March 23, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of Gemini 3, NASA’s first-ever two-man space mission. That was the mission where Pilot John Young brought aboard a corned beef sandwich that has since ignited a scandal in Congress.

corned beef closeup

Discovery reports that fellow astronaut Wally Schirra (who wasn’t part of the Gemini 3 mission) was a notorious practical joker. Two days before Gemini 3 was set to launch, Schirra had purchased a corned beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich Shop at the Ramada Inn at Cocoa Beach. On the morning of the launch, he gave it to Young to tuck into his pocket and take into space as a joke.

It’s important to note here that all of NASA’s Gemini missions were intended to evaluate various details of sending astronauts into space—including the beginnings of NASA’s specially designed space food.

Mission commander Gus Grissom took a bite of the sandwich that Young offered, then said, “It’s breaking up. I am going to stick it in my pocket.”

Young’s response was, “It was a thought, anyway…not a very good one. Pretty good though, if it would just hold together.” The crumbs were getting everywhere, something NASA had tried to prevent with the food it sent along on Gemini 3 by using a gelatin coating.


Photo: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski

In an interview with LIFE magazine shortly after the mission, Grissom said, “I took a bite, but crumbs of rye bread started floating all around the cabin.”

According to Discovery, Young wrote the following about the incident in his 2012 memoir, Forever Young:

A couple of congressmen became upset, thinking that, by smuggling in the sandwich and eating part of it, Gus and I had ignored the actual space food that we were up there to evaluate, costing the country millions of dollars.

It even led to a House of Representatives appropriations committee investigation. Representative George Shipley of Illinois said, “My thought is that…to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard the vehicle, frankly, is just a little bit disgusting.[/pullquote]

George Mueller, associate administrator for manned spaceflight, solemnly responded:

We have taken steps…to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”

Would the corned beef sandwich have fared better if it was tucked inside some nice flour tortillas instead of crumbly rye bread? Most probably, according to this comic titled “Why Do Astronauts Eat Tortillas Instead of Bread” by Juan Cisneros.


Comic: Juan Cisneros

Although, it should be noted that Gemini 3 took place years before Taco Bell was called upon to develop extreme NASA-worthy tortillas. As for corned beef itself, it was eventually made part of the menu for the first space shuttle flight in April 1981—a flight which John Young commanded.

[via Discovery]