The snack they *don't* eat in space
A brief history of astronaut ice cream
Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:
Astronaut Ice Cream
Image via Wikipedia Commons
Freeze-dried ice cream. Dry, disconcertingly crunchy, not cold. Often sold in Neapolitan flavors (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry all packaged together, as in the photo above).
Ostensibly? Outer space. In reality, this is strictly something consumed within the confines of Earth. Mostly found in museum gift shops or other places that sell products in the science-for-kids category. Here’s an ad from Boys’ Life in 1990; I’ve included the surrounding ads so you get the full effect:
Astronaut ice cream is, for me, a product that conjures nostalgia and disgust. It brings back memories of visiting the science museum with various school groups, when I was ten or eleven or so. We’d marvel the interactive exhibits—powerful magnets, water pressure, a feather falling rather than drifting in a vacuum—and then head to the gift shop to spend a few long-saved dollars, at which point someone would inevitably buy some astronaut ice cream and break off little pieces to share. It was such a lovely gesture, and there was always such a build-up: “This is what real astronauts eat when they go into space!”
And then: the letdown. It was always dry and crumbly, a disconcerting texture paired with a chemically flavor. It was kinda gross. We felt a tiny ping of pity for the astronauts, although we still envied them with all our hearts.
So I can’t decide if it’s a relief or yet another letdown to know the following information: real astronauts do not eat “astronaut ice cream.” In fact, freeze-dried ice cream—the crunchy, powdery the fuel of countless kid daydream/pity sessions in museum gift shops—has probably never gone into space at all.
I say “probably,” because no less an authority than the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum claimed that a batch of the stuff went up with the Apollo 7 astronauts, in 1968, but when Vox fact-checked that with one of those astronauts, Walt Cunningham, he said, “We never had that stuff,” and it also isn’t listed in any of the documents from the mission.
As it turns out, astronaut ice cream was created specifically for a NASA gift shop, in 1974, when the agency hired a company called Outdoor Products—which made freeze-dried foods for camping—to make this novelty product. Last year, Serious Eats got the full story from the company’s founder, Ron Smith:
“It was half a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream that you would buy in the store,” he says. “It was frozen solid, and then cut with a bandsaw, if you can believe it.” Then, the ice cream was freeze-dried using a specialized machine, which turned the ice directly into gas. That process—which, if you recall from high school physics, is called sublimation—is what’s responsible for the tiny air pockets in freeze-dried cream; it’s where the ice crystals were in the original, frozen product. Finally, about three-quarters of an ounce was loaded into a pouch. “Quite frankly, when we first started doing this, we thought, ‘Well, this is a fad. It'll last a couple of years.’ And that was what, 44 years ago?” Smith says.
All of that said, for any real astronauts who want ice cream in space, GOOD NEWS: they now have a freezer in the International Space Station—it was installed in 2006, allowing the fine folks drifting around up there to (AHEM) coldly go where no one had gone before. That first batch was vanilla with chocolate swirls; here’s a photo of another ice cream delivery, in 2012:
Anyway, here’s Stephen Colbert riffing on the fraud that is astronaut ice cream:
Get it here
Your local science museum gift shop or online. There’s at least one company that specializes in astronaut ice cream, selling it various forms and quantities, including 200 ice cream sandwiches for just $798. Get ’em while they’re … not hot. Or cold.
Will you like it?
Probably! If you’re desperate.
New York Times: “It’s Dinner Time on the Space Station. Lobster or Beef Bourguignon?” (This story is so interesting and worth your time.)
Serious Eats: “The History of Astronaut Ice Cream”