Space Awareness

An Apollo 50th Anniversary Moment

Written by: developer

A Beef with the “Molly Brown:” Gemini 3

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches with the promise of corned beef, we remember an infamous incident when two NASA astronauts shared a corned beef sandwich in their capsule in space.

The astronauts, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and John Young, didn’t eat much of the sandwich, just a few bites, but still, it was the first corned beef sandwich in space. The capsule in which this gastro-historic event occurred? Gemini 3, or “Molly Brown” as christened by Grissom. It was also the first of NASA’s Gemini manned missions.

Launched March 23, 1965, on top of a Titan II Gemini Launch Vehicle, the Molly Brown was the first U.S. capsule to transport two astronauts through space. Grissom and Young piloted the capsule. Orbiting around the Earth a total of three times, they experimented with techniques and technology, including modified food (although the sandwich wasn’t a sanctioned food item). The results would eventually be used for the Lunar-focused Apollo missions. One of the more important experiments during the nearly five hour mission involved the astronauts maneuvering the Molly Brown.

Exactly one hour and thirty-three minutes into the Molly Brown’s flight, Grissom fired the capsule’s thrusters. He did this for a little over a minute, slowing the Molly Brown down and lowering its orbit until the orbit was almost circular. It was the first time any human-piloted spacecraft successfully changed orbit in a controlled way. It also showed the world that NASA astronauts would be able to maneuver and control their spacecraft, even on the way to the Moon in Apollo.

The contraband sandwich appeared during another Molly Brown test. Young was experimenting with new kinds of space food, a critical requirement for astronauts on a Moon mission. He was supposed to squirt water into a tube-shaped plastic bag containing a meal, reconstitute it, and then eat it by squeezing the tube’s contents directly into his mouth. There were different types of “food in a bag,” such as hot dogs, chicken legs, applesauce and brownies. The Gemini astronauts were to evaluate the “taste, convenience and reconstitution properties” of the official food.

One hour and fifty-two minutes into the mission, Young offered Grissom to partake of a corned beef sandwich. The sandwich, acquired at a deli in Cocoa Beach, Fla., just a few hours prior to the mission, had been smuggled on board the Molly Brown by Young. They both had a few bites of the sandwich before Grissom put it in his pocket, fearing that prolonged sandwich exposure would allow its crumbs to float free and possibly short-circuit one of Molly Brown’s many critical systems. All this lasted maybe thirty seconds out of the five hour mission.

This informal experiment had repercussions, becoming the “space sandwich eaten around the world.” After the mission, the incident of those particular astronauts picnicking on that particular corned beef sandwich was enough to start congressional fretting. This eventually prompted NASA to tighten regulations guiding what kind of food an astronaut was allowed to bring along on a mission. The sandwich, and subsequent NASA food regulation, are a few other firsts — however inadvertent — resulting from the Gemini 3 mission. In contrast, and around the same time as the space sandwich tempest, Soviet cosmonauts brought their own sandwiches, but were given a special vacuum cleaner to clean up the crumbs.

This article is part of Space Watch: March 2015 (Volume: 14, Issue: 3).