Raw cookie dough seemed similarly unpredictable. Charles Bourland, a retired NASA scientist, says the agency never tried to develop a space-friendly oven, because it was just too risky. Bourland spent 30 years developing food for astronauts, starting with the Apollo program, before retiring in 1999.
“If something catches on fire and starts burning, you’re going to have to have some way of overcoming that,” Bourland says. “You can’t just open the window and let the smoke out.”
But as I spoke with astronauts and others in the space community, my skepticism about the space cookies softened. Bourland says that many astronauts he worked with liked cooking. And that they missed doing it in space.
Read: Everything you never thought to ask about astronaut food
Today astronauts on the ISS have varied breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus, plus snacks and desserts, and NASA’s food lab regularly tests new recipes that can withstand the space environment. (It never managed to get cheesecake right, though.) But astronauts don’t do any cooking or baking.
Those hotel chocolate-chip cookies will be the closest astronauts have come to truly baking something in their high-flying kitchens. NASA says astronauts won’t actually eat the cookies, because they are, technically, a science experiment. The treats will be returned home for examination.
But imagine if someday, space travelers, whether they’re orbiting in a space station high above Earth or living in domes on Mars, could really make their own food. Not just to survive, like Matt Damon using his own waste to grow potatoes in The Martian, but to enjoy themselves.
Astronauts on the ISS already do things to make the place feel more like home, such as playing board games and binge-watching TV shows. They often eat meals together, especially during the holidays. Cooking would provide another distinctly human experience in a strange, alien place. It might bring comfort, and even ease stress. It could, for a short time, distract them from their unusual surroundings, which, given the chance, would probably kill them.
For now, meals are mostly made for them, back on Earth. On the ISS, food comes thermo-stabilized or freeze-dried in disposable pouches, the products of years’ worth of testing and tinkering at NASA’s food labs. Astronauts inject water into the freeze-dried entrees and warm them up in a small oven that doesn’t get hotter than 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Salt and pepper come in liquid form. There are no refrigerators. Some simple cooking is possible, but even the easiest recipes take a lot of work. Sandy Magnus, a retired NASA astronaut, once tried making cooked onions and garlic, a process that involved repurposed foil packets from the Russians, bits of onion sticking to her hand, and hours of waiting.
Eating requires considerable care, too. The food “can just float anywhere, and sometimes you find yourself using your spoon or your mouth to chase around the food and make sure you get it all in your mouth, instead of stuck against the wall or somebody’s face,” explains Drew Feustel, a NASA astronaut who returned from his most recent visit to the space station last year.