There’s a reason astronaut food all comes in tubes and has the consistency of toothpaste.
It had started as a dare, more than a year earlier, one that Gorges got by e-mail. He hadn’t thought much of it at the time – just another one of the engineers with a crazy idea wanting to send it to someone who might find it funny – but as he spent more time thinking about it, he realized just how hard it would be.
A kid named Becky had found that one of the heating units on the station could alter its heat to a fixed level. It had a contained space it was heating and it had a fan pushing air through it to heat the rest of the station. Some of the electronics and other stuff wanted more heat than others, so they were using the thermal gradient to keep everything at its preferred temperature before the air got to the living space.
She’d referred to it as an ‘oven’.
And Gorges couldn’t see why that was a bad description.
Like most of the critical regions of the station, astronauts could get to it by removing the right panels, for servicing and that kind of thing, and he couldn’t see why they couldn’t change the heat of the thing to three-hundred and fifty degrees and turn off the fans for, say, thirty minutes or so.
He mentioned it to Robbie in passing, this dare from the kid at Houston, and Robbie had thought it was funny, but little else. That was how Gorges had presented it, anyway, and he hadn’t expected anything else to happen until Robbie came back to him.
“Why not?” the commander asked. “We’re always doing things just to see what happens, right? Why not add this to the list?”
And so the cake project was born.
Gorges had expected that the hard part would be convincing mission leadership, but they thought it was a great promotion. They’d film the entire thing and beam it live to the internet. Budget was always tricky, so anything they could do to make the time astronauts spent at the station more interesting to the public was great, especially if it didn’t require sending up anything more than a box of mix and an egg.
The hard part turned out to be the powder.
Fluids, like the oil and the egg and the water, those were easier. They had surface tension and they tended to kind of stay where you put them. Powder, on the other hand, in freefall, was going to be impossible to manage. It was going to wander everywhere and get in the equipment and the ventilation, and there would be no containing it once it got out.
There was talk of pre-mixing it on earth and sending up fluid batter, but the unspoken consensus was that it was cheating. Okay, the mix was coming out of a box anyway, but that was what almost everyone did, these days, anyway.
So how do you get cake mix out of a box and mixed in effective zero-gravity without making everything cake-flavored for the rest of time?
Gorges wasn’t sure what would happen, but the e-mail traffic on it was hysterical, which was worth it, even if the experiment got scrapped.
There was a second conversation going on about how to get to the heating unit and put the cake in there to bake. It wasn’t going to make quite the mess that the powder had the potential to, but it was arguably more important, to the health and durability of the station as well as quality of life for the astronauts.
You had to make the cake completely stationary in the middle of the oven while it baked, or else it would hit one of the sides and stick there, and when they turned the heating unit back up to its normal temperature and turned the fans back on, anything that was still there was going to carbonize and fill the shuttle with the smell of… burnt cake. There were cleaning procedures in place for the heating unit, but those procedures mostly assumed that they were cleaning off residual dust and minor debris, not deep-cleaning an oven.
And the conversation about mixing, among an entirely different team of engineers, was perhaps the funniest. Even assuming they could contain the powder, somehow, the assumptions around how to mix a batter were all gravity-centric. Growing plants and observing animals, the engineers were working on a zero-gravity assumption, but suddenly trying to bake a cake, they couldn’t think outside of their own kitchens. And they kept reminding each other of that. In pictures.
Gorges looked forward to opening his e-mail every morning the entire time they were working on the project.
Eventually, they’d gotten everything sorted out, put together a mission plan, and filed it away. The e-mails quit. And Gorges hadn’t though about it again.
Until today, looking at the bag of mix (the box was unnecessary weight), the egg, and the packet of oil.
He cut the corner off the bag of mix and injected the oil directly into it, looking over to narrate for the camera as he was working that they needed the oil to mix with the powder before he could do anything else, or else they’d get cake mix everywhere. Robbie did a pan of the station where they were, and Gorges started to work the oil through the mix.
“Chocolate,” he said. “We baked about a hundred cakes, trying to find the best mix, but I’m not allowed to tell you which one we picked. It’s chocolate.”
“And there’s frosting,” Robbie said from behind the camera. Gorges grinned and went for the water.
The water came out of a tap from the wall in the kitchen/sleeping area where they were filming, and he was going to have to guess. He blew a few water bubbles, gaging how fast the water came out and how much he was supposed to put into the mix, then he stuck the nozzle into the bag and pulled the trigger, counting out the seconds in his mind. The engineers had guessed four and a half seconds. He’d estimated five.
He started to mix the bag again, but a pocket of air that had been inside of it squeezed out through his fingers, erupting brown cake mix into the air. He bit his lips to not laugh.
“And that was exactly what I wasn’t supposed to do,” he said. “The filters will catch most of it, but there’s going to be a fine dust of cake mix on things in here for the rest of the station’s life.”
“Yum,” Robbie said, and Gorges laughed, opening the protective plastic the egg came in. There had been conversation about sending it up without a shell – because it was lighter and because it was easier – but everyone had wanted to watch Gorges crack an egg in space.
And so he did.
He tapped it on the edge of the sink and pulled the two halves apart for the camera.
The egg wobbled in the air for a moment, then snapped slowly into the larger half.
Gorges looked at Robbie, who shrugged and laughed.
He eventually went in after it with a finger, managing not to make too big a massacre of the egg before he shoved it into the bag with his finger, finishing the mixing process and then squeezing the batter out of the bag like toothpaste. He mashed it into a ball with his hands – no one had been able to come up with a better idea – and put metal sticks into it at ninety-degree intervals – the solution to not bumping into the walls inside the oven – and went to the panel where Sarah was waiting to open it for him.
“Here goes nothing,” he said as she opened the oven. He felt the burst of heat against his face, just like opening an oven at home, and he pushed the cake at it. He had a shoulder-length oven mitt for getting it back out. They’d talked about using a space suit to do it, but it got nixed for safety concerns about for the suit. Going in, it was an awful lot of fun to watch a ball of cake go floating into the oven on its own. He looked back at Robbie.
“And now we wait.”
Thirty-three minutes. It was their best guess on baking a cake suspended in air without a pan. They pulled it out on time and took out the metal rods, then let it cool and frosted it, a camera floating on its own to watch them as they broke off pieces and passed them around, crumbs floating in the air around them.
It was overcooked, and Gorges thought it had probably needed a little more oil or water – maybe he hadn’t gotten all of the oil out of the packet – but there was wide agreement:
It was the best chocolate cake in space ever.