Tang Isn't Just Ideal For Space; It's Powdered Form Is More Earth-Friendly Too
by Rudy Sanchez on 02/28/2023 | 6 Minute Read
With the close of World War II, The Space Race fueled an acceleration of innovation and technology. While Cold War rivals in the US and Soviet Union rushed to reach major spacefaring milestones first, many engineering feats and new products would be designed and produced to solve the complicated business of leaving our terrestrial domain, some of which would eventually get adapted into consumer goods, like freeze-dried foods and wireless headsets.
But despite what you’ve heard, Tang, a drink mix brand in powdered form, isn’t one of those space travel inventions.
The mid-20th century was an era filled with culinary innovations like Tang's shelf-stable orange-flavored powder. As one of the largest manufacturers then, General Foods had its fair share of these food inventions developed by food chemists like William Mitchell. In addition to Tang, Mitchell helped create blockbuster products such as Cool Whip, quick-set Jell-O, Pop Rocks, and the powdered egg whites that made cake mix possible. Foods like Tang and Cool Whip were popular primarily because of their convenience and technological novelty. Cool Whip doesn’t taste better than the real deal, but it saves time and effort, as the alternative is physically whipping heavy cream—or at least scoring a Kitchen Aid mixer on a wedding gift registry.
Likewise, Tang isn’t nearly as tasty as freshly squeezed orange juice or even frozen concentrate. Still, it’s two teaspoons of powder and a glass of water away from an orange-ish beverage full of vitamins (and sugar).
In 1959, General Foods introduced Tang to the market, pitching the powdered drink as convenient orange juice that you could enjoy anytime without squeezing, thawing, or refrigerating. What’s more, they touted Tang as having more vitamin C than orange juice and positioned it as a healthy breakfast drink. However, one should note that the bar for healthiness was relatively low as doctors were still endorsing cigarette smoking.
Going into space isn’t just a rare achievement for astronauts; it can also be a significant milestone for CPG products and brands. Omega’s Speedmaster, for example, was the first watch worn on an American space mission and remains the only NASA-qualified watch for Extravehicular Activity (EVA) like spacewalks. As a governmental agency, NASA itself doesn’t directly endorse any products. Nonetheless, NASA’s product use can create an implied endorsement in consumers’ minds, a possibility that General Foods bet big on it, investing in advertising associating the orange powdered drink with space travel. General Foods would also sponsor network ABC’s coverage of the Apollo 8 mission, the first crewed orbit around the moon.
When John Glenn strapped in for Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) mission, the first human-crewed orbital spaceflight, NASA packed some space-food technology along, including drinking pouches. Glenn’s mission wasn’t long enough to require an in-flight meal, as his mission consisted of three orbits around the planet and lasted a little under 5 hours, but NASA wanted to at least test out eating and drinking in space.
Tang’s powdered form makes the beverage well-suited for space travel. Of course, preparing a serving of Tang in the weightlessness of space is more involved than stirring some powder in a glass. Given the lack of gravity, NASA developed a special pouch allowing dry mixes like Tang to be mixed with water and consumed safely. NASA’s first tests with Tang proved successful, and the space agency would continue to provide astronauts with the product, though some crew members like Buzz Aldrin weren’t particularly fond of the flavor.
Initially positioning Tang as a breakfast drink alternative to orange juice, General Foods quickly pivoted to touting Tang's foray beyond our earthly confines, and its association with the space program would endear it to children who looked up to astronauts as heroes. If Tang is the elixir of space-traveling champions, then maybe drinking it will imbue one with some of their qualities, so the kid-level logic went.
The astronaut profession has lost some cachet since Tang first appeared onboard a spacecraft. Today’s youth are likelier to clamor for a beverage pitched by their favorite and problematic YouTuber than one mission-proven by NASA. A study commissioned by LEGO conducted by the Harris Poll on the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing found that three times more children in the US and UK choose vlogger as their ideal profession when they grow up over astronaut.
It’s not difficult to see why kids no longer want to be space travelers and, by extension, hydrate like astronauts with powdered drink mixes like Tang. While past astronauts were risk-taking mavericks strapping themselves onto massive rockets for science and country, today’s spacefarers that make headlines tend to be megalomaniac corporate robber barons aspiring for billionaire bragging rights. Kids wanting to grow up to become YouTube content creators sounds terrible, but if the alternative is aping Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, I’ll gladly smash that like button all day. Besides, some folks that have been to space, like actor William Shatner, say the real beauty is here on earth, not in the lonely void of the cosmos.
Space travel isn’t the only application where powdered mixes provide an advantage. New products reformulated in powdered form are emerging, touting the sustainability advantages of shipping dry and adding your own water at home.
Plink, for example, offers low-calorie, effervescent beverages similar to Alka-Seltzer tablets in packaging and function. Using tablets instead of a fully RTD preparation, Plink eliminates nearly all the packaging and weight of conventional drinks, reducing plastic pollution and distribution-associated greenhouse gas emissions. AWSM is taking the concept of powdered mixes to popular condiments like ketchup for similar reasons. AWSM’s powdered formulation, like Plink’s, reduces plastic consumption and greenhouse gas but minimizes food waste. Since you can mix AWSM sauces to order, that means fewer bottles of expired ketchup festering away in the fridge waiting to get tossed.
Even getting high is getting the powdered treatment. Cannabis brands like Vibations are turning to powdered drink forms for infused beverages. Compounds like THC and CBD can be combined with other ingredients of a tasty drink, packaged into a small sachet, and mixed later by the consumer. Powder drink mixes are also cheaper to distribute, and since they take up less physical space and don’t require refrigeration, they are easier to place in cannabis shops.
Whereas Tang used to appeal to kids by being the beverage of astronauts, the dry drink mix can pivot yet again to reinvigorate its popularity among today’s youth. Tang is typically packaged in plastic, sure. Still, a simple change to paper-based sachets, biodegradable materials, metal, or going back to the original glass jars addresses the use of single-use plastic. Glass or metal packaging is also an opportunity to play on the strength of nostalgia and retro equity in the Tang brand. Instead of being the drink of the final frontier, Tang might be the beverage of a fledgling planet buried under literal tons of plastic.
Tang’s powdered form made it practical for space travel. Dry, Tang weighs considerably less than a fully mixed beverage and takes up less space. Tang is shelf stable for a long time when properly stored, and one gallon of Tang requires 384 grams of powder, compared to a gallon of water, which weighs about 4,537 grams at room temperature. That means nearly 12 times more servings can get transported, expending the same amount of greenhouse gases.
Powdered, BYOW (Bring Your Own Water) beverages require less packaging material per serving. Even single-serving sachets use far less material than a single-serving plastic bottle full of liquid. By not mixing and bottling beverages with water, brands also avoid being in the uncomfortable position of using public reservoirs in drought-stricken areas while people lack access to potable water.
As consumers look for more eco-conscious products, Tang might be the unexpected, unintended choice. Just like General Foods didn’t set out to make a drink suitable for space travel when it created Tang, it also built a template for future brands to make their products more sustainable by taking the water out.
Tang print ads sourced from Click Americana.