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A giant hop for mankind

Date

Willie Simpson

Final frontier... Vostok ''space beer'' creators Jason Held (left) and Jaron Mitchell at 4 Pines Brewing.

Final frontier... Vostok ''space beer'' creators Jason Held (left) and Jaron Mitchell at 4 Pines Brewing. Photo: Lee Besford

We can put a man on the moon but we haven't yet developed the technology to allow him to enjoy a beer on the way. Not quite, anyway, according to space engineer Jason Held, who is developing Vostok - a so-called ''space beer'' - in collaboration with 4 Pines Brewing, Manly.

Vostok is based on the recipe for 4 Pines Stout, with a modified carbonation that is more suitable for zero gravity and other conditions experienced during space travel.

''Gases and liquids don't separate at zero gravity, which makes dispensing difficult but also means any burp will be wet,'' Held says. ''[Personally] I like to drink the dark stuff - porters, stouts and dark ales - but stout also has the best wiggle room for changing carbonation levels while still keeping taste.

''We knew we had to reduce carbonation but didn't know how much. Removing all the bubbles in the beer just results in an alcoholic tea, so the task [was in] finding that sweet spot between flavour, bubbles and comfort.''

After conducting initial taste tests, Held dropped samples of different recipes from a high tower at a Queensland research station - ''To give a brief glance of how beer bubbles respond to very short times in zero gravity,'' he says.

Later, a Vostok prototype, with about half the normal carbonation level, was tested during a commercial parabolic flight from the US space headquarters in Cape Canaveral, Florida. ''This is a modified 737 [aircraft] flying in a roller-coaster path which allows you to experience a dozen 30-second sets of floating in zero gravity,'' Held says.

''The tester drank six samples - nearly a litre of beer - while experiencing the full range [of conditions] from nearly [double] Earth's gravity, down to zero.''

The guinea pig space traveller ended up wearing a fair bit of the beer sample. ''We're pretty happy with the carbonation level but now we're working on the design of the container,'' Held says.

Other space projects have been undertaken by breweries.

''Heineken researched beer dispensing, Sapporo researched growing hops and barley [in space], and Coors actually brewed a thimbleful of beer on a Space Shuttle mission,'' Held says. ''But we are the first to cover drinking.''

The US-born Held completed his doctorate in Australia and lives in Manly. When the 4 Pines brew-pub opened within walking distance of his home, he and his wife became regular customers.

''They didn't actually know what I did for a living until I walked in one day and asked how they felt about having their beer in space,'' Held says. ''Once they got over their surprise, things evolved naturally.''

Held's company, Saber Astronautics, specialises in ''spacecraft diagnostics'' but he sees the space-beer project as a potentially lucrative sideline in the future age of ''space tourism''.

''More people will fly [in space] in only a few years than in the entire history of space flights,'' he says. And while such travellers might provide his target market, Held wants astronauts to share in the beer experience.

''Astronauts might pack a little bottle of beer to celebrate a birthday or special occasion while they're in space,'' he says. ''We know that morale can be a problem on extended space missions and if anyone deserves a good beer it's them.''

Held says beer drinking ''may also protect against bone-density loss and radiation damage - two of the biggest health problems in long-duration space flights''.

Suddenly, drinking beer in space makes a whole lot of sense.

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