I was very pleased to hear recently those living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and I have something in common – our liking for coffee.
Like many women, I love my morning cup of coffee. It helps to kickstart my day.
No big industry names or fancy machinery for me, just a spoonful of high-quality Italian coffee granules in a favourite mug, add milk and zap in the microwave; a warm, milky mug of morning magic.
Astro Samantha Cristoforetti, the first Italian female astronaut living her dream onboard the ISS, loves coffee too. She recently Tweeted – borrowing from Star Trek – that coffee was ‘the finest organic suspension ever devised’.
I can imagine that shortly before blast off she sat down and enjoyed her final cup thinking about her six-month mission ahead. I’m sure she would have savoured every last drop of dark bitter, sweet liquid, holding the taste in her memory.
Here on Earth, too, coffee is a favourite beverage, prepared from roasted coffee beans, and enjoyed the world over.
Around 7-8 million tons of beans are produced annually across the world, with Brazil leading the production league tables.
With over 31% of the international market, coffee bean exports are one of the main reasons Brazil is performing well in global economic terms.
How frustrating it must be looking down from the ISS seeing the vast coffee bean plantations below, salivating at the memory of your favourite roasted bean percolated into a creamy cappuccino or energising espresso.
In space, the sci-fi fantasy Star Trek aside, astronauts have had to make do with instant coffee, freeze-dried into granules that can be mixed with warm water. Originally invented in 1907, it can be a substitute for fresh coffee but I believe that it does have an inferior taste.
For coffee-loving Italians and coffee connoisseurs instant just will not do. With the proliferation of coffee houses and coffee machines here on Earth I think the general populace is becoming more coffee savvy too.
For deprived astronauts the wait is finally over. Fresh coffee has gone where no fresh coffee has gone before.
In early May 2015 the dream become reality when Samantha Cristoforetti enjoyed the first cup of espresso brewed in space using the specially engineered ISSpresso machine.
Her wait was longer than originally planned and almost didn’t happen. Sadly for the Italian Space Agency, Astro Sam and all the Earthlings involved, the first ISSpresso machine was aboard the ill-fated SpaceX rocket that exploded last year.
Considered by NASA as a non-essential item the replacement was delayed until November last. What do the Americans know about coffee anyway?!
Unpacking the replacement SpaceX Dragon, space work and constraints of free time has meant that only now is the ISSpresso machine working. Luckily just before Samantha returns to Earth.
Actually that is probably a good thing as NASA only allowed 20 capsules aboard the ISS as the packaging creates a lot of bulk waste, which is expensive to dispose of in space.
Making fresh coffee in space isn’t simple and comes with added complications that as a lay person I hadn’t even considered. Standard coffee machines rely on gravity, something naturally missing in space.
The Italian Space Agency worked in collaboration with engineering firm Argotec and coffee maker Lavazza to find a new technology to combat this and the danger of boiling water or hot coffee granules floating around.
The blissful look on Cristoforetti’s face suggests they successfully achieved their goal and even more so when drunk from the space-made 3-D printed Zero-G cup!
Applications such as this apparent self gratification do seem initially unworthy and even an expensive extravagance, as astronauts have been drinking granular coffee onboard the Space Station since it was first inhabited in the year 2000.
They do however have other more serious connotations. It is expected that the technologies used will be applied to making and consuming medicines here on earth.