This is the ninth in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
That’s a big question, debated by historians and due for a reassessment this summer, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing.
We got a lot more than we give NASA and Apollo credit for, but if you ask the typical American what we got for going to the Moon, the most common answers are Tang and Velcro, offered with exactly the wryness that those two space-age innovations deserve.
In fact, space gave us neither.
Tang was created in 1957 by Bill Mitchell, a food scientist at General Foods who also invented Cool Whip, quick-set Jello, and the candy sensation Pop Rocks. (Pop Rocks were, in fact, a failed effort to create a kind of carbonated version of Tang.)
Tang went onto U.S. supermarket shelves in 1959. John Glenn, in the first U.S. orbital spaceflight, had Tang onboard his Mercury capsule, not because he needed it (the flight was five hours), but because NASA wanted to test out some of its early space food technology.
Glenn, who went on to a distinguished career as a U.S. senator, said he was asked often during his political campaigns, even decades after that first flight, whether he really drank Tang in space. He typically ignored the question.
General Mills advertised the astronaut connection throughout the 1960s, including in a 60-second TV ad that features as much footage of a Gemini launch and an astronaut in space as of kids in the kitchen mixing Tang. “The astronauts do some things like you do,” says the narrator. “In space, they drank Tang.” (NASA, in fact, is careful to “de-brand” the foods it sends to space with the astronauts: on board a spacecraft, Tang was simply orange-flavored drink powder.)
Tang sponsored ABC News coverage of the pioneering Apollo 8 mission, in which U.S. astronauts first reached and orbited the Moon. The Tang logo is fastened to the front of the anchor desk throughout the coverage, right in front of ABC’s highly regarded space reporter Jules Bergman. (The desk has no ABC News logo. To someone who stumbles in, it looks like Bergman works for the Tang News Network.)
In the case of Tang, the NASA connection turned an indifferent product into a best-seller, but some of the astronauts didn’t care for it. The crew of Apollo 11 specifically rejected Tang as part of their food supplies for the first Moon landing. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin later summed it up succinctly during an interview: “Tang sucks.”
Velcro had been invented in 1948 in Switzerland and was available in the U.S. in 1959. Velcro has a lower-profile connection to U.S. spaceflight, but a much more enduring and valued one. In fact, Velcro has been indispensable to astronauts flying in zero gravity as a way of securing tools and objects they want to keep at hand, and that might otherwise drift off. It’s used to close pockets and sample bags, to secure pads to spacesuit legs and checklists to the arms of Moon walkers. Velcro, too, was on the first U.S. orbital mission with John Glenn, as well as on all the Moon flights. Apollo 17’s Jack Schmitt had a piece of Velcro attached to the inside of his space helmet so he could lean over and scratch his nose on it. Astronauts on the space station use Velcro, among other things, to help them sleep in comfortable positions.
But NASA clearly finds the idea that it invented Tang or Velcro slightly irritating. Decades after their first use in space, NASA maintains a web page specifically to debunk the myth that it helped create either product.
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the last four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can preorder it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman–one you’ve likely never heard before–about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company‘s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).