When Drake, Milton Drake that is, penned the line, “Shoot me the pot, and I’ll pour me a shot,” never in his wildest dreams could he have had space in mind. But yesterday’s successful SpaceX launch may lend new meaning to java jive. Back in 2013 Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut, reportedly had one main complaint about working on the International Space Station: nary a cup of espresso to be found. Having returned to Earth after five months in space, we can safely assume he has had his espresso fix by now. But soon enough, Parmitano’s colleagues still orbiting our planet may be able to sip some java while looking down on the island nation of Java.
Thanks to Tuesday’s successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the cargo spacecraft Dragon is en route to the ISS (an initial blast off on Monday was scrubbed because of weather). Among the supplies it is ferrying to the station (including a month’s supply of food, some spare parts, and equipment that will be used in more than 40 scientific experiments) is the ISSpresso, an espresso machine adapted for pulling shots in microgravity. The machine, several years in the making, was developed by Italian coffee titan Lavazza and the software company Argotec.
Because of the lower gravity conditions, normal espresso machines wouldn’t work—the water would float around instead of passing through the coffee grinds. So the water has to be pressurized. To cope with those higher pressures, the ISSpresso has a strong steel pipe instead of a plastic tube to carry the water, heated by an electrical system, through a capsule of ground coffee (similar to a Keurig cup). The finished espresso is dispensed into a bag. The machine can also make tea, broth, and other hot beverages.
Certain drinks will be harder to order in space. A cappuccino, which is crowned with a head of milk foam, would be difficult to make because you need gravity to be able to separate the foam from the steamed milk. It’s for that same reason that astronauts can’t get carbonated beverages in orbit—the microgravity environment distributes the bubbles evenly through the fluid, “even after swallowing,” NASA explains. “This means that carbonated beverages including soft drinks and beer may become a foamy mess during space travel.”
For now, the coffee has to be sipped from a bag like other space drinks. But future missions may be able to further recreate the Terran café experience; in January, Portland State University engineers designed a cup to allow for espresso sipping in microgravity that doesn’t involve straws. The boot-shaped cup has a pointy nubbin at the bottom that exploits the surface tension of the coffee, guiding it towards the astronaut’s mouth. And since it’s designed to be 3D-printed, the ISS astronauts could potentially make their own espresso cups with the space station’s 3D printer.
NASA astronauts have already tried out a simpler version of the design to sip tea, as you can see in the video below.
Will the espresso taste as good as it does in Italy? Astronauts frequently claim that flavors are dulled in space, enough so that hot sauce and other spicy ingredients become essentials. This might be because in the microgravity environment of the ISS, bodily fluids start to migrate more towards the head than they do on Earth. This may cause stuffy noses and other cold-like symptoms that dull the smell and taste of food—and also give astronauts temporarily rounder faces. But however strong or weak the flavor, it’ll certainly be a brew with a view.
Image: Photo Illustration by Sarah Peavey