Japanese Whiskey Transported to International Space Station

Bryan Rallet/Staff Reporter

On Aug. 24, the Kounotori HTV-5 spacecraft (“White Stork” in Japanese) was captured and then docked to the Kibo module of the International Space Station by JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) Astronaut Kimiya Yui.

The resupply mission was chiefly designed to send up replacements for the equipment destroyed in SpaceX’s failed launch two months ago and included spacewalking equipment, an emergency breathing kit, and miscellaneous parts for the life support systems, in addition to CALorimetric Electron Telescope (CALET) that will be used to find dark matter. Space X remains grounded to this day, as does another private supplier, Orbital Sciences Corp., which also suffered from a catastrophic failure in October 2014.

One item of the cargo was more than unusual, in the sense that it was hard liquor. Yes. Whiskey. On the Space Station. For Science.

To the likely disappointment of our 250 mile-high heroes, the spirit is not intended for human consumption, but rather for experimentation on the process of aging.

Indeed, a spokesperson for the sponsor for the experiment, Japanese beverage company Suntory, stated “Our company has hypothesized that ‘the formation of high-dimensional molecular structure consisting of water, ethanol, and other ingredients in alcoholic beverages contributes to the development of mellowness.’”

The convection-free environment the ISS owes to microgravity should provide some insight into the complex chemical process behind the aging of spirits, allowing earth-bound Whiskey Aficionados to enjoy precisely mellowed beverages.

This is not the first time that alcohol is slated to be sent up. From Buzz Aldrin’s legendary Holy Communion on the Moon to smuggled vodka on Russian craft, the story of booze in space is an interesting one indeed.

According to Ben Evans’ book At Home in Space: The Late Seventies into the Eighties, Don Arabian, NASA’s spacecraft project manager in 1969 tried living on Apollo fare for three consecutive days, and subsequently reported that he had “lost the will to live” and that, in particular, “the sausage patties tasted like granulated rubber.”

Thus was the Skylab food program born, an initiative designed to improve the culinary conditions astronauts would be exposed to onboard the United States’ first space station. According to Evans, “the situation had improved significantly: the station would include both a freezer and an oven and foods would be provided in five varieties—dehydrated, intermediate moisture, ‘wet-packed,’ frozen, and perishable”.

Newly appointed Space Sommelier Charles Bourland was in charge of selecting a wine that could endure the rigors of space flight and ended up selecting sherry because of its stability (sherry was favored by explorers of the Age of Sail for the same reasons). He reports in The Astronaut’s Cookbook that “after consulting with several professors at the University of California at Davis, it was decided that a Sherry would work best because any wine flown would have to be repackaged. Sherry is a very stable product, having been heated during the processing. Thus, it would be the least likely to undergo changes if it were to be repackaged.

The winner of the space Sherry taste test was Paul Masson California Rare Cream Sherry. A quantity of this Rare Cream Sherry was ordered for the entire Skylab mission and was delivered to the Johnson Space Center. A package was developed that consisted of a flexible plastic pouch with a built-in drinking tube, which could be cut off. The astronaut would simply squeeze the bag and drink the wine from the package. The flexible container was designed to be fitted into the Skylab pudding can.”

Unfortunately, the Era of Space Prohibition was not about to end.

The general public did not approve of the presence of alcohol on the Space Station, sending hundreds of angry letters and leading program directors to limit the crew’s access to “Parabolic Sherry” to the quarantine preceding spaceflight and land-based simulations of life on the station. On the matter, astronaut Edward G. Gibson stated “Let’s just say that no one here is enthused about publicizing this thing any more than necessary […]The problem is that you have got some extremists around and we (astronauts) kind of represent a form of purity. As soon as you taint that purity with alcohol, they really get upset.”

On the other hand, not all countries share the United States’ prohibitionist relationship to alcohol. As stated by retired cosmonaut Alexander Lazutkin: “During prolonged space missions, especially at the beginning of the Space Age, we had alcoholic drinks in the cosmonauts’ rations […] This was cognac, which the [Ministry of Public Health] recommended for use. We used it to stimulate our immune system and on the whole to keep our organisms in tone.”

In 1997, a collision with an unmanned supply vehicle opened a leak and caused a flash fire that led to a near emergency evacuation of the Russian Mir station. Lazutkin was quoted saying that alcohol was “recommended for neutralizing the harmful effect of the atmosphere” — though it’s not clear whether he was referring to the air or the working conditions.

Though little scientific evidence exists on the effects of alcohol in zero-G, Russian anecdotal evidence suggests that inebriation occurs more rapidly in space.

The question of alcohol in space will likely come up again with the rise in commercial space travel. If you are going to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hopes of being the next man on the Moon, why not get a little “Buzzed” in the process?