Creating a whisky glass that works in zero gravity addresses the similar challenge faced by rocket scientists. How do you solve the problem of how fluids act in space? James Parr, designer and founder of the Open Space Agency takes us through the design journey on the Space Glass project.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
— John. F. Kennedy. Address at Rice University, September 12 1962.
“With the Space Glass Project we are trying to solve genuine complex engineering challenges for life in space. We sincerely hope this journey will one day have a genuine impact on the space program.”
— James Parr, OSA, Vauxhall, London, August 23rd, 2015.
Meet James Parr from the Open Space Agency (OSA). His role in the Ballantine’s Space Glass project was to lead the design team on the glass, solving essentially the same problem that rocket scientists have to deal with — predicting and controlling the movement of a liquid in zero gravity. The question put to him almost a year ago was, how do you make a whisky glass that works in space?
Following the launch of Ballantine’s Space Glass, we spoke with James to understand the design journey in greater detail, investigating the different concepts and how the OSA team wrestled with the science and engineering challenges they faced over the last 12 months.
“Our goal is to help create a spacefaring civilisation and we are interested in importing all of the things we take for granted on earth and replicating them in the future.”
Tell us in your words what the Ballantine’s Space Glass is all about?
Space Glass was an opportunity to go to the next level of evolution and design in regards to the tools that space travellers use in orbit. Up until now there has been a limited number of human beings in space, less than 500 to date, and there hasn’t been a need to apply anything more than very basic engineering to the everyday utensils and devices they use up there.
The quality of product experience for astronauts has been dictated by efficiency and of course that’s not really true of the things we use everyday on earth. Our cities have been shaped by experience and the things we love on earth blend function with that joyful experience, which is the essence of good design. The Space Glass project represented one of the first examples where this philosophy of design had been applied to a utensil or tool destined to be used off-world.
From the outset we were coming at this from a genuine engineering aspect; we were trying to solve genuine engineering challenges.
What were your aspirations for the Space Glass project?
We engaged with this project because it seemed there were some genuine problems to solve. We wanted to determine whether or not there are real aspects of design that would be making a contribution. The way that liquids behave and are controlled in space is one of the fundamental challenges of space exploration. It’s one of the fundamental things on which rocket scientists have worked so hard. As soon as you get out of earth’s gravity, liquids don’t behave as liquids should. So whether you are designing a rocket with its pumps and the way fuels move inside its tanks or a space glass, it’s all focused around how we can best control liquids in microgravity to make them do what we need them to do. There was that perspective and then there was also this idea that, in space, we don’t really want to be sending things up from earth and could we design something that could be made up there.
We want to be able to create things off-planet; in space jargon this is called in situ manufacturing. Space travellers need to become self-sufficient. So when we do go to Mars or Titan or wherever that may be, we are not hauling objects from earth because it is just too expensive to pull them out of the gravity well. Explorers will be using the resources they find at these locations — lunar soil, Co2 in the Martian atmosphere; methane in Titan’s lakes. There is already 3D printing on the International Space Station, and the space agencies are already exploring 3D printing on the moon. When we get to Mars many of the things that we build and manufacture, from the very large to the very small, will be done by 3D printing using martian resources. So we were very interested in the challenge of being able to use 3D printing to create something that could ultimately be manufactured in situ — either in orbit, or one day on Mars, without having to be transported millions of miles.
Did this venture give you a chance to think about the future that you want to build?
Our goal is to help create a spacefaring civilisation and we are interested in importing all of the things we take for granted on earth and replicating them in the future.
“Space technology is currently going through a similar acceleration to computing in mid 1970s.”
The Open Space Agency is part of a growing community of ‘Astropreneurship’. What is an Astopreneur?
Astropreneurs are space tech start-ups. It’s a fledgling, but a growing movement and there are already some huge successes worth billions. What’s exciting is that these start-ups are applying the same methods of innovation and scale that powers the tech scene. Lean. Agile. Fail fast. It’s completely different to the aerospace contractor model: pricy. Predictable. Low risk, but slow.
