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From Tang to Dippin’ Dots, How Retro Food (Incorrectly) Predicted the Future

A look back at "futuristic" food of the mid-20th century.

Air stewardess carrying a weightless food tray in 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Air stewardess carrying a weightless food tray in 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

The launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 inspired Americans to look upwards to the night sky. In the years that followed, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created, bringing with it a serious program that eventually landed Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969. The moon landing forever changed our relationship with space — with the promise of space travel and the burgeoning space race came a new vision for the future of food, as American companies were inspired by how astronauts were forced to eat. In a 2007 New York Times look at the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, Randy Kennedy points out the inextricable tie between the Space Age of the '60s and pop culture. "An effect was much more than simply a spillover from the silvery streamlining of the space program," he writes. "It was an increasing preoccupation with the future and technology that helped change not only the country's look in the 1950s and '60s, but also, in some ways, its very conception of itself, as if seen anew from space."

The space program of the ‘50s and ‘60s changed America’s "conception of itself, as if seen anew from space."

This "preoccupation with the future," when it came to food, looked like astronaut food. Edibles were compressed, flash-frozen, and otherwise messed with until finally even ice cream was nothing more than a crumbly packaged product. Even as the space race came to an end in the early '70s, "future-minded" products still had the look of astronaut-inspired food.

That future has yet to pan out. At times, it seems as if we're no closer to serious space tourism than we were in the 1960s, and NASA's current nutrition program is more concerned with making "earth food" edible in the space, as opposed to the other way around. Space-ready foods feel more like a novelty than an inevitability. But here now, a look back at what we thought lay ahead:


Debuted: 1959
The concept: Powdered orange drink is a convenient way to make water less boring. Oh, and vitamins.

There's a widely spread misconception that NASA invented Tang in the early '60s. That's not quite how it happened. In 1957, food scientist William Mitchell developed Tang while working for the General Foods Corporation. The orange-flavored powder was released to consumers in 1959, when it was marketed as a vitamin-packed breakfast drink "you don't squeeze, unfreeze, or refrigerate."

Sales didn't really take off, however, until astronaut John Glenn consumed Tang in orbit aboard the Mercury flight in 1962. Shortly after, NASA sent Tang into space with the Gemini 4 crew, solidifying Tang's new place on grocery store shelves as part of an astronaut breakfast. Today Tang is owned by Kraft, who has saved it from novelty and irrelevance by marketing it hard in South America and other international markets. But is it the future of breakfast drinks? Nah.

Astronaut Ice Cream

Photo: Evan-Amos/Wikicommons

Debuted: 1968
The concept: Freeze-dried ice cream astronauts can eat in space. Freeze-dried ice cream kids can eat on Earth.

Astronaut ice cream came onto the scene in 1968. The Apollo missions were underway, though hadn't yet landed a man on the moon. The Whirlpool Corporation developed freeze-dried ice cream for NASA, and the ice cream made its maiden voyage on Apollo 7. The astronauts found it too crumbly, a big problem in zero-gravity environments, and the maiden voyage proved to be the ice cream's final trip to space. While not a huge hit with astronauts, freeze-dried ice cream did capture the imagination of snackers, who bought the ice cream as souvenirs from space and science museums. Astronaut ice cream is still on sale at gift shops today, and its biggest influence seems to be on other novelty ice creams like Dippin' Dots.

Space Food Sticks

Debuted: 1969
Concept: Compact, nutritionally dense sticks of food are fun for both children and astronauts.

The creatively named Space Food Sticks were a pet project of Pillsbury, a continuation of earlier work the company did for NASA on "space food cubes" in the early '60s. (According to Pillsbury parent company General Mills, those cubes went into space with astronaut Scott Carpenter aboard the five-hour-long mission of the Aurora 7, in 1962.) Don't be fooled by these origins, however. Space Food Sticks were released to the public before NASA decided to take them into space. Pillsbury, wanting to hop on the Tang bandwagon, created something that seemed space-y: sticks of compressed carbs, proteins, and fats with kid-friendly flavors like caramel, peanut butter, and chocolate. (A commercial from the early '70s advertised the sticks to parents as "a better between-meal food for your family" complete with "balanced nutrition.")

In 1972, Space Food Sticks finally went to actual space, aboard Skylab 3. While their popularity has long-since fizzled, they are still available if you know where to look. In terms of what Pillsbury got right about the future, it's not hard to see shades of Space Food Sticks in contemporary energy bars. Good job, Pillsbury.

Dippin' Dots

Photo: Joel Kramer/Flickr

Photo: Joel Kramer/Flickr

Debuted: 1988
The concept: Flash-frozen ice cream beads, mostly found at zoos and amusement parks, are the ice cream of the future.

It's a brave move to declare your ice cream "the ice cream of the future," but that's exactly what microbiologist and Dippin' Dots founder Curt Jones did when he first introduced the world to his flash-frozen ice cream beads in 1988. Made by introducing ice cream ingredients to liquid nitrogen, Dippin' Dots are a now a mainstay at stadiums, malls, and amusement parks. There have been some major roadblocks, however. Sales fell in the midst of the recession of the early 2000s, and in 2007 the company lost a legal battle, resulting in the nullification of their patent on "cryogenic encapsulation."

In 2011, the company filed for bankruptcy and was eventually purchased by a father-and-son duo who decided to keep Jones on as CEO. While it doesn't seem like creamy, non-pellet ice cream will go extinct any time soon, it is worth noting how much more commonplace liquid nitrogen is in kitchens, bars, and coffee shops now than it was when Dippin' Dots first debuted.