Grapes in Space

During a recent bout of uber-nerdiness, our wait-staff watched several episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Normally, we don’t waste much time on such things, but we found ourselves intrigued by the captain, Jean-Luc Picard, a Frenchman with a family history in wine-making. During one episode when Captain Picard has returned to the family estate, he is challenged by his brother to identify a wine. The Captain is off, by a year, and is reprimanded by his brother. Too much time in space, not enough time honing the palette on each year’s production.

And so we wondered, what does wine taste like in space?

This is not as simple a question as it may seem. After decades spent traveling to the moon and orbiting the earth, a few strange if unexpected quirks of life in zero-g have come to the surface. Chief among these is the taste of food, or lack thereof, in space.

It’s a common complaint among astronauts. For the first few days, every astronaut has noted that food has zero flavor. NASA, after years of studies, hasn’t produced any theories on this yet, other than to say there’s no traceable decline in taste buds. So if the taste buds survived the flight intact, why is there a sudden lack in tasting ability?

The most common theory is that the sudden arrival in zero-g causes the sinuses to stuff up, just like a cold. That’s because you’re body is still attempting to pump blood like it does on the earth’s surface, even though that type of work is no longer needed. It takes a few days for the body to adjust, and once it does, that stuffy feeling clears out and the senses function once again.

Anecdotal evidence would seem to support this view. Most astronauts that spend more than a few days in space report that the stuffed-head feeling dissipates after a few days and that food has a flavor again.

But the flavors can often seem off. Foods that are loved on earth are scorned as too bland. Foods that are spicy or have a strongly acidic flavor become the items of choice. Why this sudden craving for a dash of tabasco?

The culprit would appear to be our sense of smell once again. Food in zero-g is usually served in small, sealed packages. There’s no real way for the odors to escape, so an item like coffee, whose flavor relies on over 500 different chemicals and their scents, tastes either extremely bitter or virtually flavorless, depending on the type of processing. What scents the astronauts do have are those that permeate the station or capsule itself – mostly sterile, cleaning fluid scents with a bit of no-poo shampoo thrown in for good measure.

Not exactly what one expects to smell when cracking open a bottle of the blessed fermented grape.

So it would seem that Captain Picard’s finely tuned palette would indeed suffer in space, even if his ship has gravity and wine that can be poured into glasses rather than sucked from a pouch.  In fact, NASA had a brief fling with the idea of sending wine into space with the arrival of Sky Lab in the 1970’s. After consulting with wine specialists at UC Davis, NASA settled on sending Sherry into space. The heating process made Sherry a more stable product than most wines and so it was unlikely to suffer any major changes while riding atop a rocket or simply floating around in orbit.

Unfortunately, Sherry never made the journey to Sky Lab. It’s strong odor invoked a harsh reaction during tests aboard the vomit comet, and when word spread that NASA was considering alcohol for the station, the American public turned against the idea of wine in space.

Not that the Sherry that NASA had ordered went to waste. By the time the order came down to nix the Sherry, a crew of astronauts were preparing to seal themselves inside a vacuum chamber for fifty-six days as a test for Sky Lab’s systems. The Sherry was already included in their prepackaged food and there wasn’t enough time to remove it. It quickly became the most popular part of the day.

Of course, with so many nations now involved in space travel, it makes sense that someone would have alcohol in space. The Russians routinely send cognac up as well as a few bootleg bottles of vodka. And there are new studies that show red wine could be beneficial to space travelers. The resveratrol found in red wine could be an important way to maintain healthy blood flow and heart conditions during extended trips into space.

All we need to do is figure out how to release those wonderful aromas without endangering the electrical systems.

Ideas, anyone?


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