Monday, October 18, 2010

Vostok space beer: from prehistory to space tourism. An interview with Dr Jason Held.

You might wonder why Dr Space Junk is interested in space beer? (A. She's an archaeologist.  Beer comes with the territory).  But seriously, what has beer got to do with space archaeology?

My interest in this was piqued for a number of reasons.  Firstly, nationalist symbols, and the achievement and claiming of "firsts" has been a major feature of space exploration from the start.  Australia did quite well in this sphere once, being the fourth nation to launch a satellite (WRESAT 1).  Since then our space industry has languished, although we may be heading for a renaissance, fingers crossed!  Producing the first space beer reflects the national obsession with this beverage, and so has some symbolic overtones, I believe. Secondly, as you will see,  Held contextualises the beer in a trajectory of social culture that I think is quite interesting as I am thinking along the same lines myself.

I think it also raises questions about the future complexion of existence in space.  What kinds of artefacts will distinguish the era of space tourism from the era of exploration?  I am reminded of a site I saw at Maralinga in outback South Australia, where legendary surveyor Len Beadell and his team left behind a scatter of beer cans (as they were in those days) with tins of spam and tobacco as evidence of their survey in the desert.  I don't think we are going to see beer bottles littering orbital space, as they won't be in glass, which is too heavy for a start.  (Damn!  I forgot to ask Jason how it would be packaged).  But I wonder how the material culture will differ, and how the terrestrial accoutrements of tourism will be transformed in the space context.

Anyway, here is Jason to tell the story.

DrSJ: Where did the inspiration for the project to develop a space beer come from?

JH:  Several of us are avid homebrewers at Saber Astronautics, both in the US and in Australia, so this is also a chance for us to combine two arenas we love very much.  But the original idea for space beer came out of an internal discussion on space logistics needs for tourism.  Tourism by its nature is geared towards commerce and entertainment, rather than exploration, so the demands emerge from the people who go up, rather than decided top-down by a government body.  

For the beer itself, the usual approach was to study brewing in space, with the goal of bringing beer down to Earth, but logistically this isn't cost effective.  At least, not if you wish to be mass market.  It makes more sense to brew on Earth, and send the beer up, as the largest market is here.  Since there are physical issues with drinking beer in space (carbonation, flavor, etc), we realized that there was an opportunity not just to support the space tourism industry, but fellow beer lovers as well.  Consider the history of the India Pale Ale, the thought of making the world's first space beer is really exciting for us-- it's a real contribution to making people happy for a long long time.

DrSJ: Cosmonauts are already known to have consumed vodka in space.  Why do you think future space tourists will demand beer? Is this worth pursuing, given the difficulties in dealing with carbonation and taste?

JH: Vodka certainly makes sense as a space alcohol-- with a few tweaks it's usable as a rocket fuel, so there's some fun thought experiments there.  But at the end of the day, people on Earth love beer, therefore people in space will also want beer.  Also we felt that beer is a bit safer, less flammable, less toxic to the astronauts/cosmonauts/tourists who simply may wish for a bit of taste of home.  

DrSJ: You were quoted as saying "Wherever humanity goes, beer is sure to follow".  Did you do much research into the history of beer as part of this project, and if so, what was the most relevant fact you discovered?  Are there past methods of beer manufacture that can inform this project?

JH: We did run into academic debates over the effects that alcohol has had on human society.  Some argue that beer is one of the key causes of human society, but I feel it's more of a correlation.  There's some evidence that we've evolved with beer as well, especially considering the genetic differences between people in metabolizing alcohol.  

Initially we took inspiration from the history of the India Pale Ale, but the quote comes from a personal desire to try beer recipes from ancient Egyptian and Sumerian cultures.  Unfortunately, my homebrewing skills aren't quite up to snuff there, but I'm hoping to convince our friends at the 4-Pines to give it a go.  

The 4-Pines Brewing Company follows German purity laws, and that's as far back in history as we're willing to go with the actual manufacturing.  Old brewers had very different problems to solve than we do-- astronauts can take vitamin supplements instead of drinking beer to help stave off scurvy. Beer might be good to help morale in long duration trips (i.e., Mars).  But for the recipe we're really looking at a unique class of problems which have no historical baseline. 

DrSJ: The new beer is called Vostok.  Why choose a Russian name for an Australian beer? Were there other names that you considered?

JH: This was in honor of Yuri Gagarin as the first person in space onboard the Vostok 1.  It's a name everyone in humanity should know.

DrSJ: What are the possible physiological risks of consuming beer in space, as opposed to other alcoholic drinks?

JH: Aside from issues of carbonation, I doubt there's much difference.  Formal studies in alcohol absorption in microgravity and other possible effects have not been done.  There are known issues of cabin pressure effects on alcohol absorption which we account for in the study.  There also may be interaction effects between medications and alcohol.  Part of the point of this study is to learn as much as we can before people start flying to space in larger numbers in 2012.

One difference might be in long duration storage.  Since beer contains live organisms ("yeast samples in solution"), there may be changes in shelf life in microgravity. 

DrSJ:  You've already done some tests on the beer in the Queensland University of Technology drop tower, which creates microgravity for a few seconds.  What were the results?  Would you have been able to initiate the project without the drop tower, which was only completed recently? 

JH: I'll be able to answer more about the QUT Drop Tower in a week or two.

DrSJ: In the recent media coverage, was there anything omitted that you would like to talk about now?

JH: We often think of astronauts/cosmonauts as being examples of human perfection, and are quick to judge at the suggestion of them having a tipple.  After all - think of what these fine people had to do just to get in to a space program in the first place...  They are subjected to harsh conditions and workloads and still must meet the expectations we place on them.  What we have to realize is that they are at a base level very human, and having a beer is very much a part of that.  

And here's the point - NASA is right to be conservative, since alcohol can be abused, and the body's limits in space are not known.  So this research is not just to make a beer to enjoy, but also to learn how people's drinking limits change in microgravity.  Knowing these limits is the only responsible way to allow explorers to drink under any condition.  Because if anyone deserves a good beer, it's them.

DrSJ: When you have mastered the principles of gaseous drinks in space, is there any chance you will move on to champagne? 

JH:  Champagne is a tough one because everybody wants those big, distinctive bubbles.  Beer has a bit more "wiggle-room" on the recipe.  

You don't have to be a space tourist;  Vostok beer (it's a stout) is already available on Earth!  Many thanks to Jason for his insightful answers.

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