What is Up with Space Food?

If your parents ever took you to a science museum or planetarium as a child, you likely spent much of your visit in the gift shop, begging them to buy you one of the hundreds of shiny – and purportedly “educational” – items on offer. And most irresistible of all was undoubtedly “astronaut food”: shiny foil packets of freeze-dried strawberries or ice cream sandwiches. Sure, they had the texture of florist’s foam, crumbled into sticky dust, and tasted like sugary chalk, but that didn’t matter: you were eating the same food as actual astronauts!

well, sorry to ruin your cherished childhood memories, but sadly no, you weren’t. For while the freeze-drying process used to make these novel treats was originally developed for the space program, no astronaut has ever eaten gift shop “astronaut” strawberries or ice cream during a mission – for the simple reason that the crumbs would float away and wreak havoc in the spacecraft. So what do astronauts actually eat in orbit? Well, put on your spacesuit and pack your Tang as we blast off into the long, complicated, and fascinating story of space food.

Before the first humans were blasted into the final frontier in the early 1960s, many scientists questioned whether astronauts even could eat in space. After all, the human body had evolved to function on earth; would microgravity, they wondered, interfere with swallowing or digestion, causing an astronaut to choke or develop intestinal problems? There were also more practical concerns, which have informed the development of space food ever since: first, food is heavy, a serious problem when each kilo of mass costs thousands of dollars to loft into orbit. Second, in microgravity, liquids do not flow like they do on earth, making regular drinking vessels useless. And finally, loose food crumbs floating around the spacecraft cabin could potentially be breathed in by the astronaut, get into their eyes, or short out electrical circuitry. For these reasons, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth on April 12, 1961, he carried with him three 160-gram toothpaste-style food tubes containing either pureed meat or chocolate sauce. To his – and everyone else’s – relief, Gagarin had no trouble swallowing and digesting this food. Indeed, food is largely passed through the digestive system by peristalsis – the rhythmic contraction of the esophageal and intestinal walls – a process that works perfectly well in microgravity.

However, as the Soviets would soon learn, there are many other challenges to humans living and working in space. For example, during the Vostok 2 mission, launched on August 6, 1961, Gherman Titov became the first to experience something that would plague countless future astronauts and their flight surgeons: the combination of disorientation, dizziness, and nausea known as space adaptation syndrome or simply space sickness.

By contrast, the first two American spaceflights, Mercury-Redstone 3 and 4, were only 15-minute suborbital hops, so the astronauts, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, carried no food with them. Indeed, to ensure the astronauts would not be distracted by the urge to defecate, they were made to eat an all-protein “low-residue” breakfasts of steak and eggs prior to launch – a practice which has since become a cherished NASA tradition. The first American to eat in space was thus John Glenn, who orbited the earth aboard Mercury-Atlas 6 on February 20, 1962. Much like Gagarin, Glenn was provided with metal squeeze tubes filled with applesauce or a mixture of pureed beef, vegetables, and gravy. While Glenn did have some applesauce and sugar tablets, he reported not being very hungry and did not otherwise eat during his 5 hour mission. However, he may have sampled a product which has since become inextricably associated with the space program: a certain orange-flavoured drink powder called Tang. First introduced by the General Foods Corporation in 1959, Tang initially sold poorly. The following year, however, the newly-formed NASA selected the product for use in Project Mercury. The powder was packed in a plastic pouch, into which the astronaut could inject water from the spacecraft’s onboard supply. They then squeezed the pouch to mix the contents and drank it through an attached straw – a system that neatly got around the problems of liquids in microgravity and is still used to this day. While NASA was careful to avoid product placement by labelling the pouches simply as “orange drink,” General Foods eagerly capitalized on its association with the space program, advertising Tang as the “drink of the astronauts.” As expected, sales shot through the roof. But while Tang was on the menu of several Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions, not all astronauts were big fans. As Glenn later explained:

On the ground, we liked the sweet fruit juices, such as mango. In orbit we generally found them too sweet.”

