The Unique Connection Between Ice Cream And NASA

Like the classic chocolate chip cookie, ice cream is now a staple dessert in most American households. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, the average U.S. citizen consumes roughly 4 gallons of ice cream each year and as of 2021, 73% of ice cream consumers were enjoying the frozen confection at least once per week.

Ice cream has been highly regarded for its creamy, milk-based constituents since its arrival in the United States in the early 18th century (via PBS). Yet, when it comes to ice cream's amassed popularity, we can thank our nation's founding fathers. George Washington spent a massive amount of money on ice cream in the late 1700s, and Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the first recorded ice cream recipe in America (per Smithsonian Magazine).

According to History, NASA was created by no other than the U.S. Congress in 1958. When considering the most probable foods on these lengthy missions to space, one can only assume astronauts have access to America's favorite foods. However, NASA claims there are no refrigerators on shuttles, so there are limits to what space travelers can enjoy. asserts M&M candies have been a highly regarded treat for astronauts since 1981, but what about ice cream? Has the beloved frosty confection ever been enjoyed in a microgravity environment?

Space travelers first enjoyed real ice cream in 2006

The National Air and Space Museum claims real frozen ice cream first made its debut outside Earth's bounds in 2006 on the space shuttle Atlantis. The early 2000s mission included a specialized freezer transported to the International Space Station (ISS) to store temperature-sensitive samples. Upon launch, the freezer was stocked with one of America's favorite ice cream flavors via the Texas-based Blue Bell brand.

The last time ice cream was documented in space was in 2017 when Elon Musk's SpaceX Dragon resupply capsule transported 30 cups of Blue Bell ice cream (and Snickers ice cream bars) to crew members operating at ISS (via NPR). Manager of NASA's space food systems lab Vickie Kloeris told NPR that ISS crew members only had a few weeks to eat the frozen treats before the Dragon capsule returned to Earth with the station's temperature-protected research samples.

However, ISS members retiring after six-month-long missions are still looking forward to enjoying the frozen treat earth-side. After landing in the Atlantic Ocean in 2022, astronaut Bob Hines told The Spokesman-Review, beyond seeing his family and friends, he's happy to leave behind food in tubes for some pizza and ice cream. Though, now that you know space travelers can enjoy the real thing in a limited-gravity environment, you may be wondering how freeze-dried Astronaut ice cream factors into the consumption habits of space-goers.

Did Astronaut ice cream ever make it to space?

The retro freeze-dried ice cream you've seen in museum gift shops and toy stores was originally created for NASA's Apollo 7 mission in 1968. If you've ever wondered whether or not astronauts actually eat astronaut ice cream, the answer isn't clear. Vanilla ice cream does appear in the Apollo 7 Press Kit from 1968, yet one of the mission's surviving members has no recollection of consuming the product. Astronaut Walter Cunningham told Narratively he has fond memories of enjoying the freeze-dried chocolate pudding though.

Vickie Kloeris confirmed to NPR that Astronaut ice cream only made it to space for one mission. William Jeffs, NASA's Human Health and Performance Directorate, admitted the product "crumbled and wasn't good in space, where crumbs can float into eyes and highly-sensitive electronic systems" (via Narratively). It's the same reason why tortillas are allowed at ISS, but bread is not (per Kennedy Space Center).

Surprisingly, the National Air and Museum curator for Smithsonian, Jennifer Levasseur, believes microgravity environments are the perfect place to enjoy real frozen ice cream because liquid molecules stay bound together, unlike bread and freeze-dried confections.

Astronaut ice cream is alive and well and still enjoyed by many kids and adults around the world. As for astronauts, though? They continue to hold out for the classic frozen treat whether it's delivered to space in small quantities or enjoyed on solid ground.