Eat & Drink

Finally, Astronaut Ice Cream for the 21st-Century Backpacker

All organic, adult-palate-approved ice cream that melts in your mouth, not in your backpack—sold by a guy living out of his van

  • Robert Collignon launched his freeze-dried ice cream business while traveling the country in his 1987 VW Westfalia.  Photo: Gastronaut

  • Photo: Gastronaut

  • Photo: Gastronaut

Depending on who you ask, the lunar landing may or may not be fake. But there is one thing that—no conspiracy theories needed—everyone can agree is fake: the ingredients in astronaut ice cream.

Maybe you love the crusty stuff—ice cream that's been freeze-dried—for nostalgia’s sake. Maybe you love it because it offers a glucose hit without adding weight to your pack. But you probably don’t love astronaut ice cream for its taste, which is perhaps best described as Styrofoam forward with hints of high fructose corn syrup and an imitation vanilla finish.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, says Robert Collignon. Collignon is the founder of Gastronaut Ice Cream, a startup bringing organic Mexican chocolate chip, cookies and cream, and mint chocolate chip to a foil packet near you. His Kickstarter campaign has gone bonkers. Collignon originally hoped to raise just under $10,000. With a week to go, he’s raised over $50,000. 

He did all of this while traveling the country in a 1987 VW Westfalia named Charger. We caught up with Collignon to hear about his love affair with shelf-stable ice cream, his crazy, business-building road trip, and how he’s running a company out of his van. 

OUTSIDE: Have you always been obsessed with astronaut ice cream? 
COLLIGNON: I loved it as a kid and that carried over to adulthood. I’m the guy who would go to REI and buy out the entire inventory, then I’d eat it in my Brooklyn apartment for dessert. But as I got older, I realized the ingredients weren’t really in line with other things I liked to eat as an adult. The thing about freeze-dried ice cream is that in your mouth it melts into whatever it was before it was freeze-dried. So the commercial stuff melts into really bad ice cream. 

How did you start experimenting with this? You can’t do this with any old food dehydrator, right?
No, you need a special freeze dryer, which can be hard to find. It took me a really long time to find one that wasn’t too big for my Brooklyn apartment. But it was noisy. When the motor kicked on, it could be hard to sleep. Amazingly, my neighbors never complained. 

Are there any challenges to freeze-drying high-end ice cream?
Freeze-drying simply deep freezes something to the point where the ice crystals change to gas, so when it’s done there’s air where the crystals used to be. High-end ice cream works just as well as the cheap stuff. The only issue I’ve had is trying to do vegan ice cream. For some reason the coconut milk base just doesn’t work as well, so I’m still figuring that out. 

Where are you getting your ice cream from?
I’m using ice cream from Blue Marble in Brooklyn. It’s the best organic ice cream in the world, in my opinion. But eventually I’d like to do small runs from different places, too. 

Why do you think your campaign has been so successful? 
Nostalgia definitely brings people in; nostalgia is very important to people. But there are outdoors folks too. My hope is to get beyond the outdoor market—to be in grocery stores like Whole Foods and not just at REI. 

So after you perfected your recipe, you bought a van and did a nationwide road trip...research and development?
I was a creative director working in advertising in New York and I was working these crazy hours. But I just kept thinking about wanting to make a business out of freeze dried ice cream. So I bought this van, but it was in Oregon and I was in New York. I flew across the country to go pick it up, then I drove 20,000 miles from Baja, Mexico, up to the corner of Washington state. There were a lot of breakdowns. I camped at national parks and used the time to figure out how to run my business. 

I brought a lot of my [Gastronaut] freeze-dried ice cream with me, but I ate most of it really early on and couldn’t make any more in the van, so I didn’t end up getting to share much of it. I’d tell people the plan, though, and that’s when I got the weird looks. 

Where’s the van now? 
I say I’ve perfected the New York lifestyle: I split my time between a tiny cabin in the Catskills and living in the van in Brooklyn. Half the week is spent at my cabin freeze-drying ice cream, because a freeze-dryer wouldn't leave much room in a Westfalia. The other half is spent in Brooklyn, living in my van, doing business and interacting with actual human beings.

Want some astronaut ice cream yourself? Collignon’s Kickstarter is live for another week; after that, he’ll be taking pre-orders (or emails for alerts when more pre-orders are available) at gastronauticecream.com

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