American- and Russian-made food, and the Russian Space Agency provides dehydrated as well as ready-to-eat fare. Helms said the Russian offerings added to the variety.
NASA nutritionist Beverly Swango said space food has evolved along with the space program, and the need for better-tasting, more diverse food offerings increases with the length of missions.
Shuttle astronauts can tolerate adding water to dehydrated fare because a two-week flight ``is literally like a camping trip,'' Swango said. Water is a plentiful byproduct of the systems that produce electricity aboard the shuttle, and the need to limit weight aboard the spacecraft increases the acceptance of mushy vegetables.
But different systems aboard the station do not produce water, so hydrated food is more practical.
The foods have a five-year shelf life, but thick soups, yogurt and meat entrees contain no more preservatives than food on grocery store shelves, Swango said. The food is ``thermostabilized''_ a process much like pasteurization _ and then packaged in high-tech soft aluminum pouches that keep contents fresh. The Russian ready-to-eat foods come in cans.
And, NASA's thermostabilized fare is cheaper to produce. Swango said it takes several days to siphon moisture for dehydrated foods, while the ready-to-eat vittles are simply cooked and packaged.
``You can get the high quality out of this as you do frozen food,'' she said. ``The bread pudding came from (chef) Emeril's cookbook.''
Dr. Bernard Harris, a former astronaut who flew shuttle missions in 1993 and 1995, said it would have been nice to have the thermostabilized food when he was in orbit. Harris is now vice president of Space Media Inc., a subsidiary of Spacehab Inc., the parent company of Johnson Engineering and thespacestore.com.
``Just like on the ground, you get hungry,'' he said. ``I've tasted some of the food they're preparing, and it actually is very good. The variety is much improved from when I was a shuttle astronaut.''
Justiz was a Houston radio personality when she started selling space-related products out of her basement as a hobby in 1997. Two years later, she retired from radio to focus on the business.
She started selling items like mission badges, replicas of flight suits for newborns, memorabilia and toys for space buffs. The addition of real space food _ not those peanut butter sticks touted as space food in the 1970s _ came this year, selling for $6.95 per package. She also sells a few dehydrated Russian space food items for $8.95 per package.
``I'd been trying to think of a way for a couple of years to sell real space food because people are really interested in it,'' Justiz said.
Penn Burris, who runs American Outdoor Products, a camping company in Boulder, Colo., wanted to buy bulk supplies to be resold to campers, hikers and others who favor the outdoors. A subsidiary of his company, Backpackers Pantry, manufactures 60 dehydrated foods for campers, but NASA's ready-to-eat fare would appeal to campers who prefer not to boil water.
``It's a novelty in the backpacking industry, with no cooking required,'' he said.
Justiz couldn't meet his request because she sells only what NASA doesn't send into orbit.
With three astronauts aboard the station and small crews on periodic shuttle flights, Johnson Engineering, nestled in one of the nondescript buildings on the grounds of the Johnson Space Center, doesn't need to mass-produce the fare, Justiz said.
Helms said the thermostabilized food was by far her favorite while in space from March to August, but even good-tasting meals get boring. And some things, like fresh eggs and crisp lettuce, just can't make it in space _ yet.
``I really missed fresh vegetables and just making a salad,'' she said. ``At five months we hit a wall in terms of the food.''