NASA's Space Food; Thanksgiving Menu On The International Space Station Imagine having your Thanksgiving meal in microgravity? That's the reality for the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Today, we look at the evolution of astronaut food and a planned attempt to bake chocolate chip cookies in space. Follow Maddie Sofia @maddie_sofia and Emily Kwong @emilykwong1234. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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One Small Step For Cookie Baking

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One Small Step For Cookie Baking

One Small Step For Cookie Baking

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hey, everybody. Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Hey, there.

SOFIA: So we know a lot of you are prepping for Thanksgiving.

KWONG: Brining the turkey.

SOFIA: Mashing them tatoes (ph).

KWONG: Making last-minute trips to the grocery store. But six people in the human race got their food delivered weeks ago from a very long distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one...

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET BLASTING)

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...

SOFIA: The astronauts we interviewed from space on SHORT WAVE?

KWONG: Those same ones. On November 4, Jessica and Christina 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And Cygnus capture has been confirmed.

KWONG: Vests to protect from radiation, equipment for spacewalks and the last shipment of food for their Thanksgiving dinner, staged weeks in advance by this guy.

RYAN DOWDY: Candied yams, cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, smoked turkey, cherry-blueberry cobbler and cran-apple dessert.

SOFIA: Dang. That's pretty good.

KWONG: For space?

SOFIA: Yeah.

KWONG: I know. That's Ryan Dowdy, food system manager for the International Space Station. But there was something else tucked into this rocket-propelled care package, something the International Space Station has never seen before - a zero-G oven and cookie dough.

SOFIA: You talking a space oven?

KWONG: I am, Maddie Sofia. The hope is that after 50-plus years of space travel, this crew could be the very first to bake a cookie on the International Space Station.

SOFIA: So today on the show, a quick history of astronaut food.

KWONG: And we talk about the science of baking cookies in space.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: All right, Kwong. It's Thanksgiving time. But up at the International Space Station, six astronauts will be eating their meal in microgravity, right?

KWONG: Affirmative.

SOFIA: OK. How does a person go about cooking in space, Kwong?

KWONG: Well, to fully appreciate this meal in space, let it be known that the first astronauts weren't so lucky. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space in 1961, ate his lunch of pureed meat and chocolate sauce from a tube.

SOFIA: Sounds like grad school. Keep going.

KWONG: And NASA's very candid about how unappetizing their early food offerings were. Their website describes astronauts as having to, quote, "endure bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried powders" and semi-liquid stuffed in aluminum tubes. But once packaging began to improve in the late 1960s with the Apollo missions, the food improved, too. Here's Ryan Dowdy again, who manages food for the International Space Station.

DOWDY: The crew is eating out 10 different containers simultaneously. And each one of those containers represents a different group of foods, like desserts and snacks; or fruits and nuts; or meats and fish, for example.

KWONG: With this standard menu, the crew can pick and choose from over 200 different items.

SOFIA: Dang. And the Thanksgiving foods are among these items.

KWONG: Exactly. The food is either freeze-dried so the astronauts can rehydrate it with recycled water, or it's thermostabilized and comes in this bendable bag called a retort pouch...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC CRINKLING)

KWONG: ...Like this one. Here.

SOFIA: Is this an ice cream sandwich from NASA?

KWONG: (Laughter) No. It's technically from the National Air and Space Museum gift shop.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: I was in a pinch - but same concept. You can open it.

SOFIA: All right. I like how dry it is. That's my favorite part. Oh, it's crumbling in my...

KWONG: (Laughter).

SOFIA: ...Hands. OK. Yeah. Oh, my God. It's so good.

KWONG: How's that ice cream sandwich?

SOFIA: Is there lactose in this? You know I'm lactose intolerant.

KWONG: Dry - I actually got...

SOFIA: Contains milk, Kwong.

KWONG: (Laughter) I actually was thinking of you and got freeze-dried strawberries, too.

SOFIA: I can't believe you just tried to dairy-poison me.

KWONG: I did. Well, the point is, this is the state of food packaging and, consequently, food in space. It has to be quick to prepare. Astronauts can work 12-hour shifts. It has to be safe to eat, nutritious and, most importantly, shelf-stable, packaged to ensure that no light, oxygen, nor moisture can get in.

SOFIA: It has to last in space, essentially.

KWONG: Yes. And NASA has to figure out how to extend that shelf life beyond three years if missions are to be longer - if we were to, say, build a base on the moon or go to Mars one day.

DOWDY: And that technology doesn't exist in the commercial sector. So a lot of the work we're focusing on is, how do we make our foods last longer but still taste good, look good and be nutritious for the crew?

KWONG: And nutrition is so important to maintain in the hostile environment of space where there's bone loss and muscle loss, cardiovascular changes, vision changes - all kinds of problems that occur during spaceflight.

SOFIA: Right. And the food we eat obviously really drives our health.

KWONG: Yes, on Earth, and that's absolutely true in space. NASA has come really far to make such a Thanksgiving feast possible. So the crew will eat their smoked turkey and their candied yams, yes, out of these containers, on trays, Velcroed down so things don't fly around. But imagine if instead of eating dessert from a package, you could bake it fresh in space.

