A French space startup is launching wine into orbit

Sunlight, held together by water.
Sunlight, held together by water.
Image: Space Cargo Unlimited
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If the space industry these days really is an opportunity on par with the dawn of the internet, Nicolas Gaume is a businessman built to take advantage.

Gaume believes in the future. He founded his first technology company, which made video games, as a 19-year old in 1990. “I’ve built nine different companies in very different areas,” he told Quartz last year. “I was a millionaire, I was a billionaire, I was bankrupt, I was a millionaire again.”

Now, the French entrepreneur and his co-founder Emmanuel Etcheparre have a new company, Space Cargo Unlimited, which aims to perform biological research in the microgravity of Earth’s orbit. Begun in 2014, it plans to fly experiments on rockets made by Blue Origin and SpaceX as soon as next year. But, first, on Nov. 2, they will launch a dozen bottles of the finest wine to the International Space Station on a rocket built by Northrop Grumman. They are believed to be the first glass bottles flown to the orbiting laboratory.

The wine is research. The wine is also a lure.

That’s because the venture has a most unusual funding plan. Call it the Medici model: The research will be paid for in part by a luxury goods partnership that will deliver a customized chest full of objects flown to space to ultra-wealthy sponsors, called patrons, who back the project. The highlight of that chest will be a bottle of the wine. The idea is that this would be an artistic collector’s item unlike any other.

After all, wealthy space enthusiasts from James Lick to Elon Musk have paid out of their own pockets to develop technology that satisfies their egos and delivers scientific data for the broader knowledge of humankind. The promise of the current generation of big-spending rocket entrepreneurs is that their vehicles will make it cheaper to do business in space. For that to pay off, companies like Space Cargo Unlimited and its competitors need to prove they can earn money there. So far, only five patrons are in talks with Gaume and company, so if you’re interested, there are spots remaining—and participation starts at seven figures.

If the push to make space a place for business as usual—a world of venture capital, return on investment, profitability—hasn’t yet arrived, but perhaps this is what the transition looks like.

In Vino Veritas

In September, Gaume gathered his team and a handful of high-net worth individuals, potential patrons, at the French consul’s home in San Francisco. The event was co-hosted by Airbus, whose private jet salesmen were on hand to network. A principal dancer from the San Francisco Ballet mingled with a cryptocurrency entrepreneur, a wine-maker and the chief economic adviser to the governor of Calgary. Inside the home, built by the inventor Philo Farnsworth, grape vines grew in front of a massive picture window floating high above the city.

Wine is key to the whole operation, formally called Mission WISE, for “Vitis Vinum in Spatium Experimentia.” Gaume, who grew up in Bordeaux, loves to talk about Louis Pasteur. The father of microbiology made important discoveries because Napoleon III was concerned about French wine exports and urged industry to figure out how to improve it. Pasteur developed a method for heating wine to kill bacteria after it fermented—pasteurization—that prevented the wine from spoiling during transit.

“Wine is the place where Pasteur found most of microbiology, and wine could be the key to really tackle microbiology in a unique way,” Gaume says.

But what can we learn about wine in space? Two key facts that drive life on Earth are altered in orbit. First, objects at the International Space Station exist in a state of free-fall, or what scientists call microgravity. (“Zero gravity” is a misnomer—gravity is very much at work in space, keeping the station from flying off into deep space.) Second, without Earth’s atmosphere, objects in space are exposed to far more radiation than objects on the ground. These conditions mean that biological processes change, in humans and in wine bottles.

In the latter case, micro-organisms contribute to the flavoring of wines as they age over time. In this experiment, Space Cargo Unlimited hopes to see if the aging process is different in space compared to the same vintage left back on the ground.

“We postulate that keeping these samples for a while on the ISS with this context of microgravity and micro-radiation could impact those bacterias and presumably it could have a positive impact,” says Professor Philippe Darriet, the mission’s science advisor and the director of a wine research institute at the University of Bordeaux, where the wine will be analyzed when it returns to Earth.

