A female Italian astronaut soon to join the International Space Station will be among the first to use a newly patented device to make 'proper' espresso coffee, enjoyed from a specially designed zero-gravity cup. This will replace the poorly-flavoured, tepid, instant coffee-in-a-pouch, sucked through a straw throughout previous missions: the device, nicknamed 'ISSpresso', will be launched early in 2015 and is much anticipated by coffee-craving astronauts.
Like other introverts, I crave 'space', but could never survive in the claustrophobic world of the spaceship or space station which is the great paradox of actually being in space. But in either sort of space, life without a supply of good coffee feels unthinkable. We're built, I think, to discover the things we enjoy and then find it difficult to do without them, whether that's alcohol, partying and Tinder-style hook-ups or coffee, reading and a bit of peace and quiet. We build our mental comfort zones just like we build ourselves winter evening hibernation forts: sofa, TV remote, book, reading glasses, hot drink in a travel mug, snack of choice, iPhone, cuddly toy, fleece blanket. It's like the tired person's equivalent of the Conveyor Belt of Prizes in The Generation Game from many years ago. Our mental comfort zones might not be just as easily itemised, but might include things like whether we like to be on our own or prefer being with others, whether we have to have our own way at all costs or can work with compromise, or whether our default state is to consider that everything we do is never even almost good enough.
And it's not just about what goes on in our minds - and not just about the sofa or the bedroom or what we like to eat or drink. We build our comfort zones in terms of the people we like and what we prefer to do, and our habits prove the authenticity of what we say about ourselves. I might smile in recognition when I read a superficial online checklist entitled 'Ten Things To Know About An Introvert', but that might just be one Monday evening of the sort of tiredness which makes me hope I won't have to make the effort to talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything, ever again. I'll prove to myself that I might have some of those characteristics of introversion by enjoying some time alone or finding making small talk the next thing to impossible. Another day, though, feeling rather more alive, I'll enjoy the chat and laughter of a workplace lunchtime, and look forward to catching up with friends, even if there is small talk about the weather, or Christmas shopping or the trials of laundry and housework.
I'm a creature of habit. I enjoy my comfort zones of reading (whether it's for pleasure or research), quietness, the company of a select few people and rather a restricted range of favourite food and drink. And yet few things inspire me more than watching the ISS tracing its arc of light, unimaginably far away against the darkened sky. Perhaps precisely because I'm so very grounded in my comfort zones, I find it bewildering and exciting to imagine that there are people inside the structure which sends that steady, bright white light: people not that different from you or me, researching, learning, exploring... and complaining about truly awful coffee. It's a bit like when I lose myself in fiction: I couldn't possibly contemplate getting involved in some of the plot twists that the characters encounter, but it fascinates me to try to empathise, as I immerse myself in other, imagined thoughts and lives. And it's the simple human truths that make it all so very recognisable. The complaints. The headaches. The bad coffee and having to suck it from a pouch rather than drinking it from an insulated mug. The hero or the heroine whose imperfections make them real, the setting which you recognise, the plot twist which makes you smile because it's so like life.
Writing this, I'm enjoying the first quiet moments at the end of a much too busy day. I've been drinking coffee: it may not be ISSpresso, but I savoured it at the quiet space station of my desk. It was all serious business today, filled with revision reminders for impending Christmas tests, fusillades of questions from every side at once, breaktime briefing, lunchtime marking, what felt like a thousand emails and a million things I needed to remember. Now, that hour of quietness when I can hear the ticking of my classroom clock again, when the voices fade and the heartbeat of the school's frenetic pace seems slower, it feels like zero gravity. My mind floats through and beyond the day's concerns, reminding me of worlds beyond routine. My imagination drifts beyond the claustrophobic atmosphere of what must be done, through the stratosphere of possibility to what could just happen. Or what might, or can.
And suddenly it happens. Suddenly, I'm drinking coffee in space.