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Why You Can't Drink Soda in Space | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Many believe that the future of humanity lies among the stars, with the space industry at the forefront of science and discovery. But, while there is lots to be excited about, there are also plenty of things that could make space travel a little less desirable… in this video, Unveiled uncovers the everyday things (like drinking soda) which surprisingly can't be done in space!
Transcript

Why You Can’t Drink Soda in Space


Many believe that the future of humanity lies among the stars, with the space industry at the forefront of science and discovery. But, while there is lots to be excited about, there are also plenty of things that could make space travel a little less desirable…

This is Unveiled, and today we’re uncovering the everyday things (like drinking soda) which surprisingly can’t be done in space!

It doesn’t matter if they’ve loved cola since they were kids, astronauts can’t take any carbonated drinks into space with them. And, it’s mostly thanks to microgravity. The same environmental conditions that facilitate the feeling of weightlessness also make fizzy drinks behave very differently to how they do on Earth. On Earth, when you crack open a can of your favourite soda, the light bubbles hiss and rise to the top. In microgravity, though, this quite simple process doesn’t happen. Instead, the bubbles are unmoved, and hold all the way through the drink, turning the soda into more like a slushy foam.

That may still sound drinkable, but it’s not good for the human digestive system… because the same thing would happen inside our bodies were we to consume it; rather than bubbles rising and exiting as burps, for example, they’d hang around, leaving us to feel very uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean that burping in space doesn’t happen… but when it does it can be pretty unpleasant as well. Because they’re not always only gas,“space burps” can sometimes be “wet”… meaning the person that’s just burped them is actually releasing liquid. And, since in microgravity that liquid doesn’t just fall to the floor but instead floats around the room… it’s not something that anybody wants to happen!

But, it’s not all bad news, as attempts have been made to solve the soda problem. Coca-Cola famously struck a lucrative sponsorship deal to send Coke into space in the 1980s, which involved them developing a special dispenser so that astronauts could still consume the beverage without worrying about the bubbles. Naturally, Pepsi got in on it too, triggering perhaps the most unique space race we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately for both drinks giants, however, though the dispensers were taken into space on the STS-51-F mission in 1985, NASA decided that they just weren’t effective enough - and declined to use them again. Fast forward to now, and while we can ensure that human beings survive in outer space, we still can’t account for soft drinks… it’s a gap in the market that’s waiting to be plugged!

The instability of soda isn’t the only food-and-drink-related issue facing astronauts, though. Another beverage banned by NASA for some of the same but mostly different reasons is alcohol. Given what we know about carbonated drinks, beer is clearly off the menu… but, in the early days of NASA, small amounts of other tipples were taken into space – Buzz Aldrin, for example, is said to have drunk communion wine on the moon; in a rare moment on the Apollo 11 mission that wasn’t broadcast.

But, when it was freely announced that sherry was to be taken on a mission in 1972, there was considerable outcry from the American public… who apparently didn’t much like the idea of astronauts drinking in space. NASA responded with a ban on all alcohol which nowadays - despite other space agencies being more lenient - continues to apply on the International Space Station.

The restrictions placed on food can be just as odd and unexpected. Space food has a fairly long history of being fairly unpleasant, seeing as it has to tick some pretty unappetizing boxes; being dried, lightweight, ultra-nutritional, and designed to last for a long time. Crucially, though, it also can’t leave crumbs. The reason, again, goes back to microgravity, with crumb-creating foods banned because the crumbs themselves can become huge hazards. Similar to the liquid burps, anything that flakes off of a foodstuff while someone is eating it is left to float around in the air - until it eventually rests somewhere on a person, or potentially clogs the inner workings of an important piece of machinery! In this way, cakes, cookies and chips really are life threatening!

But bread - a vital part of diets all around the world - presents an arguably even greater challenge. The dangerous effects of bread perhaps first came to light back in 1965, when the rebellious astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board the Gemini 3 mission. Thankfully, the snack-based stunt passed without any major problem, but a red-faced NASA was forced to apologise for the incident. Today, astronauts do have a readymade, carbohydrate-rich and actually pretty commonplace alternative to crumbly bread, however; tortillas. But, for all of the same reasons, whenever they’re preparing tortillas or anything else, they can’t season them with standard salt and pepper - instead having to use liquified versions. And then, for dessert, there’s that crumbly astronaut ice cream (that supermarkets once stocked like there’s no tomorrow). Disappointingly, though, it was always more a commercial gimmick than genuine astronaut food and has never actually been sent to space!

Elsewhere, there are other foods that aren’t explicitly banned but still aren’t often favoured by astronauts because they’re just not as pleasant to eat in space – particularly pizza. Space-ready pizza is available… but it’s different. First, there’s the problem of toppings in microgravity, with the possibility of a stray piece of pepperoni causing damage. But then, it’s also difficult to keep pizza in space, where almost all food is stored at room temperature. The ovens on board the ISS, for example, are low power and serve more to warm freeze-dried food up… which means that pizza usually turns into less a mouth-watering prospect and more a soggy mess. For the astronaut Mike Massimino, whoever could devise a way for even acceptable pizza in space would surely win a Nobel prize!

So, all in all, eating food in space is clearly difficult enough already… but “getting rid” of it at the “other end” is probably even worse. Just using the toilet in microgravity is a complicated event, with astronauts having to physically strap themselves down to the seat to keep from floating away. But, even then, sometimes your worst nightmare comes true and a piece of waste escapes… Astronaut Barry Wilmore has said that when this happens, it’s nicknamed a “brown trout”, and the toilet-user in question has to make sure it gets disposed of correctly.

Washing your hands afterwards is also tricky since there’s no running water in space. Instead, astronauts take packets of ‘pre-soaped’ water which they rub on their hands like a lather, before wiping off with a towel. The same principles apply for showering, only with added water that’s been recycled from the humidity in the air. But don’t even think about doing the laundry… properly washing clothes just isn’t possible! When it comes to cleanliness, space travel perhaps isn’t for the faint of heart.

One final everyday task that has historically posed an everyday problem in space is writing things down. In the 1960s, NASA realised that most pens don’t work in microgravity because of liquid ink, which led to the Agency shelling out a small fortune on specially-designed “mechanical pencils” at $128 each in 1965 – more than $1,000 per pencil in today’s money! On the other side of the space race, the Soviet Union originally opted for grease pencils, understanding that the graphite in standard pencils could flake off and become a hazard…. But, while affordable, they were also ineffective. Ultimately, the situation was saved by the Fisher Pen Company, which spent more than one million dollars developing the “space pen”, a workable writing instrument that’s still used by space agencies around the world.

And, in reality, the space pen stands as only one of hundreds of solutions already found to navigate the complexities of living in space. Simple things like soda, bread, ice cream, pizza, using the bathroom and doing the laundry all still need to be worked out… but, while microgravity is to blame for most of the reasons things don’t or can’t work at the moment, it’s also what enables astronauts the incredible experience of feeling as though they are flying. There are clearly trade-offs to be made, but the life of an astronaut grants its fair share of rewards, as well. Plus, nobody yet stays in space forever, so it’s not as though space travellers have to permanently give up anything…What do you think? Could you go a few weeks without soda or non-sloppy pizza if it meant you could travel in space?
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