There may be no novelty sweet more polarizing than astronaut ice cream. Those who adore it praise its light, crunchy texture, and a flavor that is still unmistakably creamy and sweet. Its detractors will say biting into it is akin to chomping down on a piece of chalk: powdery and unnatural. And for those who have never tried it, the entire concept of eating ice cream stripped of all liquid may seem downright bizarre. But even though so-called astronaut (or to be more precise, freeze-dried) ice cream isn't the most popular of novelty treats, its longevity proves that it has found a small, but fiercely loyal fan base.
Even its creator has been a little surprised at the product’s staying power.
Astronaut ice cream’s story begins in the late 1970s with Ron Smith, the founder of American Outdoor Products, a company that specialized in food for backpackers. One day, Smith got a message from the company he contracted to make some of their freeze-dried foods (a category popular with hikers for its shelf stability). “They said, ‘Goddard Air and Space Museum contacted us and said that freeze-dried ice cream was used by the space program. They want to know if we can make it, so they can sell it in their gift shop.’ And we said, ‘Sure, we’ll try it,’” recalls Smith. The initial product was a far cry from the neatly packaged bars you’ll see today: “It was half a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream that you would buy in the store,” he says. “It was frozen solid, and then cut with a bandsaw, if you can believe it.” Then, the ice cream was freeze-dried using a specialized machine, which turned the ice directly into gas. That process—which, if you recall from high school physics, is called sublimation—is what’s responsible for the tiny air pockets in freeze-dried cream; it’s where the ice crystals were in the original, frozen product. Finally, about three-quarters of an ounce was loaded into a pouch. “Quite frankly, when we first started doing this, we thought, ‘Well, this is a fad. It'll last a couple of years.’ And that was what, 44 years ago?” Smith says.
The product also probably got a boost from the unique economic conditions of the time: “A long recession made small luxuries much more attractive. Ice cream is a good example of a small luxury—you absolutely don’t need it physically, but emotionally it can make you quite happy for very little extra expense,” says food historian Megan Elias, the director of the Boston University gastronomy program. And, with its long shelf life, it could be stashed in the pantry until the craving hit.
Today, the division of American Outdoor Products that markets freeze-dried ice creams and fruits (and Astrodog dog treats!) to consumers is known as Astronaut Foods. The original Neapolitan flavor is still going strong in ice cream sandwich form, along with vanilla and banana split. If you’ve never tasted it, the texture’s closest analogue is probably honeycomb candy: light with a lot of air bubbles. The flavor, however, is pure ice cream, since the ingredients are the same as what’s in a regular scoop. Astronaut Foods remains a popular product in many museums around the country, as well as theme parks like Walt Disney World. “I tell people, ‘Look, every year there's about three million new kids in the United States. So, there's three million new customers. My guess is [the company] will go on long after I'm gone,” Smith says.
Astronaut Foods may have been the first to market freeze-dried ice cream and other snacks directly to consumers, but they no longer have the category cornered. To wit: on Etsy, there are nearly 800 listings for freeze-dried foods, including Skittles, camel milk powder, and, of course, ice cream. And perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone in Brooklyn created a design-forward and healthier alternative to traditional freeze-dried ice cream. Cosmik is the invention of Robert Collingnon, who quit his job in advertising in 2016 to make an artisanal version of one of his favorite snacks. After his Kickstarter campaign blew past its target of $9,500 to hit over $70,000, he realized he wasn’t the only non-hiker secretly dipping into EMS to grab freeze-dried treats. “It showed me that there were a lot of like-minded folks who would appreciate a higher-end, cleaner-ingredient, freeze-dried ice cream,” he says. His products, which feature zero artificial ingredients, are available in classic flavors like cookies and cream, mint chocolate chip, and strawberry. There is one flavor, however, that he leaves to his predecessors. “I’m never going to make the Neapolitan,” he says. “It’s good! I’ll let them handle that. It’s what I grew up on.”
While both companies's products are normally sold at places like museums and space centers, which are obviously closed to the public currently, they have seen an uptick in sales from their websites. After all, if you’re stocking up on shelf-stable food for a pandemic, you can’t do much better than a product that was hardy enough to fly into space (although, to be clear, it isn't eaten in space).
Novelty treats like astronaut ice cream may be associated with childhood, but it’s adults who have given them their enduring popularity. And something especially magical happens when an ice-cream obsessed kid grows up and creates one of the most famous candy shops in the country. “I remember getting astronaut ice cream at a trip to a theme park during camp,” says Dylan Lauren, of famed Dylan’s Candy Bar. “I thought it was so neat that I could eat a sweet that's also enjoyed in outer space. So much so that I savored each bite and kept half in my bunk to show my parents after camp instead of eating the whole thing at once.” Today, Lauren’s stores have a nostalgia section, which always stocks freeze-dried ice cream. “I see from the reaction on customers' faces that it is a highlight for adults to reminisce about and for kids to see because it's so cool,” she says.
Well, maybe not literally cool, but you get the point.