Cookies In Space, For Science

Dec 8, 2019
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A novel experiment is set to take place in space. Astronauts will be baking cookies. Well, why not? Wouldn't you want freshly baked cookies in space? But doing this on the International Space Station in microgravity is not so easy and requires a special oven. Reporter Emily Kwong for NPR's Short Wave podcast reports on this sweet experiment.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: To get a chocolate chip cookie in 2019, you can whip up a batch at home or buy the cookies already baked. But imagine if you got your cookies like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET ENGINE IGNITING)

KWONG: On November 2, NASA and Northrop Grumman launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station. There are six astronauts aboard now. Two of them, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, caught this cargo using the station's robotic arm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The robotic arm is now in motion.

KWONG: And inside were all kinds of goodies for the astronauts, including a zero G oven and cookie dough.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JORDANA FICHTENBAUM: It's 2019. And there's not been an oven on the space station for freshly baked food.

KWONG: That's Jordana Fichtenbaum of Zero G Kitchen in a promo video. Cookie baking is the latest in a string of food innovations in space. Astronauts have a far more nutritious diet than they did in the days of John Glenn, who ate his first space meals from a tube. On the International Space Station, even veggies are being grown. But this is the first attempt to bake cookies in space. Doubletree, the Hilton Hotel chain, provided the cookie dough. And Zero G's oven was made by a company called NanoRacks. Mary Murphy, NanoRacks' senior internal payloads manager, said building the oven took rigorous experimentation.

MARY MURPHY: (Laughter) There was definitely a lot of cookie eating involved in the process of figuring it out (laughter) because there's definitely a lot of late nights and long hours trying to sort out how best to do this.

KWONG: So in a traditional oven, Earth's gravity allows hot air to rise and cool air to fall. That's convection. The heat moves evenly across a tray of cookies, often with the help of a fan. But...

MURPHY: In microgravity, we don't have that induced current from the heat rising because there is no up.

KWONG: And then there's the problem of keeping the cookies in place. On Earth, they stay on the tray. In space, they would float. So the team developed an enclosed pouch made of silicone holding the cookie in place, allowing hot air to escape but preventing crumbs from flying around and damaging equipment. As for the oven...

MURPHY: We went with a cylindrical concept, which allows us to evenly distribute the heating elements.

KWONG: The oven looks more like a tube with that silicone tray slotted inside. And along the walls of the oven are heating elements that look like wires. As they warm, their heat is transferred through thermal conduction to the middle where, Murphy hopes, they'll bake the cookie, giving it a pleasant crumb and a gooey center.

MURPHY: There's a lot of questions about how fully baked it will be, how evenly baked it will be and even what shape the cookies will be.

KWONG: The cookies will be baked one at a time. But astronauts aren't actually allowed to try them out.

MURPHY: We don't want them to eat a cookie that - we're not sure if it's fully baked. But we did, however, send the crew some prebaked cookies. So hopefully, they will happily eat those instead of the ones that we need for science.

KWONG: There's no set date for the Zero G bakeoff yet. But when it does happen, astronauts have been instructed to send the cookies back down to earth for further analysis. Emily Kwong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.