Space cof­fee

Ital­ians, boldly go­ing to the fi­nal fron­tier, help NASA solve a mis­sion-crit­i­cal prob­lem

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - FRONT PAGE -

Just over a year ago, aboard the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion 200 miles above earth, Ital­ian as­tro­naut Sa­man­tha Cristo­fore­tti slid a plas­tic cap­sule into a ma­chine about the size and shape of a home safe. She opened a small plex­i­glass door, at­tached a pouch of water to an in­take valve, and snapped on a smaller, empty plas­tic bag. Then she closed the door, turned the ma­chine on, and waited for her es­presso.

We long ago solved the prob­lem of mak­ing cof­fee on earth. But build­ing an es­presso ma­chine for the space sta­tion turned out to be a much big­ger chal­lenge than the Ital­ian en­gi­neer­ing firm Ar­gotec ex­pected when it took on the project. A team of 11 en­gi­neers—7 of them work­ing full time—spent a year and a half com­ing up with a brew­ing process that could work in mi­cro­grav­ity and meet NASA’s rig­or­ous safety stan­dards. “I don’t think any of us re­al­ized that ev­ery com­po­nent would have to be mod­i­fied,” says Joshua Hall, an en­gi­neer who worked on the project, named ISS­presso.

To make es­presso, you have to force al­most-boil­ing water through finely ground cof­fee beans. In a typ­i­cal pot placed on your home stove, the water at the bot­tom be­comes less dense, cre­at­ing con­vec­tion cur­rents that mix the heat into the rest of the con­tainer. When the water boils, steam pushes into the air above. But hot water be­haves dif­fer­ently in near-zero grav­ity; it doesn’t rise. Even as it turns to steam, it stays put, close to the heat­ing el­e­ment. The re­sult is a su­per­heated, and dangerous, bub­ble of va­por sus­pended in a ball of water. Ar­gotec’s so­lu­tion was to run the water through thin steel pipes to en­sure that it never builds up bub­bles of heat.

But that didn’t solve the pres­sure prob­lem. NASA views any­thing greater than 60 pounds per square inch of pres­sure as a safety con­cern, and brew­ing es­presso re­quires at least twice that. To min­i­mize the dan­ger of a blowout, the en­gi­neers re­placed the tra­di­tional ro­tary pump with a plunger—like in a sy­ringe—driven by an elec­tric mo­tor with just enough power to do the job, and no more. Leaks were an­other chal­lenge. In mi­cro­grav­ity, water doesn’t pool; it floats away. So ev­ery piece of pip­ing was fit­ted with re­lease valves that flush into the ma­chine’s cen­tral cham­ber, which can then be mopped with a towel. The en­gi­neers also de­signed a mech­a­nism to blow air through the cap­sule into the cof­fee “cup”—a zip-lock bag—clear­ing out liq­uid that could oth­er­wise drift around the cabin.

The beans needed no reengi­neer­ing. Lavazza, the Ital­ian cof­fee com­pany that led fund­ing for the project, chose a blend of Ara­bica del­i­cate enough for the Amer­i­can palate but roasted to pro­duce the strong es­presso that Ital­ians pre­fer. The cap­sule, how­ever, had to be rethought and made from a ma­te­rial that wouldn’t give off toxic fumes if it caught fire.

Like other space technology, the project could have earthly ap­pli­ca­tions. Ar­gotec and Lavazza have filed two patents: for an air jet that could save water at home and for the metal plunger that ejects the cap­sule in zero grav­ity, which could be re­pur­posed in a wall-mounted es­presso ma­chine.

Space cof­fee may sound like a fri­vol­ity. But like mu­sic, phone calls to fam­ily, and other com­forts of home, it can con­trib­ute to the psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing of crew mem­bers in cramped, stress­ful con­di­tions—and a crew’s well-be­ing will only be­come more im­por­tant as NASA ex­plores the pos­si­bil­ity of a manned mis­sion to Mars. “If some­thing as mi­nor as a good, tasty cup of cof­fee can pre­vent as­tro­nauts from feel­ing alien­ated, iso­lated, or burned out, there’s just no ex­cuse for not al­low­ing that to be present,” says Gary Beven, chief of aero­space psy­chi­a­try at NASA’s John­son Space Cen­ter in Hous­ton.

Judg­ing by Cristo­fore­tti’s re­ac­tion, the project has been a suc­cess. Af­ter her first sip from the zip-lock bag, she flashed the cam­era a smile and a quick thumbs-up. Then she squeezed out a mar­ble-size bub­ble of es­presso and gen­tly floated for­ward to catch it in her mouth. <BW>

The ISS­presso, made by Ar­gotec, an Ital­ian en­gi­neer­ing firm

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