If I had to name one food that defined my childhood it would have to be astronaut ice cream. I can still remember getting it from the gift shop at the Minnesota Science Museum in the late 1980s and thinking that it was absolutely the coolest thing in the world. Look Mum, I'm eating just like an astronaut!
Little did I know (because kids are stupid and dumb and don't know stuff), that I was already decades late to the party. Freeze-dried "astronaut ice cream" was already a novelty of past futures, not the future-future. Because in the 1960s, there was no question in the minds of many Americans that freeze-dried foods were not just for astronauts — these space age delicacies were going to invade your average supermarket as well.
The October 30, 1966 issue of the Independent Press-Telegram in Long Beach, California described this freeze-dried future where "Food Needs No Icebox."
For men who show bewilderment now in attempting to find food-stuffs in the kitchen, the near future of the space age could be downright baffling.
Imagine red lean meat, enough to feed a family of five, tidily packed away in a simple carton on the shelf alongside the corn flakes.
Image a slim cylinder, looking more like today's tennis ball container, standing on the same shelf and labelled "Scrambled Eggs and bacon."
Freeze-dried hamburger patties and peas from a 1966 newspaper article
Now, if canned eggs and bacon sounds disgusting to you, you probably never tried certified-organic Batter Blaster™ when it was available. But that product, and the dozens of others you'll still find in American supermarkets, were supposed to be the norm by now rather than the exception. After all, they reasoned, we were heading into the space age, and making food consumption more "efficient" was simply the natural progression of food tech.
Again, from the 1966 article:
And, while further contemplating the evening meal in the absence of the bridge-playing wife, the eye falls on neatly stacked miniature boxes of sliced apples or ready-cooked rice pudding.
If this sounds something far-fetched, it isn't. It's here.
During the recent Apollo flight, just such packages of freeze-dried foods went into orbit with no perceptible loss of flavour, nutritive value, appearance or colour.
The astronauts have existed on "convenience foods of the future" such as beef and gravy, soup, chicken and brownies.
If that sounds like a heavy armful of groceries, be reminded a woman could carry in her purse all the food both astronauts would require for a week.
Today, freeze-dried food doesn't have much sex appeal. But we're seeing a resurgence of Americans prizing food efficiency (likely a backlash to the past decade's slow food movement) as they buy products like Soylent.
We're still trying to perfect processes for making astronaut food taste more like the real stuff — especially as we mentally pump ourselves up for a manned mission to Mars. But as fewer kids are told that they should look up to astronauts and engineers, and instead aspire to be coders, one can't help but wonder how many are guzzling down Soylent shakes and shouting, "Look Mum, I'm just like Zuck!"
Pictures: Food tray scheduled to be used in the Skylab program in 1972 via NASA; A researcher at the Food Science Department of Rutgers University observes the rehydration of freeze-dried pork chops circa 1955 via Getty Images