Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have gotten some interesting food delivered by resupply missions. In 2001, for example, Pizza Hut sent a pizza, which Russian cosmonauts were paid about $1 million to eat, while American astronauts couldn’t grab a slice because of a ban on NASA participating in advertising campaigns. But the latest cargo drop is carrying something astronauts are probably salivating over: a specialized oven, which will be used to make chocolate chip cookies.
The cookies are part of an experiment to see if baking is even possible in zero gravity, reports William Harwood at CBS News. If the dough rises as it should, future explorers could add fresh baked goods to their limited menu of pre-packaged space cuisine. (It could also help the ISS smell a little more like home.)
When the cookies are done, however, it doesn’t seem like the crew will actually be able to eat them in space. “Once cool, the samples are removed from the rack for pictures and returned to the ground for analysis,” according the official NASA experiment description.
The oven is the brainchild of Zero G Kitchen, a project developed by space entrepreneur Ian Fichtenbaum and social media specialist Jordana Fichtenbaum, a New York-based couple who are designing a “space kitchen” one appliance at a time, starting with the oven. The duo worked with Texas-based space services firm Nanoracks to build the Zero G Oven and partnered with DoubleTree Hotels, which is providing the cosmic cookie dough.
A successful bake in space is contingent on the effects of zero gravity because on earth, things like baking powder, baking soda and yeast allow batters and dough to rise. In microgravity, however, all those elements behave differently.
“When you bake here on the ground, you put the cookie on the tray, the bottom is flat and the top is a little bit curved based on the ratio of your ingredients,” Nanoracks engineer Mary Murphy tells Harwood. “But obviously, nobody's done this in space, so we don't know exactly what it’s going to look like. It could come out more like a cylinder, it could actually create a sphere. We really don't know, and I think that's one of the more exciting things we’ll find out.”
The astronauts, however, will have to be patient when it comes to the cookies. The compact, cylindrical oven can only bake one cookie at a time, which is smooshed in a special silicon pouch and mounted in the oven. The pouch is required to reduce the “potential risk of producing crumbs,” according to NASA, which can float away and damage sensitive machinery in the space station.
Marcia Dunn at the Associated Press reports that the oven uses electrical heating elements and maxes out at 350 degrees, about twice as hot as the warmers currently used to heat food on the space station. For this experiment, each cookie will be baked for 15 to 20 minutes at 325 degrees.
The ISS crew likely won’t have a chance to perform the baking experiment for several weeks. Five frozen cookie pouches were sent to the space station over the summer, and three of those cookies will be returned to Earth after baking for analysis. (Pre-baked sample cookies were sent in the November 2 delivery for the six space station astronauts to try, reports the AP’s Dunn.)
Eventually, the Zero G team hopes the oven can also bake fresh rolls and other small baked goods. They will also create more space-age kitchen gadgets in the near future, including a refrigerator, blender, slow cooker and other appliances.
“The kitchen is really sort of the heart of the home to me, and the oven is kind of where it’s at. So just to make [space] more comfortable and make it more pleasant, more delicious,” Jordana Fichtenbaum tells AP.