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Corned-beef sandwich is now on a display at the Virgil I. Gus Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana (Image: firstwefeast.com)

NASA's Sandwich Scandal


Introduction

In 1965, Gemini 3 became the first American space mission crewed by more than one astronaut. The Gemini 3 performed the first orbital maneuver ever by shifting its orbit mid-flight. However, the mission isn't known for this successful breakthrough, rather it is known for its sandwich on board.

NASA's corned beef sandwich scandal

Oddly enough, one of the mission requirements was to test space food in the capsule—not the kind of food you have in your fridge, we are talking about specific food here.

At one point during the 5-hour mission, John Young, who was on his first spaceflight, pulled something out of his pocket. Meanwhile, Gus Grissom, another astronaut, was analyzing the spacecraft's performance when Young turned to him and asked:

"You care for a corned-beef sandwich skipper"

In this small capsule, where if anything went wrong, the possibility of death was high, Young decided it would be a great idea to whip out a smelly corned beef sandwich.

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Pictured: John Young inspecting his helmet before the Gemini III mission. It is unknown if the contraband corned beef sandwich was already in his pocket at the time of the photo. (Image: NASA)

We know it was smelly because moments after Young pulled out the sandwich he said " Let's see how it tastes. Smells doesn't it?

Eyeing the Jewish delish sammy, Grissom was shocked.

"If I could have fallen out of my couch, I would have. Sure enough he was holding an honest-to-john corned beef sandwich"

Grissom decided not to let the perfectly fine sandwich go to waste, so he took a bite. "Pretty good, if it would just hold together." he told Young.

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Pictured: Astronauts from Gemini 3 mission—Gus Grissom (left) and John Young (right) (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

With breadcrumbs floating around the cabin Grissom stuffed the unfinished sandwich into his spacesuit pocket hoping to minimize the number of breadcrumbs flying around.

Young was not impressed with his smuggled contraband as he wrote " It didn't even have mustard on it," even worse he added "And no pickle"

Where did the sandwich come from you ask?

The illegal sandwich came from Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich Shop in Cocoa Beach, Florida. The restaurant closed in 2002. The fellow astronaut Wally Schirra, an infamous joker, bought the sandwich and gave it to Young.

The mission went on with a few hiccups, just a slap on the wrist and lecturing from the less-than-thrilled mission control personnel, and Young's superior. The coast was clear for the astronauts until the big bad wolf got involved—Congress.

Congress' beef with the astronauts

This was after all, during the height of the Space Race and the Soviets were winning. Just a week before Gemini III, the Soviets claimed the title of being the first to have an orbital mission with more than one astronaut.

Nonetheless, the Americans were behind in the race and the costly program was under fire.

The House Appropriations Committee came in full force, opening a full review of the sandwich scandal. The committee was concerned the floating Rye crumbs could turn fatal for the astronauts. Congress thought the astronauts were ignoring the space food they were sent to evaluate and were wasting precious taxpayer money.

Young later wrote that he didn't think it was a big deal and thought it was common to bring sandwiches on board, citing that this wasn't even the first time a sandwich was smuggled on board.

"I didn't think it was any big deal," Young later wrote in his memoirs of the sandwich, clarifying that one of the mission objectives was to test NASA food anyway.

"It was very common to carry sandwiches—in fact, the corned beef sandwich was the third sandwich that had been carried on a spacecraft."

One of the members of the House Appropriations Committee propelled the sandwich to celebrity status when they supposedly mentioned that it was a "30-million-dollar sandwich"

Young still had playful humor at the end of the hearing, as he recalled in his biography

"Today the theater that took place inside the meeting room that day strikes me as totally comic, but I can assure you that those testifying for NASA at the time were not smiling"

John Young went on to command the first Space Shuttle in 1981, and yes, the mission had corned beef on the menu.

Sources:

1. Young, John W. Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space. UNIV PR OF FLORIDA, 2012.

2. Tabor, Abigail. “Contraband Corned Beef and the Early Days of Space Biology.” NASA, NASA, 16 Mar. 2022, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/contraband-corned-beef-and-the-early-days-of-space-biology-the-gemini-iii-mission.

3. Howell, Elizabeth. “How John Young Smuggled a Corned-Beef Sandwich into Space.” Space.com, Space, 10 Jan. 2018, https://www.space.com/39341-john-young-smuggled-corned-beef-space.html.

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Written By: Nathan Payonk

Author of Newsletter: Nathan Payonk

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