On March 23, 1965, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration took another step on its journey to reaching President John F. Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade. At 9:24 a.m. a Titan II rocket lifted off from Pad 19 at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young were onboard for a three-orbit mission in the maiden voyage of the Gemini spacecraft, Gemini 3.
The Gemini spacecraft had been nicknamed "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" by Grissom, who wanted to avoid the problems he had experienced during his first flight into space during the Mercury missions onboard the Liberty Bell 7, which had taken on water and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after its hatch had prematurely exploded.
The Gemini 3 mission proved to be a success, but what caused the most headlines after the journey was an item smuggled aboard the spacecraft--a corned beef sandwich. The day before liftoff, Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford, the mission's backup crew, had stopped at Wolfie’s Deli on North Atlantic Avenue in Cocoa Beach. “We were both irked by the fact that Gus and John weren’t going to have real food on their flight, so Wally had a corned beef sandwich [with pickles] made up,” said Stafford. As Grissom and Young finished suiting up for their trip in their immaculate white G3C pressure suits, Young had stowed the corned beef sandwich in the leg pocket of his suit.
As Grissom monitored Molly Brown’s performance during the flight, he was surprised to hear Young nonchalantly inquire: “You care for a corned beef sandwich, skipper?” Grissom, who noted that if he could have fallen out of his couch he would have, thanked his crewmate for the treat and took a bite. Crumbs from the rye bread, however, started floating around the cabin, and the overpowering aroma of kosher corned beef proved too much for the spacecraft’s life-support system to handle, so Grissom put the sandwich away.
Although the mission proved to be a great success, controversy soon developed regarding the corned beef sandwich briefly enjoyed by Grissom. At first, the astronauts had no inkling that the nonregulation food might cause any fuss, as they joked about it while discussing the flight in Life magazine just a week after the mission’s conclusion. Some members of Congress, however, failed to see any humor in the situation, with NASA administrator James Webb being peppered with complaints at an appropriations subcommittee hearing that the space agency “had lost control of its astronauts.”
The complaints eventually made their way to Deke Slayton, the person in charge of the astronaut office who had given Young permission to take the sandwich on the flight. Slayton officially informed the astronauts they could not take “unauthorized items, especially food, aboard the spacecraft. I even had to give poor John a formal reprimand . . . not that it affected his career.”