The Sandwich That Went Into Space

YOU MAY HAVE seen the painting online — an oil on canvas, rendered in Norman Rockwell’s signature exaggerated realism style. Two astronauts are being helped into their spacesuits by white-clad assistants. The seemingly older of the two men already has his helmet on; the younger of the duo — decidedly handsome even in a painting — adjusts the straps on his suit. Behind the two men, the large panel of an electronic device indicates gauges, dials and numerous wires. The astronauts were John Young and Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, ready to embark on NASA’s Gemini Programme of 1965. 

It was a historical moment: Young and Grissom’s was the first American space flight to carry two astronauts. Naturally, NASA wished to commemorate it as authentically as possible. In the interests of artistic accuracy, the organisation lent Rockwell one of the spacesuits used in the Gemini mission. And Rockwell’s depiction is a compelling one, no doubt. 

However, it lacks one critical detail: a corned-beef sandwich. 

Food on space flights — especially in the early years of space exploration — has always been a subject that requires great thought and planning. Conditions on a spacecraft — lack of space, safety concerns, weight capacity — determine what food can be carried on a mission, in addition to other overarching factors like how the food will behave in zero gravity (fizzy drinks are a strict no-no, as is bread: crumbs getting into delicate machinery or air vents or even the astronauts’ eyes/nose/ears is very much a real concern. Tortillas replace bread in the diets of astronauts. Spices like salt and pepper are diluted in water and oil, respectively, and added to one’s meal with a dropper.). The shelf life of the food, nutritional content and approximation to meals on Earth are critical factors. And then there is the issue of how space impacts taste: astronauts prefer spicy foods as other flavours are too muted to be decipherable.

Over the years, space food has evolved tremendously. Ice cream has long been part of astronauts’ stash on board. In 2015, red romaine lettuce grown in space was served to astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). But in the years before Young and Grissom’s flight, space food was more akin to a science experiment. For instance, in 1961, the first meal ever eaten in space — by Yuri Gagarin — comprised “pureed meat in a squeezable toothpaste-style tube, followed by a tube of chocolate sauce”. In ‘62, John Glenn’s space menu included puréed beef with vegetables; this too had to be squeezed from an aluminum tube. Vacuum packed freeze dried food, and bite-sized gelatin-coated crushed cornflakes + wheat snacks were also part of the meal plan.

Young knew Grissom had grown tired of the food that was served to them during their training for the Gemini mission. On their four-hour flight, they’d take along more of the same: “a freeze-dried entrée, vegetable, drink and dessert, protected with a four-ply, laminated film coating”. The food came in “plastic bags,” Grissom said later, “and we had to insert a water gun into the bag and squirt liquid inside to reconstitute them.” Young wondered if he might not change up the in-flight dining a bit by doing what enterprising travellers have always done — carrying his own food. Or, as he succinctly put it: he “hid a sandwich in [his] spacesuit”. 

Specifically, it was a corned-beef sandwich one of their colleagues had picked up from a restaurant in Cocoa Beach. When Young pulled it out mid-flight, the sandwich’s ill-suitedness for space quickly became apparent: It had a strong smell, and as Grissom took a bite, large crumbs of the rye bread began to scatter everywhere in the craft. Unsure of what to do with the offending deli-cacy, Grissom stuffed it into his pocket until they returned to Earth. 

NASA investigated the Sandwich Scandal but it didn’t have any adverse impact on either astronauts’ legacy. Young would go on to become the ninth person to walk on the Moon when he commanded the Apollo 16 mission in 1972, and enjoyed a storied stint as an American astronaut, flying into space six times in his 42-year career. Grissom — a decorated military veteran and the second American to fly into space twice — died with two other colleagues in the Apollo 1 fire of 1967, just two years after he went on that Gemini mission with the stowaway sandwich. As for the sandwich itself, it earned a place in posterity: a replica is displayed at the memorial museum that bears Grissom’s name, in Indiana.