I Drank Champagne in Zero Gravity – and Being a Trailblazer Isn’t as Easy as It Sounds
It’s September 11, 2018, and I’m on a coach headed to Maison Mumm. Tomorrow, I’ll be joining about 32 other members of the media to be the first to try Mumm’s latest innovation: Mumm Grand Cordon Stellar—a bottle of champagne specifically designed to be consumed in space.
To recreate the zero gravity conditions found outside the Earth’s atmosphere, our group will be traveling aboard an Air Zero G flight. Novespace, a subsidiary of the French space agency CNES, has converted an otherwise normal Airbus 310 plane (supposedly Angela Merkel was the previous tenant) to operate in “parabolic flight”—a mathematical way of saying that the aircraft climbs and dives in a manner that—for a mere 22 seconds per maneuver—its passengers become weightless.
You may know similar aircrafts by another name: Americans like to call this the “Vomit Comet,” though the crew behind our trip tries to avoid using that colloquialism. But as I mentally prepare, it’s not the idea of weightlessness that worries me: It’s my proclivity toward motion sickness.
Back on land, our coach is weaving through the streets of Reims, and I’m feeling a bit nauseous, no parabolas needed.
Full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of Champagne; I find the typical creamy notes of caramel and vanilla to be a turnoff. So with its focus on fruity and citrusy flourishes, when I do drink bubbly, I tend to gravitate towards Mumm. It’s likely one of the reasons I was invited on this trip. When the Champagne house first announced its Grand Cordon Stellar project back in June, I covered the story. Mumm reached out to thank me for the piece, and I told them, as a fan, it’s my pleasure. Not long after, I was informed they had a trip coming up I might be interested in. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to see where this is going. And for the chance to drink space Champagne, I’m not embarrassed by my use of a bit of honest flattery.
But also, having written about the project previously, I know the Grand Cordon Stellar bottle is a work in progress. Our trip on Zero G was only its fourth official test in zero gravity. And though creating the world’s first “space Champagne” is clearly great publicity, this bottle is far from a publicity stunt. In fact, Mumm wasn’t even involved with the bottle’s initial conception.
Three years ago, Octave De Gaulle—founder of Spade, a design agency specializing in outside-of-the-box objects for space —embarked on the idea of creating Champagne that could be consumed during space flights without a winemaking partner. The project was more of an intellectual exercise: What would drinking Champagne outside of our atmosphere even look like? The challenges include some of the beverage’s most basic components: How does a cork pop? How do you pour a glass? And what about those signature bubbles? If there is no up, what direction do they go?
The Grand Cordon Stellar bottle answers these questions, and the result comes with an unexpected quirk: The bottle is only practical to use in space. For all the attention this project has already garnered, Mumm says these special bottles of space Champagne won’t be sold to the public on Earth. According to De Gaulle, there’s no point. The bottle uses a piston in the bottom to push small spheres of champagne out the top, making for an impractical earthbound experience. Meanwhile, the bubbly in the bottle is exactly the same as the Mumm Grand Cordon sold on shelves. Mumm could have easily slapped a CNES logo on a specially-formulated bottle of its Brut and sold it at retail as some sort of limited-edition premium product. But instead, the cause was genuine: How do we create a way for humans to enjoy our signature product in space?
As I board the Zero G plane, I look forward to tasting the answer to that question for myself. And I do. But in some ways, the technology of the bottle is ahead of the technology of recreating space flight.
Prepping for your parabolic journey has a few fitting similarities to a high school math class other than the name. For one, at orientation, you’re given a lot of information that you’re told you won’t really need to remember. Joining the 32 media members on the trip are over 20 people with flight experience. An overabundance of safety is one of the Zero G team’s top priorities. In the history of the program, they’ve never had any major incidents, and they want to keep it that way. An even minor muck up could stall a program that is often used for more serious training and scientific purposes. Still, the big takeaway of the safety talk is that you want to ease yourself into the experience, preventing yourself from, say, finding yourself on the ceiling when gravity suddenly kicks back in.
Thankfully, as our flight went on, no one took any hard falls. The call of “feet down” always came with plenty of time. But one thing no orientation could have prepared me for is just how important time becomes.
Parabolic flying includes a lot of countdowns. First, you have to be in position for the upward trajectory, which is accompanied by enough force to nearly double your body weight: This is similar to a “blast off.” About half a minute later, the pilot announces “injection.” The plane’s trajectory shifts, and in an instant, you’re weightless.
But something else happens: a clock starts ticking. Twenty-two seconds per parabola: That’s all the time you have to experience zero gravity. You’d think time might slow down, but it doesn’t. In many ways, it speeds up. You waste a couple seconds actually getting into air, and on the back end, a few repositioning yourself to prepare to come back down. In the remaining 17 seconds or so, there’s just so much to take in.
The very first injection is truly transcendental. Everyone I spoke with had a different way of verbalizing it. Usain Bolt, who attended the flight as Mumm’s Chief Entertainment Officer, described the experience as being a kid again. Personally, as I felt my body lift from the ground, the sensation was almost like separating into parts—like unhitching the cars of train. For a moment, it’s disconcerting… but the feeling quickly becomes liberating, enthralling even. And as you try to process it, seconds later, it’s over.
French astronaut and president of Novespace Jean-François Clervoy—who took three trips into space, one that included a spacewalk to repair the Hubble Telescope—spoke of the zen you can reach after an extended time in weightlessness. As much as I longed for zen, I quickly accepted that I’m not going to achieve it in 22 seconds or less. As a first-time flyer, you’re hard-pressed to achieve anything in that amount of time. You float indiscriminately. You watch others float indiscriminately. You try not to bump into each other. As people got comfortable, somersaults were attempted to varying degrees of success. Understanding the limitations of my constitution, I kept my acrobatic attempts to a minimum.
