Tangy taste of Tang was a household favorite

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Roger VanHaren

While we were shopping at the grocery store last week, we noticed a “special” on a popular brand of orange-colored drink. There were two kinds, “the original tangy” and the “sweet and smooth.” We bought one of each.

Later, at home, I opened the “tangy original” bottle and poured a glass. The first taste reminded me of the chewable baby aspirins we gave our kids when they were little or maybe — more closely — the taste of Tang, the powdered soft drink mix that gained so much publicity when NASA sent it along on Mercury astronaut John Glenn’s first space mission. Was that why it was “tangy?”

Do you remember Tang? We haven’t had it at our house since our kids were little. We used it because it was so much cheaper than buying oranges or orange juice.

I remember having it in my room when I was in college because I didn’t have a refrigerator to keep real orange juice cold. My roommate and I used to keep some food items between the storm window and the interior window in the winter, but the space was pretty limited and that worked only in the wintertime.

According to Wikipedia, Tang was used by early NASA manned space flights. “In 1962, when Mercury astronaut John Glenn conducted eating experiments in orbit, Tang was selected for the menu; it was also used during some Gemini flights, and has also been carried aboard numerous space shuttle missions.”

Because it was used in the manned-flight space program, there was a popular misconception that it was invented and developed by NASA. However, that was far from the truth. It was created by a scientist at General Foods Corp., William A. Mitchell in 1957, but it wasn’t marketed until 1959. Sales were poor until it was revealed that it was being used by the astronauts. Mitchell, by the way, also invented Cool Whip and Pop Rocks. Remember those?

The product the astronauts took into space was essentially the same as you’d buy off the shelf in the store. However, the delivery method — from pouch to mouth — was altered in accordance with the physics of outer space.

Because there’s no gravity in space, trying to pour crystallized powder into a cup of water was a problem. So, NASA engineers came up with a system that involved squirting water with a needle into a vacuum-sealed powder-containing pack.

After shaking, all the astronaut had to do was stick a straw into the pouch and slurp away. Sort of like the boxes of juice kids get nowadays.

When Glenn returned home safely from his flight, he was celebrated, and so was Tang. General Foods began marketing the powder as a space-age drink. Tang accompanied astronauts to the nether regions for the next decade (through the Gemini and Apollo programs), and General Foods gushed proudly in print and TV ads that it was chosen by the astronauts because it was packed with vitamins, easy to make and tasted great.

In 1968, John Glenn’s famous flight and Tang became synonymous, to the point that when the former astronaut ran for president in 1983, he was repeatedly asked if he liked the drink. He ignored the question.

In 2013, Buzz Aldrin — the second man to walk on the moon — finally answered the question many were thinking: Did astronauts actually drink Tang while in space? He said yes, but they didn’t enjoy it. The never-subtle Aldrin exclaimed to anyone within earshot, “Tang sucks!”

I disagree. I also like the orange-colored drink we just bought — the one that tastes “tangy.” There’s no accounting for taste, is there?

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.