The taste of space: The truth about so-called astronaut ice cream and vegans for the win

By Bethany Jean Clement
The Seattle Times
Two full tablespoons of sugary powder are called for to make one eight-ounce glass of Tang, with natural flavor and the artificial colors that make it glow a lurid tangerine accounting for less than 2% of the mix.

Tang was not made for space travel, but space travel made Tang famous. The sugary orange-drink powder failed to take off upon introduction to the U.S. market in 1959, but once it launched with American astronauts in the 1960s — labeled just “ORANGE DRINK” — Tang had the world’s best built-in branding. Ads touted it as “For Spacemen and Earth Families,” and it went along on every manned spaceflight for the decade following 1965.

Tang’s never gone away — I’m drinking a glass of it right now. All right, I’m actually looking at it with trepidation: Two full tablespoons of pale powder are called for to make one 8-ounce serving, and the mix is made of sugar, fructose (which is sugar) and citric acid (“PROVIDES TARTNESS”). Natural flavor accounts for less than 2% of Tang, along with ascorbic acid, maltodextrin and more, including the artificial colors that make it glow a lurid tangerine. Its smell is surprisingly strong, a sharp, insistent, artificial citrus note that’s a million miles from the scent of the sun shining on an orange grove.

It takes a special kind of person to go into space — a person who doesn’t mind being in confined quarters with others for long periods of time, or that those quarters are hurtling through surroundings of certain death, or that such things as your loved ones and a real orange must be left far behind. Fresh fruit didn’t fly until the Space Shuttle, and even NASA calls the food that the early astronauts endured “a testament to their fortitude,” with limited menus of “bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried powders and semi-liquids.” Much of the food, such as it was, came in aluminum tubes. The astronauts found it “unappetizing” — perhaps an understatement — and they “disliked squeezing the tubes” into their mouths.

But the tubes, in context, were a good thing. In space, food must be carefully contained. Absent gravity, crumbs are dangerous, failing to just fall obediently to the floor; they could foul a spacecraft’s instruments, with cinematically terrifying implications. That freeze-dried “astronaut” ice cream that was the neatest thing about going into space to you as a kid (or at least to me as a kid)? With its extreme crumbliness, it would be a very bad idea. No records exist of freeze-dried ice cream making it aboard any mission.

Freeze-dried "astronaut" ice cream: A favorite with kids, but maybe not the best for actual space travel.

Space food has improved, albeit in painfully small-sounding increments. Gemini astronauts enjoyed their bite-sized food-cubes coated in gelatin (yum), and better packaging brought exciting new menu choices such as chicken with vegetables, butterscotch pudding and applesauce. The Apollo crew had it even better than applesauce: They were the first to have hot water. This “made rehydrating foods easier and improved the food’s taste,” as NASA damns with faint praise. Skylab even had a table! Footholds allowed the crew to “sit” (NASA’s quotation marks) to eat. It also had a refrigerator, “a convenience no other vehicle has offered, before or since.”

Space Shuttle and International Space Station eating got better still, with rehydratable, thermostabilized, irradiated and the delicious-sounding “natural form items,” with the latter classification including nuts, granola bars and cookies (hopefully crumb-resistant). Astronauts may choose favorite off-the-shelf items for repackaging, but those items may not necessarily appeal off-Earth, since taste buds change as fluids shift from weightlessness. I’m sure the staff of NASA’s Human Health and Performance Directorate’s Space Food Systems group does its level best, but extraterrestrial meals are not set up for stellar success: restricted storage space, limited options for heating, and what NASA terms “the difficulties of eating without gravity.” Not much in the way of atmosphere, either.

When it comes to the food of the space-future, vegans are right and everybody else is wrong. The official NASA plan for Advanced Food for Potential Future Use calls for settlers elsewhere, “be it lunar or planetary,” to partake of comestibles “similar to a vegetarian diet that someone could cook on Earth — minus the dairy products.” Apparently NASA is unaware of the term, but the protocol for these pioneers, after they “arrive on the surface and establish living quarters,” is very much vegan: grow and eat crops including soybeans, rice, wheat, peanuts, potatoes, cabbage, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, radishes and herbs. (Presumably this will occur with less abject fear and desperation than in “The Martian.”) It seems only logical that once we’ve wrung every drop of oil out of the Earth’s shuddering surface and melted every ice cap, those wealthy or piratical enough to jettison off of it will enjoy a vegan diet, too. Growing crops to feed them to animals, then eating the animals will make even less sense on Mars.

I’m still looking at, and catching unfortunate whiffs of, this glass of Tang. It promises to provide me with a full day’s supply of vitamin C. It’s still popular, with almost $900 million in sales in 2016, and still available in approximately 35 countries. Though it’s not a favorite in the U.S. of A. anymore, it’s big in Brazil, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the Philippines (where you can get mango, guyabano or pomelo flavor, any of which I would much rather try). The package’s serving suggestion is chilled or over ice, but astronauts would’ve squeezed water into the pouch containing the powder, mixed it to the best of their ability, then enjoyed, through a straw, at space-vehicle-compartment temperature.

Yes, early astronauts did drink Tang, including on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years ago this summer. You could say that it helped humans walk on the moon — except that years later, the second person to set foot there finally broke his silence about Tang. In 2013, with astronautical forthrightness and heroic concision, Buzz Aldrin said, “Tang sucks.” After a few room-temperature sips, I’m with the spaceman.

Tang tasting notes

An aggressive, sharp citric nose is detectable from several feet, while the color beams alarmingly with what seems to be a near-radioactive internal illumination. An initial eye-watering, chemical tartness gives way to an argument with cloying sweetness, with all parties losing. An overdrive finish feels harmful to the sides of the tongue. Beware the subsequent sugar crash. — B.J.C.