As for the Champagne, turns out it floats indiscriminately, too, and in a mere 22 seconds, you’re essentially asked to relearn how to drink from scratch.
How to Drink Champagne in Space
The method: A bubbly sphere floats in the air. You hold a kind of deconstructed flute (that inelegantly can be described as looking like an old meat thermometer). In space, your floating glass never needs to be “set down,” so these glasses have a stem but no base. The tall bowl of a flute would be impractical, offering more of a hiding spot for your floating Champagne than a way to enjoy it. Instead, the top of Mumm’s space glass is a shallow concave cup. Like a large tee, you could balance a golf ball on it—or, in this case, a round blob of space Champagne.
When I reached out and scooped up a bubbly sphere with my cup, I can’t explain the science, but it stuck. I brought it to my lips and slurped. The dream had been achieved: I was drinking Champagne in zero gravity.
What It's Like
So what's it like? As a drinks writer, I spend a lot of time on tasting notes. But time isn’t a luxury I had in this situation. In their own description, Mumm suggests that the bubbles of the weightless Champagne sphere coalesce when they hit your tongue. Turns out they also coalesce when gravity returns. And that doesn't just go for the liquid in your mouth, but also for any errant Champagne that zero-gravity rookies struggled to scoop out of the air. The return of gravity inevitably leads to once airborne spheres of Mumm Grand Cordon Stellar splashing to the floor, or all over you, if you're in its path. It's certainly one way to be brought back down to Earth.
Another thing also happens that you might expect: Nausea. About halfway through the flight, we had already lost at least one member of the media to sickness. She’d been relegated to one of the 50-plus normal airline seats in the back of the plane used for takeoff and landing. For me, the simple act of putting anything into my stomach had upset my homeostasis. If you’re feeling jealous that I got to drink space Champagne, know this: The only thing more disappointing than not being able to fly with Zero G to drink space Champagne is already being on Zero G and suddenly realizing you might not be able to drink space Champagne anymore. I forged ahead. But of the three parabolas I had slated for tasting, I never got a second taste as good as the first one.
My favorite part of the experience was actually going up. Obviously, the emphasis is on the recreation of being in space, but I’d never had the sensation of blasting off to space either. I found an unexpected comfort in the 30 seconds or so of feeling the power of two Gs on my body. First time flyers are told to lie flat for all of these “blast off” moments—so it’s like being forced into a strenuous snooze. Then, as “injection” was called, I went from feeling more of my body to losing it entirely. Just moments later, I lied flat again as gravity returns. And then I was immediately splashed in the face with falling Champagne. What a short, strange trip it’s been.
For all of their avoidance of the “Vomit Comet” nickname, when you board the Zero G plane and make your way to your seat, the first thing the staff hands you is a vomit bag. After my 15th parabola, I pulled it out of the small chest pocket of my flight suit and used it. Counterintuitively, it wasn’t the ups and downs that did me in: It was the in-between time. Each parabola is separated by up to five minutes of break. I slowly began to fear these breaks because they were the moments my body finally sorted out what was going on—and turned against me. For the final parabola, I too was relegated to the back of the plane. I missed Usain Bolt’s zero gravity “race.” It was probably for the best. When I met him later, I didn’t bring it up, but I assume he didn’t want to be running through my vomit.
Down to Earth
When we deboarded the plane, the first thing waiting for us was a glass of Mumm Grand Cordon to celebrate not just our journey, but our achievement: the first outsiders to test the world’s first space Champagne. Despite my troubles on the flight, I grabbed a glass and downed it with ease: I was ready to toast my return to terra firma. It was the first of many glasses of Champagne I drank as the celebration continued until nearly two in the morning. As far as thrill-seeking goes, that’s more my style.
Over drinks, I asked many of my fellow media members the same question: Would you fly with Zero G again? The split was even and polarized. About half said that one time was enough. But the half that said they loved it really loved—often saying they were ready to go again right then and there. Later, I ask Clervoy, who turns 60 years old this year, the same question about real space travel: Would he like to go again? His answer was unequivocal: He would return without hesitation if given the chance. I guess some people are just built to be astronauts.
But at the same time, Mumm Grand Cordon Stellar isn’t really for “astronauts.” Yes, De Gaulle told me that Spade is actively looking at getting a bottle up to the International Space Station, potentially even as soon as this Christmas (though next year is more likely). However, Spade is looking even further ahead—to more causal space travelers, to space tourists—because drinking Champagne in space is actually about humanizing and democratizing space travel. A sip of bubbly is an unnecessary human indulgence, and in its only small way, doing something as frivolous as drinking Champagne in space is as much a demonstration of mankind’s ability to remain human under any conditions as hitting a golf ball on the moon.
The development of Mumm Grand Cordon Stellar isn’t for now. It’s being prepared for the future. When accessible space travel does happen, Mumm and Spade want to already be prepared to fill that void. They believe it’s still years down the road – but sooner than you might imagine.
In the end, I definitely salute their willingness to be so far ahead of the curve—and to push the boundaries of the human condition to new frontiers, even if some may say it’s in the name of excess. But personally, until the zero-gravity champagne experience lasts significantly more than 22 seconds, I’ll be choosing to do my Champagne drinking back on Earth. Trailblazing is thrilling, but it’s best left up to people able to stomach it better than me.