The Corned Beef Sandwich that Launched a Congressional Investigation

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The corned beef sandwich, preserved in resin at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana, memorializes the first corned beef sandwich in space, snuck on board by Gemini astronaut, John Young.

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“Try Our Corned Beef.  It  is out of this world,” proclaimed the sign in front of the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach, Florida in 1965.     And, indeed, their corned beef was.     Nestled inside the Ramada Inn, was Wolfie’s Sandwich shop, near the NASA Cape Canaveral Pad 19 launched the Gemini space missions in the mid 1960s.   It was partially owned by six of the Gemini astronauts.   The little shop became a hangout for these larger than life men who pioneered our space program before and after their legendary missions.

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The men of the Gemini space missions.

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To come up with the freeze dried space food now used on missions , and long before Dippin Dots became an ubiquitous fair food, a great deal of experimentation was required.      Concern on space missions was that weightlessness would carry crumbs and other by products of food into the control panels and foul the electronics, risking the safety of the missions.    Part of the Gemini missions were to test various types of foods that would be safe in anti-gravity.

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Carl was manager of the Ramada Inn and its sandwich shop.    He and Wally Shirra were talking in Wolfie’s one afternoon about the horrible food they had to eat on their missions – emulsified, reconstituted food in packages.    Carl said if he had known how bad the food was, he would have catered the missions for them from Wolfies.    The discussion ended in them agreeing to sneak on a corned beef sandwich on the next mission piloted by Gus Grissom and John Young.     The two took thick slices of corned beef, wrapped them in cellophane and dropped them from high ladders to see if they would stand the forces of takeoff.   What they didn’t plan for was the affect of weightlessness on the dark rye bread.

Shirra, known as a prankster, bought a Wolfie’s corned beef sandwich and helped Young sneak it in his space suit.    As they leveled off in space, Young pulled out the sandwich and asked Grissom what he wanted on his corned beef.   After one bite, the sandwich disintegrated, and rye crumbs and caraway seeds were floating everywhere.   History would probably never have known of the incident if photos of the crumb-laden control panel hadn’t made it to mission control back home.

The photos of this deli delivery in space fascinated Americans, and caught the eye of Congress.    Several congressmen became upset, thinking that the astronauts were ignoring the space food that they were supposed to evaluate on mission, costing the country millions of dollars.   The House of Representatives appropriations committee convened a meeting to investigate the corned beef scandal.   What came of the investigation was the prevention of any unauthorized deli meats into orbit on future mission.

Corned beef did make it on the menu in time for the first space shuttle flight in April of 1981, a mission commanded by John Young, the original sandwich smuggler.

In his 2012 memoirs, Young said of the scandal, that the corned beef sandwich got more attention than it deserved.    Besides, he noted, the smuggled sandwich didn’t even have mustard or pickle on it!

 

 

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