fun factspopular science

first contraband space sandwich

It is on Monday, 23rd March 1964.

The first NASA’s two-men space mission is about to start, the hopes are high.
Gemini 3 lifts off atop a Titan rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Pad 19 in Florida at 9:24 a.m. EST.

At 11 am, just about two hours into the flight, astronomer and a co-pilot of the mission John Young reached to his spacesuit’s pocket and pulled out something smelly.

Surprise, surprise — it was a corned beef sandwich.


This astronaut dude smuggled a freaking deli sandwich into space!

It sounds like a joke, but, well… not everyone learning of it later would laugh.
— Where did that come from? Gus Grissom, the mission’s commander, asked his crewmate.
I brought it with me, Young replied. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?
*Seconds after*
It’s breaking up. I am going to stick it in my pocket, said Grissom after taking a bite, also.
— It was a thought, anyway… not a very good one, Young replied defeatedly.
Pretty good [sandwich] though, if it would just hold together.

A ‘crumby’ idea

Crumbs getting out of the sandwich were the concern. In the weightless environment of space, they could find their way behind electrical panels or fly into a crewmember’s eye.

NASA’s Gemini 3 press kit described how a gelatin layer was added to food items to avoid just such a problem.

Of course, the contraband corned beef sandwich had no such outer layer, as Grissom was quick to discover.

I took a bite, but crumbs of rye bread started floating all around the cabin, he explained in an interview with LIFE magazine soon after the mission.

Congress’ beef with NASA

The entire corned beef sandwich “taste test” lasted about 10 seconds out of the 4 hours and 52 minutes that Gemini 3 was in flight. 

Still, the news about the deli delivery in space didn’t fascinate Congress.
A couple of congressmen became upset, thinking that, by smuggling in the sandwich and eating part of it, Gus and I had ignored the actual space food that we were up there to evaluate, costing the country millions of dollars, Young wrote in his 2012 memoirs, “Forever Young.”

The House of Representatives appropriations committee convened a meeting to investigate the sandwich scandal.

— My thought is that … to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard the vehicle, frankly, is just a little bit disgusting, Representative George Shipley of Illinois said to NASA administrator James Webb, associate administer for manned spaceflight George Mueller and Robert Gilruth, director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston.

We have taken steps … to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights, Mueller replied.

Legacies and lunch meats

The original Wolfie’s, from which Schirra bought the now-infamous corned beef meal was the first and the last sandwich representative to fly into the orbit.

The bread, however, did fly in the form of bite-sized cubes (and the occasional loaf) and corned beef made it officially onto the menu in time for the first space shuttle flight in April 1981 — a mission commanded by John Young.

For his part though, Young felt the sandwich got far more attention than it deserved, at the cost of highlighting his and Grissom’s successful start to the Gemini program.— [Gemini 3] was a truly excellent engineering test flight of the vehicle, he wrote in 2012.

Besides, noted Young, the smuggled sandwich didn’t even have mustard on it. And no pickle.

Not only did he enjoy the zero-G sandwich, he even has his space farts officially recorded by NASA during Apollo 16 mission. What a man. 🥰

Young was badass, a joker, and probably the greatest astronomer NASA has ever had. He had the longest career of any astronaut, becoming the first person to fly six space missions over the course of 42 years of active NASA service.

He is the only person to have piloted and commanded four different classes of spacecraft: Gemini, the Apollo Command and Service Module, the Apollo Lunar Module, and the Space Shuttle.

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