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How the First Corned Beef Sandwich in Space Was Smuggled Aboard a NASA Space Flight

Updated on October 23, 2019
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Ian is a computer scientist and geopolitical forecaster. He has been fascinated by all forms of science since childhood.

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Astronaut John Young and his Secret Corned Beef Sandwich

The 1960s was the heyday of American space activity, culminating in the incredible moon landing in 1969. Many astronauts contributed along the way, but one of the oddest stories is the time astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich onto a NASA space mission.

Astronaut John Youg

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Gemini 3, the First Crewed Gemini MIssion

In 1957, the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was launched successfully, becoming the first artificial Earth satellite and establishing the Soviet Union as the space race leaders. NASA quickly committed to an ambitious schedule, launching Project Mercury in 1958. Mercury was the first human spaceflight program, and the Gemini program followed.

The Gemini program was designed to advance space travel techniques that would eventually be used in a moon landing. One of the biggest areas of research was to test different kinds of space food - food items that were specially invented for use on space flights.

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Crumbs and Zero Gravity

Everyday things can become a real challenge in space, thanks to almost zero gravity. Food is no exception. Crumbs and liquids can float away, posing a hazard to delicate instruments on a space mission. There was a real concern that stray crumbs could have floated inside a module or behind a panel, damaging the instruments. Beyond the potential risk to equipment, there was also the danger of small objects floating into an astronaut's eye.

Scientists had therefore invented a range of different foods for the astronauts to sample, with the majority either being sticky pastes or individual bite sized pieces of food coated in gelatin to prevent crumbling. They didn't look very appetizing, but on a space flight the gourmet aspect was not high on the priority list; functionality and safety came first.

The Smuggled Corned Beef Sandwich

Gemini 3 was the first NASA mission to carry two astronauts. But, again beating America to the punch, a two man Soviet mission had successfully launched just days before the March 23rd flight. The mood at NASA and in the United States government was tense.

Pilot John Young, however, decided to break the tension with a prank - a two day old corned beef sandwich that he'd hidden in his pocket, which he proceeded to pull out part way into the flight.

A surprised Gus Grissom, the mission commander, asked where it had come from. Young replied by suggesting they taste it, commenting, "smells, doesn't it?".

It also was crumbly. Grissom later said "crumbs of rye bread started floating all around the cabin". The sandwich quickly went back into its bag.

The most disappointing part of the whole sandwich taste test? According to John Young, it was the lack of mustard "and no pickle".

"We are not Amused" - Congress is Upset

The entire joke lasted about a minute out of the nearly five hour mission. With many other real accomplishments coming out of that flight, it might well have been no more than a brief note in the logs.

However, with so much at stake - both politically, in the race to beat the Soviet Union, and monetarily - everything was under scrutiny. The newly developed space food had cost millions of dollars, and when news of the illicit sandwich became known there was an outcry from several congressmen.

The House Appropriations Committee thought the two spacemen had deliberately ignored one of the primary objectives of the flight - to evaluate carefully designed and very expensive space food. Illinois representative George Shipley did not see anything funny about the escapade. "My thought is that ... to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard the vehicle, frankly, is just a little bit disgusting".

This resulted in a memorable statement from top NASA official George Mueller, who would go on record as promising, "we have taken steps ... to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.

The Best Corned Beef Sandwich

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No More Unauthorized Sandwiches

Gemini 3 proved to be a valuable mission. It was the first manned space flight to include an orbital maneuver, for instance. But, following George Mueller's commitment, it was the last flight to include unauthorized delicatessen products.

However, corned beef would eventually find its way back into space, this time in an official capacity. In April 1981, the first space shuttle flight included corned beef cubes on the menu.

Completing the cycle, the commander of that space shuttle flight was none other than John Young.

Sources

Zhang, S. (2015, March 24). 50 Years Ago, NASA Astronauts Smuggled a Corned Beef Sandwich Into Space. Retrieved from https://gizmodo.com/50-years-ago-nasa-astronauts-smuggled-a-corned-beef-sa-1693431694

(2015, March 23). Gemini 3 and the first (contraband) corned beef sandwich in space 50 years ago. Retrieved from http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-032315a-gemini3-corned-beef-sandwich.html

Origjanska, M. (2018, February 22). The Danger that Ensued when a Corned Beef Sandwich was Smuggled into Space. Retrieved from https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/02/22/corned-beef-sandwich-in-space/

Howell, E. (2018, January 10). How John Young Smuggled a Corned-Beef Sandwich into Space. Retrieved from https://www.space.com/39341-john-young-smuggled-corned-beef-space.html


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