Gemini 3 and The World’s Most Controversial Corned Beef Sandwich

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Podcast Transcript

The quest to conquer space had many problems and many unknowns that had to be overcome. Simple, basic things on Earth can be quite difficult in the zero gravity conditions of outer space. 

In 1965, two American astronauts found this out and learned the hard way why they have special foods for use on spaceflights.

Learn more about Gemini 3 and the world’s most controversial corned beef sandwich on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Not every part of history gets equal attention. This is certainly the case with early space exploration. 

The first space flights get a lot of attention, and the moon landings get a lot of attention, but many of the space flights that occurred in between get much less attention. 

Such is the case with Gemini 3. 

I’m guessing that most of you probably haven’t heard of Gemini 3, or if you did, you might not have known it was Gemini 3 you heard about. 

Gemini 3 was the first manned mission in the Gemini program. These were the intermediary missions between the Mercury and Apollo programs. 

The Gemini capsules were basically larger versions of the Mercury capsules. They were designed for two astronauts instead of one and had technical upgrades. 

Gemini I and II were unmanned missions just designed to test the flight worthiness of the capsule and the rocket.

The first mission with astronauts was to be Gemini 3. 

Gus Grissom and John Young were the two men selected to be on the first Gemini flight. 

Gus Grissom was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. He flew on the second Mercury mission and was the second American in space. He would be killed in the Apollo 1 disaster less than two years later. 

Gemini 3 would be the first spaceflight for John Young.  Young would go on to become one of the most accomplished astronauts in history. He would later fly on Gemini 10, orbit the moon on Apollo 10, land on the moon on Apollo 16, captain the very first space shuttle flight, and command one more space shuttle flight before going on to become the chief of the Astronaut Office for NASA. He was the first person to ever fly to space six times.

The tradition at NASA at this time was to let the commander of the mission name the capsule. During the Mercury program, the capsules were given names like Freedom, Friendship, and Faith. 

For the first Gemini mission, Gus Grissom named his capsule something radically different: the Unsinkable Molly Brown. 

There was a backstory to this choice. 

When Grissom flew for the first time, his capsule was named Liberty Bell 7. 

When it splash landed in the Atlantic Ocean, the explosive bolts on the  door of the capsule blew early, causing the capsule to fill with water and sink. 

A NASA investigation claimed that Grissom blew the bolts on the door early, but Grissom maintained vehemently that he did no such thing and that the bolts on the door blew on their own. 

As an aside, the capsule and door were discovered in 1999.

When the time came for Grissom to name his Gemini 3 capsule, he chose the title of the hit 1960 Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown to make his point. 

NASA officials didn’t particularly like the name decision, so he told them that it was either this or Titanic. 

They let him keep The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and after that, they didn’t name any more capsules in the Gemini program.

Gemini 3 was to be a very short mission. It was really just proving the ability of the capsule to fly. The intended mission plan was only three orbits that would last under five hours. Their primary job would test the capsule’s systems and flight maneuverability during their orbits. 

On March 23, 1965, Gemini 3 was launched into space from Cape Canaveral. 

Everything went according to plan. There were no problems with the launch or with the capsule. 

They had a short break in their schedule about two hours into the flight. It was then that John Young reached into the pocket of his spacesuit and pulled out a sandwich. 

The sandwich was not part of the plan, nor was it approved by the powers that be at NASA. 

As far as we know, it was the first case of space contraband in history. 

To get really specific, it was a corned beef sandwich that was purchased two days earlier by Mercury Astronaut Wally Schirra. He bought it at Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich Shop at the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach, Florida. 

The entire incident only took about 10 seconds, and it was all captured on radio. The exact transcript was as follows:

Grissom: What is it?

Young: Corn beef sandwich.

Grissom: Where did that come from?

Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

Grissom: Yes, it’s breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.

Young: Is it?  It was a thought, anyways.

Grissom: Yep.

Young: Not a very good one.

Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.

Grissom actually took a bite before putting the sandwich back in his pocket.

If you are rolling your eyes at this point wondering why a sandwich in space is worth its own episode, it is because, within seconds, the astronauts realized this was a very bad idea. 

It all had to do with crumbs. 

There was a good reason why the first astronauts all had to eat paste out of tubes. 

Bread, especially rye bread, could easily crumble. These tiny crumbs aren’t that big of a deal on Earth, however, if they are floating around in a space capsule lot of bad things could happen. 

For starters, the astronauts could breathe the crumbs in, and they could get stuck in their lungs or maybe float into someone’s eye. Not a huge problem, but not something you want to deal with while you are in space. 

The real big danger was crumbs getting into the electronics. If a crumb were lodged in the wrong place, it could cause a short circuit. 

Both astronauts realized what the danger was as soon as Young pulled the sandwich out. 

The astronauts were lucky, and nothing happened. No bread-based medical incidents occurred, and there were no crumb-induced short circuits. 

However, when they returned to Earth, they got a good chewing out.  There was a combination of both humor and seriousness in their chewing out.

In his later autobiography, the head of the Astronaut Office, Deke Slayton, later admitted that he was aware of the sandwich.

Despite the whole episode only taking a few seconds, it got some congress members’ attention. In fact, there was a congressional committee to investigate the sandwich. The members of Congress were concerned that if they were eating sandwiches, they weren’t doing their other duties and were wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.

Some grandstanding members of congress called it the $30 million dollar sandwich.

Congressman George Shipley of Illinois told the NASA administrator James Webb, “My thought is that … to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard the vehicle, frankly, is just a little bit disgusting,”

The associate NASA administer for manned spaceflight, George Mueller, responded, “We have taken steps … to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights,”

John Young wrote about the committee hearing in his biography, saying, “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.”

When John Young commanded the first space shuttle mission, on the menu was….corned beef. Albeit not in sandwich form. When astronauts eat something sandwich related in space nowadays, they have to use a tortilla.

The infamous sandwich was lost to history. However, another corned beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant was preserved. It is encased in acrylic and is on display at the Gus Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana.

Wolfie’s Restaurant, the source of the sandwich, closed in 2002. 

In the end, despite the congressional investigation, there were no punishments, and everyone moved on. However, it wasn’t forgotten. Since this incident, no other contraband sandwiches have been taken into space, and for the most part, bread is still verboten in space flight.

The flight director for Gemini 3, Chris Kraft, wrote in 2001, “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.”

According to John Young, however, the reason problem with the sandwich wasn’t the crumbs. He said, “It didn’t even have mustard on it…And (there was) no pickle.”