There have been two major challenges with coffee in space: brewing and drinking. Sure, you can just take up instant coffee and drink through a straw, but if you’re going to commit to the expense of space travel, a little luxury from back home would be preferred.

We tend to think brewing coffee is pretty simple: pour hot water over ground coffee and let it trickle down into the pot, fully immerse the coffee in hot water, or push pressurized water through the bed of coffee. Well, it is pretty simple, if you have a little thing called gravity on your side. Without gravity, liquids don’t pour because there’s no gravity bringing them down. Also, liquids behave oddly in space because of the absence of gravity. So, getting the water and coffee to mix properly is no small feat. There’s also the problem of steam bubbles, which are generated by heating the water. On Earth, they distribute evenly in a body of water before rising to the top. In space, they congregate and create a massive, very hot air bubble—a tricky thing to deal with in a machine and on a tiny space station.

Two solutions have been invented. One, designed by Costa Rican engineering students in 2008, garnered some international media attention. However, neither the machine nor the students seemed to convince the right people to try out their machine. In 2014, two Italian companies and the Italian Space Agency teamed up to design and build an espresso machine that would function in space and produce high-quality espresso. Unfortunately, again because of the gravity issue, the espresso won’t have a layer of crema riding on the top, rather it will likely be intermixed with the brew. The machine, dubbed ISSpresso, was delivered to the International Space Station on April 17, 2015.

The lack of gravity in space creates a problem with drinking as well. Not only can you not pour coffee into a cup, but you can’t pour it into your mouth. For many years, astronauts have been relegated to using straws for all their drinking, no matter what the temperature of the liquid. Apparently, after you spend some quality time in space, you wish straws weren’t the only way to drink, especially with hot liquids.

The recently invented solution is a cup shaped like an airplane’s wing. It has a rounded side opposite a side that forms a crease. In a zero-gravity environment, liquid won’t flow of its own volition, but it will move by capillary action along a crease.

Capillary action results from weak electrical interactions between molecules that cause one molecule to drag a molecule along with it if it isn’t being pulled too hard and the molecules are in a tight space. It is kind of like a conga line, where a person is holding onto the shoulders of someone in front of them and they have a person behind them holding their shoulders. If the tug from the front is just right, everybody gets pulled along and the line moves. But if the tug is too hard, the line breaks and there’s no more movement. This is how water is thought to move up through plants: all the water in a plant is connected and it is slowly dragged upwards. As water in a leaf evaporates, the water behind it replaces it and drags all the other water up with it. It is a bit more complicated than this, of course, but it is the general idea. In the space cup, the pull of the liquid originates with the drinker, sucking the liquid from the crease. As they suck, the liquid is dragged along the crease, giving an astronaut a more familiar drinking experience. 

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