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Ahead of space missions, NASA chefs prepare meals for quarantined astronauts

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Four astronauts head for the International Space Station early tomorrow morning. As they prepare, NASA's participants have been quarantining at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They have their own bedrooms. They have their own gym. They even have personal chefs. So what do they eat in there? From member station WMFE, Brendan Byrne reports.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The tiny galley kitchen at Kennedy Space Center's astronaut crew quarters looks just like any commercial restaurant. It's got all the staples, like a convection oven, a range and a dishwasher. But what sets this place apart is the tableware.

BILL FARINA: All the...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLATES CLATTERING)

FARINA: ...Unique plates, these have been around since Mercury days?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It certainly was here in - yeah.

FARINA: Mercury days.

BYRNE: Bill Farina's chef's jacket is covered in mission patches as he holds plates that have been around since the 1960s. He's one of the chefs who cooks for astronauts before their mission. To keep the crew away from any germs that might make them sick or germs they might bring up to the space station, they enter a nearly two-week quarantine first at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, then here in Florida, just a few miles from the rocket that will take them to orbit. Farina's job is to keep them fed. And he does that with fellow chef Joe Alfano. They get their recipes from NASA's astronaut office, but they do have some creative liberties. Their menus reflect the likes of the astronauts and their cultural backgrounds.

JOE ALFANO: We've done everything from Thai food to eggs Benedict to, you know, a piece of fresh fish from Florida, burgers, steaks. I mean, you name it - shepherd's pies, something that their mother used to make.

BYRNE: Quarantining ahead of their upcoming mission is NASA's Crew-7, four space fliers from the U.S., Denmark, Japan and Russia. They live in what looks like a college dorm, where they'll make final preparations, participate in briefings, visit family and suit up before flight. This facility at KSC has been around since the Apollo moon missions. The preflight tradition goes back to NASA's early days of human spaceflight, says historian and collectspace.com editor Robert Pearlman. For the agency's first human launch in 1961, Alan Shepard had a breakfast of steak and eggs.

ROBERT PEARLMAN: The idea was to have a meal that was filling and rich in protein because he might be waiting to launch for a considerable amount of time. They didn't want him to get hungry again, but also low residue because there was no bathroom onboard the spacecraft.

BYRNE: That meal tradition continued through Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle program, with some astronauts asking for steak and eggs ahead of their mission. But the menu has grown. Janet Kavandi is a retired NASA astronaut who flew on three shuttle missions. She says while the menu is unique to each crew, one item remains the same.

JANET KAVANDI: There were always - one thing I do remember, there were always cookie jars full of cookies, even though those are probably not the best thing for you just before you go fly.

BYRNE: Chef Farina is baking dozens of those cookies for this upcoming crew. As a lifelong Florida Space Coast resident who followed NASA since childhood, cooking for astronauts is a treat.

FARINA: Never. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would be here and cooking for these - I call them true American heroes.

BYRNE: And after Farina and fellow chef Joe Alfano cook that last meal for the crew before their flight, the team will wash those NASA dishes, clean that small galley kitchen and start planning the menu for the next group of astronauts to dine with them.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR AND SZA SONG, "ALL THE STARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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