How NASA Made Tang Cool

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No one wanted the orange stuff until it went to space.

When one is orbiting Earth at 17,000 miles per hour, one is bound to get thirsty. That's presumably what happened to astronaut John Glenn while taking his first jaunt around the globe on February 20th, 1962. Unfortunately, the poor taste of the onboard life support system water (due to a nontoxic chemical reaction) made that option not particularly attractive. Luckily, Glenn had Tang.

For the past six decades, kids, astronauts and South Americans (we'll get to that) alike have used the orange-flavored sugar powder known as Tang to spruce up their H2O. While there is a common misconception that the minds at NASA invented it, that's not true. Tang was actually available on grocery store shelves several years prior to Glenn's mission. But NASA did make Tang cool.

 

In 1957, food scientist William Mitchell of the General Foods Corporation came up with what he called "Tang Flavor Crystals." Mitchell was the company's top food scientist who, as The Atlantic put it upon his death in 2004, "never became a household name, but most households you can name have something of his in it." He was the mind (and tastebuds) behind such mid-century food innovations like Tang, Pop Rocks, quick-set JELL-O and Cool Whip. After two years of research and development, Tang was put on grocery shelves in the United States (and Venezuela and West Germany ) in the fall of 1959. It was marketed as a breakfast drink packed with vitamin C that "you don't squeeze, unfreeze, or refrigerate." None of that made it sound particularly delicious and not surprisingly, it didn't sell particularly well.

It is not entirely clear when scientists at NASA realized that Tang was a potential solution to NASA's space food problem. Throughout World War II and into the mid-century, General Foods - along with many of the giant food corporations of time - was one of the US military's main food suppliers. According to Space.com, it was around 1960 when someone at NASA realized the consumer-grade drink powder was exactly what the astronauts needed in space. So, the government made a deal with General Foods to buy the powder in bulk. However, the deal included a provision that it would not say "Tang" on the NASA packaging, but simply the flavor - "orange drink." So, the product that went to space was basically identical to the one on Earth. However, the delivery method - from pouch to mouth - was altered in accordance with the physics of outer space.

Because of the whole no-gravity-in-space thing, pouring crystallized powder into a cup of water was going to be a problem. So, NASA engineers came up with a system that involved squirting water with a needle into a vacuum-sealed powder-containing pack. After shaking, all the astronaut had to do was stick a straw inside of the pouch of Tang and slurp away.

When Glenn was shot off into space, he was accompanied in his Friendship 7 capsule by an array of space-age food and drink choices. This wasn't due to him needing provisions - after all, the mission was only about five hours long - but because NASA wanted to test how well, or even if, humans could eat and drink in a state of zero gravity. Now, Glenn wasn't the first person to eat in space. That distinction belongs to Yuri Gagarin, who ate from tubes of pureed meat and chocolate sauce in 1961. But Glenn was the first American to accomplish the task when he swallowed tube-dispensed applesauce and sugar tablets dissolved in water. Now records are not entirely clear if Glenn actually ever used the Tang powder onboard the capsule during that first flight. However, as far as General Foods was concerned, it didn't matter. Their orange-flavored powder went to space and that was a good enough of a marketing gimmick for them.

When Glenn returned home safely (though, not without a little bit of stress), he was celebrated. So was Tang. General Foods began marketing the powder as a space-age drink. Tang accompanied astronauts to the nether regions for the next decade (through the Gemini and Apollo programs), and General Foods gushed proudly in print and tv ads that it was chosen by the Gemini astronauts because it was packed with vitamins, easy to make and tasted great. In 1968, Tang even sponsored ABC's coverage of Apollo 8, America's first manned flight around the moon. Needless to say, the advertising was effective. Tang sales shot through the roof and became one of the best-selling drinks of its day. John Glenn's famous flight and Tang became synonymous, to the point that when the former astronaut ran for President in 1983 he was repeatedly asked if he really liked Tang. He ignored the question.

Years later, Tang no longer holds sway over the American public like it did decades ago. However, sales are still strong in South America which helped make the orange drink into a billion dollar global brand. In 2013, Buzz Aldrin - the second man to walk on the moon - finally answered the question many were thinking: Did astronauts actually drink Tang while in space? He said yes, but they didn't enjoy it. The never-subtle Aldrin exclaimed to anyone within earshot, "Tang sucks."

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