The first time I tasted freeze-dried ice cream, I’d bought it at the John & Annie Glenn Historic Site in the village where I live, New Concord, Ohio, which is also the hometown of former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn. I ate the little square of sweet and dry Neapolitan something from its foil pack, not sure what to think. It wasn’t ice cream, exactly. But it wasn’t half bad, either.
“Astronaut Ice Cream” is a trademark owned by American Outdoor Products and its affiliated company, Backpacker’s Pantry, although other companies, such as Mountain House and Emergency Essentials, sell it as simply “freeze-dried ice cream.” According to NASA, the product was originally developed by the Whirlpool Corporation for the 1968 flight of Apollo 7. That would be, however, the ice cream’s first and last space flight. It was too crumbly to be safe at zero gravity.
“Sold in space museum gift shops across the United States as ‘space ice cream’ or ‘astronaut ice cream,’ this melt-in-your-mouth treat might seem like a staple item in orbit — but not so,” says William Jeffs, a public affairs representative for the Human Health and Performance Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “It crumbled and wasn’t good in space, where crumbs can float into eyes and highly-sensitive electronic systems.”
Although modern-day astronauts aren’t eating the stuff, freeze-dried ice cream has since found a new life, snapped up by kids trailing through space and science museum shops, backpackers looking for a lightweight and long-lasting treat, survivalists fleshing out their stockpiles, and even soldiers in Afghanistan who want an ice cream that doesn’t melt in the desert’s punishing heat.
Freeze-dried ice cream is made by placing a slice of real ice cream into a chamber, freezing it, subjecting it to a vacuum, applying heat to sublimate its ice crystals directly from a solid state into a vapor, and then trapping and removing the vaporized water. The process repeats for hours, until the ice cream turns into a hard, easily-crumbled slab. When eaten, it reconstitutes slightly, giving it something of a creamy texture.
Freeze-dried ice cream comes in a variety of flavors and styles, depending on the company manufacturing it. Some examples include the ever-popular Neapolitan, chocolate chocolate chip, mint chocolate chip, as well as ice cream sandwiches and ice cream drops.
Intrigued by what it would have been like to eat this ice cream in space on Apollo 7, I called Walter Cunningham, now eighty-two, one of the mission’s astronauts. Unfortunately, though, he told me he doesn’t remember eating freeze-dried ice cream on that mission. He does remember the freeze-dried chocolate pudding, which was one of his favorites. In fact, he traded some of his rations with another astronaut for the chocolate pudding, since he liked it so much. To reconstitute it, he had to add water to a little plastic bag, mix it up and eat the gooey stuff straight out of the bag.
He also fondly remembers the bacon squares, which were pieces of actual bacon that had been freeze-dried and could be reconstituted with water. Cunningham says these were so popular with the crew, in fact, that several of them secreted bacon squares into their uniforms before they even took off, in order to make sure they’d have enough to sustain themselves.
No smell of bacon frying in a skillet for those astronauts, unfortunately. This bacon was all about injecting enough water into its vacuum-packed bag to turn it into something that could be eaten.
“It took a lot of moisture to get them edible,” Cunningham says.
He admits, however, that none of the food he had on that mission — including the beloved chocolate pudding and coveted bacon squares — was anything that could be called gourmet.
“Eating on board Apollo 7 was not considered an experience you would look forward to,” says Cunningham, laughing. “There was nothing culinary about it at all. It was purely survival.”
Whether or not Apollo 7’s astronauts actually ate freeze-dried ice cream, it’s now a popular item in space and science museums around the world. Though freeze-dried ice cream can’t be compared to a gourmet gelato, it still has its devout followers.
“It is real ice cream,” says Belinda Sanda, an intergalactic sales representative for American Outdoor Products, which began selling its Astronaut Ice Cream in the mid-1970s. “It tastes like real ice cream once it melts in your mouth.”
“I do like the ice cream,” seconds Kenny Larson, marketing coordinator with Mountain House. “A mistake people make when eating it is to just crunch it down. You need to let it melt in your mouth a little bit.”
