By Mary Robinette Kowal
Nov. 6, 2020
The first patented invention made in space was a coffee cup.
In November 2008, Donald Pettit wanted to drink his tea and coffee from an open vessel. While aboard the I.S.S., he tore out a plastic divider from his Flight Data File and used the magic of fluid dynamics to create an open cup. Until then, astronauts drank everything out of a plastic bag with a straw.
We interact with coffee through aroma as much as through taste. In a bag, half of the experience was gone; Dr. Pettit said that he wanted to add “back the dimension of what it’s like to be a human being.”
When Samantha Cristoforetti, the first Italian woman in space, went to the I.S.S., the Italian Space Agency in collaboration with Lavazza and Argotec, built a zero-g espresso machine, the ISSpresso. To save her from drinking espresso in a bag, Mark Weislogel, an engineer at Portland State university, designed a true ‘zero-g cup’ based on Dr. Pettit’s invention.
In 2015, as Dr. Kjell Lindgren was preparing to launch for NASA, he had concerns about coffee.
“I love coffee and I was worried that our standard freeze-dried brew wasn’t going to cut it,” he said.
So he worked with Dr. Weislogel and Drew Wollman on a further iteration to study fluid dynamics on the station. Together, they created a brewing system that would combine some of the charm of an open cup with the essential chemistry of a good Earth-based pour-over.
This isn’t just about cups of coffee. It highlights how astronauts adapt to life in space away from Earth’s comforts. Going from a plastic binder to a pour-over demonstrates how human ingenuity will find solutions to future problems. And they also managed to drink some good cups of coffee. For science.
“Fresh brewed or freeze-dried, it was all terrific,” Dr. Lindgren said. “I still think about the coffee I drank on the I.S.S.”
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