Space and booze, an anecdotal history

Update: It’s Fourth of July weekend in the US, and Ars staff is off presumably safely operating fireworks and catching some R&R. And with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing rapidly approaching, this felt like the perfect time to resurface a few favorite NASA stories from the archives.

The drinks industry’s rapidly approaching annual Tales of the Cocktail conference reminded us that even NASA has a bit of a history with alcohol. It’s a history that doesn’t show up in our Apollo documentary, and astronaut Scott Kelly “no comment”-ed us when asked about the modern ISS. This piece sharing insight from a presentation at the 2016 TOTC originally ran on August 21, 2016 and appears unchanged below. (And if there’s anything worth following at TOTC 2019, send us a note or tell us in the comments.)

NEW ORLEANS—”Half a century ago, this was an essential part of spaceman culture,” said Jeffrey Kluger, senior writer at  and author of the book that inspired . Presenting at the world’s best alcohol event, Kluger wasn’t referring to old astronaut traditions like military experience or crew cuts. “Test pilots were male, under 6-feet tall, and had to be a tough and tireless drinker.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2016 continued the conference’s trend of sneaking science into a series of bar industry seminars. Food scientists from Bacardi discussed internal testing on carbonation in liquor, and alcohol alchemist Camper English unveiled his tireless research on the compounds and combinations that can be lethal (or at least really, really bad) when unleashed in our cocktails. But this year’s schedule also featured what seemed like a peculiarity—a panel titled “Cosmic Cocktails: The Final Frontier” that outlined the informal history of NASA and drinking.

According to Kluger, the intertwining of highballs and high altitudes was inescapable—a natural evolution of the downtime imbibing of previous military generations. For many of the US’ early space pioneers, this part of training took place outside Southern California’s Edwards Air Force Base at a vast and communal pub in the Mojave Desert called the Happy Bottom Riding Club (fittingly considering its clientele, the bar was created by Pancho Barnes, a pioneering female pilot who had bested Amelia Earhart’s air speed record at age 29).

“Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, Al Shephard all learned to fly at Edwards, and at the Happy Bottom they learned to drink,” Kluger said. He soon brought up author Tom Wolfe’s famous look at early space culture, , which conveniently namechecks Pancho’s when discussing the drinking base with a flight habit.

“Yeager didn’t go to Pancho’s and knock back a few because two days later the big test was coming up,” Wolfe writes“Nor did he knock back a few because it was the weekend. No, he knocked back a few because night had come and he was a pilot at Muroc. In keeping with the military tradition of Flying & Drinking, that was what you did for no other reason than that the sun had gone down.”

Bars still thrive near NASA bases, Kluger pointed out, but the protocol for space travel has become more controlled. “With the nature of modern space travel, you have to trade the open environment of Earth for a sealed environment,” he said. “What you eat, what you drink, and what you breathe is parceled out. There’s not a lot of room for drinking alcohol.”

NASA had and continues to have a “no alcohol” policy for orbit, but some booze has made it to space. Kluger cited Apollo 8 (1968) as the earliest example. While Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders became the first crew to travel beyond low Earth orbit and see the far side of the Moon, they were also astro-alcohol pioneers.

Apollo 8 flew over the Christmas holiday, so NASA wanted its crew to have a proper meal, according to Kluger. The writer mentioned dehydrated bacon cubes and turkey gravy stuffing tied in fireproof ribbon and warmed by a hot air gun. And the drink? Coronet Brandy.

“They were to become the first humans to drink above the world,” Kluger says. “But Borman confiscated the bottles. ‘If there’s any problem with this spacecraft, they’re going to blame the brandy.'” (Kluger recently visited with all three men, and they each still have unopened, future-collectors’-items nips of Coronet.)

But just as humanity wouldn’t be kept from the Moon, humanity in space couldn’t be kept from a beverage. Just before the Apollo 11 crew took humanity’s one small step, they took mankind’s first sip, too. Buzz Aldrin had quietly brought some wine and bread from his church to celebrate Communion. “NASA didn’t really talk about it—government agency and religion, after all—so he radioed down for a moment of silence to simply give thanks,” Kluger said. Only Neil Armstrong witnessed the historic event, but Aldrin later wrote about the experience and shared with the public: “I poured the wine into the chalice, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.”

