Just over 50 years ago, NASA launched two men into space in the same craft, a first for the U.S. And the mission would become one of the most infamous in spaceflight history. It turned out, in fact, that one of the astronauts had brought more than his wealth of experience aboard the flight.
John Young was born in September 1930 in San Francisco. He subsequently attended the Georgia Institute of Technology to study Aeronautical Engineering, graduating in 1952 with the highest honors. Young then joined the U.S. Navy, going on to become a helicopter pilot.
Following the completion of his training, Young spent three years at Maryland’s Naval Air Test Center, where his duties included assessing the weapons systems of new aircraft. He subsequently achieved a couple of world speed records in 1962 in the new Phantom II fighter and joined NASA that same year.
Three years later, Young was one of the two astronauts on board the Gemini 3 mission. He went on to become the longest-serving NASA astronaut in the history of the agency. By the time he retired, Young had been in space for more than 800 hours. In addition, he was the only person to be launched into space in three separate NASA programs. He participated in six space missions overall and was the ninth person to walk on the moon, a feat that only three people have repeated since Young achieved it in 1972.
But Young’s career as an astronaut was almost destroyed when he decided to take some contraband aboard a space flight. It was an incident that amused and appalled people in equal measure. A couple of hours after lift-off in the aforementioned Gemini 3 mission, Young produced a corned beef sandwich. It had been supplied to him by his astronaut friend Wally Schirra, who was not present on the flight.
Schirra had picked up the sandwich two days beforehand from Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich shop in Florida’s Cocoa Beach. He passed it to Young on the day of the flight, who then concealed it inside his space suit.
Young, 34, subsequently boarded the spacecraft for the five-hour mission in Cape Kennedy, now known as Cape Canaveral. “Where did that come from?” co-astronaut Gus Grissom asked Young when he revealed the food during the flight. “I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?” Young responded.
However, the incident could have had ended in disaster. In space, food generally took the form of cubes or liquids, in order to avoid particles becoming lodged in the surrounding equipment. And the sandwich soon began to disintegrate once it had been opened. Young would later receive a few stern words of warning for his actions as a result.
Matters weren’t helped by the fact that a Russian two-person mission had been launched just a few days previously. As a result, the anxiety levels of U.S. politicians were already at boiling point as the Gemini 3 lift-off occurred.
“My thought is that … to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard the vehicle, frankly, is just a little bit disgusting,” Representative George Shipley of Illinois subsequently informed NASA. “We have taken steps… to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights,” replied George Mueller, a senior NASA official.
The incident was later parodied in the “Deep Space Homer” episode of The Simpsons, where the character smuggles some crinkle cut crisps aboard a space flight. After the packet explodes, Homer proceeds to eat them one by one in zero-gravity conditions, to the rhythm of “The Blue Danube” waltz.
In fact, the corned beef sandwich escapade even led to a review by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations. In the report, one Congress member branded it “a $30 million sandwich,” due to trouble that it had caused. Other politicians highlighted the potential safety risks of such actions. A number of high-ranking NASA officials testified at the proceedings, among them James Webb, the agency’s administrator at the time.
Young later mentioned this review in his 2012 memoir, Forever Young. He wrote, “Today the theater that took place inside the meeting room that day strikes me as totally comic, but I can assure you that those testifying for NASA at the time were not smiling.”
Somehow, though, the astronauts managed to fly again. Indeed, the incident didn’t prevent Young from going on to be among the most celebrated astronauts in NASA history. Highlights of his later career included walking on the moon, as well as taking part in the Apollo 10 and Gemini 10 projects.
Young even went on to participate in the first Space Shuttle mission at the beginning of the 1980s. And ironically, this was to be the first space flight in which NASA officially permitted corned beef to be taken onboard. Tragically, though, Gus Grissom’s next mission was Apollo 1, in which a standard test flight saw the capsule catch fire, leading to the deaths of all the crew.
So, following the infamous 1965 sandwich incident, Young continued with his career in spaceflight. He served as the commander of Gemini 10 in 1966 and was also one of the crew members for Apollo 7 in October 1968. The next year, he went to the Moon on Apollo 10. And on its return voyage, Apollo 10 set a new speed record for a manned vehicle of almost 40,000 km per hour.
Young was the reserve commander for Apollo 13, the mission during which the Moon landing was aborted because of an explosion. He was then the commander of Apollo 16 in 1972, during which he took three moonwalks. Young’s final posting during the Apollo program came as the backup commander on Apollo 17.
He was later made Chief of the Space Shuttle Branch of the Astronaut Office and then Chief of the Astronaut Office. And Young continued to fly missions during the Space Shuttle era. In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster at the beginning of 1986, though, he publicly criticized NASA. The spacecraft had broken apart just over a minute after take-off, killing all seven crew members.
In total, Young was with NASA for more than four decades. He was 74 when he finally retired on New Year’s Eve in 2004. Nonetheless, for a number of years he still carried on attending the Johnson Space Center Astronaut Office’s Monday Morning Meeting.
Young’s home life was fairly typical, at least in comparison with his extraordinary career. He married twice, with the first marriage yielding two children. After a divorce, he settled down in El Lago, Texas, with his second wife. Young died on January 5, 2018, at his home at the age of 87. And it’s fair to say that in his final moments, Young would have been able to look back on a life well lived – and one that will not be forgotten.