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Space Station Crew Relied on Sweets to Cope with Food Shortage

The international space station astronauts say the recent food shortage aboard the outpost forced them to cut their food intake dramatically and eat lots of sweets for energy. They attribute the food problem to a lack of communication between the previous crew and ground controllers.

U.S. space station astronaut Leroy Chiao says he and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov were happy to see the arrival of the Russian supply ship named Progress on Christmas Day carrying 69 crates of food. They quickly began drawing from the new items after having strictly rationed their consumption since mid-November with the approval of flight surgeons.

Their diet would have been the envy of someone with a sweet tooth. Mr. Chiao says it was based heavily on sugar.

"We cut in half what I'll call the real food intake, that is, the normal meats and potatoes, vegetables, that kind of thing," he said. "To make up part of the calorie deficit, we had to eat a lot of sweets that were left. There were a lot of desserts and candies on board that we could snack on during the day to help make up some of that calorie deficit. It was not an unhealthy diet, but not an ideal diet."

Even with the sweets, the two station crewmen reduced their normal daily calorie intake by 10 to 15 percent and were facing the possibility of abandoning the station on the attached Soyuz spacecraft if the Russian cargo vessel had not arrived in a reasonable amount of time. Mr. Chiao says they could have endured until mid-January.

He says the problem began when the previous crew broke into their successors' food supplies with the permission of station managers because they had discovered the food allotted to them lacked variety. The astronaut says U.S. space agency officials believed there was more food on board than actually existed when the new crew took over in October, perhaps because the previous residents did not inform the ground how much food they had consumed.

The shortage was made worse because the Russian supply ship arrived a month later than originally scheduled, two previous Russian cargo craft carried less than the usual amount of food to make room for spare mechanical parts and the U.S. space shuttle is unavailable while it undergoes safety modifications due to last year's Columbia disaster.

Mr. Chiao says he and his cosmonaut colleague lost a little weight. "That's something I guess we can't really complain about. A lot of people would be happy to lose five or 10 pounds [about 2.5 to five kilograms]," he said. "Anyway, we looked at it as kind of a challenge, kind of a camping adventure, roughing it in a sense. But all throughout this whole thing, we kept a really good spirit. Salizhan and I have been joking around and it's been very pleasant, even with some of the shortages."

NASA officials say an independent team is investigating why the food inventory was tracked so poorly.