Space coffee gets an upgrade

Rice University students work with NASA to provide orbiting astronauts the perfect cup

It’s hard to get a perfect cup of coffee in space. But Rice University freshmen are trying to fix that.

The engineering students charged with the task of making a better coffee condiment system for the International Space Station (ISS) have come up with a solution they believe will please the astronauts.

The students, Robert Johnson, Colin Shaw and Benjamin Young, were told of astronauts’ longtime frustration over getting coffee the way they like it. They chose the project offered through the Texas Space Grant Consortium as part of their Introduction to Engineering Design class in the fall and continued to perfect their product this spring.

“The issue is that they only have four set ratios of coffee, creamer and sugar,” Shaw said.

“They have coffee black, coffee with a lot of sugar, coffee with a lot of creamer and coffee with a lot of both. It’s all premixed.”


Rice University students, from left, Robert Johnson, Benjamin Young and Colin Shaw show their coffee condiment system for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The freeze-dried blends are in aluminum pouches. Astronauts rehydrate their java with 70-degree Celsius water from a dispenser on the ISS and drink it through a leak-proof straw that keeps stray drops from floating around the station, where they could do serious damage.

“That syrupy coffee tastes pretty terrible,” Shaw said. “So we developed this system that allows astronauts to customize their coffee. If they know what they like on Earth, they know what they like in orbit.”

Their adviser at Johnson Space Center’s Space Food Systems Laboratory set few constraints. “He gave us a variety of plastic and aluminum pouches and adapters, and just said, ‘Go,’” Shaw said. “Our solution had to be small, lightweight, function in microgravity and proportion condiments accurately. We felt it was best addressed by making a system that supplemented the existing solution, as opposed to totally reinventing it.”

The students’ four-part system works with existing black coffee pouches. They used two-ply, heat-sealed pouches supplied by NASA for the sugar and creamer and a roller system to squeeze just the right amount through an adapter to the coffee pouch without leaking. The two-element roller was made on a 3-D printer at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where they worked with advisers Ann Saterbak, a professor in the practice of bioengineering education, and engineering lecturer Matthew Wettergreen. The students’ design was inspired by similar devices that squeeze the last drop of toothpaste out of a tube.


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

Since the condiment bags can’t be reused, the students wanted to get maximum efficiency from each. “We want to have one set of pouches able to serve two cups of coffee with two cubes of sugar and two packets of creamer for two astronauts in one day,” Young said.

Gauges applied to the pouches allow for accurate dispensing. “We did a lot of testing for accuracy,” Johnson said. The team determined the system could deliver 10 milliliters of creamer or sugar within a 5 percent margin of error

The students would love the opportunity to test their invention themselves aboard the ISS, but would be happy with a thumbs-up from the astronauts.

“I was reading an interview with an astronaut on Reddit the other day,” Shaw said, “and he was asked, ‘What’s your favorite thing up in orbit?’ He said it was the Russian shrimp and tartar sauce, because it’s crunchy and has a lot of flavor. We hope that coffee will soon be on that list.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.