Astronauts on the space station just flew SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to a new port – a first for the spaceship

crew dragon crew-1 iss port relocation undocking space station
The Crew Dragon Resilience undocks from the forward port of the International Space Station on April 5, 2021.

SpaceX’s first full astronaut crew successfully maneuvered its Crew Dragon spaceship to a new port on the International Space Station on Monday. It was the first time the vehicle had attempted the maneuver.

Called a port relocation, the process required the spaceship to back away from the ISS port where it had been since it arrived at the orbiting laboratory in November, then fly to a different, space-facing port, and dock there instead. Russian Soyuz vehicles have conducted port-relocation maneuvers 15 times in the past, but no astronauts had ever done it in a commercial spacecraft before.

The spaceship reshuffling cleared the way for SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon capsule to arrive at the ISS. That mission, called Crew-2, is set to launch on April 22, bringing four more astronauts to the space station.

The four astronauts on the mission that’s currently in orbit, Crew-1, are set to return to Earth about five days after Crew-2 arrives. In the overlap time, there will be two Crew Dragons attached to the ISS – and a crowded house of 11 people in space.

spacex_dragon_dec_7_1 skitch
A Dragon cargo capsule docks at the ISS on December 7, 2020, alongside a Crew Dragon capsule that carried astronauts three weeks prior.

Now that NASA is commissioning regular astronaut flights from both SpaceX and Russia’s Soyuz launch system, the ISS is expected to be more crowded on a regular basis. Future Crew Dragons will likely need to switch ports, too, especially if Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship joins the mix later this year. SpaceX and Boeing both developed their spaceships through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition meant to spur the development of commercial alternatives to Soyuz.

“The space station has become the spaceport we want it to be, with vehicles flying to it and returning science and payloads and doing amazing things on orbit,” Kathy Leuders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a March press briefing.

Watch the Crew Dragon switch parking spots

spacex crew1
NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 crew members in the Crew Dragon spacecraft during training. From left to right: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

In preparation for port relocation, the Crew-1 astronauts – NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi – changed into their spacesuits early Monday morning. Spacesuits are required for docking and undocking maneuvers, in case anything goes wrong and the spaceship’s cabin is compromised.

SpaceX also had a recovery ship stationed near splashdown sites in the Atlantic Ocean, in case the Crew Dragon had to deorbit and plunge back to Earth.

But everything seemed to go smoothly. The astronauts climbed aboard the Crew Dragon capsule, which they’ve named “Resilience,” checked for air-pressure leaks, then instructed the spaceship to begin the fully automated maneuver. The hooks keeping Resilience attached to the space station’s forward port retracted at 6:30 a.m. ET, undocking the spaceship from the ISS. The vehicle then fired its thrusters to back away.

Over the next 30 minutes, while circling the Earth at about 5 miles per second, Resilience moved above the ISS and aligned itself with the station’s space-facing zenith port. It docked there at 7:08 a.m. ET.

NASA broadcast the maneuver in the video below. Undocking starts at about 30:45.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and her Russian colleagues, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, also performed their own port relocation on March 19. They moved their Soyuz spaceship from the Earth-facing port of the Russian module on the ISS to its space-facing port. That leaves the former open for the next Soyuz spaceship to bring up three more astronauts on April 9.

Unlike Crew Dragon, however, Soyuz has to be maneuvered manually.

After Crew-1 returns to Earth, an uncrewed Cargo Dragon spaceship carrying new solar panels for the ISS is set to take its place on the zenith port.

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4 lessons entrepreneurs can learn about problem-solving from the NASA engineers who landed Apollo 13

Apollo 13
Apollo 13 astronauts treading water as they await their recovery helicopter in 1970.

  • Entrepreneurs can grow their problem-solving skills by emulating the tactics used by the Apollo 13 NASA engineers.
  • Avoid panicking, and take a step back to assess and understand the situation or problem at hand.
  • Weigh each potential solution carefully, but once you’ve made a choice, commit and don’t second-guess your decision. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Entrepreneurs are inherently problem-solvers. After all, we start our businesses because we recognize a need that needs to be filled. Take me, for instance: Part of my previous job at an internet media company was to create tools for editors to build forms, surveys, and polls. The problem was that at the time, the form-building landscape offered few good options. I decided to change that, and my company, JotForm, was born. 

