As humanity expands to become a multi-planetary species, some important questions must be considered: Can we bring cats? What about dogs? Also, can we make wine in space?
Thankfully, some scientists are hard at work answering the first two questions — and now, a scientist from NASA’s Vegetable Production System called “Veggie” says space viticulture might be possible with the right technology and a lot of patience. Veggie grows a variety of salad-type crops aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for astronauts to enjoy.
Humans have been crafting wine on Earth for thousands of years, and it’s unlikely we’re going to want to kick the habit once we move into space. Just last spring, China sent cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir vines into space to see how they fared in microgravity, the results of which are still pending. While the harsh conditions of the final frontier and lack of space (no pun intended) would complicate wine production, Veggie principal investigator Gioia Massa says growing vines on a spacecraft would not be impossible.
“Wine grapes would be an interesting challenge,” she told Gizmodo. “We have been working with some dwarf fruit trees that the USDA developed, and I have heard that they also have some dwarf grape vines, so if the plants were small enough or could be trained around, for example, lights, it would certainly be possible to grow them.”
Mizuna lettuce growing on board the ISS. (Image: NASA)
NASA is not currently working on growing wine vines in space, though it definitely should be. That said, the agency has some experience growing plants in small chambers aboard the International Space Station (ISS), so the Veggie team knows about growing things in tight areas.
“Most plants for space are super compact, but if you had vines that you could coil or clip a larger plant might be an option,” Massa explained. “Getting light to a sprawling vine is definitely a challenge… you would want very compact varieties.”
Though cramped quarters would make wine production difficult, vines are like weeds in that they’re unbelievably resilient.
“If you can grow or acquire wine grapes, you can make wine anywhere,” Amy Ovecka, a sommelier at Lelabar in New York City told Gizmodo. “We made some in our apartment last year with grapes we bought from somewhere upstate just for fun. It was pretty terrible wine, but it was still technically wine, and I got to watch the actual process as a microcosm which was cool.”
Even with the space situation squared away, there’s still the question of how anything could pollinate wine grapes on a spacecraft. Massa said that next year, astronauts will try and pollinate dwarf tomatoes by hand aboard the ISS. The same practice could possibly be applied to hypothetical space vines.
“For the actual process of wine making I am really not sure, but I would suspect a microbial bioreactor could be developed which would allow the fermentation and other processes to occur in microgravity,” she said. “Fermentation is an anaerobic process so the fact that fluids and gasses don’t mix well in space might not be a problem for that process. You might have to inoculate with the right types of microorganisms but I think it would definitely be possible.”
There might even be advantages to growing wine in space. According to Chris Gerling, an enology extension associate at Cornell University, the upside of space vines is that they wouldn’t be exposed to grapevine diseases or bugs such as phylloxera, which almost decimated France’s wine industry 150 years ago.
“If [NASA] is sustaining human life and plants are surviving, the wine should be OK,” he told Gizmodo. “[Astronauts] would have to bring pre-dried yeast, but I think it would all work. Since NASA can control humidity and temperature and light access to a certain extent, it would probably be great! They’re not going to have issues of weather or disease, so they could probably get those grapes as ripe as they want.”
Hopefully, viticulturists of the future will find the right technology for space wine. I’d like to sip rosé on my trip to Mars, please and thank you.