Rice Students Make A Better Cup Of Space Coffee

Since the days of the Apollo Program, astronauts have been complaining about the coffee. For consumption in space, it comes freeze dried in aluminum pouches, and the taste isn't very good. A group of engineering students from Rice University set out to make space station more like the real thing. It turns out their design may be useful on the International Space Station for more than just a cup of joe.


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When Astronauts drink coffee in space, it’s hardly a gourmet experience. Like all liquids aboard the International Space Station, coffee comes freeze dried in an aluminum pouch. Astronauts rehydrate the pouch with hot water from a dispenser and drink through a leak-proof straw. The problem is that they can’t add anything to it because it might leak and damage the equipment. For now, there are just four ways astronauts can have their premixed coffee: black, with lots of sugar, lots of cream, or lots of both.

That’s how the Texas Space Grant Consortium described the problem to Rice students Robert Johnson, Benjamin Young and Colin Shaw in their Intro to Engineering class.

From the start, they started imagining what it would feel like for their design to go into space. This is Shaw:

“I think in first grade when I assembled all of the Jupiter and all of its moons. I thought being an Astronaut would be pretty cool. Since then I have toned down my dreams a little bit to just send stuff to the ISS.”

coffee roller
A handle for the custom roller system may help astronauts deliver just the right amount of cream and sugar for pouches of hot coffee consumed in orbit. A team of Rice University freshman engineering students developed the system for NASA. [Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Caption by Mike Williams]

Throughout the year, Shaw’s team developed a system using aluminum pouches and a 3D printed roller to help Astronauts customize their coffee.

They had to develop a way to pour exact amounts of cream and sugar into coffee without the use of gravity. They started by putting creamer and sugar into aluminum pouches. They adapted NASA’s leak-proof straws to link the pouches together. Then they designed a special roller to push the condiments out of the bag. It looks like those plastic gadgets used to squeeze the last drops of toothpaste out of a tube.  The execution? It’s pretty easy.

First you add hot water to the coffee pouch. And then…

“I connect the pouch to pouch adapter from the coffee pouch to the sugar pouch. I unclip the clamp and start proportioning my sugar.”

A few cranks of the roller and the sugar is pushed into the coffee through the special straw. The lines on the pouch tell you exactly how much is going in. Same with the non-dairy creamer.

“I mix it around a little bit, unclip the clamp, and drink.”

Compared to the condiment bar at Starbucks, it might seem complicated, but the students say it’s a small sacrifice for the ability to make a perfectly blended drink. They hope that with more testing their invention will be ready to go up to the International Space Station.

NASA has told them that it might have other uses, like any time a precise amount of liquid has to be dispensed without the help of gravity, for example with IVs.


Below is the Rice University video “Space coffee gets an upgrade.”

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