Imagine an astronaut ready to step into space on one of NASA’s earliest missions, preparing to transport a smuggled meat sandwich into his clothing? While John Young, who died on Jan. 5 at age 87, is famous for his Apollo 16 moonwalks and his role as commander of the first space shuttle mission, the NASA astronaut is also remembered for a small scandal he triggered with a sneaky act: smuggling a corned-beef sandwich into space.
Young slipped the sandwich into his pocket just before launching on Gemini 3 on March 23, 1965. It was the first U.S. mission to carry two astronauts — Young and his crewmate, Gus Grissom. But the Soviets had launched their own two-person mission, Voskhod 2, less than a week earlier, so tensions were already high among politicians when Gemini 3 safely made it to space and efficiently completed its objectives.
Less than two hours into space mission, John Young pulled his corned-beef sandwich from the pocket of his space clothes, and presented a surprised commander Grissom. The corned-beef sandwich sparked a brief conversation between Young and Grissom, according to the Gemini 3 transcript. The chat lasted for only about a minute of the nearly 6-hour mission.
“What is it?” Grissom asked. “Corned-beef sandwich,” Young replied. “Where did that come from?” Grissom asked. Answered Young: “I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?”
Grissom tasted the sandwich but quickly announced he would stick it back in his pocket because it was starting to break up. Young suggested the sandwich was “a thought … not a very good one.” Replied Grissom: “Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.”
Shortly after returning home from the mission, Grissom later recounted the taste test for Life magazine. “I took a bite, but crumbs of rye bread started floating all around the cabin,” he said, adding that he and Young enjoyed “the chance to carry out some real ‘firsts’ in spaceflight.” Uma preocupação era que as migalhas podiam estragar o equipamento da missão, causando sérios problemas.
But the brief incident sparked a review by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations, in which one member of Congress called it “a $30 million sandwich” and politicians cited safety concerns about crumbs interfering with spacecraft operations. Several senior NASA officials, including then-Administrator James Webb, testified at the proceedings.
Young recalled that review in his 2012 memoir “Forever Young”: “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.”
A frequently cited quote from that meeting comes from George Mueller, then NASA’s associate administrator for manned space flight: “We have taken steps … to prevent recurrence of corned-beef sandwiches in future flights,” he said.
It is important to remember that food at the beginning of space (by today’s standards) was rather bland, with astronauts often needing to suck the nutrition out of a bag. Today, astronauts often make their own sandwiches (and even pizzas) on the International Space Station – but they use tortilla chips to reduce crumbs.
“I did not think it was a big deal,” Young wrote in his memoirs of the sandwich, pointing out that one of the mission’s goals was to test NASA’s food anyway. “It was very common to have sandwiches – in fact, corned beef was the third sandwich that had been transported in a spaceship.”
Corned beef appeared on the menu of the space shuttle’s first mission in April 1981 – which Young went on to command. While the infamous sandwich is available to historians, a similar, preserved in acrylic, is on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana.
Chris Kraft was NASA’s flight director during Gemini 3. In his 2001 memoir, “Flight,” Kraft defended the astronauts’ actions. “No matter how brave or focused an astronaut is, there’s a tension in spaceflight that none of us on the ground can truly appreciate. A moment of diversion up there is no bad thing.” Young added that, in any case, the sandwich was missing some ingredients. “It didn’t even have mustard on it,” he wrote. “And no pickle.”
Although the corned beef sandwich incident didn’t appear to damage Young’s career (he went on to serve in the Apollo Program, landed on the moon during Apollo 16 and later piloted the Shuttle), he was reprimanded. Also, a slew of new regulations were drawn up to prevent unsanctioned food from making it into space ever again.
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