Space Beer: Great Taste, Less Gravity
Jason Held and Jaron Mitchell have a dream. In that dream, you are floating along in the inky black expanse of space. You’ve just finished a game of zero-gravity tennis, and you are really, really thirsty. You reach out as an ice-cold bottle of beer drifts past, and once the first drop hits your lips, you know your lunar holiday is complete.
For Held and Mitchell, there is nothing far-fetched about this scenario. Held, 40, is an American aeronautical engineer who has worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope; 29-year-old Mitchell owns a successful gastro pub in Sydney. The unlikely duo has teamed up to craft a high-tech brew called Vostok 4 Pines Stout, named after the Soviet rocket that made Yuri Gagarin the first man in outer space. Their goal is to have Vostok stacked in a drink cart on future commercial space flights. “[In] 20 years [we] could very likely be up in outer space for the weekend,” says Mitchell, sitting in his pub overlooking Sydney Harbor. To get a jump on the competition, he’s contending not only with the earthly challenges of brewing beer but also with intergalactic ones, namely weightlessness, tastelessness, and downright messiness.
When mankind embarked on great voyages, Mitchell says, the priorities have always been “water, shelter, and clothing. … But then pretty soon after, beer is … No. 5.” Beer is, after all, the longest-served and most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. (There were breweries in Mesopotamia as early as 9,500 B.C.) To put that into perspective, that’s about 5,000 years before our ancestors sobered up enough to invent the wheel.
While everyone knows about Neil Armstrong’s famously giant leap for mankind, less known was a smaller step taken by crewmate Buzz Aldrin: He took communion on the moon, wine and all. In 2007, on the International Space Station, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko drank what he said was a birthday toast. The Ukrainian squeezed free a translucent shot of vodka from a clear tube before deftly floating forward to suck down the suspended liquid orb.
But it wasn’t videos of tipsy Russians in outer space that inspired Held. When he was a young army officer on leave in South Korea, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot let him briefly control the vehicle in flight. Returning from the furlough mesmerized by his aeronautical experience, he demanded a transfer to Air Force Space Command. When his commanding officer told him there likely wasn’t a position open for an orbiting artilleryman, he resigned to pursue a master’s degree in engineering, the traditional keys to the kingdom at NASA.
Shortly after, while Held was working in Colorado as an engineer on Hubble, the idea for space beer took root in his imagination. “We were a really tight-knit group of engineers, and at the end of the day we’d go home and have a beer and just talk about space … and conversation went to ‘what would you drink when you’re there?’ ” says Held. “And so we thought about doing this sort of thing, but we never actually got into it.”
The push to develop space beer really got under way after Held moved to Australia in 2004 for a PhD program in robotics and struck up a friendship with Mitchell, whose 4 Pines brewery was Held’s local pub. Mitchell says he saw the potential in this completely untapped market, even if he was unaware of the myriad technical difficulties.
First, a palatable prototype had to be designed for zero gravity, where the tongue loses sensitivity to taste. The stout’s flavor had to be amplified. Then came the issue of carbonation and its dreaded corollary: the wet burp. If you burp in space, the liquid and bubbles come up together, emitted as floating pearls of regurgitation—not an appetizing thought. So the carbonation had to be taken down to nearly zero. A small glass of the space version sampled at the pub proved they had overcome the challenges, resulting in a smoky and slightly bitter stout.
But it is Held’s company, Saber Astronautics, that has been left with the most formidable challenge: the delivery system. Most space drinks are packaged in powdered form like the iconic orange drink Tang because of the high pressures and violent shaking of launch. Finding a method of delivery that meets the exigencies of liftoff has become the primary focus of the pair’s work.
Held and Mitchell estimate that they’ve spent roughly $52,000 on research and development, including $7,000 on a parabolic test flight earlier this year to simulate the effects of drinking beer on the human body in zero gravity. The tests will likely have to be repeated before Vostok is approved for imbibing in outer space.
The approval process, though grueling, will not prove to be the beer’s final frontier. Even if the pair is able to get the brew past the FAA, TSA, NASA, and a host of other regulatory acronyms, they will have to find a carrier willing to move their beer. “Virgin Galactic’s customers have always been very clear about what they want from their space experience—the thrill of acceleration G’s, an out-of-seat, zero-gravity experience, and of course the incredible views back to earth from the blackness of space,” Stephen Attenborough, director of the most prominent company offering commercial space flights, said in an e-mail. “Frankly, we suspect that few if any will want to spend the precious flight time worrying about food and drink.”
Held says cost barriers will be driven down as the commercial space travel industry evolves and that “overnight space hotels” will soon follow. Inevitably, consumers will expect refreshments to complement their zero-gravity experience. “A space hotel without a space bar without space beer,” says Held. “I can’t see it happening.”