Most of NASA’s Apollo program files are publicly available, in many cases digitized and accessible online. But there’s one picture from the Apollo 12 files that I’ve never been able to find much information about: a picture of a suit technician packing what is unmistakably a sandwich into Pete Conrad’s left leg pocket the morning he, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean launched to the Moon. Last November, I asked Dick Gordon about this scarcely documented space sandwich.
Early space foods weren’t appetizing. Whatever couldn’t be puréed and packed in a tube had to be coated in gelatin, starches, fat emulsions, or hydrogenated oils and compressed into cubes. Other foods were dehydrated and packed, rehydrated by saliva as they were chewed. Such measures are indicative that food was a real concern for NASA in the 1960s. No one knew how swallowing mechanics would work in microgravity or whether an astronaut would be able to keep his food down. The potential for crumbs or stray liquids to float right into the control panel and clog instruments seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. But with its sights set on the Moon, NASA knew it would have to work out the eating issue; lunar astronauts would need to eat.
Gemini 3, the first manned flight of the program, launched on March 23, 1965 with Commander Gus Grissom and Pilot John Young on board. It was a three orbit shakedown cruise designed to demonstrate that the new spacecraft was flightworthy and able to change its orbit. It was also the mission on which NASA ran some of its first dedicated eating studies. With a menu of individually wrapped hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs, and apple sauce, the crew was asked to eat so NASA could gather some data on whether astronauts could work and eat efficiently in space while keeping mess and odor to a minimum.
It was a controlled science experiment, but Young had other ideas. The morning of the flight, Grissom’s fellow Mercury astronaut (and known prankster) Wally Schirra ran out to the astronauts’ favourite deli in Cocoa Beach and picked up a corned beef sandwich on rye. Schirra passed it to Young, who snuck it on board Gemini 3. Two hours into the mission, he presented the unsanctioned meal to Grissom. It remains perhaps the most famous sandwich in spaceflight history.
Unfortunately, the sandwich didn’t cope very well in microgravity. Crumbs went everywhere. Grissom put it away after just one bite.
But the corned beef saga didn’t end there. Neither NASA nor Congress found the episode amusing. Congress blasted NASA for allowing such hijinks to take place and reprimanded the agency for not keeping its astronauts under tighter control. The media sided with Congress; the Washington Post ran a headline about the mission, “Two Astronauts Team up as Comics.”
Tensions were so high leading up to the Moon landing and there was so little room for error that a simple sandwich was viewed act of disrespect. But while the incident didn’t damage either astronaut’s career – Grissom was commander of the first Apollo crew that died in a prelaunch fire and Young walked on the Moon on Apollo 16 and later flew the space shuttle – the incident did prompt NASA to introduce a slew of new regulations to prevent unsanctioned food from stowing away on future missions.
NASA was a little more relaxed by the time Apollo 12 launched on November 14, 1969. At least, as far as food was concerned. Sandwiches were apparently on the list of sanctioned flight items, otherwise it’s unlikely a picture would exist of a suit tech slipping a sandwich into Pete Conrad’s pocket.
But that picture remains the only evidence of the Moon-bound sandwich. Apollo 12’s menu was comprised of more than 70 items – some freeze dried, some wet-packs, and some spoon-bowl foods – including salads, puddings, soups, stews, and eggs. There was also a “sandwich spread” on board, but no explanation of what that was. So I asked Dick Gordon, Apollo 12’s Command Module Pilot.
He confirmed that yes, that is a sandwich going into Conrad’s leg pocket and yes, they did take it to the Moon. In fact, he told me, they had a whole loaf of bread on board and meats to make sandwiches on the way to the Moon. But it didn’t last. In the pure oxygen environment, the bread got so moldy within a two days that it was inedible. Al Bean, sitting at the signing table Next to Gordon, remembered nothing about the loaf of bread on board but admitted it very well might have been. As far as NASA’s official records of the flight go, there is no mention of a loaf of bread or the sandwich.