You a coffee drinker? Know anyone who is? Well for the first 60 years people were shoving themselves into space they were stuck with instant coffee. And while I am not into drinking coffee I have been told instant coffee is neither instant nor coffee. So why did it take so long to get coffee into space?
The Fun Part
April 27, 2032
International Space Station’s Decomissioning Ceremony
Low Earth Orbit
Rick, I am really going to miss this place. It feels wrong to be shutting this place down and turning it over to a bunch of hoteliers from Marriott.
Yea I agree Aleksey – here is a coffee – I mean this isn’t exactly a high class living establishment, but it really is a historical and cultural icon. I mean it really should be turned into some international heritage park or something.
You know there is no way our governments would have cooperated long enough to agree on what even to name this place. It couldn’t be the Russian, American, And Other People Space Place, or even keep its original name. We have a new ISS being build near the moon afterall.
Fair point, still feels weird. You think Marriott is going to keep any of this original stuff? I mean like the ISSpresso machine there – it doesn’t work as well as the newer ones – but there is something nostalgic about using the first space coffee maker.
There is no way they keep anything more than the outer shell of this. I’m sure they will sell the majority of this to collectors on earth, and by this time tomorrow will have recouped everything they paid for this station just by selling the parts. Ah to have chose a different career.
Ha! Yea don’t we all. Alright you cynical communist – lets get these lights turned out and head back to the capsule. And bring your coffee bag with you…no point leaving trash for someone else to clean up.
The Real Deal
So on Earth/somewhere with gravity coffee is so easy that the majority of humanity can do it in their sleep…The process is basically like this:
- Coffee beans, ground not shredded
- Water, hot
- Put coffee bean pieces somewhere that has a place for the water to come in and go out. Let’s call this place the coffee shard holster (CSH)
- Move water into CSH
- Move water out of CSH, do this slowly, but not too slowly. Ideally you do it just perfectly
- Move post CSH water into drinking device and call it coffee even though it is just used coffee bean bathwater
Or if you don’t do words…here is a pictograph
But What About In Space?
In space/microgravity there are a couple issues with the creation of coffee bean bathwater. First and foremost is the moving of the water across the beans, second is keeping the water at an even temperature.
Movey Water Part
So the first part seems easy enough to solve. Siince you can’t use gravity to pull the water down – just pump it across the beans at a rate slow enough to get the flavor, but fast enough to not get the bitterness…or whatever you need to avoid getting…like I said above…I don’t do coffee. Side note: doctors have a similar issue with blood in space (more on that here).
Just such a pumpy system was what, in 2015, an Italian company launched to the ISS to ensure that their astronaut didn’t have to basically give up coffee for their six month tour of duty. Below is a diagram of how the ISSpresso system works…but the simple version is
- Shove water baggy up against water sucky tube
- Pump pulls the water up to a heater
- Heater makes water hot
- Hot water is pushed to a K-cup looking thing where it sits for a second
- Transformed hot water – not coffee bean bathwater is pushed out the coffee exit tube into super different coffee baggy to be drunk with a straw
- Rinse and repeat
Just the right hotness
Ok so on its face – making something just the right hotness seems fairly easy – or at least it does to me. It is basically just turning on a heater and watching a thermometer until you know when it needs to be turned off.
That goes for food, liquids, HVAC systems…you get it.
But in space and with water you have an interesting problem, air bubbles. You know those little things that tell you that your pasta water is ready to add noodles. Yea those. They float up out of the water right…if you don’t remember seeing this just boil some water and watch where the bubbles go.
The important thing is that they move. Ok thats not true. The important thing is that they move OUT of the water. In zero-G, they don’t move so much. In space, these bubbles can come together and create pockets of really hot air. I mean really really hot air.
This becomes a problem for you the coffee addict because that super mega hot air will seriously mess with both the flavor of your coffee, and be kinda a drag when you try and drink it through a straw.
The engineers behind the ISSpresso got around this by using sturdy steel tubes to move the water around, instead of the rubber tubes used in regular espresso machines. They also equipped it with various temperature controls.
Not a particularly elegant or easy solution – but hey on the bright side the ISS got a Keurig about the same time as the rest of us. So many rocket science isn’t so advanced after all.
Next time we will get back to the nerdier side of space and how to move spaceships perty darn fast. Until then feel free to check out other space drinking topics like alcohol, being sleepless, and gambling.