Astronauts Have Been Sneaking Booze into Space for the Past Few Decades

Government space agencies around the world prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages in space.
Donovan Alexander
Cosmonauts enjoying some cognac.NASA

Around the globe, 2 billion people consume alcoholic drinks each year, with adults consuming around 6.4 liters of beer, wine, or spirits on average per year. However, what about the select group of people that are off the planet? Space travel has a long, odd, and slightly comical history with alcohol, even though government space agencies around the world prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages in space.

This means that if you were looking to have a cosmo in the cosmos during your first mission as an astronaut, you might be out of luck. Or are you? The reality is that a surprising amount of booze has been flown into space over the decades. Although smuggled is probably a better term.

The presence of alcohol in space dates all the way back to the late 70s and early 80s, with astronauts finding clever ways to sneak it on board aircraft and the ISS. Agencies worldwide have a wide range of valid reasons why they do not want astronauts cracking open a cold one or anything stronger in space. Today, we are going to look at the history of alcohol in space, the reasons why or why not drinking in space is a good idea, and if having a cold one with friends will even be a possibility in sponsored and commercial space travel. 

Will drinking in space get one drunk quicker? 

Astronauts Have Been Sneaking Booze into Space for the Past Few Decades
American astronauts Tom Stafford and Deke Slayton were presented with tubes apparently holding vodka during an Apollo/Soyuz link-up. Source: NASA/Smithsonian

If you were an astronaut headed to the fringes of space for extended periods of time, you might want to smuggle a few drinks with you too. We already know what you may be thinking. There is a long-standing belief that sipping alcohol at higher altitudes will get you tipsy much faster. One widely-believed theory about this is that drinking in space will have a similar effect. But what does science have to say about that? Though there is little research on the topic, the consensus might surprise you.

Researchers in alpine Europe looked into how the human body processed beer at sea level, versus high up in the mountains, at roughly 10,000 feet (3 kilometers). What did they find? There is no difference, at least in terms of blood-alcohol content. Another study, conducted in the 1980s, echoed this finding. 

In 1985, the United States government commissioned a study that monitored whether alcohol consumed at high altitudes affected the performance of complex tasks. The US Federal Aviation Administration monitored 17 men who were instructed to drink vodka both at ground level and in a chamber that simulated an altitude of 12,500ft (3.7 kilometers). The participants were then asked to complete tasks like mental math, light tracking on an oscilloscope with a joystick, and a range of other tests that challenged both their mental fortitude and motor skills.

The research team found no noticeable difference in their performances. However, do not go cracking open the bottle of cognac yet. 

You probably have been told by friends that they have gotten drunk on a plane faster than usual. Researchers have attributed this phenomenon to what is known as "think-drink." Think drink infers that people act drunker if they think they are drunk, even if they are not consuming alcohol.

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According to David Hanson, a professor emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam who has spent the last four decades researching the effects of alcohol, "If people are flying on an airplane, and they think for whatever reason the alcohol is going to have a different effect on them, they will think that it will have a different effect on them."

Furthermore, and for obvious reasons, there is very little research on the effects of how alcohol impacts the body in space. Different wines, spirits, and beers could affect astronauts in different ways. Even with some evidence supporting the idea that high-altitude drinking has the same effects as low-altitude drinking, agencies will not be letting up on their ban of alcohol in space anytime soon, and for good reason.

You wouldn't fly a plane under the influence

NASA shares this sentiment. There is a lot on the line when traveling to space. We would never let a person under the influence drive a car or fly a plane back on Earth. So, why should things be any different in space? These same rules should more than apply to astronauts traveling thousands of miles per hour through a near-vacuum, or landing an aircraft that could pose a serious danger to those on the ground.

Responsibility is a key driver of NASA's ban on alcohol. So much so that astronauts on the International Space Station are not even allowed to use products that contain any forms of alcohol, like mouthwash, perfume, or aftershave. NASA also has a strict 12-hour prohibition of alcoholic consumption before flying.

Let's just say that some astronauts have followed that rule better than others. 

NASA astronauts have been drunk on duty

In 2007, NASA reported that two of its astronauts got drunk the day before a flight. Further reports by NASA have confirmed that astronauts have been cleared to fly while drunk/hungover at least twice. One case involved the preparations for a shuttle mission that was eventually delayed. The allegedly drunk astronaut wanted to fly on a T-38 trainer jet, which is used by the crew to move between Nasa's Houston center in Texas and the Kennedy launch complex in Florida.

The second case is a little more serious. An astronaut involved in a Russian Soyuz mission bound for the International Space Station was drinking copious amounts of alcohol the day before the mission; so much so that his colleagues recommended that he be bumped from the trip.

Russian cosmonauts have reported they have routinely smuggled bottles of cognac into space

The prohibition of alcohol did not stop the Russians. Cosmonauts are notorious for finding creative ways to bring alcohol into space. There are cases in which participants in the Russian space program hid cognac bottles in their spacesuits in mislabeled juice bottles, and even inside hollowed-out books. And that is not even half of the story. In one case, a cosmonaut hid a bottle of booze in a device used for monitoring blood pressure. In extreme cases, astronauts would go on crash diets before blast off, so they could sneak a bottle in their spacesuits without exceeding the required weight before takeoff. 