This observation touched on a strange phenomenon experienced by many astronauts: long-term exposure to microgravity significantly affects one’s sense of taste. Other astronauts were less nuanced, with Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot and second man to walk on the moon, once stating “Tang sucks!” and explaining in his 1970 autobiography:

I can’t speak for the other flights, but before, the three of us dutifully sampled the orange drink, supposedly Tang, and instead chose a grapefruit-orange mixture as our citrus drink. If Tang was on our flight I was unaware of it.”

The Mercury astronauts were also less than enthusiastic about sucking down food from tubes. Not only could the food not be seen or smelled prior to eating, but the delivery system limited the variety and texture of food that could be served. Consequently, on his May 24, 1962 Mercury-Atlas 7 mission, Malcolm Scott Carpenter became the first astronaut to eat solid food in orbit. Developed in partnership with the Pillsbury Corporation, this food consisted of bite-sized cubes of compressed dates, cereals, and chocolate with a special gelatine coating to prevent them from crumbling. Unfortunately, the cubes accidentally became crushed prior to launch, cracking the coating and creating crumbs which soon began drifting around the cabin. Wary that these crumbs posed an inhalation hazard, Carpenter quickly put the food away. High cabin temperatures also caused the supplied chocolate bars to melt in their packages, meaning that other than water and a xylose sugar pill, Carpenter ate nothing for the rest of the mission.

NASA next experimented with freeze-dried foods. Developed by the Whirlpool Corporation, freeze-drying or lyophilization involves flash-freezing food and subjecting it to a hard vacuum. This causes the ice in the food to sublimate – that is, transition directly from solid to gas – leaving the structure and taste of the food intact while rendering it much lighter and resistant to spoilage. All the astronaut has to do is inject water into the packaging to rehydrate the food and restore it to its original state. However, the water supply aboard the Mercury spacecraft was unheated, meaning astronauts experienced difficulties in rehydrating their meals. By the time of the final, 34-hour Mercury-Atlas 9 mission on May 15, 1963, the situation had improved somewhat, with astronaut Leroy Gordon Cooper eating a meal of dehydrated shrimp, potato salad and apple juice. Following the flight, however, Copper remarked that:

I think the food I had along was adequate, although it was so much work to get to some of it here, that I tended to just perhaps not eat as much as I should have.”

As NASA transitioned from Project Mercury to the much more ambitious Projects Gemini and Apollo, it became clear that space food technology needed serious improvement. A round-trip flight to the moon could take up to two weeks, making astronauts’ long-term nutrition a much greater priority. However, keeping astronauts properly fed – and their morale high – would be difficult if they found their food unpalatable. By the time the first Gemini missions were launched in 1965 NASA food scientists had created an extensive menu of dehydrated items including fruit, salads, stewed meat, soup, cereal cubes, bacon cubes, toast squares, butterscotch pudding, and sandwiches, from which astronauts could assemble their daily meals. Shrimp cocktail, consisting of freeze-dried shrimp and powdered cocktail sauce, proved especially popular with Gemini and Apollo astronauts, with many selecting it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As Buzz Aldrin later raved:

They were chosen one by one to make sure they would be tiny enough to squeeze out of the food packet, and they were delicious!”

The design of the Gemini spacecraft made freeze-dried foods a logical choice. Unlike Mercury, which used batteries, Gemini was powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which produce water as a byproduct. The astronauts thus had plenty of water with which to rehydrate their meals, which was injected into the food packets using a special squirt gun. However, this water was still unheated, meaning the food often took a long time to properly rehydrate. These shortcomings led Gemini astronauts to pine for proper terrestrial food, leading to one of the most infamous incidents of the early space program.

On March 23, 1965, the first Gemini mission, Gemini 3, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, carrying astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young into orbit. As a surprise treat for his commander, Young smuggled aboard a corned-beef sandwich, purchased at Wolfie’s Restaurant in Cocoa Beach, Florida. This violated several NASA regulations; not only could the sandwich release potentially troublesome crumbs, but as part of a biomedical study Grissom was not authorized to eat any food during the 5 hour mission. Thus, while delighted with the gift, Grissom only took a few bites before stowing the contraband sandwich away. Grissom and Young were later rebuked for the incident, which resulted in a congressional hearing and NASA deputy administrator George Mueller promising to clamp down on what astronauts were allowed to bring on missions.

