NATICK, Mass. -- Michelle Richardson, a senior food technologist at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, was part of a guest panel at a recent NASA downlink. The event was hosted by the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning at Framingham State University, in collaboration with the Challenger Center's National Office.

An enthusiasm for teaching and learning and a focus on careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- which are at the heart of Christa McAuliffe's legacy -- were front and center at event. The downlink gave Framingham State University students the chance to Skype with astronauts on the International Space Station. Students had the opportunity to ask the astronauts questions about living and working on the space station, as well as ask questions about astronaut training and education requirements.

The three astronauts speaking to students from the International Space Station via Skype included NASA astronauts, Joseph Acaba and Scott Tingle, a Massachusetts native, and Norishige Kanai from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The venue for the educational Skype was particularly fitting since McAuliffe, a teacher and an FSU alum, was chosen more than 32 years ago to be the first teacher in space as part of the Space Shuttle Challenger mission. All seven people aboard the Challenger, including McAuliffe, were killed when the Challenger broke apart on January 28, 1986.

Richardson, who works in the Combat Feeding Directorate at NSRDEC, was one of several presenters at the event. Following the Skype interaction, Richardson spoke to an audience made up of FSU students and faculty, state government officials, and representatives from the Challenger Center's local and national offices.

Richardson was part of the panel of presenters that also included Dan Barstow, education manager for the International Space Station National Laboratory; Tess Caswell, an engineer and geologist who participated in the simulated space station mission called HERA XI; and Frank White, author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

Richardson was chosen to participate due to her work on NASA projects and previous participation in STEM events at the McAuliffe Center. The senior food technologist is part of an NSRDEC CFD team that designs foods for the military and for NASA, including foods for a future space mission to Mars.

Foods developed and tested for the both the military and the space program have similar requirements. Both warfighters and astronauts need foods that have a long shelf-life and that are low-volume, low-weight, easy-to-eat, nutritious, safe and good-tasting.

"DOD and NASA have similar and unique requirements in terms of long shelf life foods, so a chance to obtain feedback from this customer on foods we are involved in developing is a priceless opportunity," said Richardson. "Speaking with and hearing from astronauts firsthand gives us a rare glimpse of this customer's experience with foods in their unique environment."

NSRDEC's Combat Feeding Directorate, a long-term partner with NASA, has been developing foods -- as well as methods for food processing and food packaging -- for the space program since the 1960s.

"CFD has long standing partnership/relationship with NASA, and events like this serve to not only strengthen that partnership but to also demonstrate to others NSRDEC's role -- through our collaboration with NASA -- in developing long shelf life foods," said Richardson.

During her talk, Richardson told the audience about the evolution of space feeding from early tube foods to modern day nutrition bars, as well how vegetables can now actually be grown aboard space stations.

One of the products that Richardson and other collaborators previously worked on for NASA is a meal replacement bar. Richardson explained that the meal replacement bar is all about reducing the mass and the volume but maintaining the calories and nutrition that astronauts need.

NASA developed the bar but they wanted to reduce its size. Natick looked at molding technologies that would squeeze the bar together as well as ultrasonic agglomeration that basically uses sound waves to actually make the food stick together and compress it. The bars that were eventually tested were developed using those two technologies.

Richardson was pleased to hear during the FSU event that Tess Caswell had actually tested and liked the meal replacement bar. Caswell served on a month-long simulated journey to help NASA research the effects of long-term isolation and confinement. Caswell said during the FSU event that the foods eaten during her simulated mission were good and that she had eaten some of the meal replacement bars.

"They were like granola bars on steroids," said Caswell.

In addition to the meal replacement bar, Richardson and her colleagues at Natick are also investigating vitamin stabilization for a potential Mars mission. Richardson has a current project that provides high quality, irradiated entrees for the International Space Station.

Richardson said that foods being developed for a Mars mission must last five years and that the vitamin stabilization project is aimed at investigating whether the vitamins contained within foods will last five years as well.

"We wrote a proposal to evaluate vitamins that are important for astronaut health, including Vitamins A, D, E, C and riboflavin, folic acid and thiamin," said Richardson. "These vitamins are important to evaluate because they degrade over time and are needed to maintain health."

Richardson and her CFD colleagues investigated drinks, food bars, entrees and packaging to find the best ways to stabilize vitamins.

As a strong advocate for STEM outreach, Richardson was pleased to have the chance to participate in the NASA downlink.

"STEM outreach is very important," said Richardson. "It helps students understand how the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are applied and the impact they have on their world and in this case beyond."

Richardson noted that STEM education prepares today's students to be the workforce of tomorrow.

Irene Porro, director of the Christa McAuliffe Center and a strong supporter of STEM education, said that the NASA downlink event was "an incredible opportunity" for FSU students.

During the Skype session, Acaba, an educator and NASA astronaut, shared an important announcement regarding McAuliffe's STEM education legacy.

"It's been 32 years since we lost the Challenger crew," said Acaba. "One of whom was of course, Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. I can't think of a better time or a better place to make this announcement than at Framingham State University, which is Christa's alma mater. I would like to announce that Ricky Arnold (an American educator and astronaut) and I, over the next several months, will be working with the Challenger Center to record several of Christa's original lesson plans that she was going to do in space. We look forward to sharing them with educators and students around the world. It is really going to be a pleasure working with you all, and we look forward to inspiring the next generation of explorers and educators."

The enthusiasm of the FSU students, the astronauts and the various speakers was infectious, with the event leaving attendees aware of the importance of hard work combined with the endless possibilities of space.

Richardson herself was once a young student dreaming of somehow becoming involved with the space program.

"I've been working at NSRDEC for over 28 years," said Richardson. "I remember when I was in school and I went to visit NSRDEC and they were showing a lot of the space foods. I thought 'oh, I want to work for NASA to design foods.' And then later I had the opportunity with some of my coworkers to write a proposal, and now I am actually collaborating with NASA developing food products for space."

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The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.