History

A '$30 Million Sandwich' almost derailed the space program

Gemini 3 was the first American space mission to be crewed by more than one astronaut. Gemini 3 performed the first orbital maneuver ever by shifting its orbit mid-flight. This breakthrough performance also showed that a re-entry vehicle could change its touchdown point. What it will be remembered for in the annals of NASA history, however, is a corned-beef sandwich.

For just shy of five hours, the Gemini 3 mission experienced very few setbacks — none of them major. From the takeoff aboard a Titan-II Rocket to the capsule's recovery by the USS Intrepid, the crew would tell you it was a very smooth, well-run mission. The 89th U.S. Congress, however, had a different opinion.


The crew of Gemini 3. Not pictured: pocket sandwich.

(NASA)

Strangely enough, one of Gemini 3's other mission requirements was to test space food in the capsule — specific food, not just whatever food the astronauts wanted to bring. The mission took five hours, but the non-rated food incident lasted less than a minute. The two astronauts were working in the capsule when pilot John Young, who was on his first spaceflight, pulled out a corned-beef sandwich.

"I was concentrating on our spacecraft's performance, when suddenly, John asked me, 'You care for a corned-beef sandwich, skipper?'" Grissom later recounted. "If I could have fallen out of my couch, I would have. Sure enough, he was holding an honest-to-john corned-beef sandwich."

"Where did that come from?" Grissom asked. Corned-beef sandwiches were his favorite. "I brought it with me," Young answered. "Let's see how it tastes. Smells, doesn't it?" The smell of corned beef did indeed fill the spacecraft. The astronaut picked up the sandwich from a local deli called Wolfie's inside the nearby Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach. Wally Schirra gave the sandwich to Young, who stowed it away in a pocket in his spacesuit.

Grissom took a bite, but the sandwich was not holding its integrity in zero gravity. The astronauts opted to put the sandwich away. Young admitted that maybe it wasn't such a great idea to bring the sandwich into low earth orbit. Grissom told him the sandwich was "pretty good, if it would just hold together." With crumbs of rye bread floating around the cabin, the crew continued their mission.

"It didn't even have mustard on it," Young wrote. "And no pickle."

While mission control at NASA and Young's superiors were less-than-thrilled with the smuggled sandwich, the rest of the mission went ahead as planned and though the two were given slaps on the wrists and told, in no uncertain terms, that non-man-rated corned-beef sandwiches were out for future space missions, nothing more was really thought of it.

Until Congress stepped in.

Vietnam, civil rights, and corned beef.

It was the height of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Gemini 3 was supposed to be the first orbital mission ever to have more than one astronaut, but the Soviets had beaten NASA to the punch by a week — when it launched the Voskhod 2 mission. Regardless, the United States was behind in the race and the costly program was under close scrutiny.

The House Appropriations Committee began a full review of the incident, concerned that those rye crumbs were a serious threat to the safe operation of the spacecraft. It's true that the greasy crumbs could have played havoc on the craft's electronics and computer systems. The sandwich was nicknamed the "$30-million sandwich."

A replica of the $30 million sandwich.

(Grissom Memorial Museum)

Congress thought the astronauts were ignoring the space food they were sent to evaluate and were wasting taxpayer money. John Young later wrote that he didn't think it was that big of a deal and that it was common to carry sandwiches aboard. The offending corned-beef sandwich wasn't even the first smuggled sandwich — it was the third. These days, astronauts make sandwiches in space all the time, they just use ingredients that keep the crumbs to a minimum.

What they were supposed to be eating.

(NASA)

Young commanded the first space shuttle mission in 1981. And carried aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia was a menu that included corned beef. The smuggled sandwich itself is lost to history, but a good likeness of the original can be found preserved in acrylic at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana.