Travelling thousands of miles above the Earth, into the great inky unknown, is hard work. It’s stressful and scary. So why shouldn’t astronauts treat themselves to an end-of-Earth-day cocktail to unwind?
Unfortunately for space explorers looking to wet their whistle, consuming alcoholic beverages is widely prohibited by the government agencies that send them to places like the International Space Station.
But soon, everyday people might have their own chance to venture out to the final frontier — in the form of civilian trips to explore and colonise Mars. Surely booze should be permitted on such a harrowing, one-way trip that will take years to complete? Or at least equipment to ferment homebrewed beverages on the planet itself?
The truth is, booze has historically had a complicated relationship with space exploration. Let’s take a look at what exactly could happen to astronauts who drink alcohol — and what might happen if we start sending more libations to humans in space.
There is a widely held belief that getting sloshed at higher altitudes makes you feel woozier faster. So it would seem logical to assume drinking alcohol while in orbit could have even more bizarre effects on humans. But this notion may not actually be true.
In fact, there is evidence that debunks this myth that dates back to the 1980s. In 1985, the US Federal Aviation Administration conducted a study that monitored whether alcohol consumed at simulated altitudes affected performances of complex tasks and breathalyser readings.
In the study, 17 men were asked to down some vodka both at ground level and in a chamber that simulated an altitude of 12,500ft (3.7 kilometres). They were then asked to complete tasks including mental maths, tracking lights on an oscilloscope with a joystick, and a variety of other tests. The researchers found “there was no interactive effect of alcohol and altitude on either breathalyzer readings or performance scores.”
So, is getting drunk faster while flying a myth? Dave Hanson, a professor emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam who has researched alcohol and drinking for over 40 years, thinks it is. “I can’t imagine it would be any different [drinking in space],” he says.
He does think that altitude sickness could mimic hangovers, but it could also mimic intoxication. “If people aren’t adequately pressurised, they can feel intoxicated as well,” he says.
People who claim to have got drunk on a plane, in a way that’s faster than normal, could just be experiencing the ‘think-drink’ effect
Instead, people who claim to have got drunk on a plane, in a way that’s faster than normal, could just be experiencing the “think-drink” effect, which has been studied extensively over the years. It suggests that people are going to act more drunk if they think they are drunk — not if they’ve actually been consuming alcohol.
“If people are flying on an aeroplane, and they think for whatever reason the alcohol is going to have a different effect on them, they will think that it will have a different effect on them,” says Hanson.
So if there’s no added physical effect, having a little nightcap aboard the ISS shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Wrong.
Use of alcohol and other volatile compounds are controlled on ISS due to the impacts their compounds can have on the station’s water recovery system – Daniel G Huot
“Alcohol is not permitted onboard the International Space Station for consumption,” says Daniel G Huot, spokesperson for Nasa’s Johnson Space Center. “Use of alcohol and other volatile compounds are controlled on ISS due to impacts their compounds can have on the station’s water recovery system.”
For this reason, astronauts on the space station are not even provided with products that contain alcohol, like mouthwash, perfume, or aftershave. Spilling beer during some drunken orbital hijinks could also risk damaging equipment.
Then there is the issue of responsibility. We don’t allow car drivers or jet pilots to be drunk and in charge of their vehicles, so it is hardly surprising the same rules apply to astronauts inside a $150 billion space station travelling through a near vacuum at 17,200mph.
Yet, back in 2007, an independent panel set up by Nasa to look into the health of astronauts stated there had been at least two astronauts in the agency’s history had consumed heavy amounts of alcohol in the immediate pre-flight period, but were still permitted to fly. A subsequent review by Nasa’s head of safety could find no evidence to substantiate the claims. Astronauts are strictly prohibited from drinking 12 hours before flying as they require full presence of mind and awareness.
The reason for the rules is clear. In the same 1985 FAA study on the effects of alcohol at altitude, the researchers concluded that every little bit counts. Regardless of the altitude the subjects drank at, breathalyzer readings were the same. Their performance was also equally impaired, but those who had a placebo at altitude performed worse than those who had a placebo at sea level. It suggests that altitude, regardless of alcohol consumption, can have a slight effect on mental performance. The study concludes this “serves to reduce further whatever margin of safety remains in performance skills following alcohol ingestion".
