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Worlds Without End Blog

Java the Cup Posted at 1:25 PM by Rico Simpkins


Like most WWEnders, I want to go to space.  It doesn’t have to be now, which is good, because who can afford the $20 million that it takes today?  Some day, however, a journey to low Earth orbit will cost considerably less.  When that happens, I want to stay up there for as long as feasible.  Because the primary cost of such a trip will be the journey itself, I figure that the length of the trip will matter much less.  It costs a lot less to stay there than to get there, after all.  That got me to thinking what any red blooded American would think.  If we’re going to be up there for days or weeks at a time, how are we going to get a good cup of joe? We have to be ready.

Here’s my plan, so far:

The Beans

The first ingredient in any good cup of java is the coffee bean.  Let me first say that, yes, I do realize that NASA pioneered the art of freeze drying just about everything astronauts eat, from hamburgers to tang.  Still, freeze drying coffee beans makes it taste much worse.  Just grinding the beans before it is time to drink is a bad idea.  The grinding process breaks up their oils, exposing them to air, making them go stale much faster.  Instead, you need whole beans.  Yes, they take up a tad more room in their whole state, but I think it’s worth the trade-off.

Once you decide to take whole beans, you have to decide how you will get it up to the station.  If one were to use the typical $10,000 per pound figure, it would cost $222 to brew a cup of java from whole beans in low Earth orbit.  There’s no question that would be cost prohibitive.  According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, however, the true costs are as low as $3632, bringing that cup down to a mere $80. That’s still not the end of it.  Space X CEO, Elan Musk, says he can get that cost per pound down to $500.  Of course, that doesn’t include the cost of water, which would be far heavier to transport.  To that I say you need the same amount of water to make instant coffee!  Water is one thing any space station will have plenty of.  The true cost of upgrading astronauts to whole bean might be:

1 lb of coffee: $8 (heck, lets make good coffee) $12
Launch costs (with future Space X estimates) : $500
Savings from not having to ship instant coffee: $-83.34
Marginal cost for one pound of whole bean coffee: $428.66
Marginal cost of a quality cup of space java: $9.53

Now, I ask you.  Is $10 too much to pay for our brave astronauts (and future space tourists) to have good coffee?  I say nay!


Of course, there are a few fixed costs involved.  First, you have to have a method to store the beans. I assume they will arrive at the station in a vacuum sealed bag.  Because the beans should be recently roasted (ideally 3 days before launch), they will have to come with a one-way valve to allow for off-gassing (or perhaps not).  Once the astronauts open the bags, however, storage should be transferred into a sealing container, like the Planetary Design Airscape.  Sure, it weighs a hefty 1.5 lbs ($750 to lift) and only holds 3/4 of a pound of whole beans, but it’s reusable. Amortized over, say 10 years, you’re looking at pennies per day!  The inner sealing lid presses down all the way to the bottom of the container, so that you can minimize the volume of oxygen, even when you have a small number of beans in the thing.  I have one of these at home, and I use it to carry fresh coffee beans to work and for camping (it fits neatly into my backpack).  Why wouldn’t I want one in space?  I’m guessing there are lighter designs out there, but I haven’t found any, yet.

The Grind

Once you have a nice stock of coffee beans, you’ll want to grind them.  Other than the freshness of the beans, the most important aspect of brewing is to have a perfect grind.  This is why I spent more than twice as much on my grinder at home than I did on the actual espresso maker.  Still, my grinder would cost Space X even more to launch ($12,500), since it weighs 25 pounds.  Also, its 166 watt motor might put an undue strain on the electrical grid for the space station.  For that reason, it might be wiser to send something like the 12.3 ounce Hario hand grinder (around $380 to lift).  This is one of the only hand grinders on the market that has burrs good enough to make those fine granules suitable for espresso (it’s certainly the lightest of them).  It seems to me that the grounds (especially the fine powder required for espresso) might gum up the burrs.  I’m already imagining astronauts pounding the base of the grinder on a table to create downward momentum in the ground coffee.  Would that even work?  I’ll just have to rely on the engineering prowess of future engineers to solve that problem (submit your ideas in the comments).  UPDATE:  WWEnd überuser Scott Laz suggested using a vacuum device to suck the grounds from the burrs as the astronaut grinds.  Perhaps a filter with microscopic pores could catch the grounds?

