Astronaut ice cream turns 50: freeze-dried treat still popular (even if it never flew)


Perhaps the most popular example of space food that possibly never was, astronaut ice cream is now 50 years old.

The crunchy, room temperature treat, which melts as the freeze-dried ice cream rehydrates in your mouth, was first introduced in 1974 by American Outdoor Products. According to Astronaut Foods, the brand under which the Space Age snack is still marketed, the idea came about after a NASA center requested it for its visitors.

“Our founder, Ron Smith, told Serious Eats that in 1974, ‘Goddard Air and Space Museum contacted us and said that freeze-dried ice cream was used by the space program,” reads a June 27 blog post on the Astronaut Foods website. “They wanted to know if we could make it so they could sell it in their gift shop.’ And we said, ‘Sure, we’ll try it.'”

The first iteration, which the company figured would be, at most, a short-lived fad, was produced by taking half-gallon tubs of Neapolitan ice cream as sold at grocery stores, freezing them solid and then cutting them with a bandsaw. The slices were then freeze-dried and packaged.

NASA first turned to the freeze-drying process for the powdered drinks flown on the Mercury orbital missions in the early 1960s. The agency then invested in improving the technology so that it could expand the types of foods its Gemini crews could consume in space. By the time the Apollo moon program began, the astronauts could choose from more than 60 different freeze-dried, bite-size items.

Related: The Apollo Program: How NASA sent astronauts to the moon

closeup of a printout showing the menu for crewmembers on NASA's Apollo 7 missioncloseup of a printout showing the menu for crewmembers on NASA's Apollo 7 mission

closeup of a printout showing the menu for crewmembers on NASA’s Apollo 7 mission

In NASA’s 1968 press kit for its first three-man launch, NASA listed “vanilla ice cream” on one of the three menus for the Apollo 7 astronauts. It is the only known instance that freeze-dried ice cream has appeared on a NASA-prepared menu. (Later, space shuttle and International Space Station-era astronauts were and still are able to enjoy off-the-shelf, frozen ice cream due to freezers being flown to preserve science experiment samples.)

In 2019, the then-last surviving member of the Apollo 7 crew was asked about the ice cream. Walt Cunningham said he did not remember having it on the mission. Whether that meant it never flew or that it was only consumed by one of his crewmates is unknown. Wally Schirra, commander of Apollo 7, died in 2007, and command module pilot Donn Eisele died in 1987, each without ever commenting publicly on the topic. (Cunningham died in 2023.)

Regardless of its authenticity, astronaut ice cream became a hit with the public and a common gift shop souvenir offered at NASA visitor centers, air and space museums and science centers around the United States and the world. Packets of freeze-dried ice cream were also offered in the 1990s as a mail-away promotion with Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal.

Over the past 50 years, Astronaut Foods has expanded its ice cream line from just Neapolitan (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry) to include mint chocolate chip and cookies and cream ice cream sandwiches, freeze-dried ice cream balls and even a “banana split bundle,” which adds freeze-dried banana slices and strawberries as toppings for the dehydrated ice cream.

Astronaut Foods also branched out beyond ice cream to offer freeze-dried cheese pizza and french fries, among other spaceflight-inspired snacks.

closeup of a slice of freeze-dried neapolitan ice cream, showing its strawberry, vanilla and chocolate sectionscloseup of a slice of freeze-dried neapolitan ice cream, showing its strawberry, vanilla and chocolate sections

closeup of a slice of freeze-dried neapolitan ice cream, showing its strawberry, vanilla and chocolate sections

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— Space food: Why Mars astronauts won’t have to hold the fries (video)

To celebrate 50 years of astronaut ice cream, Astronaut Foods is planning to offer commemorative shirts and other swag, as well as limited-edition product launches and the introduction of new packaging for its current line of freeze-dried products. The brand, having recently been “STEM.org Authenticated,” will also partner with educational institutions to use astronaut ice cream to inspire the next generation of engineers and explorers.

“We’re immensely proud to be celebrating half a century of Astronaut Ice Cream,” said Ron Smith, co-owner and founder of American Outdoor Products. “It has withstood the test of time, proving its enduring appeal and becoming a beloved treat for generations.”

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