Have you eaten astronaut ice cream?

At some point in our childhood — or in my case last week — we were obsessed with the space snack known as astronaut ice cream. This freeze-dried cake, usually available in raspberry, vanilla, chocolate or a Neapolitan blend, will feel brittle until it melts into your mouth.

This can be sold in science parks, novelty shops and online astronaut ice cream. But it wasn’t actually used on any space flights according to the National Air and Space Museum.

And space ice cream is essentially frozen-dried ice cream: plain old Earth ice cream that was frozen and dried at the same time, retaining the taste and (most) the texture, but eliminating all the water. Drying everything to ice is a pain in the butt. The cycle goes something like this with modern technology:

1. Get a strong vacuum pump, some alcohol and dry ice, and some leakproof piping and flasks.

2. Freeze the thing you want to freeze-dry, then put it in a flask.

3. Connect the flask to some pipe, then connect the other end to a second flask.

4. Dunk the second flask into an alcohol/dry-ice bath.

5. Connect the second flask to a vacuum pump.

6. Turn on the pump, and let run for at least twelve hours.

7. A few hours in, heat the flask gently with one of those red lightbulbs that keeps you warm after a shower.

8. Wait a few more hours, and finally . . .

9. Enjoy your ice cream.

Here’s how this works: the vacuum pump reduces the pressure to almost zero, which allows the ice cream’s frozen water to begin evaporating — without melting. Heat from the light is helping in this process. It freezes as the water vapor flows into the second flask. You eventually end up with cold, bone-dry food, freezing.

“Astronaut Ice Cream” is a trademark owned by American Outdoor Products and its affiliate, Backpacker’s Pantry, although other companies, such as Mountain House and Emergency Essentials, merely sell it as “freeze-dried ice cream.” According to NASA, the product was originally developed by Whirlpool Corporation for the 1968 Apollo 7 flight. That would be, however, the ice cream’s first and last space flight. It was too crumbly to be safe at zero gravity.

The reason the freeze-dried ice cream was mostly confined to museum gift shops (courtesy Astronaut Foods) has more to do with its consistency than with taste. If we were to launch it into the final frontier, floating crumbs of chalk will devour astronauts by slipping into their eyeballs and electronics.

Since the Sixties, though, science has figured out how to get a freezer into space. In 2006, the Atlantis shuttle flew the GLACIER, stocked with chocolate-swirled Blue Bell cups, to the International Space Station. The ISS got a fresh batch in 2012.

Meanwhile, astronaut ice cream has found an audience among backpackers, preppers and soldiers in hot climates like Afghanistan, where refusal of the product to melt may top the cool and refreshing properties of the original. Perhaps you’ll appreciate your freeze-dried milk fat ration a little bit more when times rocket past 100 this weekend. Discover it at a nearby museum gift store.

As for what the astronauts are eating? While on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were able to snack on some bacon cubes and fruit drinks and the menu has since expanded. The International Space Station has meals from shrimp cocktails to tortillas, and even the occasional night of pizza.

Check out my related post: How are places starting to be photo worthy?

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