Astronauts could soon be waking up to the smell of freshly baked bread. A new dough mixture and oven specially designed for use on the International Space Station will be tested during a mission next year.
Ready-made space meals have improved over the years, but for long missions – especially ones far from home – it is impractical for astronauts to take all their food with them. So efforts are underway to produce a range of fresh food in space, including using bacteria to make sugars and growing vegetables.
Fresh food would also make life in space more pleasant, for astronauts and sightseers: “As space tourism takes off and people spend more time in space we need to allow bread to be made from scratch,” says Sebastian Marcu, founder of Bake In Space, the company behind the project, based in Bremen, Germany.
Smuggled corned beef
It’s an ambitious goal. Bread is a staple food on Earth but can be life-threatening in space. The first and last people to enjoy bread in space were the two astronauts on NASA’s 1965 Gemini 3 mission, who shared a corned beef sandwich one of them had smuggled on board. The crumbs flew everywhere in the microgravity and could have got into their eyes or into the electrical panels, where they could have started a fire. Bread has been banned ever since – tortilla wraps are the accepted alternative.
Marcu thinks he has a solution. Bake In Space is working with the German Aerospace Centre and food scientists from several other research organisations to develop a dough mixture and baking process that produces a crumb-free bread. The hardest part is coming up with the right texture. Bread that is tough and chewy won’t produce crumbs but it is also unpalatable. “This is the biggest challenge,” says Florian Stukenborg at ttz Bremerhaven in Germany, who is in charge of developing the dough.
The design of the oven could help. Matthias Boehme at OHB System AG, a Bremen-based company that develops equipment for use in space, is currently trying to adapt a convection oven to the constraints of the ISS. Electricity is limited so the oven must work on just 250 watts – a tenth of the power used by a standard oven on Earth. And exterior surfaces cannot exceed 45 °C. “The solution is an oven with a small volume that retains heat well,” says Boehme.
But Boehme is also looking at vacuum baking, in which the pressure inside a sealed oven is lowered. Since the boiling point of water decreases as atmospheric pressure decreases, a low-pressure oven would bake at lower temperatures. “According to our baking experts, the process would also make bread rolls more fluffy,” he says.
Bake In Space will test various approaches on board the ISS during the European Space Agency’s Horizon mission in April 2018. The team plans to control the entire baking process from the ground via video feeds from inside the oven – that way the astronauts won’t have to worry about burning their loaves on top of their other duties. To see how microgravity affects a finished loaf, initial batches will also use dough pre-baked on Earth. “Bread could have a completely different structure,” says Marcu.
Jennifer Levasseur from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum finds the experiment fascinating. “The comforts of home, like the smell of fresh baked bread, could energise astronauts physically and psychologically,” she says.
The team also plans to experiment with sourdough, creating starters – fermented batter-like dough for sourdough bread – in space. If successful, they plan to bring some of this dough back to Earth. “We could sell original space rolls in bakeries,” says Boehme.
The project was presented at the UK Space Conference in Manchester last week.