BENTON HARBOR — Fifty years after U.S. astronauts landed on the moon, roots from the 1969 exploratory mission can be found in Benton Harbor.

Whirlpool Corp. spent nearly two decades working on more than 300 separate space-related contracts for NASA, which included special projects that were used in the Air Force’s Mercury mission and NASA’s Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions.

Some of the details have been lost in time. What is known is Whirlpool’s collaboration with NASA began in 1957 before running its course in 1973.

In 1960, the U.S. Air Force awarded the appliance maker a contract to build what Whirlpool refers to as the world’s first “space kitchen.”

The Benton Harbor appliance maker was charged with developing an integrated unit that could provide for all the food and beverage needs of three astronauts on a 14-day mission to space. 

The entirety of the space kitchen needed to fit into a cylindrical space that was about 10 feet long and 7.5 feet in diameter. 

The company designed and built a unit that included a miniature thermo-electric refrigerator, freezer, three-cavity oven, self-heated water system, storage space for food and disposal units for waste. 

Because of the zero-gravity conditions, Whirlpool had to design food and food-delivery systems – the latter consisting of tubes that would allow astronauts to inject the food into their mouths.

Food crumbs had to be avoided in case one might float through the space module and contaminate the technology.

Coloma resident Rod Krieger, who worked at Whirlpool off and on for 10 years, was stationed at the former Cooper-Wells Hosiery factory that served as the company’s research and development facility during the 1950s and ’60s. The R&D department would later be moved out near Whirlpool’s global headquarters.

Krieger, 78, recalled the team that worked on the NASA contract and referred to it as “quite a project.”

Led by Dr. Norman Roth, a team of Whirlpool employees set to work in a lab located in the ground floor of the Cooper-Wells building.

According to Whirlpool archives of the company’s history, there were two types of freeze-dried food prepared for the Apollo mission – rehydratable food (which required water to reconstitute) and solid, bite-sized cube foods that were eaten straight from the package.

“When the space programs started, Whirlpool answered a (request for proposal) to feed the astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo,” Krieger said. “They developed a process to vacuum-dry food in little plastic bags. The model shop made a device that was an aluminum squirt gun that rehydrated the food. The astronaut would poke the gun into the plastic bag and squirt water on there.”

Krieger said there was a testing lab where employees would try the rehydrated food and give notes on everything from the taste to the texture.

Whirlpool also supplied lint-free towels and waste-collection devices for the flights to space, Krieger said.

The final frontier for food

The space kitchen debuted at the convention of the Aerospace Medical Association in Chicago on April 24, 1961.

Later that year, members of the press, Congress, NASA and the Air Force assembled at Washington, D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel for a further demonstration.

By mid-1962, NASA and Whirlpool had produced roughly 1,100 demonstrations of the mock-up space kitchen to 142,000 people.

At the peak of the space effort, 60 Whirlpool workers were employed in designing, developing, preparing and packaging space food or working on other facets of the space program. 

The North Berrien Historical Museum in Coloma currently has a display showcasing the space food heating tray that was designed by the Life Support division of Whirlpool for NASA.

According to the display’s description, the space tray heating device was created to make meals more enjoyable for the astronauts.

The individual heating slots were designed to securely hold the food cans to prevent them from “floating off” in a zero-gravity environment. The slots in the tray heated up to warm the contents of the cans through conduction.

The tray was used by three different crews who occupied the Skylab space station between 1973 and 1974. More than 1,200 meals were sent up with the station to be eaten when the crews arrived.

The astronauts had more than 70 food options to choose from. Food items included eggs, beef sandwiches, cereal, soups, breads, candy, meats, vegetables, puddings and fruits.

Jack Greve, executive director and curator for the North Berrien Historical Museum, said the display will be available through August.

“The one we have is a demo of what the space tray would look like,” Greve said. “The one we have has fake switches and is not a usable item. It was the first time frozen food was in space. Prior to this, it was all non-heated items like pastes in tubes.”

After the space kitchen was phased out in 1973, samples of the various items Whirlpool produced were donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

It came full circle for Krieger in 2016, when he visited the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Air and Space annex.

During his trek through the annex, Krieger saw some of the old food packets and one of the rehydrating guns on display. 

“I hadn’t seen one of those in 50 years,” Krieger said. “Providing such an important mission requirement gave us all a great sense of pride, even those of us not directly involved in the project.”

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski