Best Cocktails on Earth

Can You Make Alcohol in Space?


The people who work on the International Space
Station probably have one of the coolest jobs out there. I mean, the view from their office window
is the entire planet. Some of them even get to do spacewalks. But working on Earth does have at least one
perk that astronauts don’t: After a long day, most people can come home
to a nice cold brew. But for decades, NASA has had a strict no-alcohol
policy for all its astronauts. That hasn’t stopped us from doing research
on how to make the stuff in space, though. Orbit — with its constant temperature, weightlessness,
and higher radiation — is a very different environment from anything you’d find on
Earth. And all those factors affect the alcohol-making
process. The alcohol in your beer, wine, and spirits
comes from a tiny fungus called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Which you might also know as yeast. Through fermentation, yeast ingests plant
sugars, converts them to energy, and releases carbon dioxide and ethanol — aka the kind
of alcohol you can drink. What the yeast eats determines what kind of
drink you end up with. If you ferment grains, you produce beer; if
you ferment grapes, you get wine. Back in the Space Shuttle era, NASA sent up
an experiment designed to brew a tiny batch of space beer. Instead of using the kettles and vats normally
used for beer production, this space brew was fermented in a syringe-like device with
a very descriptive name, called a Fluid Processing Apparatus. Meanwhile, researchers made beer on Earth
using the exact same process. Once the mission ended, they compared the
beers and found that the beer brewed in space contained fewer living yeast cells. Now that was unexpected because the space
yeast actually had better access to food. Since nothing settles to the bottom in microgravity,
the yeast and the grain should’ve been more evenly mixed. But the cells that were still alive also produced
higher levels of a protein linked to stress so spaceflight might be as rough on the tiny
organisms as it is on us. Which could help explain why so few cells
survived the trip. The Shuttle’s short trips made sense for
brewing beer, but aging whiskey takes much longer. So in 2011, another group of researchers sent
a small batch of fresh scotch whiskey to the International Space Station on a two and a
half year trip. Like with the beer experiment, they kept a
sample here on Earth as well. Usually, whiskey is stored in oak barrels
during the ageing process and gets its flavors from the wood. But a barrel would be too big to send up and
store on the ISS, so both batches were sealed into small vials with some oak shavings. Once the space scotch got back to Earth, both
samples were compared chemically and by trained taste testers. Normally, whiskey gets some of its flavor
from the chemicals in wood leaching out, so researchers expected the more efficient mixing
of oak and alcohol in orbit to create more intense woody flavors. Instead, microgravity seemed to slow the breakdown
process, and they ended up with a whiskey that was very different from the control sample. The samples that were aged on Earth had a
woody aroma, with hints of things like cedar, and vanilla, and burnt oranges. On the other hand, space scotch’s intense
aroma was described as having, quote, “hints of antiseptic smoke, rubber and smoked fish,
along with a curious, perfumed note, like violet or cassis, and powerful woody tones,
leading to a meaty aroma.” Which … does not sound super appetizing. So maybe Earth orbit isn’t the best place
to make alcohol until we figure out a better way to do it. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Space, and thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon who help make this show possible. If you want to help us keep making episodes
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