Loren Acton: The Coke and Pepsi Flight
Coca-Cola had gotten permission do an experiment in space to see if they could dispense carbonated beverages in weightlessness. They got approval to build this special can, put significant money into it, and were all set to fly it on one of the early shuttle missions. This was during the “Cola Wars,” when Ronald Reagan was in the White House. And somebody at a high level at Pepsi found out about this, went to their contacts in the White House and said, “This cannot be allowed to happen—that Coca-Cola would be the first cola in space.”
So the Coke can was taken off the mission it was supposed to go on, and Pepsi was given time to develop their own can so they could both fly on the same flight. It turned out that our 51-F mission ended up getting the privilege of carrying the first soda pop in space. Well, we got our cans for training. And indeed, the Coke can had had a lot of work put into it, and was designed to dispense a beverage without stirring up the liquid. The Pepsi can, when it showed up, looked like a shaving cream can. In fact, the Pepsi logo was just stuck on a paper wrapper, and when we peeled it off, indeed it was just a shaving cream can. It still had the shaving cream logo on it. Pepsi understood that this had nothing whatsoever to do with soda in space. It had to do with PR.
During training, the legal beagles at NASA headquarters got into the act. The rule came down that the cans would be covered during testing, so that no logo could be seen. And we would not be photographed during this testing. Then the directive came that the cans would be covered, but now we could be photographed. Then the next ruling was that the cans would be uncovered, the logo had to be visible, we could be photographed with still cameras, but we were not to be photographed with movie cameras. One thing after another came down, and this stupid thing was taking more time than our serious experiments. But we all took it in pretty good humor.
Well, the morning before the launch there is always a briefing, during which all the last minute things that need to be talked about get talked about. We were about halfway through a briefing on the latest data concerning the Sun—our flight had several solar physics experiments—when who should walk in but the Chief Counsel of NASA, who began to brief us once again on the Coke and Pepsi protocols.
At that point—and non-NASA payload specialists like me could get away with things that maybe career astronauts couldn’t—I just blew my stack and said, “We’ve been getting ready for this mission for seven years. It contains a great deal of science. We have a very short time to talk about the final operational things that we need to know. We don’t have time to talk about this stupid carbonated beverage dispenser test. Please leave.” He turned and walked out. But we did do our test in space. The red team did the Pepsi, and the blue team—we were divided into shifts—did the Coke. We took the still photographs, and we showed the logo. And indeed, the Coke can dispensed soda kind of like what we’re used to drinking on Earth. And the Pepsi can dispensed soda filled with bubbles—fun to play with in zero-g, but not very drinkable. Still, when I’m giving talks in schools, they are a lot more interested in Coke and Pepsi than they are in solar physics.
Pictured: A ball of Coke (or is it Pepsi?) floats weightless during mission STS-51-F.