But in the course of solving big-picture problems, smaller ones are constantly springing up and threatening to derail us. Some days, it feels like there are hundreds of fires that need to be put out before I’ve even finished my coffee. 

On those days, I like to think of an anecdote from Jerry C. Bostick, the flight dynamics officer for the Apollo 13 mission. More than two decades after the spacecraft was safely brought back to Earth after near-disaster, screenwriters Al Reinert and Bill Broyles were interviewing Bostick for the script that would become the film “Apollo 13.” One of their questions was, “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?”  

Bostick’s answer? No. 

“When bad things happened we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them,” he said. 

If ever there was a situation when panic would be warranted, the Apollo 13 mission was one of them. But panic wouldn’t have helped Mission Control then, and it won’t help you, either. 

Work the problem

One of NASA‘s most renowned problem solvers was flight director Gene Kranz, who oversaw both the Gemini and Apollo programs during his 34-year career. While trying to figure out how to rescue the three astronauts whose lives were on the line on Apollo 13, he said to his staff, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” 

Kranz’s “work the problem” mantra is still used by the agency today. Astronaut Chris Hadfield explained the process in his book, “An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth,” describing it as “NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen:”

“When we heard the alarm on the Station, instead of rushing to don masks and arm ourselves with extinguishers, one astronaut calmly got on the intercom to warn that a fire alarm was going off – maybe the Russians couldn’t hear it in their module – while another went to the computer to see which smoke detector was going off. No one was moving in a leisurely fashion, but the response was one of focused curiosity; as though we were dealing with an abstract puzzle rather than an imminent threat to our survival. To an observer it might have looked a little bizarre, actually: no agitation, no barked commands, no haste.”

University of Virginia Professor Thomas S. Bateman laid out “working the problem” in eight steps:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Determine goals/objectives
  3. Generate an array of alternative solutions
  4. Evaluate the possible consequences of each solution
  5. Use this analysis to choose one or more courses of action
  6. Plan the implementation
  7. Implement with full commitment
  8. Adapt as needed based on incoming data

This calm, rational approach to problem-solving works for astronauts and entrepreneurs alike. No matter what you’re dealing with, take a step back, understand the problem, and descend each decision tree until you find a solution. 

Be adaptable 

It might turn out that your original vision isn’t the one that ends up being realized. Or maybe you successfully launched one product, but changing technology forces you to reimagine it a few years down the line. That’s okay. Successful entrepreneurs know that change is inevitable, and if they want to survive in the long term, they’ll have to adapt. 

Nokia, for example, began as a paper company before following consumer demand and transitioning to rubber tires and galoshes. In the 1960s, it began making military equipment for Finland’s army, including gas masks and radio service phones, among other things. It eventually rose to prominence as the most successful cell phone manufacturer on Earth between 1998 and 2012. Even though it was eventually crushed by Apple after the release of the iPhone, Nokia lasted as long as it did thanks to its agility. 

Ask “why?”

Asking “why?” over and over again might make you feel less like a CEO and more like your toddler. But the truth is that there’s a lot we can gain from having an open, inquisitive mindset. Entrepreneur Michelle MacDonald suggests asking “Why?” five times to get to the root of any problem. 

“Many times when a problem arises, we jump to the first thought about why that problem is occurring, and then focus on a solution to fix that,” she said. “This is like putting an adhesive bandage over a hose and expecting it to hold.”

Say you find yourself drowning in work because you keep putting off tasks. Your five whys might go something like this: 

  1. Why am I constantly stressed? Because I have too much to do and not enough time to do it. 
  2. Why don’t I have enough time? Because I often procrastinate. 
  3. Why do I procrastinate? Because I don’t particularly enjoy some of the tasks I have to do. 
  4. Why don’t I enjoy them? Because they’re not a good use of my time, and someone else can easily do them. 
  5. Why isn’t someone else doing them? Because I haven’t delegated them out. 

Doing this will help you treat the actual problem, not just its symptoms, and keep you from trying to resolve the same thing over and over again. 

Positive thinking

Bostick’s answer about Mission Control’s refusal to panic spawned one of the most iconic lines of all time: “Failure is not an option.” Though that exact phrasing is an invention of the “Apollo 13” writers, the sentiment was accurate.

