Freshly baked bread rolls on the breakfast table, still warm and smelling delicious: for many there’s no better way to start the day. Up until now, this simple pleasure has been denied astronauts, because there are no ovens in space. At least, not yet. Bremen start-up Bake in Space is working to change that soon. If all goes to plan, German astronaut Alexander Gerst will be able to enjoy fresh ‘extraterrestrial’ bread for the first time during his 2018 mission on the International Space Station (ISS).
A slice of home
“Our objective is to help shape the future of human life in space,” explains Sebastian Marcu, founder and CEO of Bake in Space. He believes bread could play a major role here – as a long-term source of nourishment and as an antidote to homesickness, since fresh bread tastes and smells like home to most of us. The idea behind the project stems from German aerospace engineer Neil Jaschinski, who is also part of the Bake in Space team. He lives in the Netherlands and sorely misses the delicacies of German bakeries. That’s why he bakes his own at home, and always takes bread back with him when he visits Germany on business. “There are two areas that we Germans really excel in,” claims Marcu. “One is technology and the other is bread. So it would be a real shame if we left the baking in space to the Americans.”
In March 2017 the 43-year-old media IT specialist officially set up his company within the Bremen Innovation and Technology Centre (BITZ). Fast-forward just a few weeks and Bake in Space had already won the ESA BIC Challenge – a competition for business innovations that aid substantial advances in the commercialisation of space travel. That was soon followed by an article in the New Scientist, which grabbed the attention of media around the world. Even the American talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel put his comic spin on German space bread during one of his shows. “It’s really making waves,” explains Marcu. “It’s exciting for us to see how much interest there is internationally.”
Self-sufficiency for long missions
In 1965, a different story from outer space was making headlines, when two American astronauts smuggled a corned-beef sandwich on board their spacecraft and tried to eat it. When they came back down to earth, they got a serious dressing down from the bosses at NASA, because the crumbs floating around in microgravity could have put the men and the machinery in grave danger. Bread in outer space has been a taboo subject ever since. Tortilla wraps have since become the accepted, space-safe alternative. Most other meals on board consist of ready-made, dehydrated or freeze-dried foods. “But how will we feed people in the future, when we want to explore further and missions last 500 days rather than a couple of months? That can only be done by self-sufficient means,” insists Marcu. “We see bread as the staff of life for manned space travel of the future.” He explains that it would, however, have to be a virtually crumb-free type of bread.
Impossible without a specialist oven
Here on earth, it’s all so simple: make the dough, put it in a preheated oven and, after a certain amount of time, take the baked bread out. In space, however, baking bread is a highly complex process – and not just because the bread can’t have crumbs. The oven also has to fulfil extra requirements that don’t come into consideration when we bake at home. The temperature of the outer surfaces must not exceed 45 degrees to ensure that nobody gets hurt. Preheating the oven is too dangerous, because when the door is opened and the hot air escapes, it would float around in a contained bubble rather than dissipating into the air. This invisible bubble could burn the astronauts, which is why the oven needs to be actively cooled down before the bread can come out. With the bread spending longer in the oven, a special device is needed to stop the bread drying out.
The company is working tirelessly to develop a specialist oven that can cope with the very specific challenges posed by the conditions in outer space.
© WFB/Focke Strangmann