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12 October 2017 - Anne-Katrin Wehrmann

Prepare for bake off

Aerospace

Bread that is out of this world

Their goal is an ambitious one: they want to develop the perfect bread for microgravity in order to aid advances in manned space travel. The new Bremen company Bake in Space is planning to run its first baking trials in outer space as early as next year.

Sebastian D. Marcu is founder and CEO of Bake in Space.
Sebastian D. Marcu is founder and CEO of Bake in Space. © WFB/Focke Strangmann

Astronaut bakers

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.”

Global attention

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.

Bake in Space specialist oven
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

Bremerhaven scientists developing recipes

The longer baking time and lower oven temperatures have implications for the dough and its composition. Scientists at the Technologie Transfer Zentrum (ttz) in Bremerhaven, official partners to Bake in Space, have been tweaking the recipe since June. “There’s definitely something very special about this project,” says Florian Stukenborg, Head of Food Technology at ttz. “It’s not the kind of thing you do every day.” He explains that the major challenge is to develop a space-friendly oven and the right dough in a relatively short amount of time. The man behind the idea, Neil Jaschinski, had himself built a first prototype to trial. The researchers are currently working with a special oven by domestic appliance manufacturer Miele, which will be adapted over the next few months ready for use on the ISS. The project has another noteworthy partner in the shape of OHB. The Bremen-based space travel and technology company is supplying the shell into which the oven will be fitted.

Food tastes different in microgravity

Stukenborg and his team have already completed some initial trial bakes. In this process the bread rolls were placed in a frame to ensure they won’t float around the oven once up in space. “We started with bread rolls based on a traditional German lye dough,” he explains, “because that doesn’t crumb too much.” Now, it’s a matter of refining the recipe and achieving a shelf life of at least six months. “What’s more, the eventual salt content will probably be twice that of a normal bread roll, because flavours taste less intense in space.” In addition to the recently tested par-baked rolls, a second phase of development aims to produce frozen balls of dough. And if time permits, there are also plans to work on a sourdough. “The thing that we absolutely must keep in mind for all these recipes is the crumb,” adds the scientist.

Ambitious time frame

Despite the many challenges, Stukenborg and Marcu are optimistic that they can keep to the ambitious schedule and have the recipes and the oven ready in time. Alexander Gerst will travel up to the ISS at the end of April 2018; the oven and the dough should follow in June. The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) has incorporated the baking trials into the official list of experiments for the mission. The plan is for the astronauts on board to complete a total of nine baking processes using different types of dough and then assess the quality and taste of the bread using a questionnaire.

Bake in Space founder Sebastian D. Marcu and his team are working hard to ensure the oven can be tested in space in 2018.
Bake in Space founder Sebastian D. Marcu and his team are working hard to ensure the oven can be tested in space in 2018. © WFB/Focke Strangmann

Growing grains on board the ISS

If, however, time gets too tight and the baking experiments have to be postponed to a later mission, Marcu would not be too disappointed. “It’s not about making one astronaut happy; it’s about advancing space travel in the long term,” he stresses. He is confident that when the next German astronaut goes into space, in five years or so, they will expand the experiment even further. The 43-year-old entrepreneur wants to reproduce the entire supply chain on board the ISS – from growing the grain to baking the bread. “It’ll be extremely complicated,” he claims. “For instance, harvesting the grain will produce dust, and weightlessness will make it quite difficult to mix flour and water together. But we’ll find a way to get around that too.”



For more information, visit Bake in Space.

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