Negative thinking undermines the brain’s ability to think broadly and creatively, because fear and stress obscure options. Of course, you’re going to be stressed if, say, you lose a major client or there’s a freak explosion aboard your space craft. But those who cultivate positivity tend to be more resilient to such shocks, said Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of “Positivity.” 

One report co-written by Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions create a sort of buffer that helps people overcome setbacks. In fact, positive emotions were shown to help businesspeople negotiate better, improve decision-making and drive high-performance behavior. 

“Positive emotions expand awareness and attention,” Fredrickson said – critical attributes for anyone trying to solve a problem. “When you’re able to take in more information, the peripheral vision field is expanded. You’re able to connect the dots to the bigger picture. Instead of remembering just the most central event, you remember that and the peripheral aspects, too.”

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Zero-gravity cookies and Santa space suits: Here’s what it’s like to spend Christmas on the International Space Station

ISS Christmas 2005
Christmas on the ISS can get pretty festive – especially in zero gravity.

  • There are often astronauts in the International Space Station over Christmas, and this year is no exception.
  • Despite being posted to a cramped space station, they still manage to celebrate Christmas with most of the traditional trappings.
  • That means Santa space suits
  • If they’re lucky they get the day off as well.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

No one likes spending Christmas at work – but sometimes there’s just no getting out of it. For example, if you are stationed in orbit 250 miles above the planet.

But despite being as far away as it’s humanly possible to get from Earth – where Christmas was invented – astronauts aboard the International Space Station manage to keep their workplace pretty festive. They festoon the station with decorations, put up Christmas trees, open presents, and even get Christmas dinner.

The crew currently aboard the ISS shared a holiday video with the world on December 22. The astronauts, four of whom arrived in November aboard the SpaceX spacecraft “Resilience,” said they’d named the craft after the people who helped get them up there in a year of unprecedented challenges.

“There couldn’t be a more fitting name to describe 2020, the resilience of the human spirit is something we can truly celebrate in this special season,” NASA astronaut Victor Glover said.

Here are some amazing moments from the many Christmases which have been celebrated aboard the ISS.

Of course to have a real Christmas you need a Christmas tree.

ISS Christmas 2015
A Christmas tree watches the Earth from space.

Astronauts may not be able to pick their own real fir tree, but for years they’ve been bringing up fake ones and adorning them with tinsel and decorations.

Over the decades astronauts have sometimes had to improvise.

ISS Christmas 1973
A Christmas tree made out of food packaging.

This Christmas tree is fashioned from empty food containers, and was made by three astronauts aboard the ISS on the Skylab 4 mission in 1973.

For years astronauts have been decorating Christmas cookies in zero-gravity.

ISS Christmas 2008 cookies
Astronauts Michael Fincke and Sandra Magnus in 2008.

In November this year a specially designed “space oven” was shipped to the astronauts on the ISS to experiment on the impact intense heat and zero-gravity would have on baking cookies, however NASA confirmed that the astronauts will only be baking five experimental cookies in this oven and will not eat them.

The astronauts get Christmas dinner.

NASA preparing Christmas dinner
Sandra Magnus prepares Christmas dinner.

It’s impossible to prepare a full roast meal on the ISS, but astronauts still get an approximation of a Christmas dinner.

For Christmas 2018 crew members got a meal of smoked turkey, candied yams, corn, green beans, mac and cheese, and potatoes au gratin. This was followed by dessert options of strawberries, bread pudding, butter cookies, and shortbread cookies.

This feast was shipped up to the astronauts a few weeks ahead of Christmas aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

A NASA spokesperson sent Business Insider a list of what’s on the menu for the ISS crew this Christmas.

Herb and Citrus Butter Roasted Whole Butterball Turkey
A roasted butterball turkey (not pictured: the turkey which the astronauts will be receiving this year).

The main course for the astronauts’ Christmas meal includes:

  • Roasted Turkey
  • Jellied Cranberry Sauce
  • Macaroni and Cheese
  • Potatoes Au Gratin
  • Southwestern Corn
  • Spicy Green Beans
  • Cornbread Dressing
  • Wheat Flat Bread

And for dessert…

  • Cherry Blueberry Cobbler
  • Cranapple Dessert
  • Shortbread Cookies
  • Sparkle Gel
  • French Vanilla Cappuccino

The astronauts’ Christmas meal was shipped up to them aboard the SpaceX CRS-21 spacecraft on December 6 (along with some meteorite samples and live mice).

