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January 9: The Link Between Beer and Space Settlement

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Date: January 9, 2009

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Title: The Link Between Beer and Space Settlement

Podcaster: Ian O’Neill

Description: 2008 was a landmark year for one Japanese beer producer. Sapporo Brewery bottled 100 litres of beer brewed from barley entirely grown on board the International Space Station. Although the “Space Beer” won’t actually be drunk in space (which seems a shame somehow!) and won’t be available in markets, it is more than just a clever marketing ploy by the company. This product, made entirely with ingredients grown in Earth orbit, signifies an important step for mankind. We are now able to cultivate foodstuffs in microgravity, possibly giving us the freedom from our dependence on expensive supply launches from Earth. As we begin settling on the Moon, Mars and beyond, we need to develop the food cultivation technology; “Space Beer” is one of the first (and most publicised) steps toward this ultimate goal…

Links:  Astroengine, Astronengine Live, Universe Today

Bio: Dr O’Neill gained his PhD in Solar Physics (coronal loop dynamics) at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (UK) in 2006 and has since focused on the communication of science to the public. On moving to California to live with his wife Debra (and five white rabbits) he has been able to devote much of his energy to space science writing. He is a regular contributor to the Universe Today space news website (www.universetoday.com), a space journalist for Space Lifestyle Magazine (www.spacelifestylemagazine.com), Communications Officer for the Mars Foundation (www.marshome.org) and he is the publisher of Astroengine.com (www.astroengine.com), his own popular space news and opinion blog.

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to the January 9th podcast of the International Year of Astronomy. My name is Ian O’Neill, space science writer for the Universe Today website and publisher of Astroengine.com. I also run a weekly radio broadcast on WPRT Radio called Astroengine Live where you can hear about the week’s advances in space exploration, astronomy and small institution news. For more information about Astroengine Live, go to www.astroenginelive.com. 2009 promises to be a landmark year for space science endeavour, and I hope to bring you the best bits as the weeks progress.

Today, on the ninth day of the “365 Days of Astronomy”, I am going to delve into the important science behind what seems to be an impressive marketing ploy by a Japanese brewing company. In fact, the implications of this highly publicised stunt may indicate a new independence for manned spaceflight.

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Sapporo Brewery is one of Japan’s oldest beer producing companies. The company’s history starts back in the end of the 19th century in the fifth-largest city of Sapporo, in the northern island of Hokkaido. Today, beer is no longer produced in the city, but the company lives on, producing the popular beverage in locations around Japan and Canada.

The company’s longevity is possibly down to the way it embraces modern brewing practices, but it also has a keen eye for marketing. The Sapporo Brewing Company has now set its sights on far loftier heights.

Back in May, Sapporo announced it had joined forces with Okayama University, located in the south of the country, and the Russian Space Agency, to use barley grown on the International Space Station, as an ingredient for the world’s first “Space Beer”. The three consecutive generations of barley had already spent 5 months in the microgravity environment of the orbiting outpost in 2006. After eight months of waiting, 100 litres of Space Beer has been bottled and awaits a special beer tasting event in Tokyo this month.

However, the beer will not be commercially available, and it certainly will not be consumed in space, as the name may suggest. Firstly, it is a very limited edition “pure space-grown barley” beer, only to be tasted by 60 people chosen via an exclusive Japanese lottery. Secondly, if the fizzy liquid were to be drunk in zero-gravity, there will be some rather unappealing side-effects. Down here on Earth, bubbles inside a carbonated liquid fizz to the surface, counteracting gravity. As you drink, the liquid and gas separate, letting you release the gas as a burp. NASA experiments in the 1980′s on carbonated liquids in microgravity showed that the gas and the liquid do not separate; as you try to burp, you release the liquid as well. This is known as a “wet burp”, guaranteed not to win you any friends if you were drinking on the International Space Station! Besides I doubt mission control would be very happy about letting its astronauts drink and drive the Space Shuttle…

As you can tell, the idea of Space Beer is fun, but ultimately pretty useless as a scientific endeavour. We can’t buy it down the market yet, and we certainly cannot drink it in space.

OK, perhaps it might taste different? Surely a beer brewed from barley grown in space will taste different from normal beer? Perhaps even better?

