Food is an important part of our daily routine. It gives us energy in what we do and contributes towards our lifestyle. The space environment, however, poses many challenges for producing and cooking food. Currently there are no sustainable solutions for fresh food production and instead astronauts rely on pre-packaged foods and frequent supplies of fresh produce from Earth. As we venture into space we need to become more self-reliant: able to grow our own food, produce it and cook it within the constraints of this unique environment. One German space startup is seeking to address these challenges.
Bake in Space is leveraging the business opportunities afforded by the commercialisation of the International Space Station (ISS). The company is building an oven capable of baking bread rolls and a dough mixture that will both be suitable for the space environment. Spaceoneers spoke to Sebastian Marcu, Founder and CEO of Bake In Space about its aims and how it will contribute to the future human exploration of space.
What is “Bake in Space” and what does it aim to achieve, both in the short and the long term?
Bake In Space was selected by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) as one of the experiments during the Horizons mission in 2018. We’re working towards putting a bread-baking oven on the International Space Station to bake fresh bread in space. This has never been done before and is the first in a number of technology demonstration experiments, addressing the scientific and technical challenges in producing fresh bread in space. We want to give astronauts, space tourists and future explorers a fresh slice of home away from home.
Our long-term aim is to recreate the complete production cycle from growing grain, harvesting it, to transforming it into flour then mixing it into dough and ultimately baking it into bread and other baking products. We are reverse engineering the entire production cycle by starting with the technology demonstration of baking.
What are the challenges of baking bread in space and how will you make it ‘space-friendly’?
We will provide a technology demonstration of baking in microgravity under the constraints we have for this unique environment. Baking bread in space is really difficult. It’s not like baking bread on Earth.
Any crumbs from normal bread would pose a health hazard to astronauts as crumbs would float freely about the spacecraft and get into wires or heating elements, which may cause a fire, or it might affect other on-board experiments. Crumbs could also enter astronauts’ eyes or cause them to choke. We therefore have to create ‘space friendly’ bread, which means creating a crumb-free recipe that we can use in microgravity. We have to ensure we have the right dough recipe in combination with the right baking process. But it’s not the recipe alone that’s a challenge.
We have to reinvent the concept of an oven so it suits the space environment. Opening a normal oven in space would be extremely dangerous, as a bubble of hot air would be released on the space station and remain there with the risk of burning an astronaut. We overcome this in the design of the oven by using an extraction fan. No surface that can be touched by an astronaut should be hotter than 45°C. This means we can not pre-heat the oven and need to cool-down before opening it. We also have very limited power on board the space station, only 270W (one tenth of the power used on Earth for ovens), so the oven needs to be well insulated to reach the desired temperature. The baking process will therefore take longer due to the limited power, as well as the pre-heating and cool-down constraints. The baking process therefore risks drying out the bread roll so that it becomes too crumby again, so we have to add water during the process itself.
In addition, astronauts’ taste buds are different in space; they often need stronger flavours than you would be used to on Earth. The bread roll needs to contain a higher salt content so that the astronauts can taste the food. This affects the recipe and therefore the crumbliness of the bread.
Why do you think bread is a particularly important food to eat and produce in space?
Most of the food aboard the International Space Station is pre-packaged to last over two years under ambient conditions. There’s no way of freezing or cooling food to keep it fresh. Many astronauts look forward to fresh fruit and other produce from Earth when supplied in by new astronaut crews, which is a nice change to their regular supply. This is clearly not a sustainable solution for long-term human exploration of space as we venture further to the Moon and Mars for extended periods.
Our environment plays an important part in our wellbeing. Human civilisation on Earth began with agriculture and bread accompanied our progress, so much so that it became a symbol of ‘quality of life’. It plays an important role in many religions in prayer such as “Lord, give us our daily bread”. In English, the ‘breadwinner’ is the person that assures the quality of life in a household. In German, the core business of a company is called the ‘Brot und Butter Geschäft’ (Bread and butter business). In French, the word ‘copain’ means ‘friend’ with a Latin root of ‘com panis’, which is translated as ’with bread’.
So bread seems to be always referenced as a symbol for quality of life, wellbeing and community. Bread is something very reminiscent of home, family and friends as it taps into many senses: sight, smell, touch and taste. That’s why we, at Bake in Space, believe that bread is our stepping-stone for the human exploration of space.
What implications do you think this technology could have for future space technologies?
In the future we hope to be able to offer the full scope of baked products, which remind astronauts of home. In a commercial sense this means providing the baking and cooking infrastructure for future astronaut missions and even tourists in space.
Do you think that this technology and space bread will become a ‘space spin-off’ on Earth like other products originally created for space?
We foresee many spin-offs in terms of technology and food products, which we intend to commercialise through our project partners. This will include new oven technologies, which may eventually find its way into households and special technologies for mixing and agriculture. In addition, our startup addresses the needs for sustainable food production for humans in space. The concerns we face in space may well offer solutions to ensuring food security for our increasing world population on planet Earth.
Spaceoneers: What’s one food on Earth (besides bread) of which you would love to see a ‘space friendly’ version?
Humanity needs to find more sustainable ways of becoming self-sufficient in space, since we cannot keep sending food parcels to the Moon, Mars and beyond. This means re-creating all the food nutrients humans need on a daily basis in space. So the questions that arise, where do we get our proteins from? Should we bring livestock with us to enable us to produce milk and meat products? Or should astronauts live as vegans and find plant alternatives? These are interesting questions to tackle that could well offer solutions, not only for human space travel, but also for us humans here on Earth.