Last year the astronauts were sent gingerbread men, some of which ended up floating around in zero gravity.

ISS christmas 2019 gingerbread man
Astronauts celebrate Christmas 2019 aboard the ISS.

Stockings have also become a regular feature – although the lack of gravity means they don’t necessarily hang the way they usually do.

ISS Christmas 2017
This picture of astronaut Mark Vande Hei was taken on Christmas Eve 2017.

On Christmas morning astronauts emerge from their sleeping quarters to find their stockings and presents just like on Earth.

ISS Christmas 2010 Christmas morning
Christmas morning 2010 on the ISS. From left to right: European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, and NASA astronaut Cady Coleman.

Presents from the astronauts’ families are shipped up to the ISS ahead of Christmas day. Their families have to be organized, sometimes sending presents up as early as November to coincide with cargo ships travelling to the station with new supplies and science experiments.

This year’s batch of Christmas presents and food was brought up by another SpaceX Dragon ship on December 8.

It’s not just their families that give them gifts – the astronauts also get presents for each other.

In 2014 US astronaut Terry Virts tweeted that he’d got a harmonica from Russian cosmonaut Elena Sorova.

 

Santa Claus hats are another staple, as exemplified in this photo of astronaut Scott Kelly (2010).

ISS Christmas 2010

This picture from Christmas 2011 shows that elf hats are also permitted.

ISS Christmas 2011
The upside-down elf is Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov.

And of course decorations are a must, as proven by this photo taken in the run-up to Christmas aboard the Russian segment of the ISS in 2012.

ISS Christmas decorations 2012

The decorations can get pretty space-specific.

ISS Christmas 2008
Sandra Magnus floats between two Santa-hatted space suits.

Stuffing empty space suits and putting hats on them appears to have caught on, in 2014 US astronaut astronaut Terry Virts shared this picture.

ISS Christmas 2014

Virts and his team also left some “powdered milk and freeze dried cookies” for Santa according to ABC — although without a chimney, they had to settle for leaving them by the airlock.

 

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is famous for his orbital musical renditions, and Christmas is no exception.

ISS Christmas Chris Hadfield 2012

This photo was taken on Christmas day 2012, and according to NASA Hadfield later joined the rest of the crew for an “assortment of Christmas carols.”

Sometimes astronauts get the day off, but not always.

In 2018 two out of the three crew members got the whole day off, while a third had to carry out a few odd jobs. “The only tasks on their schedule for Xmas besides meals and exercise are some blood and saliva sample draws for human research studies,” a spokesperson told Space.com.

Sometimes the astronauts have more serious Christmas duties to attend to. On Christmas Eve 2013 NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio ventured outside the ISS on a space walk to fix a broken cooling system.

This year NASA confirmed to Business Insider the astronauts onboard will get to take Christmas day off work.

Even though the ISS might lack a few home comforts, being in space is a pretty unique way to spend the holiday.

Astronaut Anne McClain shared what it feels like to look down on the Earth at Christmas time during her stay on the station in 2018.

And in 2014 Terry Virts tweeted a video of what he called the ISS’ version of Christmas lights.

 

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Booze has a long history on the space station – even though NASA has banned drinking in space for almost 50 years

In this Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019 photo provided by Space Cargo Unlimited, researchers with Space Cargo Unlimited prepare bottles of French red wine to be flown aboard a Northrop Grumman capsule from Wallops Island, Va., to the International Space Station. The wine will age for a year up there before returning to the Luxembourg company. Company officials say researchers will study how weightlessness and space radiation affect the aging process.  (Space Cargo Unlimited via AP)
Researchers with Space Cargo Unlimited prepare bottles of French red wine to be flown aboard a Northrop Grumman capsule to the International Space Station, November 2, 2019.

