In the 80s, an Atlanta astronaut performed a Coke vs. Pepsi taste test in space

Atlanta native Roy D. Bridges Jr. will be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in May—here are a few highlights from his career

Roy D. Bridges Jr.
Roy D. Bridges Jr.

Courtesy of NASA

In the 1980s, the Cold War was still raging—and so were the Cola Wars. Maybe it was inevitable that in the summer of 1985, the Pepsi Challenge would make its way into space aboard the Challenger’s Spacelab 2 mission, piloted by Atlanta native Roy D. Bridges Jr.

Technically, Coca-Cola and Pepsi were involved in the eight-day mission because they wanted the crew to test a new can technology to limit the amount of carbonation bubbles escaping into the air—not because they wanted to know which brand astronauts preferred. Still, “we had to do a taste test,” Bridges remembers. “The space shuttle didn’t have a refrigerator. It was hot pop. Neither was very good, but I was on the Pepsi team. After we finished it, the air was so filled with bubbles that one of our scientists made little balls. He made a little universe. And then he would eat them.”

In May, Bridges will be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame—not just for being brave enough to drink warm soda in orbit, but also for his many other roles at NASA. At different times, after his return from space, Bridges served as director of both the Kennedy Space Center, where he oversaw operations of the space shuttle and the International Space Station, and the Langley Research Center. At the latter, he was responsible for creating the NASA Engineering & Safety Center, which he describes as a sort of “Supreme Court of engineering issues.” Part of Bridges’s job there was to investigate ways to prevent the sorts of engineering problems that led to the crashes of the Challenger, in 1986, and the Columbia, in 2003.

Bridges considers himself an “improbable astronaut”; it’s the title of his 2022 autobiography. Though, as he points out, out of the billions of people who live on Earth, only 622 have ever gotten to go into space, so maybe every astronaut is improbable. Bridges had the advantage of a distinguished career as an Air Force test pilot before he applied to the space program, even if he did get rejected on his first try. It took five more years before he was selected to go on a mission. He was 42 at the time. It would be his only trip into space.

A space shuttle mission is a clearinghouse of tasks for scientific projects. Besides testing soda cans, the Spacelab 2 crew studied sunspots; experimented with trailing the payload bay behind the main shuttle; and collected data from the ionosphere, an electrically charged layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. After their 12-hour shifts, they would eat dinner together (“astronaut ice cream” isn’t actually a thing, but Bridges says they did have a nice strawberry shortcake) and sing folk songs accompanied by a harmonica. And Bridges would look out the window at Earth and marvel at how “magnificently beautiful” it was.

“It was fun,” he says. “I was grateful I had the opportunity to do it. And I’m grateful I survived it.”

This article appears in our April 2023 issue.