While Gemini astronauts generally enjoyed their food selections, as missions grew longer and longer, they began encountering another problem: storage space. The cockpit of the Gemini spacecraft was roughly the size of the front seats of a Volkswagen Beetle, and into this space the astronauts had to cram the 1800 cubic centimetres of food each man would need for every day of the mission. Furthermore, they also had to somehow store the used food packages, as well as plastic bags of their own…well, waste. On August 21, 1965, Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad blasted into orbit aboard Gemini 5, an eight-day endurance mission meant to test the limits of the Gemini spacecraft and its occupants. As the mission wore on, the astronauts quickly ran out of storage space and were forced to stuff waste bags into every available corner, leading Cooper to describe the mission as “Eight Days in a Garbage Can.” Four months later, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell would encounter similar problems during the Gemini 7 mission, a gruelling 14-day ordeal designed to simulate a round-trip flight to the moon.

The Apollo lunar program saw some of the most significant advances in space food technology, many of which were developed at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in Dayton, Ohio, and the Natick Army Labs in Massachusetts. One major upgrade to the Apollo spacecraft compared to Gemini was the provision of a hot water supply, which made freeze-dried food easier to rehydrate and the resulting product more palatable. But while these meals were designed to be squeezed from their packets through a narrow opening, astronauts soon took to cutting the bags open and eating the contents with a regular spoon to more closely approximate a regular culinary experience. In light of this practice, NASA developed the “spoon bowl”, first introduced on the Apollo 10 mission in May 1969. This consisted of a plastic food bag with a water injection valve at the bottom and a zip closure at the top which could be opened to access the contents. These meals had to be specially formulated to stick together and not float out of the bag, but were much appreciated by the astronauts as they allowed a greater variety of food to be served. Once empty, these food packs were injected with a special germicide to prevent spoilage before being stored away for the rest of the mission.

Another major development introduced for Apollo was the “wet pack”, wherein regular food items like hotdogs, spaghetti and meatballs, and pot roast were stabilized by heating them to extremely high temperatures – a method similar to milk pasteurization. While heavier than dehydrated food, the increase in flavour and morale was seen as worth the weight penalty. Indeed, maximizing flavour is a key consideration in formulating space food since, as mentioned before, microgravity can reduce astronaut’s taste sensitivity by up to 30%. This is thought to be caused by fluid building up in the head, leading to sinus congestion that dulls the senses just like a bad head cold. Furthermore, to avoid irritating astronauts’ digestion, Apollo-era space food was made with as few spices as possible. For this reason, salty or umami-rich foods like bacon cubes or the aforementioned shrimp cocktail became perennial favourites.

Wet packs allowed for a wider variety of food items to be carried on missions. For example, as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 dined on thermostabilized packets of turkey and gravy and even fruitcake. And at the astronauts’ request, Apollo 10 introduced a pantry system wherein they could select, mix, and match various food items as they pleased. In practice, however, this proved more trouble than it was worth, and most Apollo astronauts stuck to the prepackaged meals they had selected before launch.

Subsequent missions introduced even more menu options, such as thermally-stabilized cheddar on Apollo 11, dehydrated natural orange juice on Apollo 13, and even fresh sliced bread on Apollo 15. These slices were sterilized by exposure to 50,000 rads of Cobalt-60 gamma radiation and allowed the crew to create their own sandwiches using meat-salad spreads stored in pull-top metal cans. Many of these innovations were developed under the leadership of physiologist Rita Rapp, who headed NASA’s Apollo Food System Team. One of the first women to study medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine, Rapp made many important contributions to space food technology, including her homemade sugar cookies, which became so popular among the astronauts that they became an informal currency aboard the Skylab space station.