Actually, there will be no difference between a beer made with space-grown barley and a beer made with Earth-grown barley. In July, the results of space-grown barley DNA testing were presented at a Canadian conference. The conclusions were both rather dull and rather exciting. Biologists had found that even after 5 months of cultivation in space, and 3 generations later, that there was no discernable difference between the space barley and barley grown on Earth. Alas, the beer brewed from space barley would taste no different from beer brewed from Earth-barley.

So now we have a beer that you cannot buy, that you cannot actually drink in space and even if you could drink it, the beer would probably taste no different than a pint pulled down your local pub. If this was supposed to be a grand marketing ploy, you’d be forgiven for thinking the management of Sapporo might be drinking a little too much of their own product!

But wait. Actually, not one newspaper or news website passed on the opportunity of reporting on the Space Beer. Sapporo has now become synonymous with a beer that was produced with ingredients from space. Not only that, the whole event appears to be highly popular, people are talking about a key International Space Station experiment that directly relates to a product we are very familiar with. Sapporo has possibly done something very clever; not only by doing something “new” but by proving one of the oldest breweries around is branching out into the 21st century, proving they are modern thinkers with an inventive, scientific mentality.

Also, the DNA results are very encouraging. Although space barley may not produce a beer that tastes any different to the normal stuff, it goes to show that this tough grain does not easily suffer any alterations to its genetic make-up after long periods growing and germinating for several generations in microgravity conditions. In this particular series of experiments on board the space station, it wasn’t only barley that was grown. Wheat, peas and lettuce were also successfully farmed and all seem to show that food can be grown in space for long periods. The lack of genetic mutation in the DNA of these basic foodstuffs means that there is a reduced likelihood that these plants will lose nutritional value or possibly poison future astronauts and Solar System colonists.

In fact, Okayama University biologist Manabu Sugimoto said:

In the future, we may reach a point where humans will spend an extended period of time in space and must grow food to sustain ourselves [...] In the long run, we hope our space research will be not just about producing food, but about enjoying food and relaxing [in space].”

As mankind spends more time in Earth orbit, eventually exploring and hopefully settling on the Moon and Mars, the supply chain from the Earth will eventually have to be severed. Of course there will be a high degree of dependence on our planet for commodities and equipment; but we need to develop innovative ways of cultivating basic crops in space and on other worlds. It would be very costly and wasteful to continuously supply settlements on other planets, therefore building materials, water and fuel will need to be extracted from the local extraterrestrial environment. Equally as important will be to farm staple foods (such as barley and wheat) and recycle resources where and when possible. This is what we’ll need: self-sustaining settlements so resources don’t need to be shipped from Earth.

So, although the Sapporo Space Beer marketing gimmick has probably helped the company’s advertising campaign, it has also increased awareness of the useful science being carried out on the International Space Station, it has proven that plants grown in space can be used to produce an everyday product, and it has given us a glimpse into a possible self-sustaining future for mankind to spread from planet-to-planet.

All that is needed now is to use the water from the space station’s urine recycler in the beer brewing process and we’ll have an authentic, sustainable Space Beer that can be produced anywhere in the Solar System! I wonder if that Space Beer would taste any different…

***

Thank you for listening to today’s podcast, I hope you enjoyed it. Be sure to tune in every day at the same place for 365 Days of Astronomy during this International Year of Astronomy.

365 Days of Astronomy
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The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.

9 Responses to “January 9: The Link Between Beer and Space Settlement”

  1. Kelly, Oxygen says:

    Very cool. Impressive work you are doing. Thinking that we are one foot step away from having an alternative planet to live on lets be sure we treat it with more respect!

  2. Mike T. says:

    I do not think or approve of using the ISS to grow beer seeds, I do not work, pay taxes for some beer company to use the ISS for advertising prepossess. We should use the ISS for scientific prepossess only, not for brewing beers.

  3. Ian O'Neill says:

    Hi Mike,

    I can see your concern, but surely any publicity of a science based barley-growing effort on the space station is a good thing? Sure, Sapporo profited from this, but it also put the science behind crop growing efforts in the limelight (after all, the whole point wasn’t to make beer from the stuff – the 3rd gen barley was grown in 2006, it wasn’t until 2008 that the Space Beer concept was drawn up). There needs to be more public outreach/industry projects like this so ISS science gets the recognition it deserves.

    Cheers, Ian

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