The Case of the Contraband Corned Beef Sandwich

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Gemini III launches, carrying Grissom, Young and a hidden corned beef sandwich into space (NASA).

The 1960′s were pioneering years for space exploration. Driven by Cold War politics, President John Kennedy put the US space agency on a ‘do or die’ path to put a man on the moon before Soviet Russia. In 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, a moment that will be forever known as the most profound event in human history.

Armstrong’s first step wouldn’t have been possible without years of preparation, and before the Apollo days US astronauts trusted their lives to the Gemini Program. However, as entertainingly chronicled in a paper published in the journal Endeavour, the first manned Gemini mission (Gemini III on March 23, 1965) will forever be known as the flight that carried orbital contraband: a corned beef sandwich.

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Food, Not Fun

To put this in perspective, it is worth remembering that in the early days of the Space Age, food was treated more as a liability than a necessity. It was feared that crumbs could float around, clogging sensitive equipment or get breathed in by astronauts. Odor from smelly snacks could stink-out the cramped space capsule and there were also concerns about food-borne bacteria that could cause stomach upset.

In short, the food that did make it into space was often tasteless, odorless and generally unappealing. Adding insult to injury, to cut down on crumb production, any foodstuffs that couldn’t be puréed in a tube had to be coated in gelatine, starches, fat emulsions or hydrogenated oils and compressed into blocks.

“Contrary to the Flavor Principle, which confirms that people not only respond to taste but also seek distinctions between the texture, appearance and sensations produced by different foods, they came in blocks of uniform size which rehydrated in the mouth as they were chewed. In contemporary photographs they are almost indistinguishable from one another: besides a slight variation in color, the only real indication that they are, in fact, food with a choice of flavors comes from the label.” — An extraterrestrial sandwich: the perils of food in space by Jane Levi.
Space cuisine: the food that was carried by Gemini III (NASA).

Although the competing Soviet space program had similar concerns about food mess, there was more of a focus on cleaning up after eating (i.e. specialized vacuum kit) rather than inventing space-age food. Cosmonauts therefore probably had a better gastronomic experience than their US counterparts as the rules were more relaxed. Apparently Yuri Gagarin carried a homemade salami sandwich on his historic flight in 1961.

A Culinary Crime

During the Gemini flights, food wasn’t really needed (as astronauts only spent a few hours in space), but to see how the human body reacted to consuming food in microgravity was important, especially as longer forays to lunar orbit in the upcoming Apollo Program required food supplies for a few days.

On the March 23 flight, NASA had some food experiments to test on the two-man crew of the Gemini III space capsule, Commander Gus Grissom and Pilot John Young. The prime focus was to see how astronauts could work and eat efficiently while keeping mess and odor to a minimum.

The Gemini III menu contained hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and apple sauce, all contained in squeezy tubes or small packets. Each item was delicately packaged to save on space, improve on safety and convenience. The main point here was that it was to be a controlled scientific experiment.

Alas, John Young had other ideas.

A little under two hours into the mission, just as the two astronauts were discussing the food that had been packed for them, Young produced a corned beef on rye sandwich from his flight suit pocket and presented it to a surprised Commander Grissom.

The following discussion ensued:

The whole episode lasted for 30 seconds, and the corned beef tasting session lasted for only 10 of those seconds. Apparently the sandwich didn’t cope very well in microgravity conditions.

Needless to say, NASA and Congress were not amused.

A Storm in a Sandwich

It transpired that another member of the Gemini Project, Walter Schirra (who had a reputation as being the joker amongst the astronaut team) wasn’t flying on that day and he was able to take a trip to the astronauts’ favorite deli in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to pick up the contraband.

This is where the corned beef sandwich began its extraterrestrial journey; from Schirra’s purchase to Young’s pocket, into space and then back to earth at an Appropriations Committee meeting.

At that meeting, Sen. George E. Shipley blasted NASA: “My thought is that after you spend a great deal of money and time, to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard this vehicle, frankly, is just a little disgusting.”

The media didn’t see the funny side either as the Washington Post published the headline “Two Astronauts Team up as Comics.”

Young and Grissom in a Gemini simulator (NASA).

Although Gemini mission managers defended Young’s digression, NASA Administrator James Webb (ever mindful of the political ramifications for this prank) issued a firm dressing down: “The training programme should have been so impressive to these men that they would not have done a thing like that. I do not agree that you can tolerate this kind of deviation from what is clearly the purpose and requirement for success on these flights.”

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.

In hindsight, it might look as if a mountain was made out of the proverbial molehill, but the response of officials in light of unofficial food in orbit shows how high tensions were in the 1960′s. There was little room for error and any free variables in human spaceflight plans were kept to a minimum. So when an astronaut took it upon himself to pack his own lunch, it became an intolerable act of disrespect rather than being a funny stunt.

But I do wonder, judging by what NASA dinners were on offer in the 1960′s, I think I’d be tempted to pack my own food too (but I wouldn’t announce that I was eating it over the radio).

Source: ScienceDirect