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Druuuuuugs In Spaaaaaaaace: Will astronauts be able to catch a buzz on the Red Planet?

By Daniel Oberhaus on March 26, 2017

For the first time since the Apollo era, space travel is exciting again. Thanks to the rise of private space companies like SpaceX, crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit are back in vogue. Both NASA and SpaceX have plans to slingshot crews around the moon next year, the European, Russian and Japanese space agencies all want to get boots on the moon in the 2020s, and both NASA and SpaceX are racing to get humans on Mars in the 2030s.

But with such big plans for humanity’s interplanetary future on the books, it’s time to start asking the important questions, like, will astronauts be able to catch a buzz on the Red Planet?

The question is only partly theoretical. Although NASA does have a random drug testing policy, which would seem to preclude astronauts from smuggling a nug onto a rocket,alcohol has gone orbital before. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this proud tradition began with Russian cosmonauts, who were advised by their doctors to drink cognac on the Russian Mir space station to keep them “in tone” and help them relax. 

Although drinking for your mental health in space is questionable medical advice, there’s no question that space can be a stressful place. In fact, in 1997, a fire broke out on the Mir space station after a canister used to generate oxygen began to leak. The situation, which could have easily become fatal for all involved, was handled quickly and professionally by the cosmonauts and the one NASA astronaut visiting the space station.

But after the smoke had cleared, the cosmonauts decided to do what anyone would do after a particularly stressful day on the job: They decided to have some cognac.

Russian cosmonauts sippin’ on some cognac on board the Mir space station in 1997, just hours after a fire had broken out and nearly killed them. Image: Jerry Linenger/NASAJerry Linenger, the NASA astronaut on board the space station with the Russians, refused to partake in the festivities, partly due to NASA’s more stringent policies against drinking in space. Still, NASA astronauts are no prudes. Aside from the allegations that two NASA astronauts once flew while drunk, Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon, had brought some wine along with him, which he poured into a chalice to take communion to mark the occasion. 

Furthermore, when NASA was planning menus for astronauts visiting the Skylab, the precursor to the International Space Station, the topic of whether or not to include alcohol came up. NASA initially okayed the idea, deciding that sherry would be the drink of choice to send to orbit since it was the least likely to spoil or have its taste ruined by microgravity.

After deciding on Paul Masson California Rare Cream Sherry, NASA bulk ordered the stuff with the intention of sending it with the astronauts to the space station. But after testing it in a suborbital plane that is used to simulate microgravity conditions, appropriately known as the “Vomit Comet,” it was found that the smell of the sherry made astronauts on board feel even more nauseous than they did already. Moreover, once the word about the agency’s plans to send booze to space reached the public, NASA was on the receiving end of a hate-mail shit storm and decided to drop alcohol from the menu.

Still, the dream of microbrews in microgravity lives on. An experiment from the University of Colorado in 2001, which sent some yeast to the International Space Station, found that brewing beer in space works better than on Earth. Unfortunately, beer will probably not be the beverage of choice for future Martians due to how microgravity would affect the foam—basically, the bubbles wouldn’t rise in a low-gravity environment and the foam wouldn’t come to a head.

But perhaps something a little bit harder? In 2015, a Japanese distillery sent some samples of a 21-year old single malt whisky to the International Space Station for a few years to see how microgravity affects the aging process. Although astronauts on board weren’t supposed to touch the whisky, that same year a Scottish distillery announced they were developing a glass that was specifically meant to be used to drink whisky in low-gravity environments.

Cannabis is something of a trickier problem. Earthlings are still trying to make the stuff legal on terra firma, so the idea of interplanetary indica is probably unlikely to fly any time soon. Still, the folks at SeedHub and High Times bravely pioneered suborbital cannabis in 2013, when they sent dozens of cannabis seeds, a clone and a joint to the edge of space with a weather balloon.

Moreover, real space technology is helping cannabis cultivators grow better dank on Earth. A Canadian research company that is working on developing technologies to grow plants on board the International Space Station and eventually Mars is also licensing its technology to medicinal grow ops to help them optimize their grows for patients’ needs.

There’s also the question of whether you’d even want to get loaded in orbit. As the NASAThese tubes, given to Americans during the historic linkup between NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts in 1975, have logos from Russian vodka on them, but actually contain beet soup. Image: NASA astronauts in the vomit comet found out, the idea of some wine sounds great until you're actually in zero Gs—then it's nauseating due to space adaptation syndrome, otherwise known as motion sickness. Spaceflight also messes with the body’s natural processes in other ways that might lead to some bad vibes or dangerous physical reactions when under the influence in space. For example, astronauts lose up to 20 percent of their blood volume in space, so adding a natural blood thinner like wine to the mix could be a recipe for disaster. Likewise, blood and other bodily fluids tend to pool in the upper body during spaceflight, which results in facial swelling and intercranial pressure, so smoking some headband isn’t likely to help this situation.

When Baron Hilton of Hilton Hotels was making plans for a lunar hotel back in the ʼ60s, his designs included a lounge where guests could sip cocktails made by robots. Hilton was truly a man ahead of his time, a businessman thinking about the best ways to satisfy his customers paying large sums to go to space. Musk’s plans for a giant interplanetary transport ship to Mars includes things like a pizza parlor and game room, so perhaps he could be persuaded to design an astro-bar or smoker’s lounge. In any case, now that private companies are taking the helm of space exploration, perhaps this "customer’s always right" mindset will open up some wiggle room when it comes to getting buzzed in space.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

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