- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

Mushy meatloaf and slimy cherry-blueberry cobbler are flying off the virtual shelves.

The Space Store, a division of District-based Spacehab, started selling the food that astronauts eat in space on its Web site earlier this summer, and the results have been out of this world.

So what if the meatloaf can be mistaken for dog food or the cobbler looks like it lost a fight with a blender?

These foods whose focus is on aroma and nutrients, not how they look have hit a nostalgic nerve with consumers who are gobbling up the $6.95 per-pouch goodies.

"They've been a big hit," says Dayna Steele Justiz, president of the Space Store. "I knew people would be fascinated with it."

The site, which sells more than 500 space-related products, now offers eight different foods: meatloaf, chicken fajitas, beef stew, chicken noodle soup, minestrone, potato soup, peach yogurt and bread pudding.

The cherry-blueberry cobbler is already sold out. Ms. Justiz would not disclose any sales figures.

The food is produced by Johnson Engineering, another division of Spacehab, which develops the fully hydrated foods in a pouch for astronauts aboard NASA Shuttle missions and the International Space Station.

The Houston-based company has developed between 40 and 50 foods for astronauts its target market since October 1999.

The first round of foods, which astronauts can heat up in a food warmer, were "comfort foods" like chicken noodle soup and beef stew.

"We deliver a little bit of home up there," says Beverly Swango, food systems manager at Johnson Engineering, which has broadened its menu to include Thai chicken and tofu.

The food, which has a five-year shelf life has no popular brand affiliation and it isn't backed by a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign.

The eight foods sold on www.thespacestore.com are packaged in white cardboard boxes with generic lettering. Inside the dull boxes are aluminum-style pouches that contain the fully hydrated, ready-to-eat food.

On Earth, the pouches can be boiled or the food, taken out of the pouches, can be heated in the microwave.

For the foods to have large market appeal, though, they need to be affiliated with a brand, said Shelley A. Harrison, chief executive of Spacehab.

"We feel to really move out in a big way it will require partnering," he said.

The Space Store has received some interested inquiries from a camping supply store, Ms. Justiz said.

These foods, which are thermostabilized, a modern version of the canning process, have come along way since John Glenn ate the first food in space applesauce from a tube aboard Friendship 7 in 1962.

Now astronauts on space missions eat everything from freeze-dried foods and dehydrated foods to normal snacks like candy, cookies and crackers.

Ms. Justiz says there are at least three different groups of customers who are interested in the space food:

* Those who are space collectors and love space.

* Event planners or partygoers who want to add a space theme to a party.

* Parents and grandparents who remember the excitement of the space program and want to pass that on to their children and grandchildren.

"I think children are wanting something exciting in their lunchboxes, and what's more exciting than astronaut food?," says Eric Lefcowitz, a New York free-lance writer who's on a crusade to bring back Space Food Sticks, a chewy energy bar that was discontinued in the 1980s.

Like the orange drink Tang, Pillsbury marketed Space Food Sticks during a time when people were fascinated by the actual space adventures taking place.

Mr. Lefcowitz, who is talking with manufacturers and food scientists to reintroduce the sticks, earlier this summer started a Web site (www.spacefoodsticks.com) to see if people remembered the Pillsbury bars, and the response in just 10 weeks has been overwhelming.

He's had more than 200 responses to his survey about the astronaut treats including one Columbia, Md., resident who said, "We drank Tang and we ate Space Food Sticks as snacks every day. I've craved them for years."

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