Beef sandwich at the center of space scandal

2020-04-06

In a sleepy, little town of Mitchell in Indiana (USA), in a small local museum, next to a capsule of a spaceship from the early space age, there is one unusual beef sandwich.

Over half a century old corned beef sandwich, preserved in transparent acrylic, memorializes the beginnings of the space flight era and a funny incident out on the orbit (picture by Wonderful Engineering).

On 23 March 1965, onboard the American spacecraft Gemini 3, orbiting around the Earth, took place a historic conversation:

Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corned 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.
[…]
Grissom: Not a very good one.
Young: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.

Capsule of the American spacecraft Gemini 3

Gemini 3 was the first two-astronaut crewed space flight in the US. It was also the first flight of the Gemini project and the key precursor to the Apollo project, successfully ended with a crewed lunar landing four years later.

John Young smuggled the sandwich in his space suit.

The sandwich might have been really dangerous. In the lack of gravity, breadcrumbs floating around could flow into the astronauts’ lungs and lead to choking, or disrupt equipment in the capsule.

I took a bite but crumbs of rye bread started floating all around the cabin,” said Grissom, shortly after his return to Earth.

The sandwich affair led to an investigation in NASA. Some American senators were seriously upset, claiming that Young disrupted the planned flight schedule, including official tests of NASA’s space food, with his unplanned meal. They named the case a “$30 million sandwich”, which was eagerly picked up by the media.

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,” recalls Young in his memoir “Forever Young”, published a few years before his death.

Some cynically said that in the Space Race, it was the first sandwich in space, the answer to the previous week’s news that the Soviets made the first spacewalk during the first two-person mission Voschod 2.

American astronauts maintained that one of the flight objectives was to test foods in space.

The smuggled sandwich was actually quite poor. Some key ingredients like mustard or pickles were missing. The sandwich was purchased in Wolfie’s Restaurant in Cocoa Beach. It was handed off to Young by another astronaut right before the flight.

The official space food from NASA was rather bland. First astronauts often had to suck it straight out of the hermetic bags or tubes. It didn’t smell good, unlike the appetizing contraband.

Young eating a steak with eggs before his first space flight

Despite the uproar and criticism for the sandwich prank, Young took part in a total of six space flights, including one to the Moon.

Moreover, NASA did not forget about Young’s taste for meat. Corned beef appeared in menu for the first space shuttle flight in April 1981, commanded by John Young.

Virgil Grissom, to whom Young offered a bite from the first sandwich in space, was less lucky. He tragically died in 1967, in a cockpit flash fire in the Apollo 1 spacecraft.

Today, astronauts still munch sandwiches out in space. However, they use bread baked in small bites (to keep it crumb-free) or replace it with tortilla wraps. They can even bake it for themselves, as a special small oven has recently arrived on the International Space Station (ISS).