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The two astronauts aboard the International Space Station have been asked to curb their calories because of a food shortage, NASA officials said Thursday.

Supplies of food and water on the station have fallen so low that if a Russian cargo vessel scheduled to arrive on Dec. 25 has a mishap or is significantly delayed, the astronauts, one American and one Russian, will have to abandon the station and return home months ahead of schedule, the NASA officials said.

The space station manager at NASA, William Gerstenmaier, said the situation was manageable if nothing unexpected occurred. But Mr. Gerstenmaier said juggling consumable items like food, water and even light bulbs had been a challenge since the space shuttles were grounded because of the Columbia disaster in 2003.

"This is not easy and requires lots of compromises," he said at a televised news conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The coming delivery by the robotic Progress cargo craft, loaded with extra food and water, "is very critical," he said, adding, "There's no question about that."

Plans are being put together for the crew to leave, Mr. Gerstenmaier said, in the event that the Progress is destroyed at launching or cannot dock with the station for some other reason.

At that point, he said, the station will have 7 to 14 days' worth of food, at current consumption rates, and the crew will begin shutting it down for a departure early next month on its Soyuz rescue craft.

The mission flight director, Annette Hasbrook, said the station could be safely left unstaffed for months, though it has been left empty so far only for spacewalks. Such an action would require shutting off some equipment, closing internal hatches and setting up the electronics so the station could be controlled from Earth. With the grounding of the American shuttle fleet since the Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003, the station lost its major source of supplies.

Shuttles regularly flew to the outpost with tons of food, water, equipment and experiments, as well as new crew members. Without shuttles, the station has had to rely exclusively on Russian Soyuz craft to deliver exchange crews and Progress cargo ships, which can carry about two and a half tons of material, about a third of what a shuttle can deliver.

To conserve supplies, the 16 nations involved in the project agreed to reduce crews to two astronauts from three. The latest crew, the American commander, Dr. Leroy Chiao, and Col. Salizhan S. Sharipov of the Russian Air Force, the flight engineer, arrived in mid-October, expecting to stay for six months.

Mr. Gerstenmaier said officials liked to keep a 45-day reserve of food and water and had been close to that reserve several times while awaiting Progress resupply flights. Before the latest crew was sent to the station, managers realized that supplies would become low and planned for that eventuality, he said.

Dr. Sean Roden, the astronauts' flight surgeon, said the crew would not be asked to go on drastic diets. By changing meal plans, Dr. Roden said, managers want them to reduce their normal intake of 3,000 calories by 5 percent to 10 percent while maintaining regular exercise and work schedules.

No restrictions are being imposed yet on drinking water; water supplies are ample into mid-January, Dr. Roden said.

"They will still have the same nutritional balance they had before," he added.

Part of the current squeeze stems from delays by the Russians in the latest Progress delivery, which was changed from November to the end of this month, officials said, and some food had to be removed from a previous delivery because of the need to carry spare parts for a malfunctioning Russian oxygen generator.

American and Russian station managers learned last week that the current crew had started using reserve food weeks ahead of schedule. The astronauts were asked to conduct three food inventories, which confirmed that supplies were less than expected.

Mr. Gerstenmaier said a team had been assigned to look into tracking the food inventory at the station. Part of the problem is that food is stored in several places in packets, he said, and the crew cannot easily keep track of it.

The next Progress delivery will include 180 gallons of water and enough food to last two astronauts more than 100 days, NASA officials said. Also aboard will be 12 pounds of new science experiments, along with needed supplies like batteries, lighting and clothing.

Mr. Gerstenmaier said there would also be room aboard the tightly packed ship to include Christmas presents for the crew and "some fun things, as well."

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The Drake
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How far away are those commercial flights I keep reading about? [Smile]
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Member # 1690

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I don't think they'll arrive in time for dinner. [Wink]

This situation is why we need a giant beanstalk to the stars.

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Member # 1275

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Great idea! We'll ship the obese Westerners up to the space station and make them work and starve to burn some fat!

Zimbabwe gave me the idea.

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Member # 117

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I wish we could take a bit of our collective risk-taking away from our soldiers in Iraq, and apply it to the space program. Be a little less spendy with our servicefolks on the ground, and a little more courageous with our ones in space. Accidents happen. The show--science, progress--must go on. We could ask for volunteers, but we probably should expect each and every astronaut to jump and yell and want to go up, tomorrow.
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Member # 1312

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So you see no value in things like the Space Station Zyne?
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