(A booze bonus for those pioneers: when the Apollo 11 crew came back and prepared for three weeks of quarantine, NASA had an appropriate care package. “To make confinement easier, they were met with a bottle of scotch and ice,” Kluger said. “To make it harder, they were met with Richard Nixon.”)

In 1972, NASA formally visited the idea of alcohol in space. As aspirational missions grew longer in duration, the agency wanted astronauts to have higher-quality creature comforts (so, better food and possibly wine or liquor). Partnering with UC Davis to vet ideas for use on the Skylab space station, NASA’s top proposal initially involved sherry. Since the dessert wine must be heated during the creation process, it was viewed as very stable and unlikely to change during the reprocessing and repackaging necessary to send a liquid to space. Testing was set to commence. (As Gizmodo points out,  went so far as to declare: “the era of prohibition is about to end in space.”)

Sadly, space sherry was not meant to be. When tested in the fabled Vomit Comet, imbibers embraced the stereotype. Another NASA official soon caused further backlash when he mentioned the testing in a public forum. Eventually Kenneth S. Kleinknecht, Skylab’s manager in Houston, sent out an official memo concluding there was “no basic requirement for such a beverage.” In 2006, space historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal acquired Kleinknecht’s memo through a Freedom of Information Act, and Kluger shared her findings during his presentation:

This conclusion is based on the following:

a. It is not necessary either for nourishment or to provide a balanced diet.

b. It is not a fully developed menu item, and, therefore, an unnecessary expense is involved.

c. The PI for experiment MO71, mineral balance, is opposed to its use because it will affect his experimental results.

d. This beverage will aggravate, to a small degree, a minor problem of galley stowage capacity for beverage.

e. We can expect continued criticism and ridicule throughout the Skylab Program if such a beverage is provided.

Today, there’s still no alcohol in space under NASA’s supervision (Scott Kelly waited until he got home to have his first beer). But Russian cosmonauts—who, in the past,  enjoyed alcohol in space—may be keeping their own traditions alive. In 2010, a retired cosmonaut revealed that authorities would sneak alcohol into supply missions for Mir to keep spirits high and stress low. The ISS currently has Russian segments side-by-side with the American portion. “There are no accounts of Americans going to Russians for a shot or two,” Kluger said. “But experts agree what happens in the Russian segment stays in the Russian segment.”

The future of space and booze may ultimately be rosier. High-profile experiments like Coors helping a grad student ferment beer in space or Ardbeg testing out whiskey aging in zero-gravity speak to our future desires for both self-sustaining space resources and beyond-Earth tourism. NASA itself might have even furthered the cause earlier this year when it learned that tech intended to make Martian resources usable could also recycle fermentation-created CO2 for brewers.

Kluger’s co-presenter, bartender Tristan Stephenson, was quick to point out that our drinking habits would need to adapt to the conditions. In particular, carbonated options like champagne, beer, or a Tom Collins likely wouldn’t be viable.

“Aesthetically, bubbles don’t work the same,” Stephenson said. “When prepared on Earth, bubbles are more buoyant, and they travel up. In space, there is no up, and they clump in the middle until disturbed. It kind of looks like a congealed mess.”

Beyond looks, the bigger issue would be how those bubbles work within astronauts. On Earth, as Stephenson pointed out, gravity helps keep what we ingest down. Gases then separate and rise, leading to burps. But in space, gases, solids, and liquids can intertwine without gravity to separate them. “You can’t burp in space,” he said. “Well, you can, but you’d probably throw up at the same time.”

So for future space tourists to enjoy anything-and-soda after switching from scotch, artificial gravity will need to become more widespread. “It’s possible. A rotating cylinder or wheel on a station can create enough centrifugal force to give you a gravity-type effect,” Stephenson said. “But creating a rotation deck on a space station is quite a lot of work for a gin and tonic.”

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