Sandwiches in Space

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

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.

Food packs for Gemini 3. Credit: NASA

Food packs for Gemini 3. Credit: NASA

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.

Grissom and Young, the crew of Gemini 3. Credit: NASA

Grissom and Young, the crew of Gemini 3. Credit: NASA

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.

Yes, I'm sitting on Dick Gordon's lap.

Yes, I’m sitting on Dick Gordon’s lap.

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.

Comments

  1. Jasper says

    Stories like these are why I like your site so much. Those small details on the side that actually make that whole space exploration story have its tiny shiny brilliants. The things that make all those stories come to life. And you are doing a great job telling them.
    Do you know how they deal with (loafs of) bread nowadays aboard the ISS? The oxygen conditions are definitely more earth like, I suppose.

  2. Scott says

    My understanding is that foods that give off crumbs are a big no-no–particles floating around could cause all manner of problems for equipment and crew. This would be all the more important on long-duration missions, as the amount of food debris that could accumulate over time could be quite significant (and gross).

  3. Forrest S.W. says

    Hadn’t thought of the oxygen level and mold rate connection but it does sound logical.

  4. Mark R. says

    Amy, admit that you concocted this story as an excuse to post the Dick Gordon lap dance photo. The shame!

  5. Steve says

    The way I’ve understood this is those sandwiches were for an emergency. If there was a problem right after TLI and they had to do an abort they might not have a chance to leave there couches and make a normal meal. This way they could just grab a sandwich or two and keep their energy up during what could be up to a 12 hour abort.

  6. Scott says

    Before the fire, the atmosphere in the CM was 100% oxygen at 15 (ish) psi. After the fire, the atmosphere on the ground was changed to closer to atmospheric mix (mostly nitrogen, some oxygen). In flight, the atmosphere was pure oxygen at lower pressure ( think 5 psi). This is the same concentration of oxygen we breathe, but without the other gasses mixed in. It’s much less dangerous than the higher pressure, even though it’s pure oxygen.

  7. says

    LOL My Father actually made that famous unsanctioned Corned Beef Sandwich! It was one of his favorite stories to tell when I was growing up. (My father died in 2009) I forget whether he was working at Lums or Woofies on Coco beach at the time though.

  8. Mark R. says

    A Vlad Pincoffin: That’s a nice connection to a famous bit of spaceflight history. I’ve always read that it was Wolfies’s in Coco Beach.

    • says

      yeah that was it :) Wolfies was actually the restaurant at the Howard Johnson’s Beachside. I had always kinda half-thought my dad was just stretching things a bit till I did some research on it. It was really funny to see this story about it.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply