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We Were Promised Cosmic Cocktails

Daniel Oberhaus
Michael Auer
November 30, 202011:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

A brief history of booze in low Earth orbit.

On a chilly morning in early November last year, a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket blasted off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. It was a routine cargo resupply mission bound for the International Space Station, but the Cygnus spacecraft perched atop the rocket included a rather unusual payload. Tucked away in its cargo hold were a dozen bottles of red Bordeaux wine individually sheathed in specially designed metal canisters. It wasn’t the first time wine has left the planet, but it is by far the most alcohol that has ever been in space at once.

The astronauts on the space station weren’t planning an orbital rager, however. This case of wine was sent to space in the name of science.

The launch marked the beginning of the first of six planned experiments by the Luxembourg startup Space Cargo Unlimited, which has partnered with world-renowned researchers at several European universities to study how the space environment affects wine. Known as the WISE mission, these experiments will cover all aspects of the wine production process. The bottles of red, which will return to Earth later this fall, will reveal how microgravity affects the aging process in wine, a chemical reaction that involves tannin molecules linking together in longer and longer chains.

“We discovered the existence of bacteria and understood so many things that made life science what it is today by studying wine,” says Nicolas Gaume, CEO of Space Cargo Unlimited. “In many ways, we’re going back to the roots of modern science." Guame is referring to the pioneering experiments of his fellow countryman Louis Pasteur, who was tasked by Napoleon III to figure out why wine spoiled. In the process, Pasteur discovered that it was due to bacterial growth, which could be countered by heating the wine.

Gaume believes that the company’s own wine experiments could lead to equally important breakthroughs for space-age biology.

Gaume says wine appealed to his research team because it is a multi-component system that involves plants and microbes interacting in a highly controlled environment. By sending these components to space, it would allow researchers on Earth to study how the lack of gravity affects the complex biological processes that result in wine. “Gravity is the only parameter of life that hasn’t changed in the past 4.5 billion years,” says Gaume. “So when you recreate the Earth environment in space without that key parameter, it’s very stressful to life.”

Gaume and his team of researchers, which includes Michael Lebert, whom Gaume described as one of the foremost space biologists in Europe, hope that studying the stress of microgravity affects grapevines and yeast will yield important insights that may help scientists understand how plants and microbes will respond to a rapidly changing climate on Earth.

For example, the company’s second experiment involved a handful of vine calluses—the white tissue that forms on cut grapevines that are used to start new vines—that were placed in a salty petri dish chamber to mimic drought conditions. These petri dishes were then launched on a suborbital flight with Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and experienced several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth. The hope is that by exposing those vine calluses to the extreme stress of microgravity it will allow them to more effectively handle the comparatively mild stressor of a salty environment.

“We want to expose the plants to stress to naturally stimulate their resilience,” says Gaume. The team hasn’t published the results from this experiment just yet, but he says that the calluses in space exhibited a “very different” response compared to the controls on Earth.

In March, the company launched 320 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon canes — the mature shoot of a grapevine — on a SpaceX Falcon 9 for a six-month stay on the space station. The canes will return to Earth along with the wine bottles later this autumn for analysis. Up next is an experiment on grape fermentation. “Fermentation is a critical component of many foods on Earth,” Gaume says. “Yeast, in general, has a lot of value for life science and the food system so that’s going to be a key topic.”

In the span of a year, Space Cargo Unlimited has managed to dramatically accelerate research on alcohol in space. But they’re hardly the only company that’s interested in space spirits. When the company’s case of red wine arrived on the ISS last year, it joined two other alcohol experiments that were already in progress. One experiment on how microgravity affects the aging process of whisky was launched by the Japanese distillery Suntory and was entering its fourth year in orbit. The other was a barley experiment conducted by Budweiser, which marked the beer giant’s fourth mission to the space station as part of its goal to establish the first brewery on Mars.

It's easy to dismiss these experiments as publicity stunts, but each company — and more importantly, NASA — maintains they have real scientific value. The microgravity environment has all sorts of weird effects on plants and microbes that we’re only just beginning to understand. For example, a space shuttle experiment by Coors in the mid-90s showed that microgravity seems to accelerate certain biological processes in yeast. If scientists can understand why this happens they could bioengineer the microbes to replicate the effects of the space environment to create more efficient fermentation processes on Earth.

Space can also harm plants through radiation exposure and it's critical to understand this process if astronauts ever hope to grow the crops they’ll need to wine and dine on other planets.

But focusing solely on the science would miss the other important reason for studying alcohol in space. Booze has been a staple of human diets and social interactions for thousands of years. As NASA and other space organizations begin plotting long term missions to the moon and Mars, creature comforts will only become more important to ensure the psychological wellbeing of these intrepid astronauts. If they’re going to be spending years at a time away from their home planet fighting for survival in the most hostile environment imaginable, it's understandable that they might want to unwind or celebrate with a drink, just like they would back on Earth.

“Being French, we have a particular relationship to food and alcohol, and I truly think that it’s critical to socialization and how we connect as human beings,” says Gaume. “In space, wine and alcohol, in general, can recreate the type of connections that we have here on Earth.”

There’s just one problem. NASA and other space organizations have a longstanding ban on the consumption of alcohol in space. This isn’t because NASA is afraid that astronauts would suddenly turn into hooligans if it allowed them to bring a six-pack to space. The official line is that alcohol is banned on orbit because its main ingredient, ethanol, is a volatile compound that could wreak havoc on a spacecraft’s hardware. “It’s super complicated to put alcohol on the space station because it’s such a sensitive environment,” says Gaume. And it’s not just open containers of liquor that are banned on the ISS, it’s also other ethanol-rich products like hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.

But Chris Carberry, the CEO of Explore Mars and author of Alcohol in Space, a new book that offers the definitive account of the subject, isn’t so sure that the ban can entirely be attributed to safety concerns. “I think NASA is largely afraid that the public will view it as dangerous or a waste of taxpayer dollars,” he says. “There’s a big chunk of society who are just inherently opposed to alcohol.”

NASA wasn’t always so straightlaced.

In the early days of its human spaceflight program, astronauts would often prank each other by stashing small amounts of booze on a spacecraft before launch. When Wally Schirra blasted into orbit in 1962 as one of the original seven astronauts chosen for NASA’s Mercury program, he discovered that someone had stashed a pack of smokes and a small bottle of scotch in the capsule before launch. (Schirra waited until he was safely back on Earth to indulge.) And during the Apollo 8 mission around the moon, astronaut Deke Slayton had stashed a few small bottles of brandy in the astronauts’ holiday meal kit. It was all in good fun, but Frank Borman, the Apollo 8 commander, wasn’t having it. “I didn’t think it was funny at all,” he later said. “If we’d have drunk one drop of that damn brandy and the thing would have blown up on the way home, they’d have blamed it on the brandy.”

NASA didn’t officially put the kibosh on orbital booze cruises until 1972. The agency was preparing to launch its first mission to Skylab, a small space station that was imagined as a “home away from home” for astronauts. In the process of planning the astronauts’ meals, NASA food scientist Charles Bourland was tasked with selecting a wine to accompany a holiday dinner. Bourland eventually settled on Sherry, which he thought was most likely to still taste good after being shaken like hell during launch. When news that wine was headed to Skylab started circulating in the press, however, NASA officials smelled a brewing PR crisis and axed it from the menu. Its official reason was “the beverage was not necessary for nourishment or to provide a balanced diet...would provide unnecessary expense...and would result in adverse criticism for the Skylab Program.”

The consumption of alcohol in space has been banned ever since.

But rules are made to be broken. Compared to the squares at NASA, alcohol has always held a prominent place in Russia’s space program — even though it is technically banned for cosmonauts, too. Contrary to popular belief, the drink of choice for cosmonauts is cognac, not vodka, and many of Russia’s finest space explorers have gone to great lengths to bring a little liquid relief with them on their journey to space. They’ve smuggled bottles of cognac in hollowed-out books, filled up plastic meal containers with booze and mislabeled them as juice, and even gone on strict diets before launch so they could smuggle bottles in their spacesuits and still make weight requirements.

Russia has known about this habit for years and mostly turned a blind eye to the practice.

