After allegations that astronauts flew drunk, NASA’s rules on alcohol are under scrutiny. The agency currently doesn’t allow its astronauts to imbibe in orbit, but over the years of crewed space travel, many astronauts have enjoyed a tipple.
In 1969, Buzz Aldrin took communion after landing on the Moon, sipping wine from a small chalice. In the Moon’s feeble gravity, he later wrote, the wine swirled like syrup around the cup.
Small amounts of alcohol were apparently allowed on the Soviet space station Mir, and when Russian astronauts joined the International Space Station, there were some grumblings about the decree that it be dry.
That hasn’t stopped some researchers from working on ways to brew and serve alcohol in space, however.
Graduate student Kirsten Sterrett at the University of Colorado in the US wrote a thesis on fermentation in space, with support from US beer behemoth Coors. She sent a miniature brewing kit into orbit aboard a space shuttle several years ago and produced a few sips of beer. She later sampled the space brew, but because of chemicals in and near it from her analysis, it didn’t taste great by the time she tried it.
Beyond the challenge of producing beer in space is the problem of serving it, says Jonathan Clark, a former flight surgeon and now the space medicine liaison for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston, Texas, US.
Without gravity, bubbles don’t rise, so “obviously the foam isn’t going to come to a head”, Clark told New Scientist.
The answer, Dutch researchers suggested in 2000, is to store beer in a flexible membrane inside a barrel. Air can be pumped between the barrel and the membrane, forcing the beer out of a tap. Astronauts could then use straws to suck up blobs of beer (see Beer balls).
Unfortunately for thirsty astronauts, beer is poorly suited to space consumption because of the gas it includes. Without gravity to draw liquids to the bottoms of their stomachs, leaving gases at the top, astronauts tend to produce wet burps.
“That’s one of the reasons why we don’t have carbonated beverages on the space menu,” NASA spokesperson William Jeffs told New Scientist.
Jeffs says no research has been done on the effects of alcohol in a microgravity environment. But he says: “There may be differences in alcohol absorption and metabolism in space, which makes one suspect that there may be differences in the effects of alcohol in space.”
Clark says medications sometimes have unusual effects in space, which “run the gamut from increased to decreased reactions”.
So, should astronauts be allowed to drink in space? “It depends on the length of the mission and any cultural norms,” says Jay Buckey, a former astronaut who studies space physiology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US.
“Mine was a very short mission,” says Buckey, who spent 16 days aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1998. “I didn’t see any need for it.”
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