As astronauts started spending more and more time on the lunar surface, NASA realized they needed a means of staying fed and hydrated while they worked. Thus, for Apollo 15, the Commander and Lunar Module Pilots’ EVA suits were modified to hold a special water bag under the helmet ring, which the astronaut could drink from using a tube. The device also featured cloth pockets to hold long, high-density energy bars. Developed by Pillsbury – the same company who created the food cubes for Mercury-Atlas 7- these bars would later be marketed on earth as “Space Food Sticks” and later just “Food Sticks,” and would remain on grocery store shelves until the 1980s. The Pillsbury bars also formed part of the Contingency Food System, which allowed astronauts to eat and drink with their spacesuits in the event the spacecraft cabin became depressurized. This consisted of a small port in the side of the helmet through which drink packet straws or food sticks could be inserted. Thankfully, no Apollo astronaut ever had to use this system. Also worth noting here is that the first meal eaten on another world was a host wafer and wine, consumed when Buzz Aldrin took communion shortly after landing on the lunar surface – and for more on this, please check out our previous video Space Religion.

Other improvements to the Apollo Food System included the addition of extra potassium to drink powder, implemented after heart monitor data from the Apollo 15 crew revealed heart arrhythmias thought to be caused by potassium deficiency. But while the Apollo missions were some of the longest-duration spaceflights yet, they paled in comparison to what was to come. As the United States and Soviet Union transitioned from simply visiting space to actually living there long-term, space food technology was forced to undergo another massive revolution.

While NASA spent a great deal of time and effort trying to make its astronauts’ culinary experience as familiar as possible, the Soviet space program took a rather more utilitarian approach, retaining the squeeze tubes and other delivery systems that NASA had abandoned after Project Mercury. The cosmonauts’ menu, however, was distinctly Russian, and included canned beef tongue, packaged Riga rye bread, and squeeze tubes of borscht and caviar. And when cosmonauts from other communist nations began flying aboard the Soyuz spacecraft as part of the Interkosmos program, they brought along their own specially-prepared regional delicacies, like Bulgarian Sarma stuffed grape leaves. During the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July 1975, in which a Soviet and American spacecraft docked in earth orbit for two days, American astronauts Deke Slayton, Vance Brand, and Tom Stafford got to taste a selection of Soviet space food, including tubes of borscht onto which the cosmonauts had cheekily pasted vodka labels.

With the launch of the world’s first space station, the Soviet Salyut 1, in April 1971, space food technology made another giant leap, the station featuring a small greenhouse called Oasis. Due to technical issues the greenhouse aboard Salyut 1 was never used, but by 1975 the crews of Salyut 4 were regularly eating fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and coriander grown in orbit. And, for the first time, they were allowed to consume small quantities of alcohol like wine and vodka with their meals.

The first American space station, Skylab, was launched in May 1973 and had perhaps the most luxurious dining arrangements of any spacecraft before or since. Being significantly larger than previous spacecraft like Apollo, Skylab had room for a dedicated wardroom, including a dining table and chairs with foot and thigh restraints so the crew could sit down normally to eat. This arrangement was considered vital to maintaining crew morale and cohesion, and the table was even made triangular to avoid hierarchical seating positions. Much of the food aboard Skylab was similar to Apollo fare, packaged in metal peel-top cans and plastic pouches. However, the astronauts were also provided with special dining trays that could be clipped to the side of the dining table. These had eight cylindrical wells to hold food tins, three of which could be electrically heated. The trays also featured a magnetic surface for holding cutlery or the scissors used to open food packages. Some of this arrangement was out of pure necessity; as Skylab used solar panels instead of fuel cells to generate power, the supply of fresh water was limited, forcing planners to reduce the number of dehydrated food items on the menu.

Skylab’s greatest luxuries, however, were its onboard refrigerator and freezer, which allowed up to 15% of the astronauts’ food to be perishable. The full Skylab menu consisted of 72 items, including such delicacies as chili, mashed potatoes, steak, asparagus, lobster Newberg, fresh bread, and yes – even ice cream. This would be the first and last time real ice cream would be eaten in space, for no spacecraft since Skylab – not even the space shuttle or International Space Station – has included a freezer. But, I hear you ask, what about freeze-dried ice cream? While this gift shop staple was developed at the request of the astronauts and included on the menu of the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, none of the crew remember having eaten it during the flight. And the reaction to freeze-dried ice cream was less than stellar, with NASA astronaut Mike Massimo once stating:

[Freeze-dried ice cream] is disgusting… more closely related to a building material than a food.”

