The Zero-Gravity Coffee Maker: Space Station Luxury or Necessity?

by Ian O'Neill on October 16, 2008

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Costa Rican engineering students invent a coffee percolator for use in orbit

The secret design will allow astronauts to enjoy the rich taste and aroma of fresh coffee in space (Telegraph)

The secret design will allow astronauts to enjoy the rich taste and aroma of fresh coffee in space (Telegraph)

Imagine: You’ve just woken up on board the space station half-way through your six-month mission in zero-gravity. You probably feel a little home sick and you crave a drink that will pick up your mood, preparing you for a tough day of overseeing experiments in Kibo and keeping up with your station schedule for the day. You go to the galley for some coffee. Instant, bad tasting coffee at that. You put the instant coffee container into the microwave and heat up the sour, plastic-tasting brew. Did that make you feel any better? Or did it just make you crave the smell of real, freshly ground coffee beans you’re used to on Earth?

Franklin Chang-Diaz, a veteran NASA astronaut who spent a lot of time on the International Space Station (ISS), knows all too well the taste of really bad microwaved space coffee. So, in an effort to make life a little better for the current astronauts in orbit, Chang has asked two engineering students to design a machine that can percolate fresh-ground coffee in zero gravity…

It may seem like a trivial problem. After all, astronauts on board the ISS are bound to suffer some inconveniences whilst working on space; they are strong, intelligent individuals who understand the sacrifices they need to make to belong to this exclusive group of space pioneers. However, as we spend more time in space, there is an increasing desire for the creature comforts of home, especially if you have to spend six months on board a cramped and (soon-to-be) crowded orbital outpost.

In an effort to confront a personal grievance with his experiences in space, Franklin Chang-Diaz, a seasoned NASA astronaut who has flown on seven Shuttle missions and helped to build the ISS, has approached two students at the Technological Institute of Costa Rica to design and build a coffee machine. But this isn’t any ordinary coffee machine, it is a coffee percolator that works in zero g, dispensing with the need for instant microwaved coffee.

View the Telegraph news report on the “Coffee Infuser” »

So, Daniel Rozen and Josue Solano came up with a solution. The biggest problems faced when wanting to percolate hot water through ground coffee in space are, a) there’s no gravity to draw the water through the coffee, b) liquids will float in globules and stick to instrumentation, and c) hot globules of water will create vapour and will probably be quite dangerous (after all, the last thing the ISS crew will need are scalding blobs of water flying around!). Enter the secretive “Coffee Infuser.”

The prototype coffee infuser (Telegraph)

The prototype coffee infuser (Telegraph)

We turn on the switch. The machine will heat the water to 90 degrees centigrade, the ideal temperature for a cup of coffee,” Rozen explains. “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.”

In an intense environment where crew well-being is critical to mission success or failure, the idea of a space-age coffee infuser seems like a good idea. However, in space, where mass dictates how much a mission costs, the Costa Rican engineers will have to find a way of either making their prototype a lot smaller or integrate it seamlessly into a new piece of kit. Until a smaller version is available I doubt it will be considered to be a critical appliance for the station… (although it would be nice to wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee when the Sun is rising over the limb of the Earth…)

Source: Telegraph Online

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

James Carlson October 17, 2008 at 9:28 AM

Small things for small minds. Just think of all
the miss guidance that is put out daily. Think
about it . They tell you that the universe is about 13 billion years old, but the universe
has expanded over 180 billion light years
across. How can this be.

J. Mattair October 17, 2008 at 9:51 AM

^^^ Ask Einstien.

Chuck R. October 17, 2008 at 10:47 AM

THE COFFEE IS LIFE!

Sili October 17, 2008 at 11:01 AM

Well, if only they’d accept commercial sponsorship on flight, it wouldn’t be that hard to get made and get up there.

Sounds a bit like the million-dollar space-pen, though (yes, I know it’s not true). Why not just use a piston coffee maker to get rid of the grounds?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cafetière

Steven October 18, 2008 at 2:30 AM

James Carlson,

I’ve not heard the figure 180 billion light years across before, but if the universe is bigger than 13 billion light years across it’s due to inflation in the early universe.

