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Tang, The Astronauts' Drink That NASA Didn't Invent

Fads | May 22, 2018

A '70s advertisement for Tang shows aliens drinking it on the moon; John Glenn was the first astronaut to take the drink into space in 1962. Source: YouTube; NASA.gov

There's nothing like a celebrity endorsement to give your brand that cool factor -- just ask the makers of Tang. Astronauts drank it in space in the 1960s, and everyone knew Astronauts were the coolest.

Times were tough for Tang before NASA's astronauts gave it a boost. The orange-flavored drink was invented in 1957, and first sold in 1959 by General Foods. It wasn't a hot seller -- after all, in America, land of abundance, did we really need a replacement for good old orange juice? 

Tang existed as a product for a few years before finding its niche, in outer space. The first astronaut to bring Tang into orbit was John Glenn, on a Mercury mission aboard Friendship 7 in February 1962. 

Why Take Tang Into Space?

Advertisement tying Tang to the Gemini missions. Source: Pinterest

Tang went on to be used on missions of NASA's Project Gemini, the successor to the Mercury manned missions to space. An engineer who worked on Project Gemini offered an explanation to the obvious question: Why Tang?

There was a particular component of the Gemini life support-system module which produced H2O. This was a byproduct of a reoccurring chemical reaction of one of the mechanical devices on the life-support module. The astronauts would use this water to drink during their space flight. The problem was, the Astronauts did not like the taste of the water because of some of the byproducts produced. So Tang was added to make the water taste better.

Got it? In space, the water was icky, so the astronauts would add flavors to it. Tang might not have been the only flavor they used -- when an astronaut went to juice-ify his water, the powder came from a plain packet labeled "orange drink" or some other flavor. 

If It Went To Space, It's A Space Age Product

When Project Apollo started up, Tang adjusted its ads. Source: Pinterest

So Tang wasn't invented by NASA, nor was it engineered in any way with space flight in mind, but once it became a staple of astronauts' menus, General Foods was happy to let consumers believe whatever they wanted. Tang has always benefited from the false notion that it was invented for space travel. Tang remained connected to the space program throughout the Gemini missions and into Project Apollo. In 1968, Tang sponsored ABC's televised coverage of the Apollo 8 mission, which was the first manned flight to go around the moon.

The Coneheads Were Not Impressed

Over the years, Tang played up the space-program connection in print and TV advertising, a connection that was even lampooned in a "Coneheads" sketch on Saturday Night Live in 1977. An IRS Agent, played by Steve Martin, picks up a jar of Tang, remarking "Hey.. isn’t this the drink the astronauts took to the Moon?" The Coneheads (Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin) look at each other and burst out laughing: "Astronauts to the moon! Ha ha ha ha ha!"

Tang Is Related To Cool Whip And Pop Rocks

Tang was invented by William A. Mitchell, a food scientist with General Foods whose list of creations is impressive. He was also the lead inventor of Cool Whip, quick-set Jell-O, and Pop Rocks. An obituary for Mitchell in The Atlantic made the astute observation that Mitchell "never became a household name, but most households you can name have something of his in it." Actually if you were a World War II soldier eating the tapioca substitute Mitchell invented, known colloquially as "Mitchell's Mud," he kind of was a household name, although you didn't have a house.

Tang isn't omnipresent like it once was, but then, space travel isn't a national sport anymore either. The booming beverage market seems to have left Tang behind, preferring make-it-yourself sodas and energy drinks. But perhaps it's just as well. On the Guy's Choice Awards in 2013, Buzz Aldrin shared his real thoughts on the beverage. "Tang sucks," he said.

Tags: Astronauts | NASA | Remember This?... | Tang | The 1960s | The 1970s

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.