Here on Earth people are working to find the most direct route between growing foods and consuming them -- less refined, less processed, with less added to them, and fresher. In the sky above us, the space program is doing the same thing.

Last month a small exhibit of Space Food was installed in perhaps the most popular tourist spot in Washington, the Apollo to the Moon gallery of the National Air and Space Museum. What it shows is that space food is becoming more and more like Earth food.

Actually, the first solid food eaten in space was not a highly researched and carefully monitored hygienic meal, but a corned beef sandwich smuggled aboard Gemini 3 by astronaut John Young as a surprise for Gus Grissom. It crumbled, so most of it wound up in the trash. The rest of the food on that flight was far less familiar.

In the early days, food was freeze-dried, or cut into bite-size pieces and coated with edible gelatin to control crumbling. Meals were vacuum packed in plastic containers and reconstituted with lukewarm water. Pretty unappealing stuff. The great innovations of the Apollo program, besides made-to-order chicken and tuna sandwiches, were hot and cold water made available in water guns for reconstituting dried foods to proper temperature. And the Apollo program added junk foods -- candy bars, jellybeans. Skylab, in 1973, added a small freezer that alloted one frozen food per man per day, including lobster, steak, ice cream and breads. Forks and spoons became part of the equipment.

The space shuttles of today have no freezer or refrigerator, but if the astronauts can't get ice cream, they can eat M&M's. Pepsi and Coke (NASA apparently tries to be even-handed) in pressurized cans were added for last August's Challenger space shuttle flight.

Most of the food nowadays requires no special processing or packaging, though there are some thermostabilized and dehydrated foods. No more sipping applesauce through a tube as John Glenn first did in 1962 to prove that a person could swallow and digest normally in zero gravity. No more space-age copies of Army survival rations. NASA is trying to make living in space like living on Earth.

Still, food has to be stable enough to avoid spoilage, and convenient to eat in a weightless environment. "A slowly lifted glass of water was apt to splash onto an unsuspecting face. A forkful of peas raised to the mouth would continue right on moving," reported the Smithsonian News Service. That means serving the peas in gravy -- "to keep them on the knife," joked one exhibitor. Care needs to be taken to avoid cluttering the environment with crumbs of food or water droplets that might short out electrical circuits, clog oxygen lines or saturate an astronaut's clothing.

The food also has its psychological requirements; it has to have familiar taste, texture, color and flavor. The choice has been broadened to 75 foods and 20 beverages by now, including fresh fruits and breads for the first couple days in space, and each astronaut can select items for his own diet.

The roster lists cream of mushroom soup, shrimp cocktail, broccoli au gratin, strawberries, tea and cocoa. The shuttle food systems staff buys food from local grocery stores, cooks it and freeze-dries it when necessary. Since weightlessness deadens the taste buds, the astronauts add liberal amounts of salt and pepper -- liquefied and injected into the food -- plus ketchup and hot pepper sauce. They report that coffee has little taste.

The meals are also required to be nutritious. NASA staff calculates the nutrients and calories -- the allotment has increased over the years from 2,500 to 3,000 calories -- but it is not a notably health-oriented list. Alfalfa sprouts and wheat germ were not mentioned. Steak and ham-and-cheese sandwiches were. The fat allotment for astronauts, according to the exhibit, has been 32 percent by weight, higher than the scientific community would like us to be consuming on Earth; and the choices include plenty of empty calories. Feeding one astronaut, according to NASA staff, costs about $50 a day.

So what do the Russians eat in space? When U.S. and Soviet crews broke bread together in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the menu included canned tongue in jelly, tubes of cottage cheese with applesauce, borscht and bite-size loaves of black bread. Plus caviar.

The Air and Space Museum is showing a new film, "The Dream is Alive," filmed by the astronauts and narrated by Walter Cronkite. And it illustrates that outer space can indeed be a home away from home. There the astronauts are, spinning their shrimp into the air and catching it in their mouths, playing with their food in the absence of touch football. And when the Challenger completed its mission to repair a disabled satellite, ground control at Kennedy Space Center responded with, "Time to come in and get their hands washed for supper." Tabletalk

*Trendtalk: Mashed potatoes -- with lumps to prove they are homemade -- are hot stuff in the United States. What about in France? I found potato pure'e on several elegant menus (though never a suggestion of a lump).

*Future foods being produced in Israel: powders made of citrus, apricots, avocados, honey, olives or dates.

*Predicting the future with your crystal computer, enter this critical fact: Someone has reported being unable to find kiwis in various California supermarkets. MARK CARALUZZI'S VEGETARIAN CHILI (8 to 12 servings)

With people on earth concerned about eating lower-cholesterol, lower-fat, higher-fiber, more nutritious diets, here is a suggested recipe for astronauts, a meatless chili with no loose vegetables to go floating around the space shuttle, and plenty of spice for those weightlessness-muted taste buds. It also makes good winter food for earthlings.

3/4 cup bulgur wheat

2 1/2 cups tomato-vegetable juice

2 cups chopped onion

3/4 cup chopped celery

1 cup finely chopped carrot

1 cup chopped green pepper

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 cups chopped mushrooms

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon cumin

3/4 teaspoon basil

3/4 teaspoon oregano

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce

2 cups chopped plum tomatoes with juice

15-ounce can kidney beans, undrained

15-ounce can white beans (cannellini or great northern), drained

15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1/4 cup dry red wine

3 tablespoons chopped canned green chilies

1 tablespoon chopped jalapeno peppers

Combine bulgur and tomato-vegetable juice. Leave to soak while preparing other ingredients. Chop vegetables (a food processor works well) and have spices ready.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat the olive oil. Over high heat, add the onion, celery, carrots, green pepper, garlic, mushrooms and dry spices. Cook and stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the bulgur-juice mixture and all remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, uncovered.