“I hid a sandwich in my spacesuit.”
The main objective of NASA’s Project Gemini was to learn how to send astronauts to the Moon, testing their ability to fly long-duration missions and to perfect rendezvous, docking, and spacewalking procedures. Not on the list of experiments? Seeing what happens to a corned beef sandwich in microgravity. NASA unknowingly tested this anyway, thanks to astronaut John Young.
Young—a Navy test pilot and an aeronautical engineering grad from the Georgia Institute of Technology—and Gus Grissom were assigned to the first crewed Gemini mission. Their 1965 flight was the first in the United States’ space program to carry two astronauts.
Grissom and Young had several experiments to conduct during their 4-hour journey; one of Young’s assignments was to test space food. As Gus Grissom described it to Life Magazine in 1965, the meals that they took along “came in plastic bags, and we had to insert a water gun into the bag and squirt liquid inside to reconstitute them.”
The (sanctioned) Gemini meal packages included a freeze-dried entree, vegetable, drink and dessert, protected with a 4-ply, laminated film coating. Young, it seemed, wasn’t interested in the freeze-dried option, so he brought something else on board. As he admitted to Life, “I hid a sandwich in my spacesuit.”
"We have taken steps ... to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”
According to Young, his contraband corned-beef sandwich was thanks to astronaut Wally Schirra, who had it prepared at a restaurant in Cocoa Beach before Gemini 3 launched. Schirra was well known as a practical joker. Young said Grissom was “bored” with the official menus that they had practiced with in training, and packing a sandwich for the trip “seemed like a fun idea at the time.”
It was not, as it turned out, quite so fun. When the Gemini astronauts got hungry, Young pulled out the smuggled sandwich. In the transcripts of the Gemini 3 mission, Young tells Grissom, “Let's see how it tastes. Smells, doesn't it?” When Grissom took a bite, “crumbs of rye bread started floating all around the cabin,” he told Life.
Grissom put the sandwich in his pocket for the duration of the flight, Young remarking “It was a thought anyway… Not a very good one.”
It’s possible for tiny crumbs like that to pose a big threat during spaceflight—they can fly off and get wedged in any of the many pieces of equipment that keep a spacecraft running. (That’s why they use tortillas instead of bread aboard the International Space Station.)
Young’s impromptu menu-change didn’t cause any harm, but it became a larger issue back on Earth, resulting in a House of Representatives Appropriations Committee meeting to discuss it. On the sandwich scandal, George Mueller, NASA’s associate administer for manned spaceflight, said: "We have taken steps ... to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”
Ultimately, the corned-beef chaos was a footnote to Young’s long and illustrious career at NASA: He was the first person to fly in space six times, the first person to circle the Moon alone, and the first Space Shuttle mission commander. He served as an astronaut for 42 years, longer than anyone else to date.
As for the infamous sandwich? That’s earned its place in history, too, a replica “preserved in resin,” to memorialize the historic moment at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana.