12. A Corned Beef Sandwich in Space

By Lauren Evans (@lauren_evans99)

In March 1965, the landmark Voting Rights Act worked its way through Congress in the United States, the Beach Boys topped charts with “Help Me, Rhonda”, and a corned beef sandwich found its way into low earth orbit aboard the Gemini 3 spacecraft which launched from Cape Canaveral on March 23.

The sandwich was given to John Young, one of the two-man Gemini 3 team, by fellow astronaut Wally Schirra, and stashed in Young’s spacesuit. According to Young’s memoir, “It was very common to carry sandwiches – in fact, the corned beef was the third sandwich that has been carried on a spacecraft.”[1] In an interview with Life magazine, which had been working to humanize and popularize America’s astronauts since 1959,  Young explained that “Gus has been bored by the official menus we’d practiced with in training and it seemed like a fun idea at the time.”[2]

As it turned out, the sandwich was less of a fun idea in space – Young told Life that they “hadn’t counted on the pungent odor in a closed cabin”, as revealed by the dialogue between the astronauts recorded in the flight log: (C is “Command Pilot” Gus Grissom and P is “Pilot” John Young) [3]

Despite Young’s claim in his memoir that this was not the first incident of earth food being brought on a NASA space flight, this corned beef sandwich did elicit discontent back on earth; engineers were horrified by the crumbs and the risk that they posed to the delicate instruments aboard the capsule. The engineers were not the only horrified ones – the sandwich made its way from the pages of Life magazine to the floor of Congress. In a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations, it was called a “$30 million sandwich” and portrayed it as a flagrant waste of government funds by a pair of NASA’s astronauts as well as an unacceptable deviation from mission parameters. James Webb, a NASA administrator, was able to diffuse their concerns – but the corned beef sandwich of Gemini 3 still stands out as one of the more surreal episodes in the space race.

[1] Young, John, and James R. Hansen. Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space. University Press of Florida, 2012, p. 82.

[2] Grissom, G., and Young, J., (1965) ‘”Molly Brown was OK from the first time we met her'”, Life, (2 April, Vol. 58, No. 13), p. 42. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6lIEAAAAMBAJ&source=gbs_all_issues_r&cad=1 (Accessed 1 Dec. 2021).

[3] Ibid.

Image Credits:

Cover image – NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Transcript Image – Johnson Space Center (2010) Mission Transcripts: Mercury – Apollo. Available at: https://historycollection.jsc.nasa.gov/JSCHistoryPortal/history/mission_trans/all_transcripts.htm

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