Coke to send soft drinks into orbit for taste tests

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The next time astronauts fly in the space shuttle, they plan to spend 18 hours proving they have the right stuff to test the Real Thing.

As part of NASA's attempts at getting commercial research into space, the Coca-Cola company is sponsoring an unusual experiment.

The company is mixing up the ingredients in Coke and Diet Coke, and then asking three astronauts to spend two hours pouring, drinking and grading the soda. Commander James Wetherbee, pilot Eileen Collins and payload commander Bernard Harris will do this three times in the eight-day flight of the shuttle Discovery, scheduled for launch Feb. 2.

The stated goal is two-pronged: to see exactly what happens when you mix the fluids and to make better Coke. Don't expect astronauts to be featured in a Coke commercial, but the flying soda machine going with them is adorned with red-and-white company logos.

After setting up and turning on the intricate mixing machine that eventually will pour out 50 ounces each of Coke and Diet Coke, the three astronauts will take some swigs and then grade the soda on carbonation, sweetness, tartness and flavor, Coke officials said.

Coke spent $750,000 to develop the experiment as part of a private consortium called BioServe Space Technologies, of which Coke is a corporate sponsor. That was enough to get on the shuttle's Spacehab research module, NASA officials said.

"It's serious enough that I'm not going to make fun of it," said Edward A. Gabris, NASA's space processing division director, who added that no other experiment was bumped to make room for Coke.

Knowing how perceptions change and that most things taste sweeter in space, Coke can develop a better drink for spaceflight, Coca-Cola scientist Ashis Sen Gupta said.

The test also may help Coke create special drinks for the elderly, because low gravity simulates what age does to human taste buds, Mr. Gupta said.

The experiment also will show how fluid and carbonation can be mixed for future nonsoda uses, such as giving carbonated water to hydroponic plants so they can grow faster, Mr. Gabris said.

Mr. Harris said he is looking forward to the experiment because when he last flew in the shuttle, the food turned out to be bland and he complained. He thinks the test could help make food taste better in space.

But another Discovery astronaut, Michael Foale, said he was glad he won't have to take the Coke taste test.

"I think gassy drinks in space are not a good deal," he said, because they can cause stomach upset. "If I can reduce gas in orbit, I would just as soon do it."

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