  • Researchers sent red wine into orbit last year so astronauts could study how space affects it.
  • It’s not the first time booze launched into space: Russian cosmonauts have smuggled liquor into orbit, and NASA astronauts have occasionally indulged, though NASA banned drinking in orbit.
  • More alcohol consumption in space could happen once private companies start launching civilians.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On a chilly morning in early November last year, a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket blasted off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. It was a routine cargo resupply mission bound for the International Space Station, but the Cygnus spacecraft perched atop the rocket included a rather unusual payload. Tucked away in its cargo hold were a dozen bottles of red Bordeaux wine individually sheathed in specially designed metal canisters. It wasn’t the first time wine has left the planet, but it is by far the most alcohol that has ever been in space at once.

The astronauts on the space station weren’t planning an orbital rager, however. This case of wine was sent to space in the name of science.

The launch marked the beginning of the first of six planned experiments by the Luxembourg startup Space Cargo Unlimited, which has partnered with world-renowned researchers at several European universities to study how the space environment affects wine. Known as the WISE mission, these experiments will cover all aspects of the wine production process. The bottles of red, which will return to Earth later this fall, will reveal how microgravity affects the aging process in wine, a chemical reaction that involves tannin molecules linking together in longer and longer chains.

“We discovered the existence of bacteria and understood so many things that made life science what it is today by studying wine,” says Nicolas Gaume, CEO of Space Cargo Unlimited. “In many ways, we’re going back to the roots of modern science.”

Guame is referring to the pioneering experiments of his fellow countryman Louis Pasteur, who was tasked by Napoleon III to figure out why wine spoiled. In the process, Pasteur discovered that it was due to bacterial growth, which could be countered by heating the wine.

Gaume believes that the company’s own wine experiments could lead to equally important breakthroughs for space-age biology.

Gaume says wine appealed to his research team because it is a multi-component system that involves plants and microbes interacting in a highly controlled environment. By sending these components to space, it would allow researchers on Earth to study how the lack of gravity affects the complex biological processes that result in wine.

“Gravity is the only parameter of life that hasn’t changed in the past 4.5 billion years,” says Gaume. “So when you recreate the Earth environment in space without that key parameter, it’s very stressful to life.”

Montage Healdsburg vineyard and hotel.
The Montage Healdsburg vineyard and hotel.

Gaume and his team of researchers, which includes Michael Lebert, whom Gaume described as one of the foremost space biologists in Europe, hope that studying the stress of microgravity affects grapevines and yeast will yield important insights that may help scientists understand how plants and microbes will respond to a rapidly changing climate on Earth.

For example, the company’s second experiment involved a handful of vine calluses – the white tissue that forms on cut grapevines that are used to start new vines – that were placed in a salty petri dish chamber to mimic drought conditions. These petri dishes were then launched on a suborbital flight with Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and experienced several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth. The hope is that by exposing those vine calluses to the extreme stress of microgravity it will allow them to more effectively handle the comparatively mild stressor of a salty environment.

“We want to expose the plants to stress to naturally stimulate their resilience,” says Gaume. The team hasn’t published the results from this experiment just yet, but he says that the calluses in space exhibited a “very different” response compared to the controls on Earth.

In March, the company launched 320 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon canes – the mature shoot of a grapevine – on a SpaceX Falcon 9 for a six-month stay on the space station. The canes will return to Earth along with the wine bottles later this autumn for analysis. Up next is an experiment on grape fermentation.

“Fermentation is a critical component of many foods on Earth,” Gaume says. “Yeast, in general, has a lot of value for life science and the food system so that’s going to be a key topic.”

In the span of a year, Space Cargo Unlimited has managed to dramatically accelerate research on alcohol in space. But they’re hardly the only company that’s interested in space spirits. When the company’s case of red wine arrived on the ISS last year, it joined two other alcohol experiments that were already in progress. One experiment on how microgravity affects the aging process of whisky was launched by the Japanese distillery Suntory and was entering its fourth year in orbit. The other was a barley experiment conducted by Budweiser, which marked the beer giant’s fourth mission to the space station as part of its goal to establish the first brewery on Mars.

It’s easy to dismiss these experiments as publicity stunts, but each company – and more importantly, NASA – maintains they have real scientific value. The microgravity environment has all sorts of weird effects on plants and microbes that we’re only just beginning to understand. For example, a space shuttle experiment by Coors in the mid-90s showed that microgravity seems to accelerate certain biological processes in yeast. If scientists can understand why this happens they could bioengineer the microbes to replicate the effects of the space environment to create more efficient fermentation processes on Earth.

space station science experiment plants
Cosmonaut Maxim Suraev holds mizuna lettuce plants from an experiment on the International Space Station during Expedition 20 in 2009.

