Beyond Astronaut Ice Cream: How Consumer America Engineered Food for Space Exploration

What do corporations like Pillsbury and Whirlpool have to do with Apollo 11? Quite a lot, as it turns out. In fact, many consumer corporations contributed to the success of the moon landing. For example, engineers at Playtex designed the Apollo spacesuits and Westinghouse provided the cameras that transmitted video signals back to Earth. Pillsbury and Whirlpool, however, played a unique role in the mission: Preparing and storing food for space travel.

The phrase “space food” conjures images of novelty freeze-dried ice cream. In reality, food for the Apollo 11 mission was provided in the form of either a dehydrated powder, which was mixed with water and reconstituted, or a compressed cube, ready for consumption right out of the packet. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

Still images from 255-FR-4408.

The development of Apollo mission space food began with the Pillsbury Company. Contracted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959, Pillsbury was tasked with creating food that would not crumble or spawn bacteria in space. It was unthinkable to allow an astronaut to contract foodborne illness or to let food particles float freely around the command module in zero gravity. Traditional food safety testing proved inadequate for such a project, so Pillsbury’s scientists applied NASA’s rigorous engineering standards to the development of space foods. This application of intense standards led to the creation of the “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System,” a system for food safety still in use today. The film clip below shows some of the “Apollo Approved” foods being prepared and packaged at the Pillsbury Company Research and Development Laboratories in 1966.]

MSC (News Media) Space Food Preparation, Oct 31, 1966. (255-FR-6125)

Whirlpool first contracted with the United States government in 1960 to open the  “Space Kitchen,” a lab which aimed to develop kitchen appliances that would function in zero gravity. The lab ultimately developed methods of preparing and storing food for NASA’s Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs. The film clip below shows a NASA technician demonstrating the use of space food in zero gravity using Whirlpool-designed packaging and appliances. Note the use of the water dispenser to inject liquid into the food pouch for rehydration. The technician in this clip eats space food directly from the package, but the Apollo 11 astronauts were allowed the use of a stainless steel spoon.

Pillsbury Space Food, Aug 14, 1968. ( 255-FR-7013)

The film clip below shows the unpackaging of an earlier version of space foods. Although these foods were prepared for the Gemini program, similar meals were used for the Apollo 11 mission. Rehydration is again demonstrated here. Meals featured in this clip include beef with vegetables, potato salad, cheese sandwiches, strawberry cubes, and chewing gum.

Manned Spaceflight Center – Space Food, Webster Clock and Barber Shop, Aug 26, 1965. (255-FR-4408)

Note the small tablets attached to the food pouches. Remember the concern raised by the Pillsbury laboratories about bacteria and foodborne illness in space? These germicide tablets were inserted into the empty pouches after a meal was eaten to inhibit bacterial growth. To address the additional concern of free-floating crumbs, cubed meals like the cheese sandwiches were coated in gelatin.

The Apollo 11 mission also offered brownies, butterscotch pudding, and bacon squares. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin noted a preference for shrimp cocktail, a meal still favored by present-day astronauts.

Hungry for more? NASA provides detailed astronaut menus in this report on Apollo mission food systems.

These films about space food are only a few of many recordings available in Record Group 255, Series FR and can be accessed at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.