Twelve bottles of Bordeaux red were launched into space on Saturday November 2nd at 9.59am. Not by an angry drinker, but as part of a project designed and financed by Space Cargo Unlimited (SCU).
SCU is a private, Bordeaux-based space start-up that aims to develop innovative food and agricultural solutions. It was founded by serial entrepreneurs Nicolas Gaume and Emmanuel Etcheparre. Their research partners include America’s National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA), France’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), Bordeaux’s Vine and Wine Science Institute (ISVV) and the German university, FAU Erlangen.
The bottles lifted off from NASA’s Wallops Island site, en route to the International Space Station (ISS) where they will be stored for 12 months before returning to earth. When they land, researchers will begin studying the effects of a year’s zero gravity – also known as microgravity – on the wines.
“They will be tested to see what changes have taken place at the microbial level,” said one of the project’s research leads, CNES chief operating officer, Lionel Suchet.
Space Cargo Unlimited and CNES have agreed a five-year partnership to conduct a range of these experiments. The wines are the first stage of their work together. The next step, Suchet said, is to send samples of vines to the ISS and then conduct various tests on those when they return.
The hope is that the effects of microgravity will offer greater insight into, and potential to improve, the various chemical processes involved.
With the wines, one focus will be on fermentation and aging processes. Any improvements could then be applied to winemaking and, more broadly, to food production and agriculture. An SCU press release suggests two areas of particular interest would be taste enhancement and food conservation.
“It’s basically about exploring the future of microbiology research in microgravity,” said Suchet.
And the reason they are using wines? “Wine is full of very complex processes and elements. There is the maceration, the fermentation, the aging process and all the many, many different yeast and chemical molecules involved in those,” Suchet said.
The wines are at the centre of the project for another reason too. Once the various tests have been conducted, they will make their way into the hands of the project’s wealthy sponsors. Each in their own special handcrafted leather case made by the project’s luxury and artistic partner, Benoît Miniou.
Miniou, a former executive at French luxury good company Hermès, is now the CEO of bespoke leather goods workshop, Atelier Victor, in Paris. So far, he has made one space wine case. As well as being a luxury item, the case, he said, has a secret system, similar to Louis XIV cabinets full of hidden compartments and drawers.
Neither Miniou, Suchet nor SCU would confirm the names of the wines, but, in keeping with the project’s profile, they are understood to be luxury brands.
The wines were part of a cargo that included scientific equipment and reached the space station in the early hours of Monday morning. A spokesperson for Northrop Grumman, the company that supplied the spacecraft, confirmed that the wine was included. An oven was also in the cargo, to examine “heat transfer properties and the process of baking food in microgravity,” with the hope that it will offer a way to “increase variety in flavour and nutrition of food for crew members”.
The spokesperson confirmed that crew would not be enjoying the wine with their new and improved meals, no matter how tempted they feel. “This is a research project,” she said. “The bottles are being kept in storage in a temperature-controlled environment.”
Sophie Kevany with additional reporting by Felicity Carter