Space can also harm plants through radiation exposure, and it’s critical to understand this process if astronauts ever hope to grow the crops they’ll need to wine and dine on other planets.

But focusing solely on the science would miss the other important reason for studying alcohol in space. Booze has been a staple of human diets and social interactions for thousands of years. As NASA and other space organizations begin plotting long-term missions to the moon and Mars, creature comforts will only become more important to ensure the psychological wellbeing of these intrepid astronauts. If they’re going to be spending years at a time away from their home planet fighting for survival in the most hostile environment imaginable, it’s understandable that they might want to unwind or celebrate with a drink, just like they would back on Earth.

“Being French, we have a particular relationship to food and alcohol, and I truly think that it’s critical to socialization and how we connect as human beings,” says Gaume. “In space, wine and alcohol, in general, can recreate the type of connections that we have here on Earth.”

There’s just one problem. NASA and other space organizations have a longstanding ban on the consumption of alcohol in space. This isn’t because NASA is afraid that astronauts would suddenly turn into hooligans if it allowed them to bring a six-pack to space. The official line is that alcohol is banned on orbit because its main ingredient, ethanol, is a volatile compound that could wreak havoc on a spacecraft’s hardware.

“It’s super complicated to put alcohol on the space station because it’s such a sensitive environment,” says Gaume.

And it’s not just open containers of liquor that are banned on the ISS, it’s also other ethanol-rich products like hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.

But Chris Carberry, the CEO of Explore Mars and author of Alcohol in Space, a new book that offers the definitive account of the subject, isn’t so sure that the ban can entirely be attributed to safety concerns.

“I think NASA is largely afraid that the public will view it as dangerous or a waste of taxpayer dollars,” he says. “There’s a big chunk of society who are just inherently opposed to alcohol.”

NASA wasn’t always so straight-laced

alcohol
Glasses clink in a toast.

In the early days of its human spaceflight program, astronauts would often prank each other by stashing small amounts of booze on a spacecraft before launch. When Wally Schirra blasted into orbit in 1962 as one of the original seven astronauts chosen for NASA’s Mercury program, he discovered that someone had stashed a pack of smokes and a small bottle of scotch in the capsule before launch. (Schirra waited until he was safely back on Earth to indulge.) And during the Apollo 8 mission around the moon, astronaut Deke Slayton had stashed a few small bottles of brandy in the astronauts’ holiday meal kit. It was all in good fun, but Frank Borman, the Apollo 8 commander, wasn’t having it.

“I didn’t think it was funny at all,” he later said. “If we’d have drunk one drop of that damn brandy and the thing would have blown up on the way home, they’d have blamed it on the brandy.”

NASA didn’t officially put the kibosh on orbital booze cruises until 1972. The agency was preparing to launch its first mission to Skylab, a small space station that was imagined as a “home away from home” for astronauts. In the process of planning the astronauts’ meals, NASA food scientist Charles Bourland was tasked with selecting a wine to accompany a holiday dinner. Bourland eventually settled on Sherry, which he thought was most likely to still taste good after being shaken like hell during launch. When news that wine was headed to Skylab started circulating in the press, however, NASA officials smelled a brewing PR crisis and axed it from the menu. Its official reason was “the beverage was not necessary for nourishment or to provide a balanced diet…would provide unnecessary expense…and would result in adverse criticism for the Skylab Program.”

The consumption of alcohol in space has been banned ever since

But rules are made to be broken. Compared to the squares at NASA, alcohol has always held a prominent place in Russia’s space program – even though it is technically banned for cosmonauts, too. Contrary to popular belief, the drink of choice for cosmonauts is cognac, not vodka, and many of Russia’s finest space explorers have gone to great lengths to bring a little liquid relief with them on their journey to space. They’ve smuggled bottles of cognac in hollowed-out books, filled up plastic meal containers with booze and mislabeled them as juice, and even gone on strict diets before launch so they could smuggle bottles in their spacesuits and still make weight requirements.

Russia has known about this habit for years and mostly turned a blind eye to the practice.

