NASA’s space program has a local connection

Sept. 24, 2021
by Mark Ollig

Powell F. Sams provided his expertise during the time of NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

I was fortunate to speak with his son, Jon, who lives in Winsted and works at the Howard Lake Waverly-Winsted High School.

Jon’s family is originally from West Virginia, near the Ohio River. He was born in Parkersburg, WV, and moved to Minnesota in 1958 when he was 7 years old.

His father served as a pilot during the Korean War. One of the things that greatly bothered him was seeing soldiers suffering dysentery and other ailments caused by eating ill-prepared and improperly-stored foods.

Powell wanted to improve how the government supplied the military with food. So not long after returning from Korea, he moved to Minnesota and began working as a nutritional research and development engineer at the Minneapolis-based Pillsbury Company.

The Pillsbury Company processed wheat grain into baking flour, packaged biscuit dough, and produced other food-related products.

At the start of the 1960s, Pillsbury Company wanted to diversify from the baking flour market, and so the company spent a year producing a solid “space food cube” to be used by NASA for their astronauts.

Jon sometimes found himself the “guinea pig” for evaluating the taste and quality of repackaged brownies, M&M’s, and other food items his father would bring home from the lab.

He filled out answers to specific questions about each packaged “space food” item on a typed paper provided by his father, who would then check the answers in the lab and make any needed quality adjustments.

Mercury-Atlas astronaut Scott Carpenter would become the sixth human to fly in space May 24, 1962. NASA included some of the Pillsbury Company’s space food cubes in his Aurora 7 spacecraft.

While working for the Pillsbury Company, Powell and two others filed for a US Patent July 15, 1971, for their newly-devised method for safely cooking food products packaged inside a specially-sealed flexible pouch.

Jon told me his father’s nickname for this creation is the “Pillsbury Pouch.”

Method For Heat Processing Food Products Packaged in Flexible Containers is the name of US Patent 3,769,028. Powell F. Sams is one of three names listed as inventors on this patent granted Oct. 30, 1973.

One of the objectives written in the patent states the invention prevents the flexible mylar polyester pouch from bursting during cooking or baking.

You can view his US Patent at https://bit.ly/3lsBjMr.

Apollo 17 was launched from the NASA John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida Dec. 7, 1972, and would be the last mission of the NASA Apollo space program.

The same year, NASA would select Rockwell North American (now Boeing) as the prime contractor for its new Space Shuttle program.

Powell learned the folks at NASA were experiencing problems with the Space Shuttle Food Feeding System, so he traveled to work in the research laboratory at Boeing.

Looking to ensure the absolute safety of prepackaged foods for spaceflight, NASA partnered with the Pillsbury Company to create a new, systematic approach to quality control.

Powell’s US Patent stated his invention embodies a “retort and control system” which is lightweight and flexible. The official NASA name for the Pillsbury Pouch is the Retort Pouch.

The Retort Pouch protects the MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) contents from chemical, physical, and biological hazards during space missions, thus protecting the astronaut’s health, as well.

The food safety standards NASA used are today known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), an industry-standard that benefits consumers worldwide by keeping food free from a wide range of potential hazards.

Jon spoke of his time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, where his father worked on food nutritional research and development for the Space Shuttle astronauts. Each astronaut had their unique dietary requirements, and Powell’s work more or less redesigned the way astronauts ate when they were in outer space.

Today, Jon has one of the largest personally autographed and framed Space Shuttle photograph collections, along with other space memorabilia.

One of the framed photographs to his father, signed by the STS-32 Space Shuttle Columbia crew, states, “Thanks For Feeding Us All So Well At All Hours.”

Jon told me how he and his father watched many “Star Trek” episodes during its original series days back in the 1960s, which caught my attention. As my readers know, I am a fan of Star Trek, so we spoke at length about it.

Jon has hundreds of space-related articles, papers, and approximately 25 framed photographs the astronauts and crew personally signed from many space shuttle missions.

Of the signed and framed photos, the following is a partial listing with the Space Transportation System (STS) mission number, shuttle name, and launch date:

STS-26 Discovery, Sept. 29, 1988.

STS-27 Atlantis, Dec. 2, 1988.

STS-28 Columbia, Aug. 8, 1989.

STS-29 Discovery, March 13, 1989.

STS-31 Discovery, Apr. 24, 1990.

STS-32 Columbia, Jan. 9, 1990.

STS-33 Discovery, Nov 22, 1989.

STS-34 Atlantis, Oct. 18, 1989.

STS-35 Columbia, Dec. 2, 1990.

STS-36 Atlantis, Feb. 28, 1990.

STS-37 Atlantis, Apr. 5, 1991.

STS-39 Discovery, Apr. 28, 1991.

STS-41 Discovery, Oct. 6, 1990.

STS-42 Discovery, Jan. 22, 1992.

STS-43 Atlantis, Aug. 2, 1991.

STS-44 Atlantis, Nov. 24, 1991.

STS-48 Discovery, Sept. 12, 1991.

STS-49 Endeavour, May 7, 1992.

Jon has also preserved under glass the slide rule his father used to complete mathematical computations while working with NASA.

Besides Jon’s interest in the NASA space program, he is an avid bird watcher and cares for his 20 bird feeders.

He also enjoyed playing golf with his father.

Jon’s father is a member of 1988, “Who’s Who in America,” a biographical dictionary of notable men and women in the United States. He also wrote two books.

For 25 years, Powell Sams worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, retiring in 1991.

Powell Frances Sams passed away in 2008 but left a rich history of memories, personal service, and notable contributions to NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.

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