Space Food Sticks – Because Space Is Awesome!

The era of the big prepared food companies that got going in the twentieth century has been responsible for some enduring creations. Anyone who mentions a Twinkie, a TV dinner or a bowl of Cheerios in normal conversation is generally met with knowing nods that signify the listener is well familiar with the reference. There are, of course, many more – M&Ms, the Snickers bar and Sweet Tarts fill the candy aisle of your favorite store. The breakfast aisle is loaded with them, from Fruit Loops to Pop Tarts.

But then there are the others, that were launched with great fanfare but that withered on the vine and were soon discontinued. These are mostly remembered (if at all) by trivia hounds. Or maybe if you are someone like me, who lived through the burst of television commercials and were one of those intrepid souls who stepped up to try that new item that was bound to change our lives. There are plenty of these to remember, but today we will shine the spotlight on just one: Space Food Sticks.

Space Food Sticks is a favorite of mine in this category. Or perhaps “was” is a better term because these have not been on store shelves in quite a long time. In the 1960s the American space program was the hot new thing, and it was no hotter than among we kids of the time. If, in 1968, you had asked a random group of self-respecting 8 year olds what they wanted to be when they grew up, “astronaut” would have been one of the top answers. We all believed that an existence of blast-offs and splash downs would be the stuff of normal life in another twenty years, and we wanted to know everything about it.

One of the topics was what the astronauts ate and drank. We may have to come back to Tang (the orange flavored powdered drink mix that surely gave Florida orange growers some heartburn) but today’s topic is solid food. The Pillsbury company worked with NASA on concocting some kind of solid food that could be consumed by astronauts in a pinch. It had to be free of crumbs, in a shape that could be fed through space helmets and reasonably nutritious. Astronauts in space, I mean – after all, an astronaut on the ground can eat anything.

Just watch the TV commercial that told us all about them – they weren’t selling food, they were selling space. And selling space was just another way to sell cool. I can guarantee that every kid in my 5th grade classroom would have agreed: Space Food Sticks were cool.

NASA and Pillsbury actually did some significant work in this project because beyond most criteria on which food products are normally judged, freedom from germs was paramount. There were legitimate concerns about what might happen if bacteria was allowed to roam freely through a space capsule, let alone the unpleasant thought of a poor astronaut upchucking in a space helmet.

During all of this, it was Pillsbury that hauled in a 1966 contract to create a “rod-shaped contingency food designed to sustain a flight crew when they must remain sealed within their pressure suits.” Howard Bauman was a food safety scientist at Pillsbury at that time, and determined that normal methods of quality control (which found problems in inspection and worked backwards to the source) were not going to give his team the kind of results that were required. Bauman pioneered a system (called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)) to guarantee freedom from contamination on the front end of the process – a system which is widely used throughout the food industry today. And you thought this was going to be nothing but useless trivia.

The result was a reasonably nutritious snack product that could be eaten by an astronaut who was too busy to luxuriate with a normal vacuum-sealed dinner-in-a-pouch. And being a purveyor of food products to the general public, who could blame Pillsbury for taking the result of its hard work and selling it to space-crazy Americans. Because – – Space!

The company no doubt saw dancing dollar signs when they introduced the things for retail in 1969. And we have to love the name – no SuperNutriSnackoBar for this product. This one would use the no-nonsense descriptive name that the Astronauts surely used (or so we all assumed) – Space Food Sticks.

As a pre-teen at that time, of course I had to have them. I remember that they were not cheap and I was quite excited when I talked my mother into forking over for a box. I chose the chocolate flavor. Each tube came in a foil-lined paper wrapper and was sort of the consistency of a soft Tootsie Roll.

They were not exactly wonderful, but who needed wonderful when you were eating what the astronauts ate? These actually pre-dated the energy bar that has become so ubiquitous in recent times, but in 1969 these were seen as a high-tech substitute for things like potato chips and candy bars. Although nobody was using the term “high tech” back then.

But it would seem that the high tech image did not perform to expectations as the packaging soon took on a new design that was decidedly more “normal consumer product” (as opposed to an “awesome product from space”) in its appearance. “Sell the food, not the science” was someone’s brilliant idea. Except that maybe the food itself was never the draw. That might have worked with refrigerated Crescent Rolls but not with these.

The space angle was apparently not enough of a draw to keep these selling at the rate necessary for profitability, especially once the space program became less of a shiny new toy. Pillsbury dropped the “Space” from the name in 1971 (citing negative associations with foods eaten in space) and now called them “Food Sticks” – a really curious choice. To me, something called “Food Sticks” belonged in the black and white packaging of other generic products. But I guess it was better than “Soylent Green”.

Sadly, “Food Sticks” was not the draw the manufacturer had hoped and the product was discontinued in the mid 1980s. Did anyone miss them? I never noticed when they went away – probably because my mother never bought more than 3 or 4 boxes of them, none of which likely came into the house after about 1971. I didn’t even remember the name change.

Someone tried to bring them back several years ago to sell at air and space museums, but they evidently did no better than they did the first time and were discontinued again. The biggest improvement seems to have been made more recently when a cannibis-infused version became available in certain areas. This is purely information from the internet, mind you, as I don’t live anywhere near a place where I could find out in person if this is really true. Maybe this is what these were missing from the beginning. Just ask the folks at Coca Cola how they got started. Although I am having a hard time imagining how this would have complied with NASA’s specs. I guess there is more than one way to offer space food.

Since starting this little research project, I have tried to think of a food product that screams “1970” quite as loudly as this one, but am having no luck. But remembering this one should be enough.

Further reading – More information from the source: https://blog.generalmills.com/2019/07/space-food-sticks-went-to-the-moon-too/

And another retrospective: https://www.fastcompany.com/90371561/pillsbury-space-food-sticks-sweet-slim-jims-space

Images are original packaging and advertising materials for Space Food Sticks (in their various iterations) as found in either the sources above or in random places on the web.

21 thoughts on “Space Food Sticks – Because Space Is Awesome!

  1. The “food stick” part sounds so enticing. Not. Perhaps this is an example of when a better name could have helped? Something making it sound like rocket fuel may have been beneficial. Or “Apollo Snacks”. For the record, I had never heard of these until now.

    In a coincidence, earlier this week I heard a radio interview with an astronaut. He talked about bathing and using the toilet in space, so it seems the fascination with space has simply become broader.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I can see how these would be pretty obscure to anyone much outside of my own age demographic. It was probably one of those products that you had to be 8-12 years old when they came out to remember them, and even I have zero memories about them after their early burst of commercials. I was actually surprised to find that they hung around as long as they did.

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  2. Uh, never heard of them. And do they still make Tang? I haven’t had any in 25 years, I think the last time was bringing it on a wilderness canoe trip I decided I preferred water straight out of the lake.

    I distrust any food that needs the word “food” on the package to confirm what it is. I remember seeing commercials for “Velveeta process cheese food” and being perplexed as to why they had to tell us it was food. Maybe it’s not actually food and they’re trying to trick us…

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    • “I distrust any food that needs the word “food” on the package” This is the simplest yet most profound thing I have read in a long time. 🙂

      I probably need to tackle Tang someday – I remember that coming into my life around the same time as these – my sister and I loved the stuff, mainly because we hated pulp in our orange juice. It’s funny how my mother was perfectly fine with eschewing OJ (even if it was the frozen cans) in favor of the orange-ish flavored powder containing who knows what. But 1970 was a strange time. Like you, I have no idea if it is still made.

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  3. I’ve never heard of them JP….perhaps they had to be “imported” here. I’m not sure a measly 41 calories would be sufficient for a hungry astronaut but most likely people ate fewer calories back when. LOL re second last paragraph – I think you need to do some more research there…..maybe a field trip? I think that cannabis fad is overrated….they are closing the cannabis greenhouse near me due to consolidation ie poor sales.

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    • I have enough bad dietary habits, I cannot imagine adding cannabis to the mix would be a very good idea. We took a trip to Denver several years ago, and it became immediately apparent that it had become a haven for homeless stoners. “Duuuude, like, let’s go to Denver. Weed’s legal there.” I toyed with the idea of going into one of the dispensaries there, but figured it would be just my luck to get home, get pulled over and fail a drug test.

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      • I think the amount of interest here once it was legalized was vastly overestimated, even for medicinal use. Most people I know who tried it for pain, soon abandoned it due to lack of effectiveness and side effects.

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  4. It kind of gave you the idea that the astronaut life was not going to be all glory if you had to eat stuff like that. They were okay but not awesome. Yeah, being an astronaut was the thing.

