A simple corn beef sandwich, reportedly containing no mustard or pickles, played a unique role in the US Space Program, resulting in a high-level investigation by the US House of Representatives and NASA.
On impulse, astronaut John Young decided to take a corn beef sandwich into space with him on the Gemini 3 mission of 23 March 1965. This was the first US spaceflight to carry two astronauts – his other half on the flight was Gus Grissom.
With the mission well under way, Young informed Grissom that he had bought the sandwich with him and that they should try to eat it as an experiment. Grissom took a bite – with unexpected results. As the sandwich began to break up, the resultant crumbs, instead of falling into his lap and onto the floor, as would be expected on the ground, began to float around the cabin, dispersing unpredictably all around the interior. Grissom returned it to his pocket.
After returning to Earth safely, Young and Grissom learned that NASA and several US Congressmen were far from amused with the experiment. They were greatly concerned that the breadcrumbs could have lodged in vital control areas and thereby endangered the entire mission. One Congressman later referred to the experiment as “a $30 million sandwich”.
An investigative meeting was held with the astronauts testifying before senior NASA officials. George Mueller, NASA’s associate administrator for manned space flight, later reported: “We have taken steps … to prevent recurrence of corned-beef sandwiches in future flights,” he said.
Young later recalled in his memoirs: “I didn’t think it was any big deal”, and in any case one of the mission objectives had been to test food in space.
Interestingly, in more modern times, astronauts often made their own sandwiches aboard the International Space Station but tortilla bread was used to overcome the problem of floating crumbs.
Image: The Gemini 3 Crew – Gus Grissom (L) and John Young – NASA photograph taken on 26 February 1965, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.