There could be another reason to avoid frothy drinks like beer – without the assistance of gravity, liquid and gases can tumble around in an astronaut’s stomach, causing them to produce rather soggy burps.
Yet, despite the strict rules, it does not mean that humans in space never come into contact with fermented liquids. There have been plenty of experiments aboard the ISS that involve alcohol — but nothing involving extensive human consumption, so no one really extensively knows how the human body would react.
Apparently for the Skylab programme, they considered sending sherry with the astronauts, but it didn’t test well on the zero-G flights – Stephanie Schierholz
“We do study all sorts of ways astronauts’ bodies change in space, including at the microbial level,” says Stephanie Schierholz, Nasa’s Press Secretary. “And we have a very robust nutrition programme to ensure their bodies get what they need to stay healthy. Apparently for the Skylab programme, they considered sending sherry with the astronauts, but it didn’t test well on the zero-G flights.”
Schierholz adds the sherry used in the tests “prompted gag reflex, and the public also objected.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, the first liquid to be drunk on the surface of the moon was wine. Buzz Aldrin has said in interviews and in his book that he sipped a small amount of wine while taking communion before he and Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander module in 1969. The ceremony took place during a pause in communications so was never broadcast.
While Nasa has long had strict rules on alcohol in space, the Russians appear to have been more relaxed in the past. Cosmonauts on board its Mir space station were allowed small amounts of cognac and vodka. There were apparently grumblings when they found out the ISS would be dry.
Japanese brewer Suntory shipped some of its whisky to the space station as part of an experiment to monitor mellowness in alcoholic beverages in microgravity
The odd tipple, however, does still find its way onto the ISS. In 2015, Japanese brewer Suntory — which has its own Global Innovation Center — shipped some of its award-winning whisky to the space station. It was part of an experiment aimed to monitor “development of mellowness in alcoholic beverages through the use of a microgravity environment”. In other words, the way booze ages in microgravity could be different, causing it to taste better, faster. And that’s something every distillery on Earth would want to learn more about.
And a few years earlier, from September 2011 to September 2014, Nasa sponsored an experiment that studied microgravity’s effect on whisky and the charred oak wood that aids in the aging process. After nearly 1,000 days in space, the tannins in the whisky remained unchanged — but the space wood chips yielded higher concentrations of flavour-imparting lignin breakdown products.
“This observation has implications for not just the malt whisky industry, but those of the food and drinks industry in general,” Nasa remarked. “The difference in flavour between the ISS and control samples is so marked, that further analysis is needed to decipher the creation of the different flavors.”
So even though astronauts are banned from drinking alcohol themselves while in orbit, the work they are doing could improve the quality of booze for consumption back here on land.
It would be a potential area of conflict, because of people’s cultural backgrounds, they’ll see it differently – Dave Hanson, State University of New York
With missions to Mars that will see humans away from home for years rather than months, there could now be an argument to relax some of the rules on drinking.
Experts like Hanson, however, see no harm in continuing to prohibit alcohol. Beyond the practical safety concerns, there could be other challenges. Hanson thinks that Earthlings’ many socio-cultural differences, flaring up in tight quarters for years on end, will make boozing trickier, too.
“It’s a political thing. It’s a cultural thing. It’s not a scientific thing,” he says. “It would be a potential area of conflict, because of people’s cultural backgrounds, they’ll see it differently.” What if you’re sharing quarters with Muslims, Mormons, or teetotallers? Harmonising cultural viewpoints in confined spaces for a guaranteed indefinite amount of time is something that needs “to be ironed out early on,” Hanson posits.
So, it seems that astronauts will have to settle for lifting their spirits by enjoying the view out of the window rather than indulging in hard spirits while in orbit. It will be up to those of us left behind to make sure a proper amount of champagne is ready and awaiting to toast their homecoming.
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