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A brief history of astronaut ice cream
Hello, Snackers. In space, no one can hear you scream about bad food.
We have a strict policy around here of not calling foods “weird” or “gross,” but every rule has an exception, so allow me to state for the record that astronaut ice cream is weird and gross.
If you’ve never had the stuff, just trust me and skip it. If have have eaten it, you know I’m right.
You know who hasn’t eaten it, ever? Actual astronauts in space. You know why? Because there’s a real potential that it could harm them, and not just because of the horrible taste, which is that of chalk sprayed with the very worst artificial sweetener ever concocted, a Cold War recipe dreamed up by somber men in lab coats and never updated in the last 70 years.
Astronaut ice cream has almost certainly never been to space. The only reason it exists—literally, the only reason—is to keep museum gift shops stocked with eye-catching novelties on which schoolkids can waste the $5 they earned from their last lemonade stand.
If your response to those initial observations is, “Who hurt you?!” well, let’s make this personal before we address the big picture.
Astronaut ice cream is, for me, a product that conjures nostalgia and disgust. It brings back memories of visiting the local science museum with various school groups, when I was ten or eleven or so. We’d marvel at 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, always dry and crumbly, a disconcerting texture paired with a flask-full-of-chemicals flavor. It was, yes, weird and gross. You needed to drink some water immediately afterward to combat the dryness and the lingering taste.
After the highs of the exhibits, here was a crushing reminder that STEM can be very, very disappointing. We still envied astronauts for all the other things they got to do, but we suddenly felt a bit sorry for them and the garbage they had to eat if they wanted dessert. No matter how many kids shared a package of astronaut ice cream, there were always large pieces left, chucked in the garbage can as we headed to the bus.
As it turns out, though, the product known as astronaut ice cream has probably never been to space.
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.
There are various data points indicating that it was at least strongly considered as an option for NASA’s menus in the Apollo days. Over at the excellent newsletter Tedium (which I highly recommend if you enjoy the sort of deep-dive cultural research we do here at Snack Stack), Ernie Smith wrote about astronaut ice cream a while back and noted that it did appear in an Associated Press inventory of foods onboard Apollo 7.
In my own archival research, I also found discussions of it as a potential food for actual astronauts—but no confirmation that it actually went up into space or was part of a meal up there. Here’s the earliest mention I can find of astronaut ice cream, from a story in The Oakland Tribune in 1965:
A booklet called NASA Facts: Food For Space Flight, published by the agency in 1968, casts even more doubts on the likelihood that astronaut ice cream ever made it to the zero-gravity table. It’s a remarkable document, with plenty of photos of astronaut food in bags and tiny cubes. I especially enjoyed this, one which shows the same meals in two formats, with the astronaut version at the top.
It’s all fascinating reading, if you have any interest in the science and mechanics of creating food for astronauts, and it does include photos of some desserts, including a freeze-dried date cake. But nowhere in the document do the words “ice cream” appear.
By all verifiable accounts, astronaut ice cream was first produced as a real, consumable food in 1974, when NASA commissioned a company to manufacture it for the gift shop at the agency’s Ames Research Center in California. The fact that NASA didn’t have an existing recipe or procedure for creating the stuff is further evidence that it didn’t exist before this date. (In his Tedium story, Smith notes that Whirlpool had been working on various other foods for the space program in the 1960s, but ice cream does not appear to have been part of their menu.)
NASA partner for the gift-shop goodie was a company called Outdoor Products, which made freeze-dried foods for camping. In 2020, 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.
Look through newspaper and magazine archives and you can see that fad kick off in the 1970s and continue over the decades. People mention buying it in museums and there were ads for it in the back of Boys’ Life, like this one from 1990:
I don’t mean to be overly cynical or dismiss the genuine sense of wonder that can come from buying any of these products. Dream big, kids! Let your spirits soar! But I see that page and I remember the DIY radio and rocket kits I got as a kid, tinkered with for a few minutes, and then abandoned forever. Other kids, more persistent than I, surely finished such projects and found joy and meaning in them. Even with this knowledge, though, I can’t help but think of astronaut ice cream fitting perfectly with these dream-big projects and the cheap trinkets on offer at the museum gift shops: they all offer an illusion of intrigue that just doesn’t last, not for me, not for most people.
The main reason you won’t hear me calling foods “weird” or “gross” in other contexts is that those terms are so subjective and also so often deployed to ridicule cultures, upbringings, and history that seem unfamiliar to us. (We’ve discussed this before on Snack Stack and many other writers have written about it far more eloquently; I especially like this piece by Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker.) But I have no qualms about using those problematic terms for astronaut ice cream, because there is no generational personal story here. No one has their grandma's handwritten recipe for astronaut ice cream. No one made it with a beloved uncle every Saturday afternoon during the summer. You won’t find it in a restaurant, a home kitchen, or a workplace break room; it’s a musty piece of Space Race nostalgia found only amidst the commodified quirk of museum gift shops and the back pages of magazines.
Astronaut ice cream is a weird novelty food from a weird novelty place. Weird novelty is its terroir.
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As that NASA pamphlet discusses, and Mary Roach goes into at length in her book Packing for Mars, preparing and eating food in outer space is actually quite tricky. You can’t have open flames in a shuttle or space station, and heating things requires special precautions and equipment, as does storing food. So: lots of freeze-dried things or goo you suck out of bags.
(You also have to ensure that foods can be properly digested, and if you want to know about the, uh, back end of the eating process, read Roach’s book for all the foul details or watch this NASA video for a more palatable primer.)
The primary reason for all those goos and bite-size bits, though, is the fact that you simply can’t have crumbs and other bits of food (or anything) floating around in zero gravity. It goes everywhere—into the air, into your hair, into essential equipment that you really, really don’t want to fail because a Dorito shard got wedged behind a button. Early astronauts didn’t eat blocks of freeze-dried Neapolitan ice cream because, as any kid who’s had it at the science museum can tell you, the stuff comes in a big chunk and it gets everywhere when you break it. It’s dry and crumbly and dusty and would immediately create a hazard. Would a mediocre dessert really be worth that risk?
As Roach points out, scientists back on Earth have made some real progress over the years:
Astronaut food in recent decades has grown kinder and more normal. Meals no longer have to be compressed or dehydrated, as there’s plenty of storage room on the International Space Station. Entrées are sealed in plastic pouches, thermostabilized, and then reheated in a small unit that resembles a briefcase.
In 2006, the International Space Station finally got a freezer. Six years later, astronauts finally got their ice cream—the real stuff. That first batch was vanilla with chocolate swirls; here’s a photo of another ice cream delivery, in 2012:
“Astronaut ice cream,” the product sold with that name, is a lie, but if you want to eat the kind of ice cream real astronauts eat in space, it’s available at your local grocery store, no trip to the museum necessary.
Thanks for reading and happy snacking!
— Doug (email@example.com)