Corned Beef on Rye

If you are ever passing through Mitchell, Indiana, try and take a few minutes out to visit the Virgil I. Grissom Memorial Museum. Here, near the Gemini capsule, close to the spacesuit, helmet and heroic looking pictures is a bizarre exhibit. Encased in plexiglass is a corned beef on rye sandwich. The adjacent text states that it ‘memorializes the infamous’ first American sandwich in space.

‘Gus’ Grissom was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and he had something of an unlucky career. He was the second American in space but didn’t achieve the fame of either Alan Shepard (first American in space) or John Glenn (first American in orbit). Grissom’s brief sub-orbital flight tends to get forgotten, except for the fact his capsule sank and he nearly drowned after splashdown.

As he was bobbing around in the sea off the Florida coast, the escape hatch blew before the recovery helicopter arrived. The capsule started filling with water and Grissom pulled himself out and into the sea. It was a classic case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. The crew of the recovery helicopter assumed Grissom was fine, his spacesuit was designed to be buoyant, allowing him to float in the sea. So the helicopter concentrated on trying to lift up the increasingly heavy, water-filled, capsule. When they eventually gave up and let it sink to the bottom of the Atlantic (it was recovered in 1999), Gus Grissom was in serious difficulties. A valve on his spacesuit, which should have been watertight, was not working properly. His suit was gradually filling up with water and he was being dragged under. By the time he was winched into the chopper he had started to panic, insisting on putting on a life jacket even though he was now safe above the waves.

Grissom’s second flight was Gemini III. This was the first manned Gemini flight and America’s first two man mission. As an experienced astronaut (15 minutes flight time) Grissom was commander; his co-pilot was a rookie called John Young. It was a short flight, just three orbits, with the main objectives being testing out the systems on the new spacecraft and carrying out the first orbital manoeuvres on a manned mission. They had also been supplied with some different space foods developed by NASA at great expense. These included chicken legs, apple sauce, hot dogs and brownies; and there was water and orange juice to drink. Everything was carefully contained either in plastic packages or tubes, and the astronauts had been instructed keep everything closed as much as possible to avoid any liquid or crumbs leaking into the spacecraft cabin.

Grissom and Young just before launch – Credit NASA

As with any group of workers, there were plenty of disagreements, rivalries and conflicts between the astronauts, but they all seemed to agree on one thing; space food was awful. This may have been why Walter Schirra, back up commander and known practical joker, decided to visit Wolfie’s Restaurant in Cocoa Beach the evening before the flight. Wolfie’s was a favourite deli for many of the astronauts and Walter’s choice of sandwich that evening was corned beef on rye. Part of the back up crew’s job was to help the astronauts into their spacesuits. It was at this point that Walter Schirra passed the sandwich to John Young who slipped it into a pocket on his suit.

Just under two hours into the flight, when the two men were sampling the food and drink, John Young produced the sandwich from his pocket. The conversation was brief:

Gus Grissom – What is it?

John Young – Corn beef sandwich.

Gus Grissom – Where did that come from?

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

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

John Young – Is it? It was a thought, anyway.

Gus Grissom – Yep.

John Young – Not a very good one.

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

John Young – Want some chicken leg?

Gus Grissom – No, you can handle that.

The whole incident, from John Young producing the sandwich to Gus Grissom declining the offer of NASA approved chicken leg, lasted less than 50 seconds. The repercussions lasted much longer.

Some newspapers picked up on the incident and took a disapproving tone. The Washington Post’s headline was ‘Two Astronauts Team up as Comics.’ Gemini 3 took place only a week after Leonov’s Voskhod 2 spacewalk and there was still a lot of wounded pride in America about Russia scoring another space first. The criticism centred on the idea that if the astronauts took their work a little more seriously America would not still be trailing in the space race.

In reality, Gemini 3’s main task of changing orbit several times during the mission was at least as significant, if not as spectacular, as the spacewalk. At the time most of the world believed that the Soviets had made this type of manoeuvre when Vostoks 5 and 6 came within 3 miles of each other in orbit; but in reality this was down to some impressively accurate launching.

The criticism in the papers was less concerning to NASA than the mauling they got in Congress about the sandwich. Senator George Shipley led the assault, branding the sandwich consumption as ‘just a little disgusting’. He was appalled by the idea of crumbs floating around the inside of the Gemini capsule, which should be ‘almost like a surgeon’s operating room’.

Bob Gilruth, Director of the Mannned Spacecraft Centre, tried to point out that the astronauts sometimes needed little things to ‘break up the strain’ of a dangerous mission.  Senator Shipley, a man who spent his working day in an office, rather than on top of fully fuelled rocket, or travelling at 18,000 mph through the vacuum of space, was unimpressed. The top man at NASA, Administrator James Webb, had to apologise and promise that they would be no more unauthorised food consumed.

John Young got a formal reprimand; although this did not seem to have any great impact on his later career, as he walked on the moon and piloted the first space shuttle flight. However, for the remainder of the Gemini flights and all of the Apollo missions (with one exception during Apollo 8) the crews had to survive on the sterile, bland, tasteless rations provided by NASA’s food technologists.

Gus Grissom never flew in space again. Soon after Gemini 3 he was assigned to command the first manned Apollo mission.  Deke Slayton, the man responsible for astronaut selection, was keen for one of the original Mercury Seven to take the first steps on the moon. Gus Grissom’s name was pencilled in. Then in January 1967, during a pre-launch test, the Apollo 1 capsule caught fire. Grissom and his two crewmates died. Gus’s luck really had run out this time.

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