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Astronaut ice cream is a lie

That chalky space ice cream you got at the gift shop? It is a crumbly con.

Any space-enthused kid has endured the crumbly, chalky agglomeration of flavors known as "astronaut ice cream." We deal with it because of the supposed connection to the lives of real space explorers.

The only problem is that astronaut ice cream is a lie.

As the above video shows, this legendary children's treat has a surprisingly murky history.

The case against astronaut ice cream

Astronaut ice cream, up close and crumbly. Phil Edwards/Vox

Apollo 7 is identified by many online sources as the only flight to harbor the chalky ice cream.

When I asked astronaut Walt Cunningham, the sole surviving member of the crew, about it, he said, "We never had that stuff." As you can hear above, he said that years later, when he first encountered the freeze-dried dessert, he wished they'd had it on Apollo 7 — but they never did.

That matches with the complete absence of ice cream from mission transcripts as well.

Jennifer Levasseur, museum curator at the National Air and Space museum, said it's likely Cunningham remembers correctly.

"I think it’s very likely it never flew," she wrote me. "It probably got made, tested on the ground, and rejected. They do always get to try things in advance, and they probably thought it was as horrible as it actually is when you buy it in the gift shop."

That fits with the technical obstacles to space ice cream — as Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield explained (along with Buzz Aldrin and many other astronauts), crumbly food like astronaut ice cream would be a major hazard in space. That's the reason John Young was reprimanded for sneaking a corned beef sandwich on board during the Gemini program — bread crumbs could easily float into instruments. Even if astronaut ice cream were on Apollo 7, it would probably have been rehydratable food similar to most of the other food options on the flight, not the freeze-dried block we recognize today.

That might be what makes astronaut ice cream so disconcerting — it teaches kids that something terrible for space travel is what astronauts eat. If kids want to eat astronaut ice cream, they should just enjoy delicious, real ice cream, as real astronauts have many times since the 1970s, when refrigerators became available in space.

The only hope for astronaut ice cream

A typical astronaut ice cream package. Phil Edwards/Vox

So is there any argument that astronaut ice cream did fly in space?

NASA provides some technical records of its missions, and a search turns up a few references to ice cream that might have fit the Apollo 7 mission. The Apollo 7 press kit, released before the mission, does mention "vanilla ice cream," as does one 1968 UPI article. There's also a smattering of technical documents that mention the development of some sort of ice cream in space — but none that can confirm the existence of ice cream on board.

As the above video shows, debunking astronaut ice cream doesn't have to kill the fun of eating space food. There are other delicious and educational options (I share my favorite toward the end).

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