Food

Where no loaf has gone before

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A German commercial Space start-up is working on innovative ways to engineer crumb-free bread so astronauts can bake in space

About 52 years ago, two astronauts shared a smuggled corned beef sandwich in space. NASA was not amused. John Young smuggled the contraband sandwich aboard Gemini 3 in his flight suit pocket. When rye bread crumbs started floating around the spacecraft, they hurriedly put it away. In a weightless environment, crumbs can be deadly dangerous: they could settle behind electric panels or fly into an astronaut’s eye.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson with a floating Tortilla, currently the only alternative to sandwiches in space. Photo: NASA

Astronaut Peggy Whitson with a floating Tortilla, currently the only alternative to sandwiches in space. Photo: NASA  

However, German startup Bake In Space is now determined to take the sandwich back into orbit. And they’ve given themselves an ambitious deadline: Alexander Gerst’s mission to the International Space Station in May 2018. “He’s a German astronaut—and we thought, ‘Won’t he miss his bread? We should build him a machine’,” says Sebastian Marcu, CEO and founder of Bake In Space, in an interview with MetroPlus over Skype. He adds, “When we thought about it seriously, we realised it’s about much more than just getting one astronaut bread. Baking is a symbol of well-being. Of home. Astronauts are up there for six months, and it’s not an easy life. The food is generally freeze-dried and pre-packaged. It’s filled with lukewarm water before you eat, and looks like something that has been chewed on. Not at all the taste experience you know from Earth.”

Game plan

In October 2016, Marcu and his team began drawing up their original concept. By December 2016, they were able to prove that, despite being Hollywood-movie-ambitious, this could actually work.

Sebastian Marcu

Sebastian Marcu  

Planning is in full swing now, with processes, equipment and sponsors falling into place. The German Aerospace Center, DLR, will ensure transport and logistics of the payload to the International Space Station (ISS). Their industry partners are OHB System AG, who will build the payload that contains the oven. The team is also joining hands with engineers and students at ZARM, a research institute in Bremen, which will test the hardware. And ttz Bremerhaven will provide scientific expertise to customising the oven and developing the dough.

When Marcu began as a trainee at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne in 2003, he didn’t really plan for a career in the space sector. “Then I realised we are at the cutting edge of the future.” He went on to participate at the International Space University Space Studies programme in Montreal in 2014. “There were students from 32 countries, eight of whom were from India. Entrepreneurship is a big part of the programme. Companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX, are offering fascinating opportunities now,” he says, adding, “One of the biggest problems has always been creating a self-sustainable business model for the future away from government funded contracts. Space tourism or space resource mining may become the drivers.”

Keen on taking some of that momentum to Europe, Marcu was part of the team that launched Startup Weekend Space in Bremen, which drew 80 people from 18 countries. Eleven projects were pitched. Satsearch, for instance, run by Kartik Kumar, an Indian,intends to become the Google of space parts. “This is an exciting time for this industry, thanks to entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezoz really pushing the boundaries.”

A concept picture of the oven

A concept picture of the oven  

How practical is it, however, given the huge expense? “Aviation used to be for just rich people—today it has reached a mass market. The same will happen with the space sector. We need to create conditions to make it a comfortable experience. As a company, we have an idealistic goal that involves taking humans back to the moon. Our contribution is paving the way through a slice of home away from Earth. We are part of a generation that shouldn’t wait for things to happen. We have the means to make things happen ourselves.”

Marcu believes that freshly-baked products will improve the quality of life for humans in space. “Germany is known for 3,200 types of bread. We have a rich culture to draw from. Bake In Space is working with ttz Bremerhaven’s experts in food, especially bread research. With them we are going to look for recipes and processes for crumb-free bread in microgravity.”

Their next challenge is to rethink accepted techniques for bread making. “We cannot preheat an oven in space. A 200-degree-C hot air bubble could escape the oven and remain in the space station, causing severe burns. Our process involves putting the dough in a cold oven, heating it and cooling it down again before an astronaut can take out the baked bread. As we have only 270W available in power (1/10 of the available power on Earth) the baking process will take longer. Through it all, we need to ensure that enough water is added to the oven so the bread does not dry out, leading to excessive crumbs.”

The long-term aim of Bake In Space is to recreate the complete production cycle, from growing grain to making flour, then dough and ultimately baking it into bread. “We are reverse-engineering the whole value chain,” says Marcu. “Next, we will find a way to mix flour and water in microgravity. It’s difficult, but interesting. It’s also important.” He insists that projects like this are necessary to move further into Space, especially with Space tourism. “We need to find ways to re-create the creature comforts of home from scratch. It is a very alien place where we are sending people—and they need an anchor. Fresh bread is a powerful anchor to home.”

Breaking bread
  • Bake In Space will test various approaches on board the International Space Station during the European Space Agency’s Horizon mission in April 2018. The ISS has been continuously occupied for 16 years and 223 days (and counting) since the arrival of Expedition 1 on November 2, 2000.
  • The team plans to control the entire baking process from the ground, via video feeds from inside the oven. So astronauts won’t have to worry about burning their dinner, on top of all their other responsibilities.
  • Bake In Space also plans to create sourdough in microgravity, then bring it back to Earth to analyse its DNA-structure and make it available to customers around the world.

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 5:38:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/what-it-takes-to-bake-bread-at-the-international-space-station/article19055256.ece

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