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UP UP AND AWAY

This designer has made a career re-imagining products for outer space

By Michael Tabb

Octave de Gaulle designs products for outer space, but he is best-known as the man who lost a race to Usain Bolt in zero gravity.

They raced on a plane which simulates weightlessness by going into controlled freefalls. De Gaulle went into the race with a home-court advantage: unlike Bolt, he’d flown on multiple parabolic flights before. He still lost 

Races aside, the plane has been used to develop a new kind of champagne bottle for Maison Mumm that can serve champagne in zero gravity. (Usain Bolt was aboard as Mumm’s “chief entertainment officer.”)

Designing for zero gravity has its challenges. Parabolic flights only simulate zero gravity for 20-odd seconds at a time. That made for a “very stressful” product-testing experience, de Gaulle said, and an emotional one as well.

“For me it’s also a metaphysical thing,” de Gaulle said. “You feel like you’re in a photograph. You feel that time has stopped—the fact that objects don’t fall anymore, the fact that you’re unable to move the way you are used to. For me, it makes you forget about time as well.”

De Gaulle never dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Growing up, he “wasn’t the kid with the telescope.” His space design career grew from a seemingly frivolous question he had in grad school: can humans still share a bottle of wine if they’re traveling in outer space? (A normal wine bottle won’t work, because you can’t pour fluids without gravity. Typically, astronauts drink out of individual pouches.)

“I thought let’s take just an experience—it was more than wine—could you really enjoy a conversation and have a glass of  wine and how complicated would that be?”

At the time, he was a master’s student at l’ENSCI, the French design school. He turned the question into the final project for his degree, and set about designing a wine bottle for outer space.

De Gaulle found inspiration in an Hergé comic from the 1950s, The Adventures of Tintin: Explorers on the Moon, in which the alcoholic Captain Haddock struggles to drink his whiskey in zero gravity. It’s much more than the captain bargains for, and he ends up chasing the shot across the ship after it escapes from his glass and turns into a bubble.

Although Captain Haddock never actually existed, the episode is based on real physics. Liquids do form spheres in space, because liquid molecules hold other liquid molecules tighter than air. That makes the only stable configuration a sphere—“a magical thing,” de Gaulle said.

With that in mind, de Gaulle created a bottle that you can pinch open to release small spheres of wine. His design is donut-shaped with grooves, so that the fluid can flow toward the opening. It works, thanks to a phenomenon called the capillary effect, which makes wine hold to the sides of your glass on Earth.

https://giphy.com/gifs/SL9sVjYFwtYEi6QgPz

De Gaulle wanted to test that his grooved donut worked, so he developed a DIY solution to simulate microgravity. He built a free-falling “rocket” rigged with cameras and lights inside that exposed it to about a second of microgravity. (He says his peers started wondering if he was going “completely crazy” when he dropped his graduate project off his apartment roof and off a cliff.)

After getting his degree, he extended the project with support from Bordeaux’s Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. An exhibition at the museum connected him with French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy, who took the bottle on a parabolic flight to test it in zero gravity.

In 2015, Maison Mumm hired de Gaulle to develop a bottle that would allow its champagne to be served in space. De Gaulle used the opportunity to co-found an agency with a fellow designer, Matt Sindall, which they named Spade—a contraction of space and design.

Developing the champagne bottle took three years. First, there was the matter of controlling a carbonated beverage in space—something that’s been done before, but not successfully. In 1985, NASA brought cans of Coca Cola and Pepsi onto the Challenger space shuttle, with specially designed nozzles so they could be consumed in zero gravity. But the products didn’t last—they were unpleasantly warm and frothy, since the shuttle didn’t have a refrigerator to store them in. They also gave the astronauts painful gas. (This hasn’t been shown to happen with the champagne; at least not yet.)

BioServe/NASA
Coca Cola went to space in 1985. It didn’t go over well.

The project for Mumm had additional challenges: the notoriously strict industry regulations surrounding champagne. Not only must the grapes be grown in the Champagne region, but there are also regulations about the bottles—for instance, champagne is supposed to be sold in the bottle that’s used for its second fermentation, before it’s left to mature for 15 months, or more.

De Gaulle and Sindall found their inspiration for the champagne bottle design by looking to history, modeling the bottle after a century-old siphon bottle used to store seltzer water. De Gaulle said he prefers to use simple, tested designs rather than fabricating things that are unnecessarily novel and complicated. Especially in space, it’s better to bring objects proven to work— “the most spartan, really rough and tough” materials like Velcro and gaffer tape.

At this stage, the champagne bottle is mostly a proof of concept. It’s unclear if the bottle will ever make it to space, even if it’s made it onto several zero-gravity flights. Quartz asked NASA’s longtime space food systems manager, Vickie Floreis, about the bottle, and she simply noted that “glass cannot fly” on NASA missions.

Then again, astronauts can’t drink alcohol on the job anyway, so venues like the International Space Station might not be the best for zero-gravity champagne. But de Gaulle is already looking forward to his next projects.

His current plan is to focus on making furniture for space—rethinking what a chair looks like in an environment where “the basic principle of sitting is not settled at all.” Ultimately, he hopes to grow Spade into an agency that can handle multiple projects at the same time.

“We have so many principles of ergonomics, so many basic things to reinvent,” de Gaulle said, “that for me, this is the start of a long journey.”