Added: 14th May 2015
For the astronauts on the International Space Station, this has been a problem since the ISS was first manned in 2000. It may seem a small issue – but with the typical inhabitant of the space station living there for five to six months at a time, this lack of coffee can be a big issue for fans of the drink.
Happily, the Italian Space Agency, an engineering firm by the name of Argotec, and coffee giant Lavazza, have worked together in a collaboration that has resulted in the ISSpresso, an Espresso machine that arrived in November 2014. This is a capsule-based espresso system that has been specifically engineered to work in the extreme conditions of space.
A year in the making, a delay in delivery of the machine was caused when the SpaceX supply rocket containing the first model of the ISSpresso exploded, causing a delay in delivery of all ‘non-essential’ supplies. The SpaceX Dragon ship finally delivered it and the first female Italian astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, excitedly brewed herself her first espresso in months.
This historic machine is roughly the same size as a regular espresso machine, and as well as coffee, can brew teas, consommé and other hot beverages. This is achieved by heating and pressurising water at room temperature, and using a capsule based system to produce the finished drink. The whole operation takes a few minutes, with set-up and stowaway of the machine being important steps in the operating procedure of the ISSpresso in the confined space of the International Space Station.
As well as providing the astronauts with a welcome break from the standard space food and drinks that they become used to while in service, the psychological benefits that having coffee available on the space station have been estimated to be highly significant. Enclosed in a small space for half a year at a time, astronauts can start to feel isolated and estranged from the planet around which they orbit. Providing one of the home comforts that they are used to back on Earth can not only give them something to look forward to as a break in their daily routine, but can also make them feel closer to home.
The development of the ISSpresso will not only benefit astronauts. The technology, research and methods that have gone into producing this espresso machine have enabled scientists to have a greater understanding of fluid dynamics, particularly the way that these machines work in micro-gravity. This has led to improved brewing methods and techniques in applications on terra firma.
It’s not all good news. NASA has only provided the astronauts with 20 coffee capsules for use with the ISSpresso, as the ever-present problem of waste disposal in space means that the used units cannot be discarded of easily. With space at a premium, this can use up valuable real estate that may be better used by other applications.
This problem will eventually be solved, and astronauts will be able to enjoy their morning coffee as they watch the sunrise over the Earth.