While John Young, who died on Jan. 5 at age 87, is famous for his Apollo 16 moonwalks and his role as commander of the first space shuttle mission, the NASA astronaut is also remembered for a small scandal he triggered with a sneaky act: smuggling a corned-beef sandwich into space.
Young slipped the sandwich into his pocket just before launching on Gemini 3 on March 23, 1965. It was the first U.S. mission to carry two astronauts — Young and his crewmate, Gus Grissom. But the Soviets had launched their own two-person mission, Voskhod 2, less than a week earlier, so tensions were already high among politicians when Gemini 3 safely made it to space and efficiently completed its objectives.
The corned-beef sandwich sparked a brief conversation between Young and Grissom, according to the Gemini 3 transcript. The chat lasted for only about a minute of the nearly 6-hour mission.[John Young in Photos: Astronaut, Moonwalker, Shuttle Pioneer]
"What is it?" Grissom asked. "Corned-beef sandwich," Young replied. "Where did that come from?" Grissom asked. Answered Young: "I brought it with me. Let's see how it tastes. Smells, doesn't it?"
Grissom tasted the sandwich but quickly announced he would stick it back in his pocket because it was starting to break up. Young suggested the sandwich was "a thought … not a very good one." Replied Grissom: "Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together."
Shortly after returning home from the mission, Grissom later recounted the taste test for Life magazine. "I took a bite, but crumbs of rye bread started floating all around the cabin," he said, adding that he and Young enjoyed "the chance to carry out some real 'firsts' in spaceflight." [Space Food Evolution: How Astronaut Chow Has Changed (Photos)]
But the brief incident sparked a review by the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations, in which one member of Congress called it "a $30 million sandwich" and politicians cited safety concerns about crumbs interfering with spacecraft operations. Several senior NASA officials, including then-Administrator James Webb, testified at the proceedings.
Young recalled that review in his 2012 memoir "Forever Young": "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."
A frequently cited quote from that meeting comes from George Mueller, then NASA's associate administrator for manned space flight: "We have taken steps … to prevent recurrence of corned-beef sandwiches in future flights," he said.
Corned beef flies officially in 1981
The offending sandwich came from a Cocoa Beach, Florida, deli called Wolfie's Restaurant and Sandwich Shop, at the Ramada Inn. (The chain closed in 2002, according to Space.com partner site collectSPACE.) Noted astronaut prankster Wally Schirra bought the sandwich and gave it to Young, who smuggled it on board in a spacesuit pocket.
For context, early space food (by today's standards) was pretty bland, with astronauts often needing to suck nutrition out of a pouch. Today, astronauts commonly make their own sandwiches (and even pizzas) on the International Space Station — but they use tortilla bread to reduce crumbs.
"I didn't think it was any big deal," Young wrote in his memoirs of the sandwich, pointing out that one of the mission objectives had been to test NASA food anyway. "It was very common to carry sandwiches — in fact, the corned beef was the third sandwich that had been carried on a spacecraft."
Corned beef did appear on the menu of the first space shuttle mission in April 1981 -- which Young happened to command.
While the infamous sandwich is no longer available to historians, a similar one, preserved in acrylic, is on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana.
Chris Kraft was NASA's flight director during Gemini 3. In his 2001 memoir, "Flight," Kraft defended the astronauts' actions. "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."
Young added that, in any case, the sandwich was missing some ingredients. "It didn't even have mustard on it," he wrote. "And no pickle."