Federal Player

Vickie Kloeris: NASA's Top Chef

From the Partnership for Public Service
Monday, March 29, 2010; 4:05 PM

Vickie Kloeris' recipes may not be listed in The Joy of Cooking, but her tasty and healthy zero gravity meals provide culinary delights for our brave astronauts when they are living in space.

As the manager of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Space Food Systems Laboratory, Kloeris is responsible for developing, testing and packaging all of the food that is sent into orbit on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. Currently, the food menu consists of 180 different types of food and beverages ranging from shrimp cocktail to Tang.

Kloeris, who holds a master's degree in food science, never thought about the culinary applications of the space program until conferring with several NASA food scientists at a professional meeting in 1985.

"After meeting them, I decided that is what I wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every minute of being here," Kloeris said. "It is a dream job for a food scientist to contribute to the space program."

During the past 20 years, Kloeris has expanded the food offerings available to astronauts through new product development, and with the launch of the International Space Station, has focused on products with a long shelf life that are consumed from disposable plastic containers and aluminum pouches. There is no refrigerator or freezer aboard the Space Station, so food must remain good for long periods at room temperature.

Kloeris and her team at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston have created more than 12 new freeze-dried items and 50 new thermostablized foods, which are foods that have been processed with heat to destroy microorganisms and enzymes that can cause spoilage.

"Vickie has been the cornerstone of the U.S. supply of food to the astronauts," Kimberly Glaus L├Ąte, space food systems lab manager, said. "It has been her leadership that has driven us to ensure that we are providing the best quality and most variety of food to the astronaut crews."

Many of the food items come from commercial products that Kloeris buys frozen at the supermarket and turns into freeze-dried creations.

About a dozen items are custom-made such as vegetable quiche. Kloeris starts with a recipe just as if she were cooking at home and adjusts the ingredients to suit the freeze-dried mode.

"Basically, it is a trial and error process," Kloeris said. "Sometimes you adjust the size or type of ingredients to get to a formulation that works. On average, it is about a six-month process to develop a freeze-dried product."

It takes even longer to develop thermostablized food since there is so much change in the color, texture and chemistry to these products due to the heat. This can leave the food less than appealing, such as a cheesecake type product that Kloeris and her team have yet to conquer.

To produce these products, NASA established a facility at Kloeris' alma mater, Texas A&M University, four years ago. This partnership has provided Kloeris the opportunity to inspire a new generation of food scientists, which is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job.

Kloeris said shuttle crew members get a personal preference menu, which she and her team analyze to ensure that it falls within the necessary nutritional guidelines. The menu includes a wide variety of beef, chicken and turkey dishes, vegetables, potatoes, fruits and desserts.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station receive a 16-day cycle menu consisting of a variety of the 180 available items, with the U.S. providing half the selection and the Russians the other half. These crew members also are able to augment the menu with a favorite candy bar or cookie.

Surprisingly, one item you won't find on the menu is space ice cream. According to Kloeris, this item only flew once during the Apollo space program because the astronauts gave thumbs down to the treat. But have no fear. It can now be found in space museum gift shops nationwide.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company