On November 2nd, 2019, Northrop Grumman performed a spaceflight first, and launched an oven aboard their Cygnus Cargo Ship on a resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. The spacecraft contained just over 3,700 kg of scientific experiments, vehicle hardware, and crew supplies, along with a variety of other important space stuff.
But included on this flight was a space first. An oven. And not just any oven, but a custom zero g oven developed by Nanoracks, a leading provider of commercial access to space, that will be used to bake the first food in space – the DoubleTree chocolate chip cookie.
So today, I thought we should do a history of space food, figure out why we haven’t ever baked anything in space before, and learn from the experts on how DoubleTree by Hilton, the sponsor of this article, will actually bake their cookies on the International Space Station.
Space food has been around since the dawn of human spaceflight which began with the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin. Throughout most of the early ’60s, the Mercury, Vostok, Voskhod, and early Soyuz programs stuck with ‘baby food,’ which was unanimously considered to be awful. The initial U.S. crewed missions didn’t bother with in-flight snacks due to their short, suborbital flights lasting approximately 15 minutes. However, space food became more of a necessity once orbital flights began.
The first U.S. astronaut to reach orbit, John Glenn, spent 5 hours in space and ate applesauce, puréed beef, and vegetables; however, he opted to avoid eating spaghetti in a tube (which we can only imagine tastes about as appealing as it sounds). Likewise, the Soviet cosmonauts ate from simplistic, toothpaste-like tubes that contained pureed meat and chocolate sauce.
It wasn’t until the United States Gemini program that space food became more extravagant. The first crewed launch of the Gemini program, Gemini 3, presented an opportunity for NASA to try out their new menu. This novel menu included a variety of foods such as shrimp cocktail, chicken, vegetables, toast squares, butterscotch pudding, and apple juice. All of which were either dehydrated or covered in gelatin coatings. NASA was excited to study the astronauts’ health, and gain feedback on their newly developed menu. Therefore, you can imagine their shock when they discovered that the pilot, John Young, had smuggled a contraband corned beef sandwich aboard and offered it to Commander Grissom, and by doing so, created a small scandal. Grissom took one bite of the sandwich and immediately stowed it away, as crumbs began to float around the cabin (which is considered to be dangerous, as crumbs can interfere with critical equipment and pose a risk if aspirated). Young’s nefarious deed resulted in a comical congressional hearing, and a prompt slapping of both Grissom and Young’s wrists. Young reminisces upon the outcome of these events in his 2012 memoir, aptly named “Forever Young.”
With the Apollo program, NASA iterated on its food offerings in order to make them more appealing, appetizing, and nutritious. They introduced hot water for re-hydrating freeze-dried foods, and developed something known as a spoon-bowl, which enabled more normal eating practices in micro-gravity. During this time, the Apollo-Soyuz mission was conducted, which famously saw the two Cold War rivals unify over a common goal of human spaceflight. The Soyuz 19 crew exchanged food such as canned beef tongue, riga bread, and tubes of beet soup, along with caviar. The beet soup was even labeled as Vodka as a joke to the unsuspecting American crew! This historic joint mission presented a unique opportunity for the astronauts to flavor each other’s food, culture, and get a glimpse of what life was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Furthermore, the Skylab program had a larger living area that could facilitate a refrigerator and a freezer. The inclusion of which allowed for new menu items such as butter cookies, lobster newberg, fresh bread (it should be noted, the fresh bread wasn’t freshly baked bread, simply not freeze-dried), and even ice cream. These advancements mainly carried over to the International Space Station. The Space Shuttle program introduced what, to some extent, may be considered an oven, however, it was only capable of heating up to temperatures of 82 degrees Celsius. It was subsequently more of a food warmer than an oven.
For the most part, the way food was prepared on the Shuttle is the same as how it is currently done on the International Space Station. Perishables such as food don’t last very long, and therefore, the ISS is replenished by resupply vehicles every few months that deliver experiments and supplies, along with some other surprises! For instance, in 2015, the Italian Space Agency delivered an espresso machine to the ISS, astutely named ISSPresso, which enabled astronauts to brew their espressos in orbit. Sadly, the “Coffee in Space” mission ended in 2017.
