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

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

[/caption]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

39 Replies to “The Zero-Gravity Coffee Maker: Space Station Luxury or Necessity?”

  1. That’s the thing… they are keeping it secret (in case the idea gets stolen). I’m thinking it can’t be that complicated. If I were to make it, I’d heat the water up inside a cylinder and then use a mechanical plunger to push the water through the coffee filter. That is probably what they are doing here, only with some electronics and special vacuum-sealed space tech…

    That’s my 2c-worth anyhow 😉

  2. It is by caffeine alone,
    I set my mind in motion,
    It is by the beans of java,
    the hand aquire shakes,
    The shakes become a sign,
    the sign becomes a warning,
    It is by caffeine alone,
    I set my mind in motion.

    This is as necessary as water or oxygen.

  3. For the love of all that’s holy, don’t spend $100 billion on the space station and skimp on the damned coffee! I can’t believe anyone would even think of such a thing! There’s enough pressure (no pun intended) just to stay alive, much less take away one of the little things that keeps a human being sane enough to face the day. Try taking the coffee away from your coworkers for a week and see how far it gets you – or the business!

  4. I can’t help but wonder just how many of our tax dollars will ultimately be spent on the full development of this “secret coffee brewer.” Why the mystery? And what is wrong with prebrewed and canned Starbucks? I suspect Starbucks would be more than happy to develop something palatable for ISS consumption.

  5. Shows how far we have to go in our engineering prowess – things like this absolutely justify the ISS imho. Stop any talk about Mars (or even the Moon) until we can build a practical and sustainable setup in LEO. The only argument for not LEO is if it makes it easier to test out new engineering solutions (which I don’t believe). I reckon we should be concentrating on getting the ISS right – and it’ll probably take another 20 years at least.

  6. I’m thinking it uses the “French Press” method of brewing coffee.

    Using this method, they should be able to bring an automatic unit down to size, if not just allow the astronauts to do it mannually themselves for each cup. Im sort of shocked they don’t already have this method available. Should work just fine in space. The fact it uses a ‘coarse’ grind would be a plus.

  7. As I’m sitting here sucking down my second cup of the day, the only thing I can really think of in response to this is “make mine a French Vanilla Cappuccino”.

    Seriously, I have to agree with the general consensus that this is a very good idea indeed. Astronauts often require critical thinking and fast reflexes just to stay alive up there and in my mind, coffee has always been a part of that. Of course as this article mentions, they do already have “coffee”…the issue is “good” coffee. I mean honestly…can you imaging what our poor pioneering astronauts have had to put up with so far? I have this mental vision of some little silver pouch that you nuke for 20 seconds and then stick a straw into the side (like a juice pouch) and suck this thick, black goo-like substance out of that “almost…but not quite…tastes entirely unlike coffee”. Blechhh!

    We could all be drinking that sludge we used to drink back in college to get us through finals, but we drink “good” coffee because there’s so much more to the coffee experience beyond simply a “Jolt” of caffeine….the taste, the aroma, the anticipation of that first cup as it’s brewing…it’s all part of how so many people around this little blue world of ours actually start their day! These folks that are paving the way for our future -deserve- a good cup of coffee to start their days in space!

    I say “Bravo!” to this one.

  8. ~~rob b Says:
    October 17th, 2008 at 2:06 am
    How long before Star bucks opens three stations in the same orbit.~~

    Pssh…there’ll be two on ISS helping to make up those 3.

  9. 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.

  10. 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?ère

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. “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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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….

  20. @ 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.

  21. 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!

  22. 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.

  23. 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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