Boomers Loved the Whole Tang Thing

Tang, the orange-flavored drink powder that became such a big part of growing up a baby boomer, wasn’t always a popular choice. The formula was developed in 1957 by William A. Mitchell, a food scientist for General Foods. It was marketed for purchase in 1959, and was given a tepid reception by consumers. Moms weren’t at all sure about the drink powder, even if it was purported to have twice as much vitamin C as orange juice, and added vitamin A, too.

Tang received a lukewarm reception by the moms of baby boomers in the late 1950s.

That all changed in 1962, when John Glenn took Tang into space aboard the Friendship 7. Since it was a powder, the drink could be mixed with water in a closed vessel and drunk from a straw-like tube. NASA history states that Tang was among several types of foods the organization wanted Glenn to test for eating viability in space during the Gemini missions, though the organization is adamant in stating it does not now nor has it ever endorsed brand-name products. Legend has it, however, that Glenn and his fellow Gemini astronauts were the reason Tang went into space. They were not at all fond of the water they had to drink in the spacecraft since the filtration system imparted an unpleasant aftertaste. This version of the story goes on to say that Tang was first smuggled onboard by the Gemini astronauts in order to make their water more palatable. No matter which story line is true, Tang rocketed into the public consciousness as soon as the company took advantage of their association with the Space Program to market the powder as the “drink of astronauts.”

After John Glenn took Tang into space, sales took off.

Through this television campaign, Mister B became aware of the product. His family did buy Tang on occasion, but it was not a staple of the breakfast routine. Mister B and his siblings weren’t crazy about it; they felt the powder didn’t impart enough flavor into the water using the recommended tablespoon per 8 oz. glass, so they would double or triple the powder to water ratio. The Boomer children, mostly Mister B’s sister, discovered that it was more fun to eat the powder directly. Tang powder was a little puckery due to the citric acid (foreshadowing the craze kids have today for sour candy), but offered a Pixie-stick experience, and it turned your tongue orange, too.

It may very well be that Tang sealed its fate when it literally hitched its wagon to the stars. In the early 1960s, the entire country was all abuzz about the Space Program, but none more so than little boys. If a Tang commercial came on during Saturday morning cartoons, there was a pretty good bet that little boys would ask their moms to buy the products, based solely on the notion that it was the beverage that astronauts drank in space. That wasn’t the case in Mister B’s home. More than likely, it was a situation of his parents wanted to be a part of the Space Age future with these new foods that were being introduced.

Tang is still produced today, and is now offered in several fruit flavors around the globe. It is also interesting to note that William A. Mitchell further ingratiated himself with baby boomers by inventing Pop Rocks, and later, Cool Whip, in addition to the Tang formulation. As for the Space Program, NASA may have a reduced budget in which to carry out its missions these days, but Tang is still being served aboard the International Space Station.

Was Tang a part of your family’s breakfast routine, boomers?