The tech revolution in the 1970s started in the famous Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley, which was where the first PCs were conceived — most famously the Apple One. The space revolution equivalent is now a place called the Rainbow Mansion, which is in the hills of Mountain View, up the road from all those big tech brands you use everyday. In keeping with the Silicon Valley mythology of world changing start-ups starting in a garage, many of the new, exciting, space related start-ups gestated in the garage of this house. I hope they won’t mind sharing this with the world! It’s basically this huge flat share where all these space geek geniuses live — and it is Ground Zero of the astropreneurship community. Out of this garage, effectively, some of the most exciting space start-ups are emerging and like the Homebrew Computer Club, one day we’ll look back and say, this is where it all started.
What challenges did you face in coming up with a design that was evocative of home but functional in space?
I think the things we were looking at were primarily about having that glass in your hand. Letting the heat of your palm warm the whisky, and the action of rolling it around the base of the glass to release the odours and the smell; that olfactory experience which is a big part of the whisky drinking experience was very important to us. We also had to factor in being able to sip it and smell it at the same time. So obviously in space you can’t sip whisky out of a glass because it floats around. You can’t pull air; by sucking you will compress the air around the liquid but you won’t move anything. To solve the problem of drinking in space we needed to find a way of actually capturing the liquid and then to allow capillary forces to pull the liquid up into the mouth. We couldn’t rely on just sucking the air around the whisky. But also we wanted to allow drinkers to smell the whisky too. This is obvious stuff when you think about it but made far more complex by the absence of gravity. On earth heavy things go down and light things go up. In space that doesn’t happen. Of course that applies to the tiny molecules that give something an odour, and so you can’t expect the smell of the whisky to waft into your nose in the way it would on earth. We had to factor in a lot of details.
“As a designer you are always looking for an opportunity
to innovate in an uncontested space, in an area where millions of people smarter than you aren’t already looking.”
How did you try to mirror the earthly olfactory experience of smelling the aromas of whisky?
Rather than try to control where the liquid goes, we thought about controlling the vessel around the liquid. We allowed the glass to collect the whisky and then the person drinking it can position their nose to where the vapours would have been, so that they can get a sense of the smell of the whisky. So essentially we flipped the thinking upside down. So rather than trying to move the whisky, we moved the glass around the whisky instead.
Astronauts, because of the sterile and mechanical environment in which they live, have insatiable cravings for earth and home. Did this impact your thought-process during the designing of the glass?
We wanted to make sure you could really see the whisky and its colour. Obviously we also wanted to capture the smell of the whisky and to ensure that that was part of the experience, in addition to drinking it. We were creating a sort of ritual in the same way you might open a can of soft drink or take the cork out of a wine bottle; we were essentially creating a ritual around the way whisky is loaded into the glass and then sampled.
What physiological effects could undermine enjoying whisky in zero gravity?
One of the things astronauts describe about space is that it is essentially like being upside down or having a perpetual blocked nose, so there was a broader factor to consider in regards to the whisky drinking experience, including the flavours that are within the whisky blend. In space, the blood rushes to your head and all the fluids in your body get rearranged and fill up your sinuses. It’s a bit like having a cold.
On earth we don’t have this problem because all the fluids are pulled down towards the ground by gravity. However, when you have a cold on earth it’s difficult to eat or enjoy food because your sinuses and your palate are so overwhelmed or full you can’t actually taste or smell. Astronauts are perpetually accustomed to this sensation so they often crave foods which have spicier, evocative flavours of nature and so Sandy [Hyslop] actually formulated a whisky which takes these things into account. The experience of having a cultivated space whisky with Ballantine’s will actually help space travellers feel more at home. They will have this ritual and have this more spicy whisky formulation which takes into account that their sinuses are actually more closed up and it will remind them of earth.
