Alcohol in space: From communion wine to zero-gravity whisky

You may have seen a couple of booze-related space stories this week. First up, there’s Ballentine’s space whisky glass, which allows for the drinking of whisky in zero gravity.  It’s pretty clever stuff – 3D-printed, medical-grade plastic, with small channels to move the liquid around the glass to a non-reactive gold mouthpiece. It’s like having the world’s most advanced crazy straw, which is no bad thing.

Then there was the news that vials of Ardbeg whisky, sent to the International Space Station four years ago, have returned to Earth for taste-testing. It turns out that having orbited the planet more than 15,000 times, the whisky tastes markedly different to a control sample matured in Scotland. “I was quite astonished at how different the samples were,” says Ardbeg’s director of distilling in the video taste-test below. “It was a whole new range of samples, some flavours I haven’t encountered before.”

The science of why the whisky tastes different when matured in space is fascinating, and can be read in a white paper on the subject here (in short, microgravity changes the way flavour is pulled from the barrels). However, what really strikes me as interesting about these two stories is how cruel is seems to the astronauts when, historically, part of the price of space-admission is to be virtually teetotal.

One part of this is practical – and not in the sense that astronauts should be fully in charge of their faculties (although, for the record: yes, yes they should). Alcoholic beverages are heavy, as anyone who has carried a 24-pack of Carling to a house party will tell you. However, unlike the house party, rocket real estate can be more sensibly used.

Communion on the moon

NASA’s own guidance for contents of crew care packages is pretty clear on this point too: no booze. “Products containing alcohol – not just alcohol to drink, but alcohol in perfume, aftershave, and mouthwash – can’t go into space, and neither can cans under pressure – like shaving cream.”astronauts_toasting_with_fake_vodka

NASA astronauts enjoying fake “vodka” – Russian vodka labels pasted on top of  borscht tubes. Public domain.

“Buzz Aldrin enjoyed a little wine on the moon, in an outer-space communion ceremony.”

Still, that didn’t stop the first recorded alcoholic drink in space from going ahead – although in tone, it was about as far away from an all-night bender as it’s possible to be. Buzz Aldrin enjoyed a little wine on the moon, in an outer-space communion ceremony. Wine and communion wafers were provided by Aldrin’s Webster Presbyterian church, where he was an elder. The scene was never broadcast, though, for fear of offending litigious atheist groups, who were already chasing NASA, according to The Guardian.

Sadly, Aldrin reveals nothing about the taste of the wine as he described the celestial picnic in the 1970s: “In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.’”buzz_aldrin_walks_on_the_moon

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon during Apollo 11. He would later drink some wine on the moon in a church-endorsed communion. Public domain.

Sherry for Americans, cognac for Russians

These early missions were particularly cautious with their menus, but by the 1970s things were looking a bit more interesting, and for a time it really did look like alcohol could follow suit. While developing a menu, NASA’s Charles Bourland considered sherry the ideal alcoholic beverage to take into space, as he wrote in The Astronaut’s Cookbook: “After consulting with several professors at the University of California at Davis, it was decided that a sherry would work best because any wine flown would have to be repackaged. Sherry is a very stable product, having been heated during the processing. Thus, it would be the least likely to undergo changes if it were to be repackaged.”

“NASA’s Charles Bourland considered sherry the ideal alcoholic beverage to take into space.”

But the sherry would never make the journey out of our atmosphere. There are a number of reasons for this – perhaps chief among them that it didn’t work out as planned in testing. As Bourland explained: “As soon as you open the wine, you see people grabbing for their barf bags. For some reason, it just turns on the barf mechanism.” Not ideal for a confined space cabin.

In the end, the crew “didn’t really care” whether the drink made the trip, and “NASA was afraid of the response of us serving wine on board a Space Station,” (a newspaper article of the time, highlighted by Gizmodo, suggests it would have gone down poorly with the public). So as a result, all the booze that had been bought – Paul Masson’s Rare Cream Sherry, since you ask – was drunk ahead of launch. “We had to feed the astronauts three weeks before each mission. They were on a special diet for three weeks, and they had to eat over here at the Johnson Space Center in a trailer. So we served that wine during that three weeks before the mission. The crew and the backup crew were both eating, so they got to drink all the wine.”extract_from_sherry_ban

A declassified document explaining the reasons for the ban on sherry in space from a NASA FoI request, via The Black Vault.

“When personal supplies ran low, cosmonauts would remove interior panels looking for more.”

While NASA’s slightly puritanical attitude to alcohol has hardened in recent years – not helped by news reports concerning two drunk pilots in 2007 – Russian cosmonauts are now allowed some cognac onboard the International Space Station.

Soviet astronauts have always had a more relaxed relationship with alcohol. Aleksandr Lazutkin, who lived aboard the Mir space station in the 1990s, explains that not only was alcohol available, it was sanctioned by their doctors. “During prolonged space missions, especially at the beginning of the Space Age, we had alcoholic drinks in the cosmonauts’ rations. This was cognac, which the doctors recommended for use. We used it to stimulate our immune system and on the whole to keep our organisms in tone.” The Telegraph adds that when personal supplies ran low, cosmonauts would remove interior panels looking for more: “Sometimes we would bump into a bottle of cognac,” explained Alexander Poleshchuk, who was stationed on the Mir in 1993. “What a joy it was.”

Unknown benefits

There’s some evidence to suggest that following this more relaxed attitude could be good for the astronauts. A 2011 paper discussed that resveratrol, found in red wine, could be handy in protecting against bone-density loss. Rats fed resveratrol did not develop symptoms associated with low gravity, when weightlessness was simulated by being suspended by their tails and hind legs.drinking_on_the_mir

Cosmonauts drinking on the Mir in 1997 shortly after a flash fire nearly ended their lives. Photo taken by NASA’s Jerry Lineger, who decided not to join them.

In space, alcohol has clearly only been tested in low quantities in an unscientific manner. As NASA spokesperson William Jeffs told New Scientist: “There may be differences in alcohol absorption and metabolism in space, which makes one suspect that there may be differences in the effects of alcohol in space.”

“In space, alcohol has clearly only been tested in low quantities in an unscientific manner.”

One drink unlikely to make the trip to space, whether research changes attitudes or not, is beer. As New Scientist delightfully explains: “Without gravity to draw liquids to the bottoms of their stomachs, leaving gases at the top, astronauts tend to produce wet burps.”  Nobody wants that – not even stir-crazy spacemen.

This won’t (and shouldn’t) stop alcohol manufacturers pondering on the problem, of course. Just be advised that the whisky specialists making headlines at the moment are likely more concerned with positive PR than ensuring astronauts can have a wee dram on the ISS.

Image: Darron Birgenheier, used under Creative Commons.

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