Astronauts Have Been Sneaking Booze into Space for the Past Few Decades
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti enjoying an expresso. Source: NASA

Again, although, the story seems funny, space agencies frown on this behavior. One reason is that the use of alcohol and other compounds can directly impact the station's water recovery system once it has been excreted.

Many cosmonauts, like Valery Ryimin, have championed the legalization of alcohol in small amounts in space. His argument is that alcohol helps you fall asleep faster and wake up more refreshed and ready for the next day.

His main goal is to have it approved for use as a sedative. "I am convinced that it's necessary to legalize alcohol in space in small quantities, for example, as a sedative," says Simon.

Interestingly before alcohol was banned, doctors would sometimes encourage the drinking of alcohol during trips to space as it would, "stimulate our immune system and on the whole to keep our organisms in tone."

NASA was not always against alcohol

In some ways, the early days of the NASA space program parallelled the Wild West, or perhaps an episode of Mad Men. It was common for astronauts to prank each other by stashing booze and other forms of banned paraphernalia on a spacecraft before a launch. The NASA astronaut Wally Schirra Jiri of the Mercury program was launched into space with cigarettes and a small bottle of scotch. During the Apollo 8 missions, NASA astronaut Deke Slayton made sure to keep a few bottles of brandy on him. However, he didn't indulge, because he feared that if the mission had gone wrong, NASA would have blamed it on the brandy. So, when did NASA officially ax alcohol? In 1972. 

The upcoming Skylab mission had been promoted as a home away from home for astronauts. NASA scientists actually worked on preparing and selecting food and wines for the missions. They want to find drinks that would still taste good after a turbulent launch. However, NASA took the alcohol off of the menu because of fear of backlash once news leaked to the public of the plan to have booze sent up on Skylab.

Would you like to have a little wine on the Moon?

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic landing on the Moon in 1969. However, before Armstrong would take his famous first steps, Aldrin accomplished another first.

The astronaut enjoyed the first liquid ever poured on the lunar surface - wine. Aldrin, a religiously observant Presbyterian, wanted to take communion on the Moon, to give thanks for a successful mission. He received permission from his church to perform the ceremony himself. As he described later, "I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the Moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup."

The moment of his celebratory drink was not broadcasted because of its religious nature, and to hide the fact that Aldrin had brought alcohol with him. 

Would you like to have a cognac party in space? 

In the 1990s, a picture surfaced of cosmonauts and NASA astronauts aboard the Mir space station having a "cognac party." As we have mentioned before, astronauts have found multiple creative ways to sneak alcohol into space. Cognac and vodka were commonly smuggled beverages. One first-hand account by Cosmonaut Igor Volk breaks down what was done to take alcohol into space. 

"It's impossible to take aboard more weight than the alignment of the seat can handle. My partner Volodya Djanibekov and I thought of everything. A week before the launch, we didn't eat anything except bread and tea, and we lost almost two kilograms (4.4 pounds)", says the cosmonaut. "We packed everything in little cellophane bags, and when we were being dressed, we placed the bags in the spacesuits. That's how I took off with pickles on my stomach."

Is beer safe to drink in space? 

Believe it or not, NASA scientists have been exploring this question for a while. Though pouring yourself a nice cold one here back on Earth is easy, things get much more complicated when dealing with carbonated drinks in microgravity or zero gravity. The same is true for other drinks that include some form of carbonation, like champagne, and non-alcoholic drinks like coke. Carbonation can result in a "foamy mess," says one article by NASA. And, let's be honest, you probably do not want to drink a flat beer, even while suspended in space.

Carbonation does not dissipate in zero-gravity, as it does back here on Earth. "In a weightless environment, bubbles of carbon dioxide ('carbonation') aren't buoyant, so they remain randomly distributed in the fluid," says NASA. So is all hope lost? No. The space agency has developed a microgravity dispenser that could allow astronauts to enjoy a beer more than 200 miles (321 kilometers above the earth). However, technology like this will be reserved for commercial space tourists rather than pilots.

Multiple alcoholic beverages have made it into space

However, it is not what you think. For a little bit of ambitious marketing, various spirit companies like Suntory Japanese Whisky, Ardbeg Scotch, and Coronet Brandy have sent various samples to the ISS to study the mellowing process in a different environment. In short, they are curious about how their spirits age in space. For now, many of these experiments are still going on. We will have to wait to see what will happen in the near future. Nevertheless, alcohol is not completely canceled in space.

On the commercial side of things and for the passengers only, alcohol may well be a part of the space experience, the same way you can buy alcohol on a commercial flight. Entrepreneurs like Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, wants to bring alcohol to Mars and beyond. He is working on a system that could provide future Martian colonies with as much as 60,000 barrels of beer a year.

For now, if you are planning on being an astronaut, please do not fly into space drunk. 

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