On May 3rd 2015, Italian Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti then made history by drinking the first-ever espresso made in space. The development of this machine paves the way for a bright future of how people can actually start enjoying the food they consume in space.
Why can’t they use a regular espresso or coffee machine?
Pretty much everything the astronauts do and use in space has to be customized because nothing really works the same without gravity. Think of the brewing process, hot water drips or pushes down through the grinds and the gorgeous coffee falls into the waiting cup.
With no gravity, the coffee would just go everywhere or might not even make it through the grinds to begin with. A whole new system has to be engineered with good knowledge of how liquids behave in this environment (called fluid capillary dynamics).
Mark Weislogel who invented the special space espresso cups says that no system on earth that manipulates fluids will work in space. It has to be completely re-engineered to account for the physics of space where the fluid reacts much more to surface tension rather than gravity. This means that water for example will crawl along the sides of objects rather than fall or even float away.
Do astronauts really need an espresso machine?
Answering this depends on perspective, the real answer is no, astronauts do not need an espresso machine to do their jobs in space. They could go back to sucking instant coffee out of a plastic straw from a bag and still function fine.
However, if you expand the thinking a little bit, building an espresso machine for the space station is essential for the path forward into the future where humans will live much longer periods of time in space. Will they need an espresso machine?
Maybe not, but the technology that this space espresso machine has pioneered will allow other types of beverage systems in space to be possible. Not only beverage but maybe an automated general food dispenser.
For future missions such as going to mars and other deep space endeavors, astronauts will need to rely on other ways of eating and drinking rather than everything being pre-stored in mylar bags. The bags create a lot of waste along the way and I doubt that is the only future of eating in space.
By creating food dispensers that specifically work in microgravity, astronauts could start enjoying more delicious meals which is a huge boost to morale. This is very important if your entire world for a year or two at a time is spent in a small tin cabin.
What is Microgravity?
Microgravity is the more scientific meaning of what we call “Zero Gravity”. To the normal person, when we see something or someone floating around in space we say things like ‘weightless’ or ‘no gravity’. Yet to scientists, mechanical engineers, and physicists conducting research in that type of environment, are trying to calculate things to pinpoint accuracy. In those exact terms of accuracy, there still is gravity present that needs to be considered for their research to work. The human body will give off a minuscule amount of gravity, same with satellites and the space station itself. The term ‘microgravity’ is used when considering those micro amounts of gravity.
What does Microgravity have to do with coffee?
Everything behaves differently in a microgravity environment and there are so many unknowns. This is why astronauts on the space station spend so much time experimenting with how things behave.
Experiments in space like trying to grow plants or how does exercise affects your bones/muscles and how do liquids behave when thrown about? These are all very essential to our understanding of how to live in space.
Years of study of liquids in space wasn’t just to produce an espresso machine in space (although how can you argue with that). Many of the international space station’s systems function with liquid inside them. These systems include cryogenic fuel tanks, air conditioning units, refrigerators, toilets, water supply and medical equipment all containing some sort of liquid. Having a basic understanding of how fluids behave in a container is necessary for these systems to function properly in space.
Who invented it?
The ISSpresso was created by 3 organizations. First, in 2014, the Italian aerospace engineering company Argotec and the Italian coffee company Lavazza partnered up to see if the concept was even possible. Once progress was made, Argotec was then able to get the Italian Space Agency (ASI) involved. Since it is ASI’s business to manage payloads to space, this relationship secured its path to the International Space Station (ISS).
It took 18 months to finalize and test from 4 different prototype models. The first model was to test and prove the base hydraulic component. The second added the custom mechanical and moving parts. The third was almost identical to the final 4th model however untested.
When final approval of the 4th model was acquired from NASA with all the required qualifications, they had a product that had the green light for space and ultimately something safe for the astronauts to use.
When was this machine installed?
The much-anticipated delivery date of April 14th 2015 came and the final version of the ISSpresso was successfully launched into space aboard the SpaceX CRS-6. On May 3rd 2015, Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy drank the first-ever fresh espresso brewed in space.
Watch the SpaceX reusable rocket blast off into space with the ISSpresso machine:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csVpa25iqH0
The next celebration on the ISS the machine took part in was on September 30th, 2017 when Paolo Nespoli made coffee to celebrate International Coffee Day.
How much does it cost?
It weighs in at 44lbs, so the rough cost alone for the delivery aboard the SpaceX CS9 rocket, according to Business Insider, is approximately between $400,400 and $1,900,000.
What are the beverage options on it and how do you use it?
The ISSpresso machine is pretty easy to use and in that sense not too much different than an earth-based one. The first is for the astronaut to check the water container and make sure it has enough and it is also secure.
Since it is a capsule base, the astronaut places the cup at the top of the machine, then places the special drink bag or their custom espresso cup at the output nozzle. They have to make sure to close the clear protective door while it is brewing.
They then select their drink size and type and the machine will begin working its magic of brewing space espresso coffee. The ISSpresso can make a short and long black (30ml and 60ml) and dispense hot tea or broth (at 120ml).
