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Inside the Rise, Fall, and Stoner Rebirth of Pillsbury's 70s Space Food

The future of food looked very different back in the 70s than it does now.

Nick Rose

Nick Rose

Photos and screengrabs courtesy of The Space Food Sticks Preservation Society.

In the early 70s, Pillsbury, NASA, ywd the US Air Force teamed up to create the space food of the future.

The military-pastry complex would develop a 300-calorie "food bar" that NASA scientists called "tasty and nutritionally balanced." But little did they know that they were creating what would eventually become energy bars—a billion-dollar market today.

Though these prototypical energy bars only ran on one NASA mission, Skylab 3, Pillsbury decided to commercialize their space food as Space Food Sticks for an American public that was still captivated by the prospect of space travel; if astronauts could eat space food, why couldn't the rest of the American populace? Plus, it was basically edible propaganda for the the US Space Program.

A quick glimpse at the original version of Space Food Sticks is a stark reminder that the quote-unquote future of food looked very different back in the 70s than it does now. Healthy, sustainable foods were not the top priority; conquering space while eating jerky-shaped matter was. If the world ended, it would be because of the goddamn Ruskies, not melting ice caps, overpopulation, water shortages, sick cattle, and drying crops.

Eventually, with major funding cuts to the US Space Program in the wake of the Oil Crisis, the collective fascination with interplanetary travel faded away, as did Space Food Sticks, which were doomed as soon as they were rechristened as simply "Food Sticks." Yum.

We spoke to Eric Lefcowitz, founder of the The Space Food Sticks Preservation Society. He singlehandedly resurrected this futuristic food and intends to blast it "far fuckin' out" into the future by infusing it with weed.

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MUNCHIES: Hi, Eric. What was the original concept behind Space Food Sticks? Eric Lefcowitz: Pillsbury was working with the US Space Program directly. They were concocting what eventually became energy bars for space travel. At the time, there was no such thing as protein bars or energy bars on the market. They didn't need sustainable food—they just needed quick energy for some of these shorter flights, and that's when Space Food Sticks were developed.

What do they taste like? Like a cross between a Tootsie Roll and a Powerbar.

Sick. Why do you think they decided to commercialize it? What happened was that Pillsbury seized on the opportunity to tap into the public's incredible fascination with space travel at the time. Because it was said that John Glenn drank Tang while he was in orbit, it was flying off shelves. Pillsbury got the memo, so instead of calling these energy sticks or whatever, some clever person said let's call them Space Sticks and it really took off. It's even been on The Simpsons.

Science fiction of the 50, 60s, and early 70s had a much less bleak view of the future than we do now. That's the vibe I get from the Space Food Sticks ad. The commercial for Space Food Sticks is like a document from a more optimistic era. Everything was pegged to the year 2000. Everyone projected their hopes and desires onto that year and it was exciting.

Why did Pillsbury get rid of Space Food Sticks? There was kind of an anti-space backlash and they changed the name to Food Sticks, which sounds amazingly unappealing. They lived on in Australia for a while longer because they were involved with the US Space Program; they're on the other side of the Earth, and beaming back signals from transmissions.

When did you get interested in Space Food Sticks? I was writing for AOL—I think I was the last writer they ever hired before they bought Time Warner. Anyway, in 1999, what I call "The Last Great Year," I was hired to write about what happened to jet packs and vacations on the moon and futuristic fashion we had all been hoping for.

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So you wrote about them first? Yes. I had written a column about it on Space Food Sticks, and already in 2001, I was using Google Search statistics to determine that there was public interest in certain topics. So, I put up a website called spacefoodsticks.com just to canvas and survey on the Internet to see who was going to the site.

Why did you decide to bring Space Food Sticks back from the dead? Sure enough, lots of people were typing in the words "Space Food Sticks" into Google. A thousand people wrote in to the site with these fantastic memories of crowding in the back of the sedan and eating Space Food Sticks when they were ten, and the sticks capturing their imagination. It was a beautiful tribute to Space Food Sticks and I realized that I had to bring them back and get the trademark.

Did they sell well? Definitely. They were sold at the Kennedy Space Center, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Johnson Space Center, the Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Flight, the Space Needle, the USS Hornet, the Neil Armstrong Museum and Disneyworld and Universal Studios, and a bunch of other places.

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What went wrong? The fucked up thing is that my manufacturer—an old Hungarian guy who loved the concept—got washed out by a private equity group. I put them out for eight years but they've been discontinued.

So what's the future of this retro future food? The feds are the people who give out trademarks, and people are having a really hard time getting trademarks for the names of their strains of marijuana. I've been approached by a very serious guy and the next incarnation of Space Food Sticks will be a marijuana product—it will be truly cosmic.

Far out, man. Far fuckin' out. Definitely. Farther out than you can imagine.

Thanks for talking with us.

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.