The Brew

Next, you will want a way to brew.  The cheapest and easiest way to to brew good coffee on Earth, of course, is some variety of drip (you can get a funnel for $8), but that won’t work in microgravity.  A french press might work better, because it doesn’t require gravity to move the water through the filter (you just push the filter down through the water).  Even then, there is the problem of boiling the water.  Water evaporates in space before it can reach normal boiling temperatures.  Fortunately, some enterprising students in Costa Rica seem to have come up with a solution to that:

This method of using air pressure to force water though grounds is very similar to Earthbound methods for making espresso.  Only, with this machine, you could make both kinds of brew.  If you push the water through the infuser at a single bar of pressure, you’ll get the equivalent of drip coffee.  If you do it at 9 bars, you’ll get espresso.  Perfect!  I’ll take one.  Although, really, I think something like an Aeropress would work well enough, and it only weighs 2 lbs ($1,000 to lift).

Cappuccino, Please!

The only thing better than a good cup of coffee is a nice espresso drink.  I like a foamy cappuccino made with whole milk or half and half.  It’s just not reasonable, however, to expect fresh milk to come up on a rocket every week.  I’m afraid, here, compromise will still be necessary.  You see, a gallon of milk weighs 8½ lbs, meaning the 4 ounces of foam necessary for a good cappuccino would add $133 to my $10 shot of espresso.  In contrast, powdered milk weighs a tenth as much as whole milk, meaning my cappuccino would cost a mere $23.  What a bargain!  Because you can store powdered milk indefinitely, you also avoid spoilage costs.  But, Rico, you might say, doesn’t powdered milk taste much worse than the fresh stuff?  Well, I used to think that, but it turns out, I was just making it wrong.  It turns out that reconstituted milk takes some time to, er, reconstitute.  If you mix up the water and powder like tang and down it right away, it will taste horrible and have that chalky texture that you may have experienced in the past.  If, however, you store it for 24 hours, the resulting milk is a lot more milky.  I’ve tried this at home, and it works!  I don’t see any reason why powder won’t be equally soluble in space.  So, yes, I’m very picky about keeping coffee beans fresh and whole, but I’d be okay with bringing powdered milk.

Heating up the milk in a microwave should make a passable latte, but what about the foam?  Could you make a cappuccino in space?  Because what you want is microfoam (and not the big bubbled variety), the lack of gravity might not be such an impediment.  A sealed french press might just be the perfect thing for making that dense foam.  Once it’s made, the microfoam would fit easily through a straw to be added to that space cup in the above video.  In fact, it’s the only kind of foam that would!

So, the next time you find yourself looking up at the stars with a nice steaming mug of morning thunder in your hand, don’t think you have to choose between them.  One day we might just have both.


Scott Laz   |   08 Sep 2012 @ 17:53

If some sort of vacuum was among the standard equipment for the voyage, it might be adapted to provide the pressure needed to pull the beans through the grinder, which would have to be adapted in order for a small vacuum hose to be connected to the bottom. Thanks for the tip on that hand grinder. I’ve been thinking it’s time for a new one…

icowrich   |   08 Sep 2012 @ 19:17

That’s a great grinder, but I really selected it over the Skerton ( because of its weight. The Skerton has excellent burrs as well, but it has a great heavy glass base at the bottom that I really like for stability, looks, and clean-ability. Both of them make great espresso. You might even try your hand at Turkish, but I can’t attest to that fine a grind, since I haven’t tried it.

I hadn’t thought of using a vacuum like that. You’d have to have a filter with pours that are two small for the coffee grounds, but large enough to suck air through. That would get tricky with espresso grounds, which are so fine as to almost be a powder, but I’m sure that could be done! I’ll update the article with your suggestion.

Scott Laz   |   09 Sep 2012 @ 17:19

Maybe the vacuum could draw the grounds into another container, like the dirt in a vacuum cleaner? In any case, an economical solution could have a big effect on the demand for space tourism…

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