When you think of astronaut food, the first things that come to mind are probably those silver pouches that hold everything from dehydrated ice cream to Thanksgiving dinners — but nothing has actually ever been baked in space before.
That’s about to change. Hilton’s DoubleTree Hotels is on a mission to launch its famous cookie dough (you know how you find warm cookies on the bed when you first walk into your room?) and Zero G Kitchen's Zero G Oven prototype (a collaboration with commercial space station company Nanoracks) into space, and onto the International Space Station later this year. Not only will the cookies be the first food ever baked fresh in space, but they'll contribute to a science experiment testing exactly how they turn out in microgravity.
Being in a zero-g environment doesn't require any tweaks to the recipe, but it means you need an alternative to the convection ovens used on Earth. Convection ovens rely on a fan to circulate hot air so the temperature stays constant. That isn’t possible in microgravity, where those same hot air molecules that turn dough into cookies on terra firma would just float everywhere. This is why the Zero G Oven, the brainchild of entrepreneurs Ian and Jordana Fichtenbaum of Zero G Kitchen, operates on conduction.
Powered by electricity from the internal power system on the ISS, the anti-gravity oven will use heating elements similar to a toaster oven’s, positioned so that they create a pocket of hot air around the dough samples, which will be in clear silicone packets so their progress can be monitored. The samples will be on a tray inside the oven where they will be kept from floating anywhere. There’s even a cooling rack built into the outside.
“The insulation and venting mechanisms allow the oven to operate safely in the controlled environment of the International Space Station,” the Fichtenbaums state on the Zero G Kitchen website. “The oven design has passed all NASA safety reviews.”
NASA has been paranoid about using an oven in space for years. It isn’t that astronauts were averse to cooking, but the space agency was. What if something got burned? You can’t exactly open the windows on a floating space station and expect all the smoke to just make its way out into the cosmos. However, despite NASA’s food lab vastly improving the taste of space since the Apollo era, nothing edible on the ISS has ever involved an oven.
Both the dough and the oven will take off on the Northrop Grumman’s 12th Cygnus cargo mission to the ISS, NG-12, this October. The only disappointment, at least for astronauts, is that they won’t be allowed to eat the cookies, which will eventually land on Earth and be examined like the results of any science experiment.
Will the cookies end up soft? Crunchy? Cakey? Chewy? Weirdly misshapen but still delicious? Nobody knows. Whoever gets to taste-test these (for science) is going to have the most enviable job in the solar system.
For the rest of us, we can at least snag a rad limited-edition commemorative tin of DoubleTree’s famous cookies right here.