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.