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The Globe and Mail

Feds spend $400K on scrubbed space-food project

It's the secret federal space-food project that never saw liftoff.

After quietly spending more than $400,000 to develop made-in-Canada meals for astronauts, the federal government has discreetly shelved the program, The Canadian Press has learned.

Only one item ever made it through NASA's food-testing labs and into the astronauts' stomachs: some cream-filled oatmeal cookies known as Canasnacks.

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The original idea was to have space-friendly food kits ready in time for visits to the International Space Station by Canadian astronauts Julie Payette and Bob Thirsk in 2009 and, eventually, to feed all the world's astronauts.

The two-year project was officially put on hold after two key researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada decided to move on.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act revealed there were delays developing the menu and requests for additional funding.

Work on the moveable feast began in December 2006, when the Canadian Space Agency signed its first contract with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to develop "Good Tasting Foods for Space Travellers."

The space agency initially kicked in $65,000, while Agriculture Canada's contribution was budgeted at almost $350,000. The agency had hoped to have a made-in-Canada space menu ready in two years, approved by NASA, and placed permanently on U.S. flights.

Initially, 11 specially created Canadian food items were proposed - including Bison meat loaf, wild mushroom sauce, vegetable crush, beef and barley soup, and maple cookies.

But there were a number of complications. In an example of the challenge in preparing extraterrestrial cuisine, Mr. Thirsk tested the mushroom sauce and concluded it had to be thickened to hold together in micro gravity.

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Mr. Thirsk also requested a green vegetable dish like asparagus or fiddleheads because he dislikes root vegetables.

Five head chefs were consulted on the original menu, which included breakfast, lunch and dinner items.

The Institut de tourisme et d'hotellerie du Quebec - the Quebec Tourism and Hotel Institute - was also asked to help co-ordinate the meal.

Project developers had several key criteria: the food had to have as many Canadian ingredients as possible, had to be healthy and tasty, and needed to get the NASA seal of approval.

In the end, only the cookies made it.

About a dozen packages of the so-called "Canasnacks" - blueberry, cranberry, maple-filled cookies - were shipped to the space station.

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In January 2008, Ted Farnworth, the lead scientist, said he needed additional funds - and time - and that meant renegotiating the deal between the CSA and Agriculture Canada.

"It is clear that we very much underestimated the time and resources necessary to get the full one-day menu completely through the system and ready for flight," Mr. Farnworth wrote in an email to one of the project co-ordinators.

Natalie Hirsch, who handled the project for the Canadian Space Agency, says time ran out in late 2008 - even after researchers tried to trim the menu.

In a December email, Mr. Farnworth announced he would be phasing out his research and would no longer be working on the Canadian space-food program.

"When we realized it was taking longer than we expected to optimize these foods for long-duration flight and we realized that Bob Thirsk's mission and Julie Payette's mission were coming up quickly, we decided to put the novel food development on hold," Ms. Hirsch told The Canadian Press.

Ms. Hirsch said one big challenge researchers faced was developing special packaging that would ensure the food had an extended shelf life without refrigeration or freezing.

It was finally decided that astronauts would eat, according to federal documents, "some commercially available products representative of and originating in Canada."

That prompted a new concern: Canadian content.

Technician Luc Jacques noted that "a lot of Canadian foods on the market do not have major ingredients coming from Canada due to market globalization."

He cited blueberry yogurt as an example. It might be manufactured in Canada with Canadian milk but, because of the short fruit-growing season, the blueberries likely come from another country.

In the end, off-the-shelf commercial foods were sent up like smoked salmon pate from Salt Spring Island, B.C., and maple leaf-shaped cookies from Don Mills, Ont., which were "made with pure Quebec maple syrup."

But the magic solution to the Canadian government's $400,000 culinary conundrum? Beef jerky, from Cold Lake, Alta.

"It (was) an easy choice because jerky has an extended duration shelf-life and it also has quite a strong flavour that the astronauts enjoy because some of them experience a decreased taste sensation," Ms. Hirsch said.

The space agency says it's now taking the lessons learned from the project, and assessing "the most effective means to proceed with Canadian space food development and provision."

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