Space travel used to be something that only people with the right stuff could experience. But advances in commercial space tourism is changing all of that. Virgin Galactic is registering passengers online. SpaceX announced it would send two lucky passengers around the moon in the next year or two.
But space travel is still likely going to cater to a select few, in this case, people with the right amount of money. Virgin Galactic is currently pricing initial flights at $250,000. For the people willing to lay down a cool quarter million for the privilege, they might expect a slightly more luxe journey. Blue Origin's spacecraft is decked out with plush leather seats and massive windows. MREs and Tang will be replaced by pour-over coffee, fresh fruit, and, perhaps, a champagne toast.
This week, France's national space agency, CNES, will test whether a specially engineered bottle and glass are able to recreate that uniquely Earthly delight of popping some bubbly during a parabolic flight of a converted Airbus A310. The French champagne maker Mumm is behind the stunt, along with a Paris-based design firm called Spade. The zero-g test will be conducted in the skies above France’s Champagne region and generate 22 seconds of weightlessness, during which the passengers will test Spade's new bottle.
“Our whole experience revolves around the magic fact that liquid floats and forms shapes and bubbles,” said Octave de Gaulle, founder and CEO Spade, the firm that designed the high-tech bottle. “We wanted to make a bottle capable of producing these drops, but also a glass to catch it and bring it to your lips.”
Video by Mumm
DeGaulle has been thinking about bringing France’s great beverages into orbit since 2015. He and a business partner had an idea to bring red Bordeaux wine into space. They did some zero-g testing, but it turned out that sipping a Pomerol or Margaux through a straw just didn’t seem to have the same sensory experience as on Earth.
“The first problem is you cannot pour a liquid in zero-g,” DeGaulle said. “So if gravity doesn’t rule, what are the forces that do?” The combination of surface tension and adhesive forces create what's called the capillary effect, in which liquids climb the inside of a straw seemingly against the normal pull of gravity. The capillary effect is also at work when you dip a brush into a bucket of paint, or when a sponge soaks up a wet spill. DeGaulle and his team decided to use the capillary effect to build both a bottle to hold the champagne, and small glasses to contain the bubbly liquid.
"Our whole experience revolves around the magic fact that liquid floats and forms shapes and bubbles," he said. "We wanted to make a bottle of capable of producing these drops, and a glass to catch it and bring it to your lips."
It sounds easy, but DeGaulle said he and his team spent several years designing a bottle that would work in a weightless environment and wouldn't coat the inside of the space capsule with pungent champagne. On Earth, the release of carbon dioxide gas under pressure causes the cork to pop, and for liquid to froth from the bottle. In space, you'd still gently pop the cork with a bit of pressure, but in DeGaulle's bottle, just a tiny amount gas escapes and none of the champagne itself.
A small internal piston controlled by a button on the bottom of the bottle allows you to control how much gas is released, along with the champagne. This unusual internal pressure-release valve took several years to design, and has already undergone one previous zero-g test flight. (They brought up 15 different nozzles made with a 3-D printer before they found one that would work.) The solution was small metal ring attached to the top of the bottle that collects the floating champagne like a kids' bubble wand. But to get the bubbles into the mouth, the designers had to create a space cup. What they came up with is more like a kids soap bubble wand than an elegant crystal flute. The new Mumm space glasses have a tiny cup to catch the precious floating droplets, but no stem on the bottom. Imagine trying to drink from a hollowed-out magnifying glass while you trap blobs of floating champagne bubbles, all while floating in zero-g.
“The whole thing of trying to make a bubble, serving it, capturing it, becomes a thrilling experience,” DeGaulle said.
Mumm says it is talking with private space companies about serving its new Grand Cordon Stellar Champagne on sub-orbital flights that may be launching in the coming years. Which might be an easier-to-swallow proposition than getting the bottles into outer-space: because of the piston-mechanism, the 375 centiliter bottles (half a regular-sized bottle) weighs a hefty four and a half pounds and cost $40,000 to get into orbit.
Still, one French astronaut says he could see a place for champagne for the space workers spending months or years in a long-duration mission. “Astronauts are operators of complex machines in complex environments,” said Jean-Francois Clervoy, a French astronaut who flew three times in the 1990s, including the Hubble telescope repair mission. During one such mission, Clervoy, who is now working for both CNES and the zero-g flight company, remembers that Russian cosmonauts often got special packages for Christmas or birthdays that were sent aboard a cargo resupply mission along with fresh veggies.
"On my second flight on Mir," Clervoy remembers, "we drank half a liter of cognac over five days.”
Teetotaling NASA administrators seem unlikely to abandon the agency's ban on booze in space anytime soon. But Mumm hopes the new commercial space industry might be open to allowing space tourists celebrate in orbit, just as engineers do in the control room.
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