The Cola Wars. Smear Campaigns in Space?

Sending astronauts into space takes heaps of cash, hours of political wrangling and the kind of engineering prowess that would make Newton weep.

Sending soda into space? A similar process, it turns out.

This week marks the 23rd anniversary (that's 1985 for those of you who can’t count to 23 on fingers and toes) of the Cola Wars in Space, a moment commemorated in the above display at the Air and Space Museum. Basically, back when Pepsi and Coca-Cola were waging their own quest for America’s soda loyalty, they decided to send their brews into space.

Coke was first to the punch, spending an estimated quarter of a million dollars to design a coke can that could go gravity-free. They even changed their famous—and secret!—formula to make the flavor more aerodynamic. NASA agreed to put the product on the space shuttle Challenger.

When Pepsi got wind of Coke’s move, they immediately started developing a space can of their own. They said they spent $14 million on R&D, but some experts have their doubts. Pepsi’s vaunted “space can” looks like nothing so much as a shaving cream bottle with a Pepsi logo slapped on.

Anyway, the battle between the beverage giants got so ugly that Senators and the White House got dragged into the fray, all lobbying in favor of one or the other. One ingenious strategist let it be known that Coke was the preferred drink of Democrats like ex-President Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan, the strategist suggested, was a Pepsi man.

The shuttle mission finally launched in 1985 with four cans of Pepsi and four cans of Coke aboard. The astronauts, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, staged a Pepsi Challenge of their own. The day shift tried the Coke, the night shift drank the Pepsi.

Their verdict: blah on both counts. The soda didn’t remind them of home, and both cans were a waste of time.

Of course, the lukewarm results didn’t stop Pepsi from starting the marketing push of the decade, claiming that their can was “one giant sip for mankind.”

So which is it? Pepsi or Coke? And would you drink either, if you had to drink out of a space can? As always, feel free to holler at us in the comments area below.

About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she served as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine. Currently, she is a Master's student at MIT, where she studies user-generated content and mainstream media culture. She's also a science writer, media blogger, and essayist.

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