According to Sanda, American Outdoor Products sells millions of packages each year, and sales continue to climb. Some people like it so much that they’ve even taken to making it themselves. Ben Krasnow, a hardware engineer for Google X as well as a tinkerer in his spare time, set out to do just that, going so far as to document his DIY experiment with a video.
“When I was a kid, I really liked astronaut ice cream, and my parents would buy it for me after a fun trip to a science museum,” says Krasnow. “The ice cream seemed to be stocked in most museum gift shops, and I always went straight for it. It’s an unusual novelty snack, and a piece of my childhood. I was inspired to make it myself as an interesting project to see how difficult it would be.”
Many kids still flock to freeze-dried ice cream just like the young Krasnow did. “Kids are our number-one customer,” says Sanda. “I’ve been in the science museum shops when the kids come through, and it’s fun to see them get so excited about it, encouraging their friends to get it, telling each other how great it is.”
Some of the markets for the product are in unexpected places, like Old Navy, where adults who once bought the ice cream as kids in space center shops now pick it up as an impulse buy at the cash registers.
“Those people buying it there are buying it for the nostalgia value,” says Sanda. “In the past, if it wasn’t in a science venue it didn’t do so well. Now it does.”
Backpackers and preppers come in at a close second, finding freeze-dried ice cream a good treat when on the trail or the post-apocalyptic road. Marketed through venues like REI, the product has become a staple for people who plan to spend any time off the grid, away from all the comforts of home — including freezers.
“You’re twenty miles from the trailhead, hot and sweaty, and someone pulls out ice cream,” says Sanda. “It’s a fun, lightweight treat.”
“People of all kinds buy our ice cream,” adds Larson. “Our data shows hunters, fishermen and women like these as quick treats, as well.”
Given the fact that this is the only kind of ice cream that can survive without any form of refrigeration, even members of the military are occasionally finding freeze-dried ice cream in their care packs.
“People are getting it and sending it to their kids in Afghanistan because it doesn’t melt,” said Jason VanSickle, CEO of the Astronaut Ice Cream Shop, which sells American Outdoor Products’ Astronaut Ice Cream through an online store based in Lansing, Michigan. “They say ‘Mom, I want ice cream,’ and she sends it. This doesn’t melt, and it stays good for several years.”
VanSickle first saw the product at a toy show a few years ago, and he was intrigued, realizing instantly that he’d be able to sell it.
“I was like ‘Wow, what is this? Why isn’t it melting?” says VanSickle. “It was interesting, and I tried it. I thought it was really unique and cool. I knew that it was something that would take off.”
And what about the original freeze-dried ice cream, which NASA says was on Apollo 7, but which Cunningham doesn’t remember four decades later? Was it, perhaps, brought on board the ship but just not eaten by Cunningham? Or was it, simply, a forgettable part of the menu?
According to an article in the May 2002 issue of a newsletter published by NASA’s Food Technology Commercial Space Center, “Consumption records of freeze-dried ice cream are not readily available, but most of the product must have been returned, since that is the only time freeze-dried ice cream was used in space.”
In the end, the minor mystery remains unsolved, since the mission’s other two astronauts, Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele, have passed away, and there’s no record of either of them speaking publically about eating freeze-dried ice cream on the flight.
Since that mission, as fate would have it, Cunningham has helped other space missions, such as the Apollo Skylab, to develop their menus, food choices, and nutritional guidelines.
“When you’re going up for a long duration, it becomes even more critical to have good food,” he says. “Today it looks almost like a feast, with everything they have to eat now.”
Cunningham has managed to get his hands on some freeze-dried ice cream in recent years, buying it like so many others at the gift shop at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He hasn’t, however, been all that impressed.
“I’ve eaten it since I got back from time to time,” said Cunningham. “It’s not bad, but after a few times you realize you don’t really need any more of it.”
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Vivian Wagner is a writer and photographer in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University.
Leah Lin is a Manhattan-based illustrator and graphic designer who loves pad thai, streaming docudramas, bezier curves, blooper reels and collecting cats on the Internetz.