A similar experiment was performed by Ardbeg, the Scotch whiskey distillery, which in 2011 sent vials of its distilled spirit to the International Space Station. The project was handled by Nanoracks, a US company that specializes in preparing and transporting orbital payloads. “After two years on the station, they seem to have aged five years in color and taste,” Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber says.

Darriet and Michael Lebert, a professor at the German Nüremberg Erlangen FAU University, have lead the planning of five more missions, including one that will send canes—mature grape vines—to the ISS to study how they grow in that environment. The research may unlock new winemaking techniques and inform efforts to breed hardier plants to adapt to changing climate conditions or fight off disease and parasites. That could be quite important for France, which exported more than $14 billion of wine in 2018.

Space luxury

The clubby atmosphere at the French consul’s house (we tasted Grand Crus under Darriet’s tutelage) fits with another of Gaume’s gallic inspirations—Jules Verne, the protean science fiction writer who penned “From the Earth to the Moon.” But his book “Around the World in 80 Days” is what Gaume often references: It starts with a group of wealthy men in a London club, who Phineas Phogg bets he can race around the world thanks to then-novel technologies like steamships and railroad.

Hearkening back to the days of gentleman explorers is suitably romantic imagery, but the modern politics of spaceflight may prove troublesome. Discussions of billionaire-backed space projects or tourists paying millions for a visit to the International Space Station tend to spur populist backlash.

Part of the appeal of Space Cargo Unlimited’s chest, after all, is a sense of “I have this and you don’t,” says Benoît Miniou, a former Hermes executive whose company, Atelier Victor, is designing the wunderkammer-inspired custom leather-bound chests that will house the space wine and other objects.

But many technology efforts start with big-spenders before becoming accessible—think of the journey from the first expensive mobile telephones to the ubiquity of the smartphone today.

A canister is loaded with a wine bottle for a trip to the International Space Station.
A canister is loaded with a wine bottle for a trip to the International Space Station.
Image: Space Cargo Unlimited

“You open new possibilities of business, then you attract private funds, then you have people ready to take risk to develop the business,” says Lionel Suchet, the deputy director of the French agency CNES, which is backing Space Cargo Unlimited’s work. “It is very new for us and for space around the world. When I saw Nicolas with his new ideas to … make some money with sponsorship, to pay research for the benefit of all the systems, I thought it was a very interesting idea and a very interesting project, in this way, to open the possibilities of space to everyone.”

Still, winning NASA approval to fly the wine wasn’t easy, according to Manber, whose company Nanoracks was hired by Space Cargo Unlimited to prepare its experimental payload for its rocket flight. “What do you do if the bottles break?” Manber asked. “We had to prove that it would be safe. It was a very difficult project and there were a lot of folks at NASA that wanted to see this happen in line with the whole new commercial slant.”

While Space Cargo Unlimited’s starting point is novel, the idea of commercializing research in space isn’t. NASA hopes that in the future it won’t have to bear the costs of the ISS itself when universities and businesses step up as joint customers on privately-operated space stations. Nanoracks hopes to develop a space station of its own, built from a discarded rocket stage. Another US company, Space Tango, hopes to use SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft as a free-flying lab that can carry experiments to orbit and return them to Earth in a few weeks or months.

“The rockets are really the broadband cable, they’re an enabler, and applications are built on top of that,” Twyman Clements, Space Tango’s CEO, told me, with examples including materials science, human medical research and in-space manufacturing of fiber optic cables.

If Space Cargo Unlimited succeeds in its initial wine-inspired project, it plans to expand its research beyond viniculture and into other agricultural and biological applications. The company is unlikely to design spacecraft, but rather wants to act as a kind of integrator, connecting businesses and universities with the right partners to bring their space research to fruition.

For now, they will have to wait and see if their first big project can successfully win over wealthy collectors and agricultural researchers at the same time.

“The first and foremost purpose of each bottle of wine is to be tested,” Gaume says. “One of the specific things we are testing is the taste. The tasting is impossible to biologically model. We will do more hands on testing, if I may say.”