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A Cup Of Coffee That Is Truly Out Of This World

Posted: 12/10/08

space infuserFor many of us, coffee is a big part of our daily routine. It’s the first drink we have in the morning. It’s our wake-me-up, pick-me-up. And many of us probably take our good-tasting cups of coffee for granted. But for astronauts traveling in space, a good cup of coffee has been hard, if not impossible, to come by. And when you are as far away from home as the astronauts are, especially for long periods of time in cramped quarters, it’s the simple things, the familiar things that make life in space easier. This recently prompted two astronauts to search for a way to enjoy a decent cup of coffee in space.

Having experienced his share of bad-tasting, instant microwaved coffee, Franklin Chang-Diaz, a veteran NASA astronaut, decided to seek help in designing a zero-gravity coffee maker specifically for space travel with the hopes that future astronauts could enjoy the simple pleasure that comes with freshly brewed coffee. He recruited two engineering students from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica to design and build a special percolator that can brew fresh-ground coffee in space.

The students, Daniel Rozen and Josue Solanot, had obstacles to overcome in designing the coffeemaker: the lack of gravity to draw the water through the coffee; liquids floating around in globules because of lack of gravity; and the hot water globules turning into scalding vapors.

What Rozen and Solanot devised is the Space Infuser. Rozen explains how the Space Infuser works: “We turn on the switch. The machine will heat the water to 90 degrees centigrade, the ideal temperature for a cup of coffee. Once the water reaches that temperature, we direct the water, which is found in the heating chamber towards where the container is found, resulting in a delicious cup of coffee”.

Unfortunately for coffee-loving astronauts, it may be a while before the Space Infuser is ready for space travel. Before that can happen, a smaller version needs to be designed. So for now, the astronauts are going to have to settle for the instant, microwaved version. Though, at least in the nearer future, they may be able to drink their coffee in an actual coffee cup.

space percolatorThe Zero-G Coffee Cup
ASA astronaut Don Pettit has designed the Zero-G coffee cup. Drinking any liquid in the weightless environment of space can be a messy affair. With hot coffee, it can be a serious affair. Astronauts typically use silver pouches and plastic straws to sip their beverages, including water, juice and coffee. But anyone who is a coffee drinker knows that a hot cup of coffee is meant to be sipped from a cup, not slurped through a straw. "We can suck our coffee from a bag, but to drink it from a cup is hard to do because you can't get the cup up to get the liquid out, and it's also easy to slosh," Pettit told Mission Control.

Utilizing a piece of plastic from his Flight Data File mission book, Pettit folded it into a teardrop-shape that's closed at one end. The coffee is kept inside via surface tension inside the cup.“The cross section of this cup looks like an airplane wing," explained Pettit, Who compares the theory behind the novel coffee cup to the one used by rockets to draw fuel into their engines while flying through weightless conditions in space. "The narrow angle here will wick the coffee up. We can sip most of the fluid out of these cups and we no longer have to drink our beverages sucking through a straw in a pouch."

Pettit's self-made sippy cup has become such a hit with his fellow astronauts that he has already constructed another cup for fellow crew member Stephen Bowen. Of course, it’s hard to say if/when NASA will implement the space cups as part of their normal equipment.

While the coffee future is looking brighter for space travel, it still may be a while before astronauts can actually enjoy something many of us take for granted everyday---a hot, freshly brewed cup of coffee.