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The world’s first space barista

PhD student Nguyen Dang Minh has found a way for astronauts to enjoy a cuppa when out in space. We catch him between zero gravity parabolic flights in France
by Derek Rodriguez

What brings you to “space”?

I’m doing my PhD in physics, and testing a new boiling method in which heat is applied to a tiny area – think micrometres. It’s far more effective than regular boiling. I’m here to prove it can work in space, where it’s impossible to heat water up due to the absence of gravity and convection.

How did you manage to get on a parabolic flight?

I went on three flights, in fact. My NTU supervisor, Prof Claus-Dieter Ohl, got in touch with his contact at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, who has been involved in parabolic flights through the European Space Agency. We rode on a regular Airbus A300 each time, but the plane followed a unique path to simulate a weightless environment by briefly freefalling, typically used in astronaut training.

What does your discovery have to do with space travel?

Astronauts give up many earthly pleasures when they take off. Surprisingly, on top of the list of things they miss most is a hot cup of coffee. With my method of heating water, that could change. The next step is to build a fully functional commercial device. This discovery also has huge potential on earth, where it can be used in existing boiling devices, or to cool electronics.

You might be the first NTU student to experience zero gravity at a height of 30,000 feet. What does it feel like?

It’s a bit like being in water, except that in water, you can move by swimming, whereas waving your arms and legs in zero gravity won’t get you anywhere – you just move in the direction you’re already headed until you hit something, or someone.

Tell us something about being in zero gravity that not many people know about.

In a parabolic flight, we have to experience 40 seconds of hyper gravity (twice of normal gravity) to achieve 20 seconds of zero gravity. Hyper gravity puts a lot of stress on your body and makes you dizzy, especially if you move your head. So we get anti-motion sickness injections before the flight.

What went through your mind on your first flight?

Our Swiss collaborators told us scary stories about how previous science experiments failed, and how first-time flyers got violently sick. So I worried about throwing up and not being able to complete the tests.

What’s your dream discovery?

For my final-year undergraduate project at NTU, I managed to make an invisible cloak with Assoc Prof Zhang Baile, but it only worked in some simple scenarios. I’d love to build a full-sized cloak that you can wear, like Harry Potter’s. I would also like to construct a teleportation machine, but that’s somewhat far from reality, for now anyway.

What do you think is life’s greatest unsolved mystery?

How the human race will end. We might run out of fossil fuel in 100 years and freshwater in 50 years. We haven’t found another habitable planet or a means to get there. And still, we are damaging our planet every day. Throughout history, research has been giving us answers to all our problems, and that’s why it’s so important.

How do you think our fate will play out?

I don’t know, but if you want an answer, you can watch one of my favourite movies, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It paints a picture of a world that has run dry of resources, and imagines how mankind finds a way to survive.