Food in space has always been a challenge. Not only does the food need to be nutritious, to replenish energy levels of hard-working astronauts, it also needs to taste good while being sturdy and portable enough to take on space flights.
Companies, like Pillsbury, worked with NASA to expand upon the foods that were being consumed during the Mercury and Gemini programs of the Sixties. What the food scientists hoped to come up with was a a high-energy alternative to what was then the almost universally despised standard: gelatin-covered cubes.
In 1966, Pillsbury won a contract to make a “rod-shaped contingency food designed to sustain a flight crew when they must remain sealed within their pressure suits.” The effort was led by food scientist Howard Bauman and after trial and error, a little over 3 years later, the Space Food Stick was born.
While touted as a source of sustenance for astronauts, the commercially available Space Food Sticks was not nutritiously or calorically dense. In fact, the first two ingredients listed on the box of the original space sticks? Sucrose and corn syrup. They were more akin to a candy bar and consumers of sweets would become the target audience for them. Still they are considered by many to be the very first of what is now a pervasive foodstuff, “the energy bar.”
Eventually the Space Food Stick rocketed its way into space on the third Skylab mission. While a serviceable product for people in space, Space Food Sticks, would become more iconic as a treat and is well-remembered, although not always fondly, by many people who grew up in the Seventies.
Flavors included: Peanut Butter, Chocolate and maybe Caramel (trying to confirm that). Many people will remember a version that had shiny wrappers, that made them look like the space-age food they claimed to be. While others recall the texture being close to that of a rather soft Tootsie Roll.
When I asked one of my older sisters who remembered them how the originals tasted, she said, “mild.” Which makes sense since these were a food that needed to be acceptable to anyone who happened to be in space and couldn’t have a flavor that might be overwhelming or offensive.
Space Food Sticks disappeared from North American in the eighties. In 2006, they were revived by Retrofuture Product with two flavors, chocolate and peanut butter. It is this release, sold at museums, such as the Kennedy Space Center and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, that most people are familiar with.
No need to fret if you didn’t live through the original Space Food Sticks release, commercials from the era capture the excitement of space mania and its associated consumer by-products very well.