“Houston, We Have a Connection”: Tang on the Iditarod

Welcome to my very first “Houston, We Have a Connection” post! The title calls to mind the famous line from Apollo 13 alerting mission control to the fateful explosion aboard the spacecraft. I live ten minutes from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, so this year in my role as 2024 Teacher on the Trail™, I wanted to draw some fun connections between our local space culture and the Iditarod. I started thinking about what the Iditarod and space exploration have in common when I learned that Tang is one of the favorite drinks on the Iditarod trail. Tang was promoted by none other than Joe Redington, Sr., founder of the Iditarod. 

Tang has long been associated with the Iditarod. Photo: K. Newmyer

Powdered drink mixes like Gatorade are ubiquitous in our lives now, and none is more nostalgic than Tang. It can be a favorite summer beverage loaded with ice cubes, or consumed piping hot, steam rising from a mug held in both hands. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I never really drank Tang, but I was sure that astronauts did.

Back in 1922, no one had ever heard of powdered juice mix until Paul Stephens Hollis invented one that he dubbed Poly Pop. I tried to research what this very first powdered juice tasted like, but no luck. I do know what Kool-Aid, which came along in 1927, tastes like because I went to Girl Scout camp and drank pitchers of it. Both brands were sold to the General Foods Company in 1953.

Joe Redington, Sr. (Photo Credit: Jeff Schultz)

At General Foods, food scientist William A. Mitchell and chemist William Bruce James created Tang in 1957 and later sold it as a powder starting in 1959. Tang didn’t do well on the market at first, but then NASA decided to use it for astronaut John Glenn’s food tests aboard the Mercury capsule as a way of flavoring the terrible-tasting water. General Foods began to market Tang in connection with the space program.

When I asked about food and drink on the Iditarod Trail (see 2023 Teacher on the Trail™ Juli Westrich’s post, “Comfort Food”) I learned that Tang was a favorite. I could definitely see why, if you picture again that warm cup of steaming hot liquid, full of energy and vitamin C. Alaska Mountaineer Ray Genet promoted Tang in advertising and Joe Redington, Sr., Iditarod founder and passionate advocate, even named one of his sled dogs Tang.  

Telling the story of Tang in the Iditarod is such a great way to ah—launch—my Houston Connection series! The next time you visit the grocery store, pick up a canister of Tang and think of Alaska’s courageous mushers and trail volunteers. It doesn’t get chilly very often in Houston, but I will drink my next cup of Tang steaming hot while I look forward to the snowy Iditarod Trail. 

Recently I was speaking to some friends, and they told me about their memories and experiences drinking Tang. Do you have a favorite memory about Tang? Email me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com.