Rusty October 18, 2008 at 7:45 AM

This is absolutely critical, not only that, it highlights the #1 problem with the space program, we send up these lofty scientists when what we really need is to lead them with engineers. I mean real ones, not the wanna-be-nerds who can’t think outside of a book. Someone who can’t stand to see something not work or inefficient (and in this case un-caffeinated). We need to be focusing on doing practical things in space, before we worry about research.

Rusty October 18, 2008 at 7:59 AM

thinking about it, where’s the problem? we’ve already got those nice coffee pods for holding grinds. Personally I use a french press so leaving the grinds with the brew (in the pod) makes for good coffee. That way you just need some sort of reliable space-mug. I think a simple bladder the draws in coffee by evacuating the the space on the non-coffee side of the badder. Then you can draw it back out like any old pouch.

if it’s the problem of moving hot water, then I guess I don’t understand the limitation of plumbing in space.

quantum_flux October 18, 2008 at 12:08 PM

Coffee is not a good idea in space, it would raise the blood pressure of the astronauts, not something good at the top of a roller coaster or when spinning due to excessive angular momentum.

gnabgib October 18, 2008 at 8:12 PM

Why cant they use the packets of coffee premeasured in the filter packets?

barakn October 19, 2008 at 10:01 AM

This is a horrible idea. Costs vary by launch method, but it typically costs $10,000 PER POUND to lift stuff into LEO. With Americans consuming on average 9 pounds of coffee per year per capita, it would cost half a million dollars a year to supply a space station crew of 6 with coffee beans. And let’s not forget that they store their garbage for long periods of time before discarding it – wet, used coffee grounds would be a mold hazard. Astronauts should learn to drink instant and like it.

Paul October 19, 2008 at 3:28 PM

“Coffee is not a good idea in space, it would raise the blood pressure of the astronauts” blah blah

“This is a horrible idea. Costs….Astronauts should learn to drink instant and like it.’ *YAWN*

Seriously, you’re not serious are you?

If we’re destined to be a space faring race in the future, they’d better come up with good ways of making GOOD coffee in space NOW, or no one will want to go anyways!

Paul October 19, 2008 at 3:35 PM

Addition…

Seems to me, that a senseo machine could easily be modified to be used in space. True , there’d still be a mould hazard because of the spent pads, but it would still be a small device, and it’s very close to freshly ground coffee.

And to tackle that mould hazard, the spent pads (still moist) could be infused with a drop of disinfectant before discarded.

Mike Cooper October 19, 2008 at 3:41 PM

I would agree that this is a complete waste of tax payer money for NASA.

On the other hand, I personally wouldn’t consider any of the offers of the fledgling space tourist companies if they didn’t at least include a decent continental breakfast for my million-dollar+ entry fees! I would hope that Bigelow Aerospace, builders of the soon-to-be-launched inflatable space hotel, has already bookmarked this article.

John Wilke October 19, 2008 at 4:34 PM

FACT – it costs about $10,000 per lb. to put something in space. FACT – water weighs about 8.3# per gallon. FACT – that translates into more than we can afford for a stupid cup of coffee. Hydration is important. Coffee is not. I’m tired of paying the bills for this sort of thing….

rob b October 20, 2008 at 1:39 AM

@ John Wilke

FACT If I spent more than a week in a tin can with a bunch of other people with no coffee I would be forced to drink their blood. You have to remember that life in a tin can surrounded by a vacuum is really stressful. You might be able to survive on just water but for a crew to function well they need to be mentally health to.

Flaming Pope October 20, 2008 at 2:20 AM

Not a fan of coffee, caffeine packets anyone?

Bridh Hancock October 20, 2008 at 9:44 PM

Coffee! I never thort it was not available nor that it was happily drinkable. What else needs to be fixed properly for space life to go well? That is a serious question. The answers might well translate well for Earthian life, too. When I read that about coffee, I realised that we need our women engineers desparately!

Jose October 21, 2008 at 1:34 AM

People… These are Two students. The amount of money that has been invested in this project is almost none. I come from the same Institute, and people in this place receive almost nothing for investigation. I am guessing (in a very certain way) that the time they invested came from their spare time, and the money they spent, came from their wallet. Costa Rica can’t compete with MIT’s or GATech’s grant$.

These two students deserve admiration for their effort.

Chuck Lam October 22, 2008 at 11:31 AM

To Jose`, You are absolutely correct! The two students deserve accolades for their efforts. My concern is the ultimate cost to the taxpayers once the feds get involved for further development. i see millions going out the window.

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