For this reason, ice cream was left off the menus of all subsequent NASA missions except Skylab. Instead, the story of the museum treat loved by so many children begins not with NASA but American Outdoor Products, a company specializing in food for hikers and backpackers. In the late 1970s, company founder Ron Smith received an unusual phone call from a subcontractor specializing in freeze-drying:

They said, ‘Goddard Air and Space Museum contacted us and said that freeze-dried ice cream was used by the space program. They want to know if we can make it, so they can sell it in their gift shop.’ And we said, ‘Sure, we’ll try it.”…[the first batch] was half a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream that you would buy in the store. It was frozen solid, and then cut with a bandsaw, if you can believe it.”

Though Smith was skeptical of the ice cream’s appeal, it proved surprisingly popular with museum visitors, and soon spread to hundreds of other institutions:

Quite frankly, when we first started doing this, we thought, ‘Well, this is a fad. It’ll last a couple of years.’ And that was what, 44 years ago?”

And that, dear viewer, is how “astronaut ice cream” actually came to be. Sorry to ruin your childhood.

Another culinary first attempted by the Skylab Program was the introduction of alcohol to the US Space Program – in this case, cream sherry. However, before this stellar digestif could make it into orbit, NASA subjected it to simulated microgravity aboard an aircraft flying parabolic arcs – the so-called “vomit comet.” This test revealed that the smell of the sherry quickly permeated the cabin and induced nausea, prompting NASA to pull it from the flight. Instead, the astronauts consumed their supply on the ground with their pre-launch meal. Today, alcohol is forbidden aboard the International Space Station, not only because of the smell but also its potential negative impacts on astronaut health and performance.

Skylab was abandoned in February 1974 and deorbited in 1979, taking its palatial wardroom with it. Crews of the Space Shuttle Orbiter, which first flew in 1981, would have to contend with slightly less luxurious dining arrangements. The small galley, located on the Orbiter’s middeck, incorporated a water dispenser for rehydrating freeze-dried food and powdered drinks and an oven for reheating wet-pack meals. As on Skylab, food packages could be fastened to a tray, but with no table to sit around, these trays had to be strapped to the astronaut’s laps and consumed wherever was convenient. But what the Shuttle lacked in dining facilities it more than made up for in selection, with the full menu consisting of 74 different foods and 20 drinks. In 2006, the crew of Discovery even enjoyed a special menu developed by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, which included jambalaya and bread pudding – though, given the recent Columbia disaster, it’s probably safe to assume that the crew were forbidden from repeating Emeril’s famous catchphrase “Bam!” while in orbit. Twenty years earlier in 1985, the then-raging Cola Wars even made their way to the final frontier when both Coke and Pepsi developed special microgravity-compatible cans to allow their respective brands of carbonated sugar water. Flown aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51-F, the cans featured push-button valves and short straws to allow astronauts to squirt the contents directly into their mouths. Unfortunately, astronaut cola proved a bigger flop than New Coke; not only did the Shuttle not have a refrigerator, forcing the soda to be consumed at room temperature, but without gravity to separate gas from liquid in the stomach, escaping carbon dioxide from the carbonation resulted in an unpleasant form of vomiting known as “wet burping.” The astronauts universally preferred their traditional powdered drinks, which could be prepared cold using the shuttle’s onboard water supply.

Moving on from there, when the International Space Station was first occupied in the year 2000, the only galley was located in the Russian Orbital Segment, and consisted of a table for three, a warm or hot water dispenser, and an electric induction heater for warming Russian metal food tins. Later, American astronauts installed a second, briefcase-sized food warmer in the Unity module capable of accommodating NASA’s flexible food pouches. Today, around half of the food aboard the ISS is supplied by the United States and the other half by Russia and other countries. As the only refrigerators aboard the station are reserved for scientific experiments, all food must be shelf-stable for up to 18 months. According to the current NASA system, all food aboard the ISS falls into one of 8 categories:

According to the current NASA system, all onboard food is divided into 8 categories; these are:

#1 Beverages: fruit juice powders or instant coffee and tea that is rehydrated from the station’s onboard water supply.

