Vintage Space Fun Fact: the 900-pound Cake

Everybody wanted to be a part of the celebration of John Glenn’s return, including Henri Landwirth. Polish born Landwirth, a holocaust survivor, arrived in Miami Beach in 1954. He began managing the Starlight Motel that was quickly a hit with NASA personnel who worked hard and played harder in Florida. It was through his motel that Landwirth met and struck up a friendship with the Mercury astronauts. When it came time for NASA to launch John Glenn into orbit, Landwirth marked the occasion with a custom made cake the size and shape of a Mercury capsule. (Left, Landwirth with the Friendship 7 cake in January, 1962.)

Baking such a large cake was no small feat. It was made in sections and assembled in a rented truck so it could be easily transported to its destination; to get the giant confection out of the truck – it weighed around 900 pounds – they planned to use a lift. (Right, Landwirth’s staff and the commemorative cake.)

A cake that size also takes time to bake, and since Glenn’s flight only lasted a matter of hours, Landwirth had the cake made before launch day. But he had it baked before Glenn’s original planned launch date – January 16, 1962. The flight was delayed because of a problem with the Atlas’ fuel tanks. The next launch date, January 23, came and went as bad weather settled at the cape.

A mix of bad weather and problems with the Atlas pushed Glenn’s launch back to February 20. All the while, Landwirth had a giant cake in a truck that was starting to spoil.

The hotelier came up with a simple, if taxing, solution to keep the cake fresh. He fitted the truck with air conditioners hooked up to generators, turning it into a fridge on wheels. (Left, the cake at Cape Canaveral after Glenn’s historic flight. February 22, 1962.)

On February 23, three days after Friendship 7 finally launched, Glenn arrived back at Cape Canaveral. Landwirth had brought the cake from his motel to the cape, and, after agreeing to have a dietitian test it to make sure it was only stale and not poisonous, it was served to 2,000 people at a reception.

At one point, Landwith pulled Glenn aside. “How does it taste?” he asked.

“It tastes fine, Henri, why?” Glenn asked. The astronaut later described the look that crossed Landwith’s face at this point in their conversation as a mix between mischief and relief.

Landwith admitted that he’d baked it a month before in preparation for Glenn’s mid-January launch. “You wouldn’t believe what I had to keep it fresh,” he said.

To which Glenn replied, “I didn’t say it tasted fresh.” (Right, cutting the capsule cake.)

Thanks to J.L. at Retro Space Images for sending me these fantastic images.

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