Wednesday, 14 October 2015

What Happens to Booze in Space? A Chat With the Space Sommelier

The latest trend in cocktails is out of this world. Literally.

Over the summer Japanese company Suntory announced plans to send samples of its whiskey to the International Space Station, and recently the Scottish whiskey distillery Ardbeg released tasting notes from a vial sent up in 2011.

With all that booze in microgravity, Yahoo Food decided to talk to longtime NASA food scientist Charles Bourland, who has been called a “space sommelier” in the blogosphere. But Bourland doesn’t consider himself a wine expert. The assignment to develop space flight-ready wine in the early 1970s was actually handed to him by a teetotaling boss before the Agency’s alcohol ban.

Charles Bourland worked for NASA for 31 years. (Photo: Courtesy of Charles Bourland)

Beverages were just one aspect of the work he did on his remarkable career. He developed space food and packaging for 31 years at NASA, working on the space station Skylab, Apollo missions, the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the Space Shuttle program, and the International Space Station for more than 31 years. After retiring in 2000, he taught at the University of Houston, served as an aerospace consultant, and co-wrote The Astronaut’s Cookbook.

From his home in rural Missouri, Bourland discussed the early days with us, and what he thinks about the latest plan to age whiskey in space.

What drew you to food science and nutrition originally as an area of study?

I was working in a dairy, and it was family-owned. You had to be family if you wanted a promotion so I decided to go back to graduate school. I got to graduate school and majored in food science and nutrition, but I had no idea that I would get into space nutrition. I just got that job by serendipity.

How did wine first come up in discussion?

They said [Skylab] is going to be a home away from home and if you have a home, a lot of people have a drink now and then. You can’t just take a bottle of booze up there — well, the Russians do. We couldn’t. It had to be packaged in a plastic container inside of a can, and we got that all figured out.

Then word got out that we were working on putting alcohol in space and NASA got a lot of resistance. They surveyed the crew, the first crew that was going up to taste this alcohol, and they said, “Well, we really don’t care either way.” So NASA said let’s do away with that. But we’d already bought the wine and had it in the refrigerator ready to go.

Before NASA said no alcohol in space, were you essentially the wine expert?

[Laughs]. Oh, no. Only thing I knew was how to drink it. I don’t know much about wine. The only reason I got to be in charge of it was my boss was a Mormon. He said, “That would be a good job for you, Dr. Bourland.”

So we went through taste tests and all that kind of stuff to make sure everything was working. We talked with [experts from] the University of California at Davis. They recommended a sherry that we took, Paul Masson’s rare cream sherry. They said, “It’s already been heated so it wouldn’t hurt to repackage it.”

I read that the tests didn’t go well.

For some reason when we opened it up on the zero-G plane, people would just go for their barf bags. I never did understand why. When you’ve got a plane like this, any kind of food you open up just immediately fills the cabin with an odor.

The alcohol didn’t go to waste, right?

No, we had the astronauts three weeks before the Skylab mission. They were partially quarantined but we had to supply all the food. They were on a specified mineral intake. There were seven different nutrients that had to be fairly close all the time, the same amount every day, and wine didn’t affect that so they could have wine.

Do you think wine could have a nutritional benefit for those in space?

I would think so. Most people said that it does here, as long as you don’t overdo it.

Bourland in a NASA kitchen. (Photo: Courtesy of Charles Bourland)

Do you think NASA will ever change its policy?

[Laughs] I don’t know. Back then, they were real sensitive to the press and to the letters they got.

So this whiskey business: The Japanese company Suntory sent some into space.

Did they send it in some kind of wooden barrel?

They’re sent in [glass flasks]. The first was vials of whiskey with charred oak chips in it.

So the chips are in it. I can’t see the advantage of aging in space other than if you had it in a barrel or something.

The idea was that they could potentially get a mellower flavor up in space. What happens that might make them think that?

The surface tension is the only thing that would be different, I think, but that might affect some of the reactions that are going on.

Did you have a favorite space beverage during your time working for NASA?

All the beverages were Tang or Tang-types. The main reason we used those is because they had to be vacuum packed so when you add water it doesn’t have any air bubbles inside. If you vacuum package a natural fruit juice it will harden and it won’t rehydrate when you add the water back.

What’s your alcoholic beverage of choice these days?

I usually drink beer.

Which kind? I have to ask.

You’d be glad to hear this because you’re in Colorado, right? Coors. Hard to find around here, though. Most stores don’t have it.

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