This is the 33rd 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.
Once the Apollo astronauts got out to walk and drive around on the Moon, they were, of course, sealed in their spacesuits. The first ones—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin—were only outside for two-and-a-half hours. But the later moonwalks lasted for seven hours or more, and were physically demanding, and so the astronauts had a snack, mounted ingeniously inside their space helmets, where they could lean over and take a bite.
The delivery system, it would turn out, was more appealing than the snack itself—which dates back to before Apollo started.
In 1959, two years before President Kennedy’s speech setting out the goal of going to the Moon by the end of the 1960s—as well as two years before any human, either Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin or American astronaut Alan Shepard, had been to space—people on the ground were thinking about how we might feed astronauts during space travel.
That year, people from the Quartermaster Food and Container Institute of the United States Armed Forces contacted Pillsbury, then perhaps best known for selling premixed biscuit and cookie dough in tubes, to enlist its help in developing space food. Although popular culture had fetishized (and satirized) the notion of a meal in pill form since the late 19th century, Pillsbury food scientists initially focused on making cube-sized foods for astronauts.
Early on, NASA engineers emphasized that any space food needed to be both contaminant-free and could not produce crumbs. Food safety was paramount to protect the astronauts’ health in what were then completely unknown conditions, and crumbs, it was feared, could interfere with the performance of a spaceship’s electronics and equipment.
The specifics of the types of food that could be developed took a backseat to concerns about food safety. As NASA got more serious about space food development during the Mercury program of the early 1960s, the people determining how to feed astronauts in space realized that there was no way to ensure that any food would be free of toxins or bacteria that could affect the astronauts’ health during spaceflight. Paul Lachance, the flight food and nutrition coordinator at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, feared a call from NASA’s chief medical officer Charles Berry telling him that an astronaut was sick or having any kind of gastrointestinal distress. “We quickly found by using standard methods of quality control there was absolutely no way we could be assured there wouldn’t be a problem,” recalled Howard Bauman, the Pillsbury food scientist tasked with this challenge.
Bauman, in response, developed what came to be known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, which flipped product-safety testing from a reactive process of identifying problems after they had been created to a preventative one. A microbiologist by training, Bauman realized that nothing could be taken for granted to preserve the health of the astronauts who’d eat their food, and as the project matured to feed the Apollo astronauts, food was produced in clean-room environments. “We found certain critical control points like telephones in the room,” he wrote in an internal company report in 1973. “They are a good source of bacteria, unless you sterilize the receiver. That’s something that you really don’t always think of.”
HACCP is considered one of the more notable and long-lasting innovations from the space program. It became the standard for food-safety testing and was expanded by the Food and Drug Administration decades later to test seafood and juice, among other foods.
As for the space food itself, in 1966, Pillsbury won a government contract to create a “rod-shaped contingency food designed to sustain a flight crew when they must remain sealed within their pressure suits.” Bauman and Pillsbury developed a compressed food bar that was nutrient dense and could deliver the astronauts a burst of energy when they needed it.
Pillsbury developed a commercial version, released in 1969 amid peak Moon fervor and called: Space Food Sticks. The packaging shamelessly promoted Pillsbury’s connection with the space program. “The energy food developed by Pillsbury in support of the U.S. aerospace program” read the large-type copy on the box under the name. Each stick came in a shiny foil wrapper, which gave it a little extra space-age sheen.
Although the space program pioneered the protein bar industry as we know it today, Space Food Sticks in the Apollo era were marketed mostly for dieters or children. The product touted that it had just 44 calories, and the back of the box featured a young blond woman wearing a headband and enjoying one. The TV ads opened and closed with images of a hovering lunar module and are explicitly tailored to space-obsessed kids.
Pillsbury was wise to lean on its connection to the space program, because the bars themselves were unappetizing in appearance (resembling an 8-inch dowel) and were, in effect, a kind of processed candy dressed up as something more. The first two ingredients were sucrose and corn syrup.
The Space Food Sticks were available to the astronauts starting with Apollo 11, and were designed to do exactly what the government asked from Pillsbury: provide contingency food when the astronauts were confined to their pressurized spacesuits. Here’s how Gene Cernan, mission commander of Apollo 17, described the snacking experience:
“We were going to be locked in the suit for maybe nine hours and we had a little water bag that we suspended from the inside rim of the suit . . . . And then we also had one of these high protein or high calorie sticks shaped like a ruler. It was a soft stick and you could chew it. We had it inside a little bag, and it was probably about eight inches long. It, too, was Velcroed just inside the helmet ring and we could put our chin down and pull a little bit out with our teeth, take a bite, chew it for some energy. It was typical candy-tasting stuff. It was nice to be able to suck up a few ounces of water now and then and have something to chew on. That was it; I mean, we had no way of eating or drinking anything other than that. But having some water and a little candy was a real help; it really was.”
There were many other snack options on Earth, though, and Space Food Sticks did not last long on supermarket shelves. The recollections of what Space Food Sticks tasted like vary widely. The most charitable one is that it resembled a Tootsie Roll. The least? “Cat crap in foil pouches” and “gummy hamster food pellets.”
In the early 1970s, Pillsbury changed the product’s name to the oddly generic Food Sticks, and they were gone by the 1980s, unlike, say, Tang, the powdered orange drink that remains on sale to this day. If you want an authentic Pillsbury Space Food Stick, there’s one box available on eBay, guaranteed unopened. Price? $9,500.
Charles Fishman has the day off. Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order 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).