A smuggled corned beef sandwich in space that caused a whole lot of trouble

Magda Origjanska
Featured image

In 1965, in the middle of the Gemini 3 mission, astronaut John Young reached into his space suit and pulled out a surprise–he offered a corned-beef sandwich to his crewmate, Gus Grissom. At the time it didn’t cross his mind that this would be the first corned beef sandwich in space. It certainly seems as if it will be the last.

This wasn’t a matter of two colleagues sharing their lunch break. These two guys were in space, which makes it a serious matter.

Gemini 3 was NASA’s first two-man space mission and among its many objectives and actions, including 10 crewed space flights between 1965 and 1966 that featured America’s first spacewalk, was to test newly invented space food. The evaluation of the food was supposed to help define and classify the type that astronauts could consume on increasingly longer missions. Understandably, the type of food required numerous regulations and it was more than necessary for these rules to be adhered to and respected in for the well being of the astronauts and the stability of the space surroundings. The test foods were mainly canned paste or coated in gelatin to prevent crumbling.

Astronauts Young and Grissom walk up the ramp leading to the elevator that will carry them to the spacecraft for the first manned Gemini mission. They are wearing Gemini G3C intra-vehicular suits.

Of course, the smuggled corned-beef sandwich didn’t have any special coating. Preparing it as a prank for his fellow astronauts, the astronaut Wally Schirra bought the sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich Shop two days prior to the mission, and right before launch he passed it on to Young. Schirra had a reputation for pulling pranks that he called “Gotchas” but didn’t realize that not everyone would end up laughing. There’s no point discussing its flavor, for food loses a certain amount of its flavor in space so. Presumably, the two-day-old sandwich wasn’t particularly tasty.

Food tray used aboard the Space Shuttle. Author: RadioFan. CC BY-SA 3.0.

When Grissom took a bite, he wanted to put it aside but realized that it wasn’t possible, since crumbs started floating around in the surrounding area, obeying the laws of microgravity. The crumbs were a real concern. In the weightless environment of space, they could easily get into the electrical panels or fly into the eyes of the crewmembers. The press kit of NASA made clear that a thin gelatin layer was always added to food in order to avoid such problems. The corned beef sandwich didn’t have such a layer, as Grissom explained in an interview for LIFE magazine: “I took a bite, but crumbs of rye bread started floating all around the cabin.”

The House of Representatives’ appropriations committee, following the Gemini 3 mission, wasn’t happy. Most of the congressmen blamed Gus and Young for smuggling and eating an inappropriate food object, thus ignoring the task of evaluation of the actual space food, one of their main objectives on the mission–an action that supposedly cost the country millions of dollars. In his memoir Forever Young, Young wrote that after the scandal of the sandwich, NASA had to assure Congress that it would implement strict control measures. No other contraband edible products would find their way into space.

According to CollectSpace, Representative George Shipley of Illinois said to NASA administrators and directors that he considered the slipping of the sandwich aboard the vehicle by one of the astronauts as “frankly, a little bit disgusting.”

Wolfie’s restaurant.

In the years that followed, no other unauthorized food items found their way into space. However, corned beef made a legendary comeback on the space menu in April  1981, when it was taken on the first space-shuttle flight in the form of bite-size cubes. The mission was commanded by John Young, who was rather disappointed by the public’s attention to the sandwich rather than the successful Gemini program.

Read another story from us: The sandwich was named after an 18th century earl who didn’t want to take a break from gambling to eat

Today, the corned beef sandwich rests in the Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana, preserved in resin. As for the original Wolfie’s restaurant, where Schirra bought the infamous sandwich, it closed in 2008.