Today marks the anniversary of one of NASA’s more “corny” moments. It was on this day in 1965 that… well, let me explain:
Project Gemini was the bridge between the Mercury and Apollo NASA space programs. Mercury proved NASA had the capability to put humans into Earth orbit, and Gemini set out with a new set of goals, including: putting multiple astronauts into orbit aboard the same craft, learning how to walk in space, practicing rendezvous and docking between crafts, and testing the influence of long-term spaceflights. All of these were necessary to begin the Apollo program with its goal to put a man on the Moon (and bring him back home safely!) before the end of the decade.
Following two unmanned Gemini missions, Gemini III was the first manned mission in the program and carried Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and Pilot John W. Young. Gus Grissom became the first human to fly into space twice, while John Young took his rookie flight.
The Gemini III capsule1 orbited the Earth three times on March 23, 1965, over the course of just under five hours.
Then, at 1 hour, 52 minutes, and 26 seconds into the mission… it happened.
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, anyway.
Young: Not a very good one.
Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.
John Young, through the aid of fellow astronaut Wally Schirra, had smuggled aboard a corned beef sandwich. Young and Grissom shared a few bites, but it began to crumble and little bits of it began to float around inside the capsule. It was quickly stowed away to prevent the pieces from shorting out any sensitive electronic equipment.
After Gemini III returned to Earth, Young, Grissom, and Schirra, and NASA caught flack for the incident from members of Congress that were looking for an excuse to cut agency funding.
Young elaborated in his 2012 memoir, Forever Young: “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.”
A Congressional Committee even held a hearing over the ordeal.
According to CollectSpace.com: Congressman George Shipley of Illinois explained his concerns to NASA administrator James Webb, associate administer for manned spaceflight George Mueller and director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) Robert Gilruth, during the hearings: “My thought is that … to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard the vehicle, frankly, is just a little bit disgusting.”
The reply came from Mueller:
“We have taken steps … to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”
And there you have it: the story of the first corned beef sandwich in space. Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich, and other times it threatens humanity’s greatest space program.
Check out John Young’s fantastic memoir, Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space.
(This post was originally published on March 23, 2011. It has been slightly modified from its original version.)
- Nicknamed by Grissom, “Molly Brown”, after a popular Broadway musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. NASA PR was originally not impressed with the nickname, but backed off any attempts to ditch the moniker when they discovered Grissom’s back-up name for the capsule was “Titanic”. ↩