“Two Beds and a Coffee Machine,” sang Savage Garden in 1999, but for the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) the time will soon come for one Italian astronaut, some nutritional food, and a coffee machine, when Samantha Cristoforetti—her country’s first female spacefarer—rockets into orbit on 24 November aboard Soyuz TMA-15M. Joining her for the ride uphill from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan will be Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts … and the first capsule-based espresso coffee system ever to be installed aboard the ISS. Known as “ISSpresso,” the initiative has been developed jointly by the Lavazza coffee giant and the Argotec engineering and software firm, both based in Turin, in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency (ASI). It is expected that Cristoforetti will be first astronaut in history to sample an authentic Italian espresso, brewed and quaffed whilst orbiting almost 240 miles (400 km) above Earth.
Described by Argotec as “a veritable technological and engineering jewel,” the highly complex ISSpresso unit weighs about 44 pounds (20 kg) and its development involved tackling several thorny issues of physics and fluid dynamics in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit. It was reported that one of the key obstacles facing the machine was handling and controlling its liquids at high pressures and temperatures, which requires in the region of eight to 10 bars to produce an optimum espresso. The plastic “steam tube” that normally carries water within an espresso machine was replaced by one of steel, which has the capacity to withstand pressures as high as 400 bars. “There are backups of all the critical components for safety reasons,” explained Argotec, “in accordance with the specifications agreed upon with the Italian Space Agency.”
In the words of David Avino, managing director of Argotec, in a recent video detailing the ISSpresso system, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano had commented in June 2013—barely a week into his six-month “Volare” mission—that the only thing he missed from Earth was a good, authentic espresso. By this time, the effort to build a space-certified espresso machine was already underway. The functional project was completed in June 2013, by which point Argotec had been working on ISSpresso for about a year. In true ISS fashion, the espresso will be served into sealed plastic pouches, which the astronauts and cosmonauts will drink, “hot and steaming,” via a straw. Nor will non-espresso-drinkers be excluded from what is expected to become the station’s corner cafè. “The innovative capsule system,” explained Argotec, “will also be able to prepare not only a regular espresso, but also a caffè lungo or hot beverages, such as tea, infusions and broth, so that food can also be rehydrated.”
According to Giuseppe Lavazza, vice president of the family-owned Lavazza company, founded in 1895 and currently the world’s seventh-ranking coffee roaster, planning for a space-based espresso system has been underway for some time. “Italian coffee is a beverage without borders,” Lavazza explained in an Argotec press release. “Today, we are in a position to overcome the limits of weightlessness and enjoy a good espresso—the indisputable symbol of made-in-Italy products—on board the International Space Station.” He described ISSpresso as “a scientific and engineering challenge which we hope will improve the living and nutrition quality of astronauts engaged on long missions.” Lavazza’s hope is that ISSpresso will evolve into nothing less than “a sort of social network in space,” offering station crews “a venue for getting together, chatting and relaxing.”
In addition to the coffee machine, Argotec is also playing a key role in the training and nutritional support of European Space Agency (ESA) crew members aboard the ISS and developed the space food menus for last year’s “Volare” mission by Luca Parmitano and the ongoing “Blue Dot” mission by Germany’s Alexander Gerst. In support of Samantha Cristoforetti’s forthcoming six-month mission—which received the official name “Futura” in December 2013—Argotec is preparing “a special dedicated menu for her with very simple, easily available and affordable ingredients.” As part of its so-called “Space Food Lab,” the company is preparing foodstuffs with a shelf-life of at least 18-24 months, 100 percent organic, and without salt. Cristoforetti’s official Argotec chef, Stafano Polato, is working with ingredients suggested by the astronaut herself, which include vegetables, chicken, quinoa, brown rice, puffed cereals, dried fruit, fine spices, mackeral, gogj and mixed berries, and apple juice. “The main goal of this study was to lower the amount of sodium content in food and adapt a method of preservation that would not alter the color, fragrance and flavor of food,” explained Argotec, whilst stressing that “our healthy products would also boost the ISS crew psychologically.”