It’s not like the cosmonauts are up in space getting wasted. For the most part, the cosmonauts drink the cognac in small quantities during social events with other crew members or before going to sleep, as an alternative to the pharmaceutical sedatives used by American astronauts. In his book, Carberry quotes a Russian official from the Ministry of Health who spoke approvingly of the practice, saying “in orbit, people have a very difficult emotional state. If before sleep, the guys drink 5-7 grams of cognac, I support it."

Cosmonauts and astronauts have worked side by side in space for decades at this point, first on Russia’s Mir space station and today on the ISS. And while the cosmonauts are known for bootlegging, it’s not like NASA astronauts have refused to partake in the spoils. “NASA will tell you there is no alcohol aboard the ISS,” NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson told Carberry. “As a person who lived there for five months, I’ll tell you that’s bogus."

It's understandable why NASA might not want its astronauts drinking on the job, even if it's only the occasional shot. They’re on the clock 24/7 and have to keep a clear head to handle the rigorous demands of living and working in space. A tipsy astronaut could be a disaster if something goes wrong. The key is moderation—alcohol is permitted in plenty of other high stress and relatively dangerous lines of work so long as it’s carefully managed. As Carberry points out in his book, French sailors stationed on aircraft carriers are allowed one drink per day at the ship’s bar and crews overwintering at the South Pole to study the effects of long-term isolation on space crews are also allowed to drink with their meal once per week.

“They’re not prohibiting alcohol altogether and I think that’s the right approach,” says Carberry. “It seems perfectly reasonable to create a system that just prevents anyone from having more than one drink per day.”

Plus, as Carberry points out, the times are changing. Private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are now in the business of launching humans to space. Many of those passengers will be private customers who aren’t subject to NASA’s alcohol ban and chances are they’ll want to celebrate their adventure with a toast in space. But that points to a still more fundamental problem: drinking is hard without gravity. In space, liquids naturally ball up and float around, which can be a challenge without the right equipment.

Typically, astronauts use drink pouches and straws to consume non-alcoholic beverages in space. There’s no reason this wouldn’t work for wine and liquor, but sipping Chardonnay through a tube is also probably the least glamorous way to go about it. Beer is a whole different story. The low gravity environment causes the carbonation to separate out from the drink and creates a bubbly mess when opened.

Just ask Pepsi, which spent $14 million designing a cola can for space, only to have astronauts report that the soda tasted terrible.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of creative solutions for replicating the experience of drinking on Earth in space. For example, Maison Mumm, a champagne company from France, partnered with the design firm Spade to create a spacefaring champagne bottle that pops out balls of bubbly into a glass. And Ballentine’s, a Scottish whisky producer, designed a zero-G scotch glass that uses a series of small channels in the glass to deliver a sip directly to the astronaut’s mouth. Neither system has been tested in space yet, but Maison Mumm tried its champagne bottle during brief periods of weightlessness on a parabolic flight with promising results.

Another pressing question about the future of alcohol in space is how to get it there in the first place. It still costs thousands of dollars per pound of stuff that’s sent to orbit and even more to send it to another planet. If future Martians want to celebrate with alcohol on the Red Planet, they’ll either have to pay a premium to import it or brew it themselves. “I think beer is likely to be the first alcoholic beverage made in space because it has less steps in the process,” says Carberry. “Grapes are hard to manage and wine is more complicated to make.”

Any scientist on Mars could probably figure out how to turn sugar, water, yeast, and barley into beer. But the raw materials will likely be too precious in the beginning to squander for a buzz. Carberry thinks there’s a good chance a future Martian might try anyway. He points to the would-be astronauts who participated in the Biosphere 2 experiment in the 90s who started making their own alcohol out of fermented bananas, after a few months locked in the facility.

“I’m sure they all enjoyed having even a crappy alcoholic beverage after being stuck in that environment for so long,” Carberry says.

To that point, it’s also unclear how the comparatively high radiation and low gravity on the moon and Mars would affect the taste of extraterrestrial booze. Would the regolith add pleasant undertones to the terroir of wine made in a Martian vineyard? Can lunar ice be melted to make a decent IPA? It’s too early to tell, but the pioneering experiments on extraterrestrial ethanol underway on the ISS today are the first steps toward finding out. 

Daniel Oberhaus
Michael Auer
November 30, 202011:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)