Houston Matters

Smuggling A Sandwich Into Space: Remembering One Of Astronaut John Young’s Lesser Accomplishments

We remember late astronaut John Young’s many distinguished accomplishments — and also one less distinguished: the time he smuggled a corned-beef sandwich on board the Gemini spacecraft.

Astronaut John Young
Former NASA astronaut John Young.

Astronaut John Young died Friday. He was the first person to fly six missions in space and the only one to pilot and command four different spacecraft.

Young was the first to fly solo around the moon and one of only three people to travel to the moon twice. And after his distinguished career as an astronaut, Young remained with NASA in multiple roles, including leading its astronaut office for 13 years.

Former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement Saturday that Young was a “fearless patriot whose courage and commitment to duty helped our nation push back at the horizon of discovery.”

No doubt, Young leaves what Bush calls “a tremendous legacy of accomplishment.” But there is one moment in that long and impressive career that stood out.

On March 23, 1965, Young and fellow astronaut Gus Grissom launched into space on the Gemini 3 mission. This was NASA’s first two-man space mission, and, as part of the process of learning how to get to the moon and back, the space agency wanted to evaluate, among many, many other things, the kinds of food astronauts could consume in zero gravity. And while the official items they were testing were shrink-wrapped with gelatin added to them to keep crumbs from flying around, that wasn’t the case for the, well, contraband Young had smuggled aboard: a corned beef sandwich from Wolfie’s, a famous deli in Florida.

John Young - Apollo 16 Salute
Apollo 16 astronaut John Young jumps off of the lunar surface to salute the U.S. flag in 1972.

According to the on-board mission transcript, the two astronauts took a couple of bites, but the sandwich was breaking up. So, Grissom stuck it in his pocket. Young said, ‘it was a thought, anyway…not a very good one.”

The moment was parodied years later in a Simpsons episode, which saw Homer snacking on potato chips while in orbit with Buzz Aldrin.

John Young wrote in his 2012 memoir that ‘a couple of Congressmen became upset’ about the corned beef sandwich. In fact, the House Appropriations Committee held a meeting to investigate “deli-gate” (which is what they surely would have called it had this occurred after Watergate).

As for the sandwich itself, it was saved and put on display years later in an Indiana museum.

And that’s the story of how John Young became the first man to smuggle a corned beef sandwich into space. Young, who accomplished so much more than that, died Friday here in Houston. He was 87.

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