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?
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.
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.