SOFIA: With that space oven?

KWONG: That's the idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

KWONG: That's Jordana Fichtenbaum of Zero G Kitchen. She and her husband, Ian Fichtenbaum, conceived of this project years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FICHTENBAUM: You want to focus on making space more comfortable. When they get there, you don't want them complaining about the food.

SOFIA: Is this an infomercial?

KWONG: Yes.

SOFIA: And their target audience is only space people.

KWONG: Yes.

SOFIA: It's a tough market.

KWONG: Yeah. This project is backed by some companies. So on that November 2 cargo resupply we talked about earlier, Zero G sent raw chocolate chip cookie dough up to space, provided by DoubleTree, the Hilton Hotel chain.

SOFIA: Here come the brands - got to brand that oven.

KWONG: The zero-G oven was built by a company called NanoRacks. The plan is for the crew to install this oven, which will draw power from the International Space Station, and bake these cookies in space.

SOFIA: And so it can't, like, operate like a normal oven.

KWONG: Not at all because here on Earth, we have convection, right?

SOFIA: Yeah.

KWONG: Gravity makes hot air rise and cool air fall. That's convection. And this heat layer distributes across a tray of cookies, often with the help of a fan. The molecules get excited. The dough bakes. And - ding - fresh cookies.

SOFIA: Thank you, gravity, for cookies.

KWONG: And the cookies stay in place because of that gravity on the tray, which is not the case in space. So payloads manager Mary Murphy and her colleagues at NanoRacks had two problems to solve. How do we cook these cookies without convection? And how do we get the cookies to stay put?

MARY MURPHY: (Laughter) There was definitely a lot of cookie-eating involved in the process of figuring it out.

SOFIA: I bet there was, you know? I bet there was.

KWONG: For science.

SOFIA: So how did they figure it out? How did they make the oven?

KWONG: They landed on a cylindrical design. So the oven looks like a bright blue tube with a silicone pouch suspended in the middle. And surrounding the cookie are heating elements - they kind of look like wires - that behave like a toaster oven, but able to heat up at a much hotter temperature. As they warm, the heat is transferred through thermal conduction to the middle, where the cookie is suspended in the pouch. So all this hot air is moving to the center.

MURPHY: All of that air is essentially touching itself and touching each other and touching the cookie. And all of that together is kind of just slowly coming together into that environment at the center of the oven.

SOFIA: I'm sorry. Did she say cookie - as in, single cookie at a time?

KWONG: Yes. This will not be a tray of cookies wafting melted chocolate throughout the space station, I'm afraid. NanoRacks sent up five cookie dough samples. The first one will be baked at 163 degrees Celsius - so 325 degrees Fahrenheit - for 18 minutes, photographed, analyzed. Mary wants data.

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: And then they'll modify the bake time and temperature accordingly for the other four cookies.

MURPHY: And obviously, we want to make sure that the crew is safe, too. So we don't want them to eat a cookie that we are not sure if it's fully baked.

SOFIA: Hold up. They're not actually allowed to eat the cookie?

KWONG: Not a crumb.

SOFIA: A better depiction of science has never been painted.

MURPHY: 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.

(LAUGHTER)

KWONG: It's an experiment with cookies.

SOFIA: OK. So nobody is eating fresh-baked cookies in space.

KWONG: No.

SOFIA: DoubleTree is getting a whole lot of publicity for this.

KWONG: True.

SOFIA: Why are we going through all the trouble of baking a cookie in space?

KWONG: You with the good questions. All right. This is a project conceived of by these three companies coming together. But the cookie does offer an opportunity in food development - to test out this oven, which could lead to other baking experiments and innovations in food preparation.

You know, astronauts have been experimenting with fresh veggies on space stations, growing lettuce for a few years now. And when it comes to cookies, you have to remember that any variety after all these months far, far away from a home kitchen - any variety is a good mood-booster for the crew.

SCOTT SMITH: Anytime you can do things like grow crops and eat some lettuce, even if it's not much, psychologically, that's very important.

KWONG: This is Scott Smith. He leads the nutritional biochemistry lab at the Johnson Space Center. He's been at NASA for 27 years - so knows a thing or two about how space travel affects the human body and the symbolic significance of food.

SMITH: Cookies provide a little more substance than a piece of lettuce does. But again, from a psychological point of view, I'm guessing that would make people happy.

SOFIA: Delightful.

KWONG: Speaking of happy, Maddie, unlike those astronauts, because it's the eve of Thanksgiving, I decided you should get to eat real cookies. Here you go.

SOFIA: Yes. Did you make these?

KWONG: They're dairy-free because I know you have an allergy.

SOFIA: Oh, my gosh. After you tried to poison me earlier, you're back on my good side right now.

KWONG: Happy Thanksgiving, Maddie.

SOFIA: Happy Thanksgiving, Kwong. I appreciate you. I'm thankful for you.

KWONG: Well, we're going to enjoy these cookies.

SOFIA: And we hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving if you celebrate that.

KWONG: Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. This episode was produced by Brent Baughman.

SOFIA: And edited by Viet Le.

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