The corned beef sandwich smuggled into space

Considered to be one of the best astronauts NASA has ever had, John Young may not necessarily be a household name, but his CV speaks for itself.

Selected in 1962 as part of the second group of astronauts, Young first flew in space on Gemini 3, which was the first crewed mission of the Gemini series and the first American mission to feature a two-person crew. He flew in space a further five times, a record which included a landing on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16 in 1972 and command of the first Shuttle mission in 1981. He remains to this day NASA’s longest-serving astronaut, staying with the agency for a staggering 42 years and only retiring in 2004 at the age of 74.

What is perhaps less known about him, to the general public at least, is the uproar he caused when he smuggled a contraband corned beef sandwich into space.

It occurred during the aforementioned Gemini 3, which lifted off on this day in 1965. Young was the mission’s pilot, with Mercury veteran Gus Grissom the commander.

Flight Director Gene Kranz once described them as ‘two of the most perfectly paired crew members that [he’d] ever seen’, but even Grissom had no idea what Young was planning.

Young had known from the experiences of his colleagues during Project Mercury that the food prepared for astronauts to eat during missions was somewhat lacking in flavour and texture. He conspired to liven up his own mid-mission meal by tasking Wally Schirra – who was Grissom’s back-up and also a Project Mercury veteran – with buying a corned beef sandwich from a local deli.

Schirra complied, and Young got dubious permission from Deke Slayton – another veteran of Project Mercury and, as Director of Flight Crew Operations, the man responsible for choosing which astronauts flew on which missions – to pack the sandwich away in the pocket of his pressure suit. Come the day of the launch, no-one, save for Schirra and Slayton, were any the wiser.

John Young leads Gus Grissom to the launchpad. Note the pocket on the left leg of Young’s suit | Credit: NASA

They lifted off at 14:24 UTC on March 23, 1965 and, 1 hour and 52 minutes later, Young broke out the sandwich and offered a bite to Grissom.

“Where did that come from?” asked Grissom incredulously.

“I brought it with me,” Young replied. “Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?”

Grissom agreed and took a bite, but quickly realised that it easily broke up and caused small crumbs to float everywhere in their confined capsule, and said he was going to put it away in his pocket.

“It was a thought, anyways,” Young said. “Not a very good one.”

“Pretty good though, if it would just hold together,” Grissom observed.

The pair paid no more attention to the matter, making a successful splashdown five hours after they took off. That was that.

Or so they thought.

Word soon spread through NASA’s management about the incident, and eventually Congress got wind of it. A few outraged congressmen even called for a review by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations into how it was that Young had been able to smuggle the sandwich into space without anyone knowing.

It was argued that by eating the sandwich, Young and Grissom had ignored the specially-developed dehydrated space food that they were supposed to eat, at the cost of millions of dollars of taxpayers money.

Furthermore, it was felt that the floating crumbs had posed a significant danger to their safety. They could have found their way behind the craft’s electrical panels and jammed the controls, or have flown into Young or Grissom’s eyes and blinded them.

Young therefore became the first ever astronaut to receive an official reprimand from NASA, with associate administrator George Mueller saying, ‘We have taken steps… to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights’.

Not that the sandwich did much damage to Young’s career.

Besides, he would later ruefully write, “It didn’t even have mustard on it. And no pickle.”

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