When NASA astronaut and chemical engineer Donald Roy Pettit is not on a space shuttle mission or going meteorite-hunting in Antarctica, he spends his time innovating. Among his brainwaves is a cup with a deep groove leading up to its lip that allows spacemen (and women) to have hot coffee in zero gravity. The cup uses the surface tension of coffee to keep it in the cup and not float around as a zero-gravity blob of hot liquid.
The design looks suitably futuristic - even Steve Jobs would have approved - but the image of astronauts packing coffee cups next to Moon Boots seems all wrong. For me, the biggest attraction of intergalactic life (as seen in Star Wars and Star Trek) was that no one wasted time eating. At best, people popped food capsules. And if, like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, they ever did step into a bar like Chalmun's Cantina in Planet Tatooine, they do so purely for the bar fights.
So why did Pettit, and not to mention NASA that funded him, spend time and money on a coffee cup? It could be because astronauts need the routine of having the steaming concoction a couple of times a day. Or perhaps it's just another necessity fuelled by sheer ennui: if you think about it, space travel is a bit like a long-haul flight with a busted entertainment system, and it's very likely that food would be a welcome break in the monotony.
The most likely reason for coffee to be on the menu is because of its health benefits. The Harvard School of Public Health's review of 1.3 lakh people showed that coffee did not harm even if you had six cups - 225 ml cups containing 100 mg of caffeine - a day.
Over the past 20 years, over 19,000 studies have observed the impact of coffee on health and almost all have found that a few cups of coffee a day reduce the risk of several diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer, liver cirrhosis and Parkinson's.
Four to six cups a day prevents diabetes and Parkinson's disease, reported two large reviews published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Drinking three or more cups of coffee a day reduces asthma attacks, reported the journal Chest. Other studies show that, compared to not drinking it, drinking at least two cups a day lowers your chances of developing colon cancer by 25%, liver cirrhosis by 80%, and gallstones by 50%.
Then, there's the stimulant effect. Caffeine speeds up information processing in the brain by 10%, and a couple of cups can improve alertness and concentration during night shift hours, reports Psychopharmacology. Also, women who have two or more cups are less likely to get depressed. Besides being a mood elevator, it is a potent source of anti-aging antioxidants, with a cup of coffee having more antioxidants than a glass of grape, blueberries, or orange juice.
Researchers say as compared to tea or colas, coffee's beneficial effects are higher because of the higher caffeine content: A 225 ml cup of strong coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine, which is roughly three times more than the same serving of tea or cola.
But coffee is not everyone's cup of cheer. Caffeine is a temporary stimulant that affects the heart and central nervous systems, increase heart rate and blood pressure. In excess amounts, it can cause nervousness, jitters, and rapid heartbeat, with the American Journal of Epidemiology linking it with higher cholesterol levels.
So if you get tremours or have sleeping problems, you may be drinking too much. An average person's daily intake should not cross 300 mg - that's about three cups of coffee a day, but pregnant and nursing women should limit it to 100 mg. Children, too, should not have more than a cup a day. But when you add up your total caffeine intake, do include other sources of caffeine, such as soft drinks, painkillers, diet aids and cold medicines.
Doctors are not likely to start prescribing caffeine as a health drink anytime soon, but it's clear that there is no scientific reason to ask people to stop having it. Provided, of course, that they know when to stop.