Cooking marinated chicken: It’s not rocket science. Until it is.
A group of physicists and rocket scientists launched a pound of chicken into space, fully cooked it, and brought it back to Earth on Saturday in Nashville. Their mission -- A Pollo ’13 (ba-dum-tshhh) -- became the first ever to successfully cook chicken in space.
HLN caught up with one of the project managers on the team, Schuyler Silva, to find out just how difficult it really is to pull a feat like that off.
HLN: How does the cooking process work in space?
Schuyler Silva: In this situation, the cooking process in space worked much like it would on Earth, because the space cooker capsule was sealed off and not impacted by changes in gravity. The main difference is that the A Pollo ’13 capsule was designed to insulate the chicken and the surrounding heat source from the sub-zero temperatures of the upper atmosphere.
HLN: What did you do to actually cook the chicken?
Silva: We marinated the chicken in Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki, vacuum-sealed each chicken breast individually, then wrapped them in a (carefully calculated) minimal amount of aluminum foil before putting them into the space cooker. The process of adding the chicken to the cooker and initiating the heat source was a very time-sensitive activity. During its journey to space, the chicken was cooked via the sous-vide method inside the capsule. It cooked over the course of its 1-hour-59-minute voyage to 104,572 feet above the Earth.
HLN: How did you come up with this process?
Silva: For safety reasons, we eliminated an open-flame heat source. This led us to three weeks of intense research and development with various exothermic reactions. These included off-the-shelf hand warmers, MRE heaters, chemical ovens, and finally calcium oxide. When combined with water, calcium oxide immediately starts to release intense heat. After thorough scientific tests, we discovered the right ratio and amounts of calcium oxide and water to perfectly cook one pound of raw chicken to 165 degrees F. The "oven" was then developed to house this reaction and cook the chicken. The capsule had to be insulating enough to keep the heat in and the cold out, so it was determined to be made out of 1 pound of density-expanded polystyrene foam. We were able to insulate the oven with 4 inches of foam on all sides.
HLN: Tell us more about the capsule that carried the chicken into space.
Silva: The A Pollo ’13 space cooker capsule is sculpted from expanded polystyrene foam, and shaped like a giant bottle of Soy Vay marinade. Within the space capsule was an internal cavity, or "oven," in which the heat source and chicken was housed. The "oven" consisted of a lightweight aluminum shell designed to protect the capsule from the intense heat of the heat source, while keeping the sub-zero outside temperatures out. It was carried into space by a weather balloon that was about 10 feet in diameter at liftoff but that expanded to nearly 45 feet in diameter before exploding and allowing our marinated chicken to travel back to Earth. The balloon expanded because the atmospheric pressure reduces as the balloon's altitude increases.
HLN: How did the chicken taste after it came back down to Earth?
Silva: The chicken was delicious, if I do say so myself. The sous-vide technique really drew the marinade into the meat, delivering the sweet and savory teriyaki flavor. It was out of this world!
HLN: What challenges did you face during this mission?
Silva: To cook the chicken as part of the A Pollo ’13 mission, we had to prepare for a variety of challenges that you wouldn’t have to face when cooking on Earth. The capsule had to be insulated, so that we wouldn’t lose heat during the journey, especially when it reached the sub-zero temperatures of the upper atmosphere. It also had to be extremely light -- the rig, including 1 pound of chicken and three on-board cameras, weighed less than 6 pounds in total. And it had to be durable, because the journey back from space is one long fall and the landing can be bumpy. Our capsule landed in a tree, which further put our design to the test!