John Young, who died last Friday at the age of 87, was the longest-serving astronaut in NASA history. Since his first flight in 1965, Young spent 835 hours in space and walked on the moon. By all accounts, he had a stellar career.
But it was almost derailed by a corned beef sandwich.
An astronomical amount of time and money goes into feeding NASA’s astronauts. This doesn’t mean the food is particularly tasty, but it is safe, which, in space, means it’s compact. In an enclosed, weightless environment, food particles are a liability: They can gum up machinery or be accidentally inhaled. Even in normal gravity, flaky sliced bread from your average corned beef on rye can get everywhere. In a spacecraft, food particles can be downright dangerous.
But 34-year-old Young wasn’t thinking about that on March 23, 1965, when he accepted a corned beef sandwich from fellow astronaut and famed practical joker Wally Schirra. Schirra had strolled into Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich shop in Cocoa Beach, Florida, two days earlier, to buy a sandwich. He passed it on to Young on the day of the flight, who zipped it into his space suit.
In Cape Kennedy, Young boarded the spacecraft for the nearly five-hour Gemini 3 Mission. A pilot by training, it was Young’s first journey into space. Along with his commander, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Young embarked on the first American two-man space flight. During a lull, Young signaled to Grissom and pulled the first corned beef sandwich in space from his pocket. As the sandwich was already two days old, it wasn’t a spectacular reveal, as audio from the mission documents:
Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich.
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?
Grissom: Yes, it’s breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.
Young: Is it?
Young: It was a thought, anyways.
Young: Not a very good one.
Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.
Young: Want some chicken leg?
The flaking corned beef was likely disposed of back on earth, and the astronauts and capsule* were none the worse for wear. At least, until Congress heard about what happened.
Gemini 3 had several objectives, from testing the effect of zero gravity on sea urchin eggs to testing orbital maneuvers in a manned spacecraft, which would aid the future moon landing. But another imperative was to test new space foods. Grissom and Young were sent up with dehydrated packets that they were meant to reconstitute with a water gun.
According to Young’s biography, “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.” The House Appropriations Committee convened to mull over the sandwich incident, and one representative even harangued a NASA administrator, calling the sandwich stunt “just a little bit disgusting.”
Young was given a reprimand, the first ever for a member of a NASA space flight. He eventually regretted smuggling the sandwich into space, especially as the story came up over and over. But Grissom remembered it as “one of the highlights of the flight.” Grissom himself was in hot water for nicknaming Gemini 3’s spacecraft Molly Brown after the musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” (Grissom’s first space flight ended with his capsule sinking into the ocean after re-entry.) Grissom forced irritated NASA administrators to back down after he suggested the name “Titanic” as an alternative.
No contraband sandwiches have made it into space since, and during his illustrious stint as an astronaut, Young became a fierce astronaut safety watchdog. The Cocoa Beach Wolfie’s has closed, but a replica of the famous sandwich is preserved at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana. If you’d like to toast the life of a great astronaut with a corned beef sandwich, you’ll have to eat it plain, Gemini-3 style. Young later groused that the sandwich didn’t even come with mustard or pickles.
*Correction: This story previously stated that the Molly Brown was a space shuttle. The first shuttle flight was in 1981.
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