Living on the International Space Station (ISS) has its drawbacks. For one thing, the morning coffee run to the local espresso shack is the definition of impractical. To make sure that astronauts are suitably caffeinated, Italian coffee company Lavazza is developing the ISSpresso; the first espresso machine built to meet the needs of astronauts who need a decent jolt before facing the day.
Coffee has been carried on every American space missions since Apollo 7, but the current brew leaves much to be desired. Generally, coffee on the ISS consists of plastic sacks of freeze-dried instant reconstituted with not-very-hot water. And that’s just the black coffee. The one with non-dairy creamer is apparently so bad that examples of it are very easy to find in museums and auctions.
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A decent cup of java may seem like a trivial thing, but small comforts are the building blocks of morale and can mean the difference between a productive space crew and a rebellious one. Since quality of life is a high priority item for NASA and other space agencies planning long-range deep space missions, and lukewarm instant coffee isn’t a very welcome way to greet the morning, a space espresso machine is less silly than it sounds at first.
Jointly developed by the Italian coffee company Lavazza, engineering firm Argotec and the Italian Space Agency (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana; ASI), the ISSpresso is named after the ISS, where it will eventually be installed. An espresso machine may seem an odd thing to find in a weightless space station galley, but its also a dangerous one. It uses very hot water and high pressure, which is not what you want in the close quarters of a habitat module.
According to the makers, designing the ISSpresso required considerable work in fluid dynamics to get the liquids and solids to mix properly in weightless conditions in a way that’s not only effective, but safe as well. Because of the many safety features and backup systems, the unit weighs 20 kg (44 lb).
"Our aerospace engineers have designed a new-concept coffeemaker, which is safe for the astronauts and able to function in microgravity conditions, also thanks to Lavazza’s experience as a leader in capsule extraction systems," says David Avino, Managing Director of Argotec. "The functional project was already completed in June 2013: Argotec had been working on it for about one year."
How it worksA capsule of coffee is placed in the machine and a plastic pouch of water drawn from the station’s system is plugged in. The ISSpresso then aspirates and pressurizes the water to 400 bar, which necessitated replacing the usual plastic tube with a steel one for safety. The water is heated and pushed through the capsule before being dispensed into a drinking pouch, from which the coffee can be drunk with a straw. In addition to espresso, the ISSpresso can also make caffè lungo, and other hot beverages, such as tea, infusions, and broth. In addition, it can rehydrate foods.
A prototype ISSpresso machine is being tested by Argotec to make sure it meets both functional and safety standards. Once its been certified, it will be sent to the ISS with the ESA Futura Mission in November, with the ISSpresso taking pride of place as the center of the station’s "corner cafe."
"Italian coffee is a beverage without borders," says Giuseppe Lavazza, Vice President of Lavazza. "And we have been thinking about taking the espresso into space for some time. Indeed, as far back as ten years ago we launched the espresso into orbit artistically with the photographs taken by Thierry Le Gouès and our Mission to Espresso calendar, which at the time may have looked like a work of science fiction but was actually just a vision of the future.
"In fact, today we are in a position to overcome the limits of weightlessness and enjoy a good espresso – the indisputable symbol of made in Italy products – on board the International Space Station. We are proud to have worked on this major project with Argotec, through the Lavazza Innovation Center, our division dedicated to research and product innovation: a scientific and engineering challenge which we hope will improve the living and nutrition quality of astronauts engaged on long missions."
The video below introduces the ISSpresso.