In the early 1970s, with the success of the moon landing under its belt, the United States’ space agency, NASA, began exploring the possibility of longer-term missions including habitation of human-made earth-orbiters. During their preparations for the steps that became what we know today as space stations, NASA tested the idea of stocking wine with the astronaut’s decidedly disgusting “food”. The wine of choice? Sherry.
Sherry was chosen because of its stability. Its heavier alcohol and sugar content help to preserve it longer and, as all foods and liquids on space missions require special packaging, the wine would need “rebottling”. NASA even got so far as to assign astronauts a four-ounce ration of sherry for every four days of their mission.
But sherry never actually made it into space. During low-gravity tests on a plane they called the “Vomit Comet” some astronauts got sick from the mixture of the wine smell and permanent stale smell of the plane when they opened the plastic sherry packages. That combined with the relative indifference of American astronauts to bringing booze on board and an outcry of public disapproval led to NASA’s alcohol-in-orbit idea ending even before it began.
Who best to beat the Americans in their failed spirits in space scheme? You guessed it! It’s the Russians that pioneered alcohol in humanity’s most pioneering venture.
Retired Russian cosmonaut, Alexander Lazutkin, who spent time on his country’s Mir space station, admitted in 2010 that the Russians had been consuming alcohol in space for years. “During prolonged space missions, especially at the beginning of the Space Age, we had alcoholic drinks in the cosmonaut’s rations,” Lazutkin told the Interfax news agency.
The drink of choice was cognac which Russian doctors recommended to “stimulate (our) immune system and on the whole keep (our) organisms in tone,” Lazutkin reminisced. He went on to say that the Ministry of Public Health even endorsed alcohol consumption during space flight “for neutralizing the harmful effects of the atmosphere”. These effects included an almost catastrophic event involving a near-fatal leak on Mir due to a collision with a supply transport, an event after which the crew “resorted to alcohol”, Lazutkin joyfully recounted.
Astronauts have even been known to settle some space jitters before they lift a foot off the ground. In 2007, the United States’ space agency NASA released a report describing incidents of alcohol abuse by space pilots while they were flying. On at least two occasions, the agency found that “astronauts had been so intoxicated prior to flight that flight surgeons and/or fellow astronauts raised concerns to local on-scene leadership regarding flight safety. However, the individuals were still permitted to fly.”
The New York Times picked up the issue showing that NASA’s “rules regarding alcohol and astronauts are somewhat vague”. It also quoted Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed non-fiction work, The Right Stuff, which described the drinking habits of the space program including those of sound-barrier-breaker, Chuck Yeager. Yeager had a few drinks a couple of days before his famed flight not because “two days later the big test was coming up,” but because “night had come and he was a pilot at Muroc (Air Force Base). In keeping with the military tradition of Flying and Drinking, that’s what you did, for no other reason than that the sun had gone down.”
One Astronaut Alcohol story that The Right Stuff and the Russians missed actually happened before NASA began toying with space sherry. The second man on the moon, the religious Buzz Aldrin, brought along everything needed to say the Christian rite of communion before stepping out of the lunar module, including wine. Aldrin described what it was like to pour the first liquid ever on the moon in a 1970 account of the event saying that when he poured the wine from his plastic care package that, “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.”
Aldrin had originally planned to broadcast his communal passage but NASA was already receiving flack from an atheist activist angry with a biblical reading read from a previous orbital mission. Aldrin ultimately recited communion to himself from the surface of the moon. Despite how personally meaningful it was for him, he later questioned his own actions as he had performed a Christian ritual when his voyage was for all humanity regardless of religion.
Perhaps Aldrin’s devout gesture wasn’t the most politically correct thing to do, but it may have been good for his health. A 2011 study on rats discovered that a component of red wine called resveratrol protects against bone density loss and insulin resistance, both of which humans experience during prolonged periods in space.
With such beneficial side effects of drinking alcohol in the endless wonder beyond our atmosphere, in the near future, when space tourism is as common as a trip to Disney World, you’ll likely be able to order a gravity-defying martini.