#2 Fresh Foods: fruits, vegetables, and other perishables flown up every six months by resupply missions, which must be consumed quickly before they spoil. As regular bread tends to produce those oh-so-troublesome crumbs, the preferred bread product for making sandwiches aboard the ISS is the flour tortilla.

#3 Irradiated Meat: beef and other meat which has been bombarded with Gamma radiation to sterilize it.

#4 Intermediate Moisture Foods: foods with some water content but not enough to cause immediate spoilage, such as dry sausage and beef jerky.

#5 Natural Form Foods: commercially-available shelf-stable foods such as cookies and granola bars that can be packaged and eaten unmodified. A particularly popular snack is M&Ms, generically labeled by NASA as “candy-coated chocolates.”

#6 Rehydratable Foods: dehydrated or freeze-dried items as used on Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle, which can be restored to their original forms using the onboard water supply.

#7 Thermostabilized Foods: a modern form of the Apollo-era “wetpack”, in which food is heated to high temperatures in its packaging to sterilize it.

And #8 Extended Shelf-Life Bread Products, which are baked goods like scones and waffles specially formulated for long-term shelf stability.

Within these categories, ISS astronauts enjoy a bewildering variety of options to choose from, with the American menu including such items as scrambled eggs, teriyaki beef, spaghetti bolognese, cashew curry chicken, and even breakfast cereal, which consists of dry cereal and milk powder into which cold water is injected just before consumption. Other space agencies have also produced space-rated versions of traditional foods, such as Japanese ramen and sushi and Korean kimchi. Some items, however, have proven too offbeat even for hardy folk like astronauts. For example, Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang was forbidden from bringing reindeer jerky because it would be “too weird” for his American colleagues so close to Christmas. He was forced to bring moose jerky instead.

As previously mentioned, nasal congestion caused by fluid buildup in microgravity can dull an astronaut’s sense of taste by up to 30%, so spicy condiments like mustard, hot sauce, and wasabi are understandably popular. Some of these items, however, must be specially adapted to the unique challenges of microgravity. For example, loose salt and pepper could potentially get loose in the cabin and wreak havoc, so they are mixed with water and olive oil, respectively, and stored in squeeze bottles so they can be safely squirted into food pouches.

As for eating frequency and specific selection, ISS astronauts eat three meals per earth day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – with the menu repeating on an eight-day cycle. Five months before launch, NASA astronauts visit the Space Food Systems lab at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, to sample the various options and put together their personal menus for their mission. The astronauts’ selections are evaluated by NASA nutritionists for caloric and nutritional content, and additions and substitutions made as needed to ensure a balanced diet. The finalized menu items are then marked with different coloured stickers so they can be identified by their owners. The meals are also marked with a barcode which must be scanned when consumed, allowing flight surgeons to keep track of what each astronaut eats throughout a mission. In addition to the approved NASA offerings, astronauts are also allowed to bring nonstandard items in a small “bonus container” – provided they meet requirements for shelf stability, nutritional value, and microgravity consumption. Among the most popular bonus items are extra tortillas, as the standard NASA menu only allots astronauts one per day.

But while the astronaut dining experience has not yet reached the heady days of Skylab, important improvements are being made every year. For example, the Chinese Tiangong Space Station, launched in April 2021, features the world’s first microwave oven in space, while in 2015 Italian firms Argotec and Lavazza created the ISSpresso, the first coffee machine designed specifically for use in space. On May 3, 2015, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, appropriately dressed in a Star Trek Captain’s uniform, became the first person to taste orbitally-brewed espresso, prompting American astronaut Scott Kelly to quip “That’s one small step for a woman, one giant leap for coffee.” The device remained aboard the ISS until 2017, when it was taken back to earth.

With astronauts making longer and longer stays in space and manned missions to Mars seemingly just around the corner, space food technology must continue to evolve to meet these new challenges. Currently, extensive research is being performed on how to bake bread and even brew beer in space, as well as how to grow grains, vegetables, and other crops on other planets – a key capability if humanity is to colonize the solar system. So while we may be far off from an astronaut being able to float up to a replicator module and ask for “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” at least the space food of the future will be infinitely more palatable than the squeeze-tube and Tang menus of yesteryear.

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