Space food has come a long way since the pioneers of spaceflight first ascended to the stars over half a century ago, and space food has naturally evolved over time. Space memorabilia collectors and enthusiasts have a peculiar fascination with space food, particularly from NASA's early programs such as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and I myself am no exception - I boast a collection which includes individual and whole Gemini and Apollo-era food packets and even experimental food packets from the crossover between Gemini and Apollo, so it is safe to say that I am one of "those" collectors.
Having thought about why space food is such a fascinating topic I believe that it is most likely because it is something we can all related to, for who amongst us doesn't enjoy good food? Although the debate on whether or not space food is considered "good" is probably open to debate. And as far as space memorabilia goes, a sandwich in space is quite easy to comprehend even for the novice collector or enthusiast.
As you can imagine we're asked all sorts of questions, some of them straight forward and others quite complex, but one of the most common questions we receive is how do we distinguish between a Gemini food packet and Apollo food packet? To most eyes they're near identical and even reputable space auctioneers have failed to spot the difference before today. The answer, as with most things, is that the key is in the details.
So let's look at some general space food information and the distinguishing factors between Gemini and Apollo food packets.
GENERAL SPACE FOOD INFORMATION
Space Food Developers
Melpar Inc: Melpar Inc. was the manufacturer of all food rations meant for Project Gemini. This role was taken over by Whirlpool Corp some time during the late Gemini missions. Evidence suggests (but is inconclusive) that the last mission in which Melpar manufactured food packets for NASA was for Gemini 8. The evidence for this assumption is based Melpar paperwork from our own archive in which the last entry by a Melpar employee was Feb. 7, 1966. The Gemini 8 mission launched on March 16, 1966, some three weeks later. It is possible that Melpar produced space food for a time beyond this point, but we lack any official Melpar documentation to that effect.
Whirlpool Corp: In October 1960, Whirlpool received a government contract to design and build America's first experimental space kitchen. The kitchen included a miniature thermoelectric refrigerator, freezer, three-cavity oven, self-heated water system, storage space for food and disposal units for both dry and wet waste. This was the first attempt by appliance engineers to cope with the problems of zero gravity. Whirlpool later developed food for late Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions.
How to Identify Food Developed by Whirlpool
Circular WSD Stamp: The circular stamp is prevalent on all food packets manufactured by Whirlpool. The stamp itself is thought to be a quality control stamp and would be applied to each individual food packet upon completion of the QC check. The stamp consists of two parts, three letters and two numbers. The letters are consistent on all stamped packets and are thought to be an abbreviation of 'Whirlpool Space Division', the numbers range from 11 to 18, and these are believed to the the Quality Control Inspectors personal ID number.
Other Whirlpool Food Considerations
Four Digit Stamp: These stamps consisted of four numbers and currently there are only two types of font known to have been used. The exact purpose of this code is unclear as the codes do not appear on any known flown space food manifests, though the most likely scenario is that if two codes are close together in number, i.e. 6187 and 6190, one can assume that these food packets were either meant for the same mission or within the same meal pack.
The serial number referred to an individual food packet and consisted of between two to three letters and three numbers. Each full meal consisted of several food packets, each labelled with their own individual serial numbers. These numbers were used to determine which meal packs were due to be flown aboard the respective mission.
To stop space food from floating away small velcro squares were glued to the outside of the packets, both for the whole meal and individually, so that they could be attached to a corresponding velcro square. After all, chocolate pudding is of no use to anyone if it floats away while you try to locate your spoon.
- Gemini food packets all had white velcro squares.
- The Gemini Capsule housed two only astronauts so there was no particular need to distinguish between who the meals belonged to. Although it could have also been that the food technicians simply had not thought about it yet. The food, as well as the packets themselves were evolving quickly at the time.
- Apollo food packets had red, white and blue velcro squares - the colours of the American flag.
- Red velcro was intended or the Mission Commander
- Blue velcro was intended for the Lunar Module Pilot
- White velcro was intended for the Command Module Pilot
It is worth mentioning that the whole meal packs would also have been wrapped in ribbon, the colours of which were identical to the velcro squares on the meal packet.
HOW TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN GEMINI AND APOLLO FOOD PACKETS
Germicide Tablet: There were two methods used for containing germicide tablets, one was an external sachet attached to the exterior of the food pack and the other was an internal container. The introduction of internal germicide tables did not take place until Apollo 8. Prior to this all mission food packets containing the tablet were in a separate pouch attached to the exterior of the food packet. Therefore, any food packet containing an external germicide tablet must be Gemini or Apollo 7-era food packets, and any food packet containing an internal germicide tablet must be Apollo 8-era onwards.
Introduction of the Spoon Bowl: Spoon bowl food packets were not introduced until Apollo 10. Therefore, all spoon bowl food packets must be Apollo 10-era onwards.
Water Temperature: The Gemini missions did not have hot water, this was not introduced until Apollo 7, therefore any mention of water temperature is a tell-tale sign of Apollo-era food packets. Apollo-era food packets requiring the use of water to rehydrate the contents always reference water temperature, therefore any food packets simply stating "water" were Gemini-era.
You can find more information on space food by clicking here.
A special thanks to space enthusiast Larry McGlynn & Apollo 15 Astronaut Al Worden for their assistance in the writing of this article.