It’s not like the cosmonauts are up in space getting wasted. For the most part, the cosmonauts drink the cognac in small quantities during social events with other crew members or before going to sleep, as an alternative to the pharmaceutical sedatives used by American astronauts. In his book, Carberry quotes a Russian official from the Ministry of Health who spoke approvingly of the practice, saying “in orbit, people have a very difficult emotional state. If before sleep, the guys drink 5-7 grams of cognac, I support it.”

remy cognac
A glass of Cognac.

Cosmonauts and astronauts have worked side by side in space for decades at this point, first on Russia’s Mir space station and today on the ISS. And while the cosmonauts are known for bootlegging, it’s not like NASA astronauts have refused to partake in the spoils.

“NASA will tell you there is no alcohol aboard the ISS,” NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson told Carberry. “As a person who lived there for five months, I’ll tell you that’s bogus.”

It’s understandable why NASA might not want its astronauts drinking on the job, even if it’s only the occasional shot. They’re on the clock 24/7 and have to keep a clear head to handle the rigorous demands of living and working in space. A tipsy astronaut could be a disaster if something goes wrong. The key is moderation-alcohol is permitted in plenty of other high stress and relatively dangerous lines of work so long as it’s carefully managed. As Carberry points out in his book, French sailors stationed on aircraft carriers are allowed one drink per day at the ship’s bar and crews overwintering at the South Pole to study the effects of long-term isolation on space crews are also allowed to drink with their meal once per week.

“They’re not prohibiting alcohol altogether and I think that’s the right approach,” says Carberry. “It seems perfectly reasonable to create a system that just prevents anyone from having more than one drink per day.”

Plus, as Carberry points out, the times are changing. Private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are now in the business of launching humans to space. Many of those passengers will be private customers who aren’t subject to NASA’s alcohol ban and chances are they’ll want to celebrate their adventure with a toast in space. But that points to a still more fundamental problem: Drinking is hard without gravity. In space, liquids naturally ball up and float around, which can be a challenge without the right equipment.

elon musk happy.JPG
Elon Musk celebrates after the launch of the Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020.

Typically, astronauts use drink pouches and straws to consume non-alcoholic beverages in space. There’s no reason this wouldn’t work for wine and liquor, but sipping Chardonnay through a tube is also probably the least glamorous way to go about it. Beer is a whole different story. The low gravity environment causes the carbonation to separate out from the drink and creates a bubbly mess when opened.

Just ask Pepsi, which spent $14 million designing a cola can for space, only to have astronauts report that the soda tasted terrible.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of creative solutions for replicating the experience of drinking on Earth in space. For example, Maison Mumm, a champagne company from France, partnered with the design firm Spade to create a spacefaring champagne bottle that pops out balls of bubbly into a glass. And Ballentine’s, a Scottish whisky producer, designed a zero-G scotch glass that uses a series of small channels in the glass to deliver a sip directly to the astronaut’s mouth. Neither system has been tested in space yet, but Maison Mumm tried its champagne bottle during brief periods of weightlessness on a parabolic flight with promising results.

Another pressing question about the future of alcohol in space is how to get it there in the first place. It still costs thousands of dollars per pound of stuff that’s sent to orbit and even more to send it to another planet. If future Martians want to celebrate with alcohol on the Red Planet, they’ll either have to pay a premium to import it or brew it themselves.

“I think beer is likely to be the first alcoholic beverage made in space because it has less steps in the process,” says Carberry. “Grapes are hard to manage and wine is more complicated to make.”

Any scientist on Mars could probably figure out how to turn sugar, water, yeast, and barley into beer. But the raw materials will likely be too precious in the beginning to squander for a buzz. Carberry thinks there’s a good chance a future Martian might try anyway. He points to the would-be astronauts who participated in the Biosphere 2 experiment in the 90s who started making their own alcohol out of fermented bananas, after a few months locked in the facility.

“I’m sure they all enjoyed having even a crappy alcoholic beverage after being stuck in that environment for so long,” Carberry says.

To that point, it’s also unclear how the comparatively high radiation and low gravity on the moon and Mars would affect the taste of extraterrestrial booze. Would the regolith add pleasant undertones to the terroir of wine made in a Martian vineyard? Can lunar ice be melted to make a decent IPA? It’s too early to tell, but the pioneering experiments on extraterrestrial ethanol underway on the ISS today are the first steps toward finding out. 

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