Where No Sandwich Has Gone Before

The best part about a corned beef sandwich? Everything. They’re wonderful. Out of this world, even.


Well, once, at least.

The American space program was still in its relative infancy in 1965. Only four years earlier, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American (and second person, trailing Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin by about three weeks) in outer space. The U.S. and Soviet Union, as a symbolic part of the Cold War, spent much of the next decade trying to become the first nation to put a man on the moon. One of the next steps in the American program was to get back into outer space and then, while there, make an “orbital maneuver.” Basically, the goal was to demonstrate that the crew of a spaceship could change its orbit intentionally and in a controlled manner. The Gemini-class spacecraft were outfitted with a system to do just that, and Gemini 3 was the first mission in the Gemini program. It launched on March 23, 1965, spending just under five hours in the heavens while making three orbits around the Earth. The mission was a success. Gemini 3 was able to change orbits, the first time that had been done.

But the Gemini 3 mission didn’t go off exactly as planned. Originally, the two-man crew was to consist of Shepard as the Command Pilot and Thomas P. Stafford as the Pilot. Shepard had an inner ear problem, requiring his removal from the mission, and his training partner, Stafford, was reassigned to a backup position. (Stafford would end up piloting Gemini VI in December and command Gemini IX-A the subsequent summer.) In their place, astronaut Gus Grissom took command joined by pilot John Young. Young had a trick up his sleeve — or, more accurately, a snack.

Despite the relatively short mission, food was at issue — not for sustenance, but as an experiment for future, longer voyages. According to Discovery, NASA wanted to see how (or if) astronauts could eat while in a zero-gravity environment, without making a mess, creating pungent odors, or other potentially things which come with eating. NASA provided the pair with hot dogs, chicken legs, applesauce, and brownies, but not in any form which would resemble “food.” Rather, the items were in tubes which likely looked like Go-Gurt (which, yes, is technically food, but it’s a close one). The duo wasn’t likely fond of the “food,” given the official transcription of the air-to-ground communications from the mission, the relevant part excerpted below. And, given the fact that Young has smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board.




The corned beef sandwich (which NASA inexplicably calls “corn beef” — really, NASA?) didn’t handle too well. According to an interview Young gave to the Miami News a week or so after landing, the sandwich didn’t last very long — not only was it “breaking up,” but he “hadn’t counted on the pungent odor of a corned beef sandwich in a closed cabin.” And regardless, it seemed like a better idea than that “chicken leg,” which apparently neither wanted to eat.

NASA wasn’t too pleased by the rogue meal. Young was reprimanded, although the details of his punishment aren’t well reported. Regardless, he ended up having a long career as an astronaut, spanning four decades. He is one of only three people to make two journeys to the moon and is one of twelve humans to ever step foot on its surface.


Bonus fact: The term “corned beef” refers to the “corns” of salt used to preserve the meat. Meat was treated with large chunks of salt (corns) to keep it from spoiling, in a process known as salt-curing. (The salt draws water out of the meat via osmosis, making it more difficult for microorganisms to breed in the meat.) That’s why corned beef tastes salty, and not like corn.

From the ArchivesLunar Art and Space Mail: Two other stories of stuff smuggled into space.

Related: “Mission Pack Space Food Sampler.” Contains “astronaut ice cream.” Does not contain corn beef, whatever that is, nor corned beef, which is good, because freeze-dried corned beef is taking a good idea too far.