How many different designs and techniques did you look at?
We tried all sorts of different things; we tried centripetal motion and spinning, a little bit like a Ferris wheel at a funfair and using magnetic pellets to pull the liquid to different parts of the glass. We tried creating a glass foam where the drink was actually held in suspension inside micro bubbles. We really explored all types of different techniques. However, if you actually looked at the basic needs; to smell the liquid, observe the liquid and this idea of having some sense of ceremony during whisky drinking, the base-plate solution we ended up with was by far the best one.
What materials is the Space Glass made from?
We used medical grade 3D printed PLA [thermoplastics which become soft and mouldable when heated and return to a solid when cooled], essentially the same materials and process that is used for heart valves that go inside human bodies. The base plate is a stainless steel which is coated in rose gold. We created something that is sterile and nonreactive. Gold is extremely nonreactive, which is one of the reasons it is so valuable.
How do you predict the behaviour of liquids in microgravity, particularly whisky, and how does the liquid change?
It’s hugely difficult. A lot of work has been done on how Hydrogen bonds and other tiny forces called ‘Van der waals interactions’ assert themselves in the absence of gravity and what that means for the behaviour of liquids. It is endlessly fascinating because of course we use water for so many different things. We use it for so many industrial processes and we invariably take how water behaves for granted. Not just the shape or flow of water but the way that solutions or tiny particles move within. If, for example, you left a glass of wine for any length of time, a good glass of wine, the thicker bits or sediment would sink to the bottom of the bottle. If you look at a wine glass at the end and stick your fingers into it, you will get that residue. The same good glass of wine in space wouldn’t leave that stratification. There is no up and there is no down.
It is very hard for us to get our head around, partly because we are so used to the idea that on earth there are things that float in water. In space, that isn’t the case. We couldn’t put ice cubes in our whisky and expect them to float on the surface. Floating as we know it on earth doesn’t work in space and also blending doesn’t work. Smells and the way we smell liquids; they don’t diffuse in the same way we would expect them to. Vast sums and supercomputing powers have been spent by space agencies trying to predict what liquids actually do and how they behave when you take gravity away. But to answer your question, there is no way of predicting the behaviour unless you actually try it out.
Did you notice any synergy with Sandy Hyslop’s approach as Master Blender, and you as a designer producing products for space travel?
We are from very different worlds. He works in a job where the role comes up every 30 years, and it’s a very particular skill that is passed down. These guys are alchemists and they have a very rare skill. We are coming from different worlds because our world is technology; a world where we are learning as we go along and we are not necessarily about that deep connoisseurship. That connoisseurship is something that Sandy thinks about every single day. Obviously it was a nice moment to realise he’s a great guy and that he’s probably never met anyone like me before, and certainly in my world, I had never met anyone like him before. It was nice to work and collaborate together in order to try and solve a problem. It’s worth mentioning that we had a double brief in that we had to make it work on earth as well as in space, so we encountered versions that would have worked in space but would have been useless for Earth and sometimes Sandy and I would look at each other and go “What about this?” and realise, no, it simply didn’t work.
Did you get a sense you were part of a special narrative writing the future?
As a designer you always hope that people in the future will experience your product or will encounter your design. You hope that at some level they will experience it on an aesthetic level as well as just utility. As designers we are interested in that kind of middle ground where something gets to a level of function where the thought behind it becomes invisible. That it works and it becomes part of behaviour and that behaviour is adopted. Really this all comes from nature. Nature has taught us how to judge beauty. Indeed, this is where beauty comes from. Beauty isn’t a human made artefact, it’s something we have learnt by observing the way nature solves problems and shapes behaviour. The reason why nature makes things beautiful is because these things have got to a highly evolved functional state, and so we are interested in trying to create something which succeeds because it is beautiful for functional reasons. We are not here to make art; we are interested in making something which serves its purpose. But if that function is transcendent to some level of aesthetic beauty then as designers we know we have achieved something.