The option to produce broth gives greater nutrition and flavor to rehydrating their other space food.
How does it actually work?
Because of microgravity, all fluids are passed through pressure in tubes for the ISSpresso, unlike a traditional machine where it depends on gravity to direct the flow of water.
There is a great deal more pressure going through the tubes because of the needs of the environment. For example, water usage has to be at very high efficiency in all systems of the ISS because it is just so costly to bring water up in a rocket (a single bottle of water can cost around $10,000 to fly up there).
So there is no drip tray with this machine, the pressure in the tubes is so high that it is designed not to leave any leftover liquid, it all gets pushed out into the cup. The water tank is also all used up with every cup to maintain efficiency.
There is also a cleaning cycle that takes place after brewing, around 60ml of water gets flushed through the system as to not leave any residue which could cause mold or any unwanted bacteria forming.
The tubes and ductwork inside the machine need to be made of steel in order to support pressures up to 400 bars (or 5,800 psi), therefore plastic and rubber are not feasible to use. This makes the machine overall very heavy at a whopping 44lbs. More than double a regular coffee/espresso machine.
Something that you won’t find in a typical espresso or coffee machine is that clear protective door. That’s there just in case there is a possibility of all that pressure acting unexpectedly and a small explosion happens during brewing. Very unlikely considering how well the machine is designed however these are the types of considerations that need to be made when designing a product for use in space.
Here are astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti and Scott Kelly using the ISSpresso machine along with an inside view of the system.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xzy7KdrOWFw
Here you can see Paolo Nespoli using the machine in 2017. This time you can see the special cups that it is dispensing directly into.
Introducing custom zero-G coffee cups
You cannot drink coffee in space from a regular cup of coffee, because being in space, the liquid would stick to the sides and would never really reach your mouth properly, plus eventually just floating away. Mark Weislogel, PhD of Portland State University helped invent a special coffee cup designed to work only in microgravity.
Mark Weislogel’s involvement with the zero-G coffee cups came out of interacting live with astronauts on the ISS as they perform fluid capillary experiments for him and his students. One day an astronaut was complaining about how it was so hard to drink with straws in bags because of the way the fluid wouldn’t naturally gather where the other end of the straw is in the bag.
Mark Weislogel gave a suggestion on how to mold the bag in a certain way so that the liquid would naturally gather in a way to make it drinkable. And so the first prototype was born and astronauts were able to cheerfully toast and drink their coffee as they would normally.
He explains the way the cup design works is that the shape replaces the role of gravity with the effects of surface tension so the liquid goes right to the mouth of the cup without floating away. When a person places their lips and sucks, the liquid will naturally be guided into their mouth. This cup only works in space and wouldn’t be so effective on earth.
In total 6 official cups were delivered to the ISS, they were also designed to be clear so you can appreciate the way the coffee fluid behaves inside the cup. Plus coffee is wonderful to look at as well.
About Samantha Cristoforetti
Samantha Cristoforetti is distinguished to be one of the first women to be a fighter pilot of the Italian Air Force and reach the rank of Lieutenant (She is now a Captain). She has flown six types of fighter jets and has logged in more than 500 hours with them.
She was selected by the European Space Agency to be a part of a long-term mission aboard the ISS in 2014. When she came back from this mission, she had spent a total of 199 days on board and holds the record for the length of time a woman has been in space. She was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic on July 16th 2015, it is the highest order achievable in Italy. She has served her country with great honor and admiration.
Fluid Physicist Mark Weislogel
Mark Weislogel, PhD, is a professor at Portland State University. It has been Mark’s mission in life to study fluid dynamics in a microgravity environment. He does so in classroom settings with a live link to astronauts running their fluid experiments. His work paves the way for not only food in space but fluids in general.
Check out his great PDX talk
Argotec is an Italian Space Engineering firm based in Turin that does research and development. They have made great strides in heat pipes and advances in fluid dynamics. It makes clear sense they are the ones to take on developing the ISSpresso machine.
Argotec specializes in 4 main sectors of the space industry:
- Payload Logicis and Thermal /Fluid Dynamic Units
- Simulation Training
- Small Satellite Units
- Space Food
Lavazza also has its headquarters in Turin, in fact it was founded there in 1895 by Luigi Lavazza and has been family owned for 4 generations. It is a huge coffee importer from beans grown around the world and self proclaimed “Italy’s favorite coffee”. It’s market is not just Italy, but reaches out to over 90 countries.
Their brand touches all sorts of coffee markets so it makes sense they are the ones to spearhead its presence in space. According to the Financial Times, over the next 5 years their sales plan to grow up to 2 billion dollars worldwide.
About the Italian Space Agency
The Italian Space Agency, or better known in Italy as Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), was founded in 1988 to ensure the space exploration interests of the country. It coordinates multiple italian space research and development firms together who contribute systems and procedures used in missions in space.
The ASI also has direct access to its own space port (The Broglio Space Centre) and has collaborated with many space exploration missions such as the Cassini-Huygens, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Dawn to name a few.