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.”