The Great NASA Bake-Off

Martin Gardeazabal/

High-tech agriculture would keep far-flung astronauts alive, but making something delicious would keep them happy.

The sight of a cookie had never made me grimace until this one showed up in my email inbox.

DoubleTree by Hilton, the hotel chain, was announcing that it would soon send a little oven and a batch of cookie dough to the International Space Station so that astronauts could, for the first time, bake chocolate-chip cookies in space. The cookies, which the hotel gives guests for free when they check in, are “the perfect food to make the cosmos a more welcoming place,” DoubleTree said.

Call me a grump, but the endeavor felt gimmicky, the latest in a long line of attempts to promote a company’s product, from Tang to KFC sandwiches, against the dreamy backdrop of outer space. The plan reminded me most of the efforts by Coca-Cola and Pepsi to make space-travel-friendly soda cans for astronauts flying on the now-retired space shuttles. The companies poured a staggering amount of money into the design—millions, in Pepsi’s case—but it wasn’t exactly successful; the cans leaked and sputtered, and the soda was warm. Carbonated drinks are lousy in space even without a special can; gas bubbles don’t float to the top and fizz out like they do on Earth, so astronauts consume more gas when they sip, which means they burp more. And without gravity to anchor the contents of their stomach, burping could bring some of them back up.

Raw cookie dough seemed similarly unpredictable. Charles Bourland, a retired NASA scientist, says the agency never tried to develop a space-friendly oven, because it was just too risky. Bourland spent 30 years developing food for astronauts, starting with the Apollo program, before retiring in 1999.

“If something catches on fire and starts burning, you’re going to have to have some way of overcoming that,” Bourland says. “You can’t just open the window and let the smoke out.”

But as I spoke with astronauts and others in the space community, my skepticism about the space cookies softened. Bourland says that many astronauts he worked with liked cooking. And that they missed doing it in space.

Today astronauts on the ISS have varied breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus, plus snacks and desserts, and NASA’s food lab regularly tests new recipes that can withstand the space environment. (It never managed to get cheesecake right, though.) But astronauts don’t do any cooking or baking.

Those hotel chocolate-chip cookies will be the closest astronauts have come to truly baking something in their high-flying kitchens. NASA says astronauts won’t actually eat the cookies, because they are, technically, a science experiment. The treats will be returned home for examination.

But imagine if someday, space travelers, whether they’re orbiting in a space station high above Earth or living in domes on Mars, could really make their own food. Not just to survive, like Matt Damon using his own waste to grow potatoes in "The Martian," but to enjoy themselves.

Astronauts on the ISS already do things to make the place feel more like home, such as playing board games and binge-watching TV shows. They often eat meals together, especially during the holidays. Cooking would provide another distinctly human experience in a strange, alien place. It might bring comfort, and even ease stress. It could, for a short time, distract them from their unusual surroundings, which, given the chance, would probably kill them.

For now, meals are mostly made for them, back on Earth. On the ISS, food comes thermo-stabilized or freeze-dried in disposable pouches, the products of years’ worth of testing and tinkering at NASA’s food labs. Astronauts inject water into the freeze-dried entrees and warm them up in a small oven that doesn’t get hotter than 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Salt and pepper come in liquid form. There are no refrigerators. Some simple cooking is possible, but even the easiest recipes take a lot of work. Sandy Magnus, a retired NASA astronaut, once tried making cooked onions and garlic, a process that involved repurposed foil packets from the Russians, bits of onion sticking to her hand, and hours of waiting.

Eating requires considerable care, too. The food “can just float anywhere, and sometimes you find yourself using your spoon or your mouth to chase around the food and make sure you get it all in your mouth, instead of stuck against the wall or somebody’s face,” explains Drew Feustel, a NASA astronaut who returned from his most recent visit to the space station last year.

For the chocolate-chip cookies, astronauts will receive detailed instructions for using the experimental oven, built by NanoRacks, a space company that helps develop experiments for the ISS. They’ll also get a heavy-duty oven mitt.

“It looks like something you get at a hardware store for welders,” says Ian Fichtenbaum, a co-founder of Zero G Kitchen, which paid NanoRacks to develop its oven concept. (“Zero gravity” is actually a misnomer for the environment on the space station, or anywhere around Earth; if there were no gravity at all, we’d lose the moon. Astronauts experience weightlessness because the station moves so fast—17,500 miles an hour—that everything on board is in constant free fall.)

In microgravity, ovens lose the efficacy of their most important properties: convection, the tendency of hot air to rise, and fans to circulate that air to evenly distribute the heat. There’s also the matter of keeping whatever you’re baking in place. “Here on Earth, it’s pretty easy: You grab cookie dough and you plop it on a tray and you slide it into the oven,” says Mary Murphy, a payloads manager at NanoRacks who helped develop the space oven. “Our concern was, if you push the cookie in the center of the oven, where does it go? Is it going to stay there in the center? Is it going to slide off to the side somewhere?”

NanoRacks created a cylinder-shaped oven lined with heating components that can bring the interior temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. It bakes one slab of cookie dough, which is held in place inside a sealed tray, at a time. The oven will plug into an apparatus about the size of carry-on luggage that supports scientific experiments with electricity, cooling, and other needs.

The yummy baking smells will vent into this compartment, Murphy says, so astronauts won’t get a whiff until the cookie is done and the oven has cooled enough to open. (They’ll need to gesture a bit more vigorously for the aroma to waft over them, since the warm air won’t rise like it does on Earth.)

Unlike most space-station food, the cookie dough hasn’t been modified for the special dietary restrictions of space travel. No one knows for sure how the cookies will turn out. Murphy predicts that the cookies will be spherical. Fingers crossed that they don’t shed too many crumbs, which are free-floating nuisances on the space station, liable to get swept into air filters and even the crew’s lungs. During the space-shuttle era, astronauts asked Bourland, the food scientist, to stop sending pecan sandies, a delicious nosh on Earth but a crumbly nightmare in orbit.

The oven cleared NASA safety reviews in the spring and could hitch a ride to the space station on a resupply mission in October. Jordana Fichtenbaum, the other half of Zero G Kitchen and Ian’s wife, imagines a future where astronauts bring an assortment of kitchen appliances to their new homes beyond Earth. High-tech farming will keep spacefarers fed, but bustling around the kitchen will keep them happy.

“As longer-duration spaceflight becomes more real and more common, you want to think about how to make astronauts more comfortable, and what you can add to make it feel more like Earth and more like home,” Jordana says.

They’re thinking about a blender next.