In December 2019, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano radioed down to Earth from the International Space Station with an important update.
“So this time, I do see some browning,” Parmitano said, according to Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press. “I can’t tell you whether it’s cooked all the way or not, but it certainly doesn’t look like cookie dough any more.”
Parmitano had been given a unique and unusual task: bake five chocolate chip cookies in a zero-gravity oven and see how the snacks fare. The experiment marked the first time that food had been baked in space from raw ingredients, and may contribute to efforts to make long-haul space missions a little more sweet.
DoubleTree by Hilton provided the pre-made cookie dough, which was sent up to the ISS along with an oven created by Zero G Kitchen. Nanoracks, a leading provider of commercial access to space, also collaborated on the project.
The Zero G Oven, which arrived at the Space Station in November, needed to contend with a number of culinary conundrums, including a limited power supply and, of course, a lack of gravity. According to CNN’s Ashley Strickland, the appliance came equipped with a cylindrical chamber and an insertable silicone frame, which surrounded the cookies and stopped them from bouncing around. The design allowed heat to rise more slowly than ovens we use on Earth, and coils directed heat to the chamber's center, explains Strickland.
Here on Earth, chocolate chip cookies by DoubleTree bake in a convection oven for 16 to 18 minutes at 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Prior to the mission, how the sweet treats would behave in space was anyone’s guess. Parmitano and his colleagues, among them NASA astronaut Christina Koch, were therefore instructed to bake four cookies for varying times at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and the fifth one at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. The goal of the experiment was to determine ideal baking conditions for in-orbit snack times.
The first cookie was popped in the oven for 25 minutes, but it was underbaked. With the second cookie, astronauts noticed “a fresh-baked cookie scent” after 75 minutes, according to DoubleTree. In the microgravity environment on board the ISS, notes Chelsea Gohd of Space.com, smells spread via individual aroma molecules that travel in whatever direction they are moved; on Earth, aroma molecules collide randomly with air molecules and move in all directions.
The fourth and fifth cookies, which were baked for a whopping 120 minutes and 130 minutes, respectively, were deemed to be the most successful. Prior to the experiment, there had been some speculation that the snacks would take on a more spherical shape in microgravity, but “the initial shape and consistency of the DoubleTree chocolate chip cookies appeared the same in space as they are on Earth,” according to a DoubleTree statement.
Would the results of this Great Extra Terrestrial Bakeoff satisfy the likes of Prue and Paul? It’s hard to say, because no one has had a chance to taste them. The baked cookies were shuttled back to Earth onboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft in early January, and further testing is required to determine if they are safe to eat. Scientists also are not sure why the discrepancy between baking times on Earth and in space was so large—larger, in fact, than experts anticipated.
“There’s still a lot to look into to figure out really what’s driving that difference, but definitely a cool result,” Mary Murphy, a manager for Nanoracks tells the AP, said this week. “Overall, I think it’s a pretty awesome first experiment.”
At this point, the first batch of space cookies is perhaps more likely to end up in a museum than in someone’s belly; DoubleTree has offered to donate one to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. But experts hope that the experiment will add some freshly-baked options to the menu that is currently available in orbit—something that is particularly important as scientists prepare for extended missions to the moon and Mars.
“The reminder of home, the connection with home, I think, can’t be overstated,” former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, who is a paid spokesman for DoubleTree, tells the AP. “From my personal experience … food is pretty important for not just nutrition but also for morale in keeping people connected to their home and their Earth.”
And don’t worry: The ISS astronauts, though surely tempted by the tantalizing smell of cookies they could not eat, were not entirely deprived of baked goods. According to Space.com, a special batch of pre-baked DoubleTree cookies was sent up to the crew in November.