That Time an Astronaut Smuggled a Corned Beef Sandwich To Space

The sandwich was a joke but its crumbs proved to be too much — for politicians, not for the mission

corned beef sandwich
Blundell, Paul/the food passionates/Corbis

On his historic 1961 flight as the first person to orbit the Earth, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin ate two tubes of pureed meat and one of chocolate sauce. Other early space foods included the powdered drink Tang (though it wasn’t developed for NASA) and bite-sized, compressed food cubes coated in gelatin (flavors included bacon, cheese and crackers, peanut butter and fruitcake, though Matt Soniak for Mental Floss notes that most astronauts didn’t notice the difference). 

Now, the foods seem considerably more appetizing. But when the Gemini missions started, the dining in space must have been a somewhat grim proposition.

To make matters worse, the Cosmonauts were enjoying bread, salami, jelly, roast veal, apples, oranges and even caviar, Soniak reports. Perhaps that’s why Gemini 3 pilot John Young did what he did.

Gemini 3’s mission was to test the orbital maneuvering, do experiments including fertilizing sea urchin eggs and taste some of those specially prepared food cubes but also try some sealed packages containing rehydratable hot dogs, brownies and chicken legs. Partway through the flight, Young pulled a corned beef sandwich out of his pocket and handed it to Commander Gus Grissom.

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.

Grissom: Yep.

Young: Not a very good one.

Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.

Young: Want some chicken leg?

Grissom: No, you can handle that.

The contraband sandwich had come from Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich Shop at the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach two days earlier, reports Robert Z. Pearlman for (via Discovery News). The quick stowing of the crumbling sandwich wasn’t because the sandwich was particularly dry and objectionable — it was because free-floating crumbs were exactly the nightmare NASA sought to prevent with their gelatin-coated food cubes. Scientists were worried that such crumbs might damage equipment and vents or even get inhaled by astronauts.

The problems really started back on the ground.

"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 related in his memoirs, Forever Young, reports Pearlman.

Even though the entire exchange took about 10 seconds during the 4 hour and 52 minute-long flight. NASA was forced to promise that no similar incidents would happen again. Pearlman writes:

[N]o unauthorized deli meats made it to orbit, or the moon, in the years that followed Gemini 3. Bread however, did fly in the form of bite-size 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.

At least today astronauts can enjoy an approximation of complex meals like Thanksgiving dinner and, if they are creative, make their own NASA-approved sandwiches

The sandwich that sparked the incident is now preserved in acrylic and on exhibit at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Ind.

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