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  5. I remember having a friend at the time who would tell me he always ate “Boil in a Bag” for dinner. I think it was always some kind of processed meat-like substance, perhaps similar to corned beef. What are ya having for dinner tonight Scotty? “Boil in a Bag”! The thought makes me cringe today.

    Barbecues at his house were different – I thought when we got invited over we would get real food. Time to slap ’em on the grill? Prepared patties out of a frozen box. Made out of perhaps 80% sawdust (and that was the part that tasted good). Ugh.

    Your writeup made me think of Swiss Rolls, chocolatey cake with a nice creamy vanilla filling, and you can still buy them today. Now those are good! On and also Vachon Flakies. DougD will know what I mean, I believe.

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  6. I’m another who has never heard of these. I don’t think I’ve every tried Tang, but do remember the advertising associating it with astronauts. As a kid I did try the little chunks of astronaut ice cream.

    The food sticks remind me of the joke from the show Futurama. “Bachelor Chow – Now with Flavor!”

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    • I don’t actually remember the astronaut ice cream – or is that something like the Dippin’ Dots my eldest child went gaga over for awhile?

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      • It may not have been sold at regular stores? Pretty sure we got it at the planetarium or a science museum. It came in a foil package and my recollection is that it was kind of like ice cream flavored styrofoam. Maybe freeze dried somehow?

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  7. Ha Ha, love this and remember them, but never had them, I also remember the commercials! J.P. I used to live in Washington D.C. for a number of years, and when there was nothing to do, you could hang around all the museums of the Smithsonian, for free of course (your tax dollars at work). Best part of living in D.C.! As a joke, every time I was in the Air and Space, you could buy Astronaut Ice Cream! Freeze dried ice cream in a little bag. Tasted terrible, but as you say…SPACE! I believe, still available!

    https://astronautfoods.com/

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    • Wow, Astronaut Ice Cream again – now I feel like I missed out, and I am not sure how because I was a regular consumer of Saturday morning television, which would have been prime time for a product like that.

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  8. Well that was interesting JP and I don’t remember them at all – perhaps since they were introduced in 1966 and that was the year we moved here from Canada and my parents were occupied with the move and settling in. Besides, I never got to have any of the fad snacks or fun food (except marshmallow creme for Fluffernutters and the very occasional Pop Tart), but I did have Tang, long touted as the beverage of astronauts as you wrote. It seems to me that all the old TV commercials from this era used the same voiceover talent, an authoritative voice which might have just swayed your mom into buying those few boxes to appease you.

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    • That commercial voice sounds a bit like a guy named Paul Frees who did a ton of voice work behind cartoons and ads during that time. I just looked him up and see that Wiki credits him as the voice of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, so him doing that commercial would not be an unreasonable guess.

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      • I saw plenty of Pillsbury Dough Boy commercials in my time, so maybe that is what niggled at my brain. I just looked around at some of Paul Frees’ other credits – Rocky and Bullwinkle and one you might remember from Froot Loops cereal – he was Toucan Sam. Thanks for enlightening me.

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  9. OMG what a classic childhood memory, J.P. (right alongside Tang). Not only did SFS resurface in my brain with the mere mention of them, but I still recall the taste. It was weird (at least the caramel version) but who cared when you were a kid eating the same thing as an astronaut. I’m amazed my mother spent one penny on SFS (ditto Pop Tarts) because she was fairly rigid when it came to her pantry. Guess her kids broke her down a time or two. Still trying to reconcile “Pillsbury” and “NASA” – they just don’t belong in the same sentence. Thanks for the research – much appreciated by someone in just the right age range.

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    • The Pillsbury and NASA thing is ripe for more exploration. The Pop ‘n Fresh doughboy in a space helmet? Or packaging raw cinnamon roll dough as another flavor of Space Food Sticks? (That would have been the best flavor of all!!) The marketing guys missed all the good ideas. 🙂

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      • I forwarded your post to my brothers – for childhood memories’ sake – and one of them came back with “Kellogg’s Danish-Go-Rounds”. Remember those? I didn’t, until he sent me a photo of the box. You could toast them like Pop-Tarts but they had a more “danish” consistency. Wow. Begs the question, where does junk food go once they shut down production? There ought to be a museum…

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      • Wow, I would never have remembered those but this jogs a dim memory. I never had them, but kinda want one right now. Just for research, of course. 🙂

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