Just to make sure, he flattens the roll halves with his hand, with no crumbs at all. Food technician Malte Gerken is cutting a bread roll in half, and still no crumb has fallen on the cutting board, according to the German news agency (DPA).
That's important. You can't tell by looking at it, but the roll is special…It's a space roll.
Gerken is part of a team aiming to provide astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) with freshly baked rolls, which looks an imaginary idea till now. Behind the plans to leave space travelers’ freeze-dried meals with a touch of home is a startup called Bake in Space, based in Bremen, Germany.
The company's ultimate goal is to recreate the entire value chain, from growing the grain to baking the final product, in microgravity, with an eye to future manned missions to the moon and Mars. For starters, though, ISS astronauts will simply be able to warm up rolls pre-baked on Earth - itself a major challenge since the bread can't shed any crumbs.
Sebastian Marcu, managing director of Bake in Space said: “That would be a safety risk,” noting that crumbs floating around in the near-weightlessness of the station could damage equipment, or the astronauts could inhale them and choke.
So Bake in Space has enlisted food experts from the Technology Transfer Centre (TTZ) in Bremerhaven - a research institution in the fields of food, health and the environment - to come up with absolutely crumb-free rolls.
Florian Stukenborg, who is in charge of developing the recipe said: “We're working on the basis of a perfectly normal pretzel-type dough.” His team has already tested about 30 different types.
Anyway, the dough will be saltier than is usual. "In space, like on an airplane, things taste different," notes Stukenborg, highlighting the dulled sense of taste that prompts astronauts to ask for food like hot spiced sausages.
Space bread will be designed to keep for at least a half year due to the long intervals between resupply missions to the ISS. And they've got to be nice and soft despite the electricity limits on the oven as well as other constraints.
While an oven on Earth is an ordinary appliance, it's a potential hazard on the ISS. Under no circumstances should it allow heat to escape, which would hang in the air and not disperse throughout the station.
"The astronauts could be injured," says Volker Schmid, mission manager at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), chief partner of Bake in Space.
They will have to put the rolls into a cold oven and not take them out until the oven has cooled. So the baking time will be much longer than on Earth, and the temperature will be lower.
Matthias Boehme of OHB, a Bremen-headquartered multinational technology corporation with expertise in aerospace explained: “If you don't add moisture on bread, something like twice-baked bread comes out,” He was tasked by Bake in Space to develop a prototype of a space oven, which the food technicians are now using to test their recipes.
It's small, with room for only three rolls. The astronauts won't even be allowed to switch it on themselves, as the entire baking process will be controlled from the ground.
A lot of effort is obviously going into giving them a baked break from their bagged and tinned meals. "It might sound trivial, but it's a quality-of-life boost for the astronauts up there," Schmid says. Launching pre-baked rolls into space may work for an ISS mission, which typically lasts about six months, but wouldn't be practicable for longer ones, for example to the moon or Mars.
Schmid said: "You can't maintain a supply chain from Earth to Mars. So we're trying to develop closed loops."
This is precisely what Bake in Space has in mind too, and it plans to use the ISS as a testing platform. The next step is to have the astronauts make their own dough in space, and later to grow their own grain and grind it to flour there.
"All this is technically possible," says Schmid, adding that the problem at present is a financial one.
Marcu estimates the total cost of bringing fresh rolls to the ISS at between 1.5 million and 3 million euros (about $3.5 million). Although they were supposed to be delivered along with the oven next year, the ambitious timetable can't be met.
Bake in Space, founded this past spring, and hasn’t yet been able to raise all of the money needed.