MOUNT VERNON — Mankind made a giant leap 50 years today when Apollo 11 landed on the moon with three of the soon to be world’s most well-known astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. History was made, and unbeknownst to most, a Mount Vernon company was a part of it.
The Mount Vernon division of Continental Can Company developed the food pouches that were used on Apollo 11, and provided the astronauts with high quality meals during their historic mission. Oren Freshour and Florren Long were the two minds behind the development process, and Freshour, now retired in Florida, still recalls the grueling process the group endured.
Freshour said the long story starts with a contest. The contest asked divisions of Continental Can to develop a new container for the space mission, and the winning division would win $10,000 to support development cost. Freshour and Long, both a part of the flexible packaging division of the company, created a retort food pouch made from metal-plastic laminate that used similar methods to canning to preserve food, making it possible to have canned quality foods in a space-ready pouch. The foods were ready-to-eat, no longer requiring moisture to make them edible. Before the development of the food pouch, astronauts’ meals mainly consisted of tubed substances, rehydratable, freeze-dried and low-moisture foods that were often described as “mush”.
While the packaging worked, they ran into an issue when it came to sterilization. Neither of them were sure how to sterilize the pouches, so they decided to use the $10,000 to collaborate with The Ohio State University to develop the sterilization process. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, canned foods need to be sterilized at 250 degrees in order to destroy bacteria and prevent microorganisms from growing. The heat caused issues with the adhesive of the pouch, so the Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t approve it. The final product didn’t end up having adhesive, so their initial problem was eliminated.
“We struggled for several years and had to change the structure several times before it was approved,” Freshour said. Freshour said the FDA referred to the idea as nonsense, and wouldn’t budge on their verdict until a group of astronauts that tested the pouches fought for Freshour and Long’s idea.
Freshour said that three of the pouches were filled with holiday turkey dinners and were attached via red, white and blue Velcro in a capsule and sent with the astronauts of one of the earlier Apollo missions, Apollo 8. The Apollo program sent three astronauts into space for an Earth orbital test before the upcoming moon landing, and decided to test the ready-to-eat food pouches during the mission. On Christmas Day, the astronauts were able to enjoy a turkey dinner with a spoon, something that was previously unheard of.
“They loved the food so much, they asked command, ‘Why don’t you give us those all the time?’” Freshour said. The support of the astronauts is what swayed the FDA to approve the design, and the packs were approved to be used on the Apollo 11 mission.
The Mount Vernon company produced numerous pouches that were sent to the military Natick Labs in Farmington, Massachusetts where they were filled and sanitized. From there, the packs were sent to Houston for testing, and then they were placed on board.
The menus from the early Apollo missions have stark differences when compared to the menus after Apollo 11. The earlier missions had menus consisting of mainly freeze-dried and rehydratable foods, while Apollo 11 and later missions had foods labeled as “wetpacks” and “spoon-bowl packets” available to the astronauts thanks to the technology that was developed by Freshour and Long. Freshour said “fancy” foods, such as shrimp scampi and turkey dinners, were now able to be preserved due to the similar to canning method that was used.
After the success of the Apollo mission, the pouches were put to use by the military for field rations. The company was asked by the government to produce the pouches for the Gulf War, making them the only producers of the pouches used for meals ready-to-eat for the war.
“We asked how many, and they said ‘Don’t stop until I tell you.’ We worked seven days a week, and worked through Christmas to make sure we gave them what they needed,” Freshour said.
Freshour said that the government used ready-to-eat meals during natural disasters and other tragedies, providing a nourishing meal to people in crisis. Back in 2005, the federal government committed 21 million out of its 36 million MREs stockpile to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
What started with a contest turned into both a monumental historic moment as well as an everlasting impact on the way the military and NASA operate. The technology is still used today, providing MREs to service men and women as well as survivors of natural disasters. Looking back on his time with Continental Can and his role in history and the future, Freshour remains humble, and pays credit to the people he worked with.
“We were all very proud,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling, I look back and remember all of those nights where we worked into the next day. There were many sleepless nights, but once we got it, we got it.”
Freshour said that while most of those who worked for Continental Can, including his partner in the development, Florren Long, have passed on and the plant has been torn down, the history still remains and should be remembered.