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.Photo courtesy American Outdoor Products
“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.