DeFlip Side #199: The Great Space Bake

DeFlip Side #199: The Great Space Bake.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

And tonight we will celebrate the most significant celestial achievement since the all-female spacewalk. I’m talking about…

Cookies. In. SPAAAACE!

That’s the sound of the most powerful Anteres rocket ever built blasting off from NASA’s Flight Facility in Wallops, Virginia, earlier this month, carrying a potentially revolutionary payload: a prototype zero-gravity oven. Call it one giant leap for zero-g cuisine.

The oven was delivered to the crew of the International Space Station, who will attempt to make space history by actually cooking something from scratch in space–namely, a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

The experiment comes courtesy of a company called Zero G Kitchen, which is dedicated to figuring out how to cook without gravity. The prototype oven is designed for foods like rolls, cookies and meatballs.

Now this may sound like a small thing, but it’s the first step in tackling a big scientific problem. As space exploration expands throughout the solar system, requiring longer and longer missions, producing and preparing fresh food will become a major concern. But cooking in zero-g presents some major challenges.

Traditional convection ovens–like the one you probably have in your kitchen–won’t work in space, because they rely on gravity. Hot air rises, cool air falls, and your pot roast sits in the middle of the currents, reaping all the benefits. Not so in space.

So how did Zero G Kitchen solve this problem?

They created a cylindrical oven with an insertable silicone frame to hold the food in place. The whole thing is surrounded by heating coils that will create a constant heat to cook things evenly. The cookies in question were shipped raw to the ISS earlier this year and will be baked one at a time.

But in an ironic twist, the first batch is not meant to be eaten. They’ll be collected and sent back to NASA for analysis. But taste tests will be allowed at the baker’s discretion. This overly-cautious stance may be somewhat justified. No one really knows if this grand experiment will yield edible results. The astronauts may end up with a cooling rack full of malformed blobs that look nothing like cookies. But the palatability of these pioneering cookies isn’t the important thing here. It’s what they represent long-term.

Cooking and sharing a meal is one of the most basic universal human experiences, something we can all relate to as we gear up for Thanksgiving. And being able to recreate that ritual in a spacefaring environment is crucial to the long-term psychological health of the men and women braving the final frontier.

Here’s NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, in a promotional video discussing the cookie experiment:

“This whole project is a first for the space program. There are benefits of all types. And when you get down to working together as astronauts, food is not just for nourishment. It’s also a sense of community. Sharing a meal, sharing food with your crewmates. And I think it’s a great way to explore international cooperation and feel welcome.”

And what’s more welcoming than the smell of fresh-baked cookies?

The date of the great space bake has yet to be determined. But something tells me that no matter the results, NASA will keep chipping away at the problem, one chocolate chip at a time.