You probably don’t give much thought to the forces involved in drinking here on Earth. That’s because gravity’s effects dominate over everything else. Our cups are designed to hold a liquid until we use gravity to pour it into our mouths. But that technique doesn’t work in microgravity. There other forces govern how liquids flow: specifically surface tension and capillary action.
Both of these forces are the result of intermolecular attractions. In the case of surface tension, it’s the attraction that the molecules of a liquid feel for one another that keeps them in a cohesive bunch. Capillary action is similar, but it’s an attraction between the liquid molecules and those of the solid they’re wetting. When you combine them both, you get the ability for liquids to climb up a narrow gap and pull more liquid up behind them. That’s the key science behind every version of the “space cup” developed by astronaut Don Pettit and his collaborators.
To hear more about the development and engineering of the cup (and exactly why it makes drinking coffee so much more enjoyable in space than it would be otherwise) check out the full video. And, in case you’re wondering, there’s a special microgravity champagne flute, too! (Image and video credit: It’s Okay to Be Smart)