First Space Cookies: Cosmic Cooking Is Half-Baked

For decades, astronauts have been forced to endure space-friendly MREs and dehydrated foodstuffs, though we understand both the quality and the options have increased with time. But if we’re serious about long-term space travel, colonizing Mars, or actually having a restaurant at the end of the universe, the ability to bake and cook from raw ingredients will become necessary. This zero-gravity culinary adventure might as well start with a delicious experiment, and what better than chocolate chip cookies for the maiden voyage?

That little filtered vent lets steam out and keeps crumbs in. Image via Zero-G Kitchen

The vessel in question is the Zero-G Oven, built in a collaboration between Zero-G Kitchen and Nanoracks, a Texas-based company that provides commercial access to space. In November 2019, Nanoracks sent the Zero-G oven aloft, where it waited a few weeks for the bake-off to kick off. Five pre-formed cookie dough patties had arrived a few weeks earlier, each one sealed inside its own silicone baking pouch.

The Zero-G Oven is essentially a rack-mounted cylindrical toaster oven. It maxes out at 325 °F (163 °C), which is enough heat for Earth cookies if you can wait fifteen minutes or so. But due to factors we haven’t figured out yet, the ISS cookies took far longer to bake.

Since no one really knew how it would go, the astronauts baked the first cookie for 25 minutes, thinking it might take a little longer than terrestrial trials. It was still dough, though, so they baked the second one twice as long. The fifth and final available cookie patty was in the oven for over two hours before it morphed from dough to cookie. Maybe we should have started experimenting sooner.

Is this capsule painted Cookie Monster blue on purpose? One can only hope. Image via Zero-G Kitchens

But cooking in zero gravity is problematic. Cakes and breads don’t rise, and convection ovens need gravity to work. The Zero-G oven presents its own problem. There’s no viewing window or camera that we can see, which means the gastronauts have to keep opening the door to check status, which of course leads to heat loss, extended bake times, and the wasting of precious power.

So how do they taste? No one knows yet — they have to be tested first. Three of the cookie pouches splashed down in milk a SpaceX capsule a few weeks ago, and they’re being kept fresh in a NASA freezer.

You sign up for a lot as an astronaut, but having to smell chocolate chip cookies baking and not being able to eat them is almost cruel. Fortunately, a tin of already-baked cookies went up with the oven, although it’s unclear whether the astronauts saved any to munch on during the marathon baking session. There’s a morsel of footage waiting after the break.

What’s on the menu for the space oven? According to Zero-G Kitchen, the next experiments will involve other patty-like things, such as a roll or a meatball. Meatball? We vote cheeseburger.

52 thoughts on “First Space Cookies: Cosmic Cooking Is Half-Baked

    1. You need gravity to have convection circulation. Gravity makes the hotter (less dense) air rise and the cooler (more dense) air fall. Without it, you’ll likely have a cloud off cool air surrounding the pouch, insulating it from the hotter air near the heat elements.

      1. Oh they do, I’m thinking that if you don’t design your fan right it will effectively separate the hot and cold air by centrifuge effect, rather than mix or circulate it effectively.

  1. I wondered if they were running lower air pressure with boosted O2, but nope, apparently they run at earth normal sea level values.

    So I’m gonna guess it’s something to do with disruption of convection heat distribution inside the food.

    1. That was my exact thought.

      One would have thought that a thermal profiling run (dough-free) would have been done with some kind of instrument load. Maybe a movable RTC/thermocouple array running out through an insulated [feed|pass]through, to take a thermal profile? We profile SMT reflow ovens, after all…

      I’m also guessing that the heat would have been highly localized without some mechanism like forced airflow to redistribute it, as other comments have suggested.

      1. You could have a grid of nozzles – sort of like a grill but for directing uniform hot air to the surface. Not sure if laminar flow or some turbulent flow would be better. The JPL guys should be able to figure out the fluid dynamics side of things.

  2. “But cooking in zero gravity is problematic. Cakes and breads don’t rise”

    There was a shuttle experiment in 1992 that found this out and the theory was that the ingredients did not mix properly and thus CO2 production was flawed.

    Here is an article I read years ago about the science behind baking bread in space:

    But it looks like we haven’t gotten much further in quite some time and it will still be a while….

          1. Years ago I built an apple macerater for my cider press. It was a slotted hardwood cylinder at the bottom of a hopper. It was a very tight fit, and I used to lube it up with pam, or as I jokingly called it, food grade WD40. There has to be some kind of gooey stuff that would work as food glue. Honey or corn syrup?

          2. Or put the pizza near and parallel to the outside of your spinning cylinder so centrifugal force hold the toppings in place. I suppose you might end up with a cylindrical pizza, but oh well.

          3. @Jesse Chisholm. Nah, it should be fine. I’d imagine it would be something akin to a high-tech Nann Bread oven. Spin one of those and you’ve got a very heavy prototype to test.

    1. Your panko comment got me thinking of tempura, and what we really need to be concentrating on: how to deep fry stuff in space. Let’s face it deep frying makes everything better. In the Charlie Chaplin movie the gold rush, if he had a deep fryer, he would have had people lined up to eat his shoe.

      1. Can’t agree more with the deep frying. Back in school day, I was a student coop cook. Whenever there were leftovers, they tried to serve in the next day. Normally food would get thrown out if you simply reheat them. I had great success in serving out the bake potatoes in the back of the fridge by cutting them and making home fries.

        It might be dangerous to operate a deep fryer in orbit, but should be fine on a planet or moon. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) could have been much happier eating home made fries on Mars. Stew/chili would be nice too, but probably have to be cook in and serve in bags in orbit.

  3. Anybody remember Frontier Airlines fresh baked cookies? About 20 minutes into the flight the wonderful smell would waft through the cabin… They seemed to have licked the problem of baking in a populated aluminum tube.

    Google tells me they stopped in 2012 though, due to the economics. Darned bean counters on the ground were missing out on the yummy cookies, apparently.

  4. SpaceX rate to the ISS is $2,720 per kilogram. Lets say they send 0.5 kg of cookie mix to the ISS and make 12 cookies from that. That would be $113 per cookie not including the cost of the equipment it took to cook it and the cost of launching that equipment to the ISS, making that batch of cookies the most expensive in history.

    End Spam in a Can in Space and their multi-million dollar zero-G toilets. Send robotic probes instead and develop as a side benefit technologies highly useful on Earth, too, like AI and robotics.

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