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Month: June 2022

The first truly space aged drink?

The first truly space aged drink?

The second of my new space related brand stories, starts with a scientist but not a rocket scientist.

William Mitchell was General Foods’ top food scientist and the man behind a variety of American icons of the 1950s and 60s. Brands like Pop Rocks, quick-set JELL-O and Cool Whip. His obituary in 2004 in The Atlantic said of him that he “never became a household name, but most households you can name have something of his in it.”

In 1957, he developed what he called “Tang Flavor Crystals.” They went on sale in the United States initially; Venezuela and West Germany followed in 1959. It was marketed as a breakfast drink packed with vitamin C that “you don’t squeeze, unfreeze, or refrigerate” but wasn’t a high flyer in terms of sales until it was chosen by NASA to be part of its space programme.

Technicians at NASA had been faced with a problem the onboard life support system water didn’t taste very good (due to a nontoxic chemical reaction) but with General Foods as an already approved supplier to the US military they reviewed the company’s portfolio of brands and found what they thought was the answer – Tang.

A deal was struck to buy the powder in bulk but while the product was identical, a provision was put into the deal specifying that it would not say “Tang” on the NASA packaging, but simply what the flavour was – “orange drink.”

Another issue that had to be solved was zero-gravity. The normal means of dilution – pouring crystallized powder into a cup of water – wasn’t going to work.  NASA engineers came up with a system that involved squirting water with a needle into a vacuum-sealed pack that contained the powder, shaking it and then sticking a straw into the pouch.

So on February 20th when John H. Glenn, Jr. took off in Friendship 7 and went on to become the first American to orbit Earth, Tang went with him. The mission was only about five hours long and records are not entirely clear if Glenn actually ever used the Tang during that first flight.

That didn’t bother General Foods who began marketing Tang as a space-age drink.

Tang continued to accompany astronauts and for the next decade (through the Gemini and Apollo programs), General Foods proudly produced print and tv ads talking about the link and promoting Tang as packed with vitamins, easy to make and tasting great. In 1968, Tang sponsored ABC’s coverage of Apollo 8, America’s first manned flight around the moon.

Tang became one of the best-selling drinks of its day. John Glenn’s famous flight and Tang retained a place in many Americans’ memories and when the former astronaut ran for President in 1983 he was repeatedly asked if he really liked Tang.

He ignored the question.

In 2013, another astronaut, Buzz Aldrin – the second man to walk on the moon – did answer the question.

The never-subtle Aldrin, replied that while he did drink it, “Tang sucks.”

Can you just nip down to Sears and buy a future icon?

Can you just nip down to Sears and buy a future icon?

Apollo 11

I have previously told the story of how Coca-Cola used the Apollo 11 homecoming to run a PR campaign and claim earth as “home of Coca Cola”. In fact, I named one of my ‘story’ books after it – “How Coca-Cola took over the world” – so, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear two new space related stories.

One features ‘Tang’, which I will tell in a future blog, and the other which may be apocryphal features Sears.

It appears that with the focus on the ‘rocket’, the landing craft and the astronauts, the flag was almost an afterthought.

So, it was only a few months before the launch date that a plan was hatched. A team, led by NASA engineer Jack Kinzler, were asked to create a ‘flagpole’. The challenge was the ‘pole’ had to be set up by two men wearing space suits and who would have limited mobility.

The limited time frame meant that the flag was not specially made or ordered.

One ‘story’ is that flag was bought out of a government catalogue for $5.50.

The other which I favour, is that a number of flags were bought from Sears in Houston by secretaries from NASA who were sent out to get some during their lunch breaks.  This would mean that the flags were made by Annin, the USA’s oldest and largest flag maker and the official supplier to Sears. It seems that an executive from Annin following up on this story called NASA and had the story despite the lack of any real evidence.

What is definitely known is the selected flag was made of nylon and that engineers cut the labels off to make the flag fit onto their specially made poles.

If the story is right this mean that the flag; the first one to be planted in the lunar dust, the one that Buzz Aldrin saluted, the one that was seen by a wide-eyed worldwide TV audience was bought for a few dollars at an everyday mainstream retailer.

However a slightly sad end is that the flag is no longer standing.

Buzz Aldrin has that said that Neil Armstrong told him that he saw the pole blow over during liftoff from the lunar surface.

On a slightly happier note, despite an assumption that the rest of the Apollo flags have blown away or crumbled into dust, in 2012, a lunar orbiter took pictures over the landing sites of  Apollo 12, 16, and 17 and the photos showed shadows confirming that the American flags there were still standing, upright and intact, more than four decades later.

They are however all likely to have turned beige from relentless cosmic radiation.