To understand precisely where this new oven will be installed on the International Space Station, I spoke with the Senior Associate Program Scientist for the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory (a lengthy title), Liz Warren.
The zero-G oven is going to go in an overhead rack in the Destiny module (the U.S. lab), which of course, doesn’t matter as there is no orientation in micro-gravity. This rack also features a portable water dispenser, which is where the astronauts fill up their drink bags and re-hydrate freeze-dried foods. The future holds space hotels, which better have some excellent culinary experiences for customers.
Liz said it best, “we need to test that oven, and the space station is a tremendous test bed for innovative ideas, and that’s part of the reason why we’re doing this.”
So once I got a good sense of where the oven will be and why it’s important, I went down the road to Nanoracks, who built the oven that the DoubleTree chocolate chip cookie will be baked in.
Conventional ovens work on the principle of convection in which hot air becomes more buoyant and so floats to the top of the rest of the air mass. Then when it floats up, it displaces cooler air that fills in the space underneath it, and this establishes a convection cycle. On-orbit, you are in a state of equilibrium with gravity, and therefore, no such convective cycle can occur.
As Nanoracks engineer Caleb Daugherty explains it “the air mass [is treated] as a solid for modeling purposes.” The air mass is evenly heated to ensure that the heat is concentrated around the area of the cookie.
Which made me wonder, why didn’t they just add a fan to move the heat around? Well, NASA imposes strict RPM and acoustic limits on fans. An oven poses a multitude of hazards, such as burning an astronaut or causing a fire. The addition of a fan contributes to this, with the threat of creating floating debris.
The cookie tray incorporates silicon sheets with a 40-micron vent in them to allow water vapor and gases to escape to prevent it from inflating. “In our initial test, we didn’t have vents, and we ended up making a balloon inside the oven.” Caleb noted.
Additionally, there is also a 40-micron vent at the back of the oven to prevent pressure from building up inside the oven. Therefore, the cookie smell will be vented out of the oven and enter into the avionics air plume, and be circulated in the station. This will make it possible to waft the aroma of cookies around the station.
Since the space station may actually end up smelling like fresh baked cookies, it does lead to one interesting note. The astronauts can’t actually try the first samples. The trays for the first tests are intentionally riveted shut so they aren’t tampered with. They’ll then be returned to earth to ensure they’re safe to eat. BUT, as a treat to the astronauts, DoubleTree did send up a tin of pre-made cookies that are already considered safe to eat so they don’t torture the crew during the first few test runs.
To summarize, food is essential – after all, we can’t live without it – Food in space is perhaps even more necessary than food down here on Earth. As we prepare to send humans further and further away from our natural sources of food, it will become increasingly important to have ways to serve food that is both nutritious and delicious.
The Nanoracks oven is a small but significant advancement in how Humans can prepare food in space. The simplistic design that Nanoracks have come up with has virtually no moving parts and takes safety into account first and foremost. Food in space has always been a bit of a practical matter. The crew on-board the International Space Station are working 12 hours a day; subsequently, time is a valuable commodity, so having a quick and easy way to prepare meal helps free up precious time. However, in the future, the industry will need to take a greater focus on comfort and hospitality as paying customers will likely expect greater finesse in their space trips.
I, for one, would be incredibly excited to open the hatch to a space hotel and promptly be greeted with the pleasant aroma of warm cookies… perhaps DoubleTree will create one of the first space hotels!
I wanted to say a quick thanks to the team at DoubleTree for arranging for me to see the International Space Station mock-up and enabling me to speak to the experts at Nanoracks. I like to learn by asking lots of questions, so that was especially awesome. As always, I owe a special thanks to my Patreon supporters for helping make content like this possible. If you want to help me do what I do, consider supporting me on https://www.patreon.com/EverydayAstronaut. Another fun way to support what I do is to go to https://shop.everydayastronaut.com/ and check out some out of this world merch.
Let me know what other questions you have about space food, the future of space food, or just space flight in general, and let me know what things you would want most in a space hotel in the comments below.
If you want to learn more about the launch of the DoubleTree chocolate chip cookie into space and the technology behind the oven, come ask me questions in the comments! You can also check out www.CookiesinSpace.com or www.newsroom.hilton.com/
Written by: Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut