Illini astronaut getting turkey with all the dehydrated trimmings

Illini astronaut getting turkey with all the dehydrated trimmings

When you sit down for your Thanksgiving Day meal, Mike Hopkins and his fellow crew members on the International Space Station may also be enjoying a turkey dinner and all of the trimmings 260 miles above the Earth's atmosphere.

The astronauts will feast on the traditional holiday dishes — but with a twist.

"Clearly, it's a little different — unless your mom's making irradiated smoked turkey and freeze-dried green beans," NASA's Allard Beutel joked this week from Washington, D.C.

Also on the menu: thermostabilized yams, dehydrated mashed potatoes and astronaut versions of corn bread stuffing and cherry-blueberry cobbler. Just add water.

Food plays a vital role in maintaining not only the astronauts' physical health but also their psychological well-being while they're in space, said Bill Jeffs, a spokesman for the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"The food that they have for holidays, especially on Thanksgiving, gives them a close tie to home," he explained.

Hopkins, a former Illini football team captain, and fellow astronaut Rick Mastracchio may be the only Americans on board, but it won't be dinner for just two. The rest of the crew — three Russian cosmonauts and one Japanese astronaut — will likely join them, Jeffs said.

Hopkins is part of a crew that's conducting science experiments on the space station. The 1991 University of Illinois aerospace engineering graduate launched on Sept. 25 and isn't due back on this planet until March 2014.

Along the way, he has become a social media star, sharing his space stories, stunning photos and ILL-INI cheers on Twitter, where @AstroIllini has 34,178 followers, and YouTube, where he and Mastracchio can be found discussing today's meal plan.

While Hopkins won't get to celebrate Thanksgiving at the same table as his wife, Julie, and their two sons, he will be able to phone home today, thanks to the wonders of the Internet and help with the routing from mission control.

"They can literally pick up the phone and dial like they do a regular phone," Jeffs said.

"The only difference is when the person on the other end picks up and realizes you're in space," Beutel said with a laugh.

Danville native Joe Tanner knows the feeling. A fellow proud UI alum and former astronaut, Tanner logged 1,069 hours in space, made seven spacewalks and flew four shuttle missions between 1994 and 2006.

Tanner's longest missions lasted 11 to 12 days. He was never in space on Thanksgiving or Christmas but did miss Valentine's Day 1997, which just so happened to fall on the day he took his first spacewalk.

"I prearranged for flowers to be delivered," said Tanner, who did the same for his wife during his other missions. He also looked forward to the one video conference with family that he could make on each trip.

Being away from family is one part of astronaut life that Tanner doesn't miss. Another: the cramped sleeping spaces, which were about the size of a phone booth.

"It's pretty important for psychological welfare that you have a place where you can go. You can read a book or have your iPad for listening to tunes," said Tanner, who didn't have his own personal sleeping compartment on the shuttles. He had to find a place to unroll his sleeping bag, which he'd string from the floor to the ceiling.

The space station is much bigger than the shuttles were — "about the size of a four-bedroom house," Jeffs said. Today's astronauts don't have to rough it quite like Tanner did.

Said Jeffs: "They can phone home. They also have weekly (video teleconferences) with their families. They have books and videos, if they request some special programming."

So, Hopkins will know the result of Saturday's Illinois-Northwestern game around the same time Tanner will.

Now a senior instructor in the University of Colorado's aerospace engineering department, Tanner heard about Hopkins' mission long before he left. What Tanner didn't realize until just recently, however, was that the two had an alma mater in common.

Tanner has kept in touch with the other astronauts with UI ties — Lee Archambault, Dale Gardner, Steven Nagel and Scott Altman — and hopes to meet Hopkins one day.

"We UI people stick together," Tanner said.

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