Food by VICE

Can We Thank John Glenn for Astronaut Ice Cream?

Not exactly, but astronaut food has certainly taken one giant leap since John Glenn first orbited the earth.

by Gigen Mammoser
Dec 10 2016, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Ruth Hartnup

This week the United States bid farewell to John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in outer space; he passed away at the age of 95. His accomplishments, as a pilot, astronaut, and senator are well-known. However, perhaps unbeknownst to many, he's also left a lasting impression in the culinary universe.

He was the guinea pig for space food, after all. In 1962, aboard the Friendship 7, Glenn was already on his way to the history books for his orbit around the Earth, but he was also the first American to eat in space—which might not sound like a big deal, but at the time nobody knew whether it was possible to chew, swallow, or digest food at zero gravity. Those first space meals consisted of simple food like pureed beef and vegetables, or apple sauce, served in a tube.

Glenn's famous trip around the globe also forever altered the cultural currency of a bright orange powdered drink called Tang. General Foods developed Tang, but it wasn't until the beverage was sent along with Glenn in orbit (as well as with astronauts on future flights) that it became a household name, permanently intertwined with the legends of the space age and the imaginations of children sipping it inside cardboard rocket ships.

In the early days of space travel, nutrition and weight were both serious concerns for NASA. The food had to provide sustenance for astronauts without burdening the spacecraft. The solution at the time was dehydration, which removed up to 99 percent of the food's moisture (thereby reducing its weight), while still providing calories, and a stable shelf life. Dehydrated foods, of all varieties, made exceptional use of the water vapor produced by the shuttle's fuel cells. Tang, having limited nutrition, was used to make that water a bit more palatable.

Dehydrating food by freeze drying is also how NASA came up with the idea for Astronaut ice cream, which unquestionably became its most popular food despite the fact it never even made it to space. Regardless, we still have NASA (and in a roundabout way, Glenn) to thank for your favorite snack on school field trips.

READ MORE: Meet the Man Who Wants to Make Astronaut Ice Cream Cool Again

Space food has come a long way since Glenn's days; NASA soon developed a method to rehydrate food with warm water, allowing it to be eaten with a spoon, rather than directly from a tube. Today, you can find a whole variety of "normal" foods being eaten by astronauts in space. Different countries from around the world have proudly shown off their own cultural cuisines delicately floating in zero gravity.

M&Ms first went up in 1981. Tortillas have been a popular alternative to bread (because they tend not to produce crumbs) since making their first trip to space in 1985.

In 2003, Yang Liwei, the first person sent into space by the Chinese space program, ate dog meat, among other things. Japanese Astronaut Soichi Noguchi rolled and ate the first ever salmon sushi-maki in space in 2010. Snacks like Goldfish, gummy worms, and even Rice Krispies Treats, are also part of the menu in today's space programs.

READ MORE: Why China Blasted Grapes Into Space to Save Its Wine Industry

Today's astronauts eat like kings compared to John Glenn, during his flight so many years ago. So, let's take a moment to remember the brave man that showed us you could survive hurtling around the earth for days by sucking down applesauce from a tube.