John Young was the pilot aboard the pioneering spaceflight Gemini 3 and was also, likely, the first person to smuggle an object into space - a corned beef sandwich.
Gus Grissom and Young launched into orbit aboard a Titan 2 rocket, housed within their orbiter, the Molly Brown. Young pulled out the contraband roughly two hours after launch, and started eating the sandwich, much to the surprise of Command Pilot Grissom.
Wally Schirra, a fellow astronaut at NASA known for his practical jokes, originally purchased the sandwich, and provided it to Young on the morning of the launch.
Eating the smuggled sandwich turned out to be more difficult than Young had planned. When the astronaut bit into the food, crumbs broke off, and floated away in the microgravity environment. These tiny particles were of a concern, due to the possibility of the crumbs ruining electronics or getting into the eyes of astronauts.
"It's breaking up. I am going to stick it in my pocket. It was a thought, anyway... not a very good one," Young said.
The Gemini program was designed to test technology and practices that would be used on the later Apollo mission. This included testing different foods, but the products supplied by the space agency were coated with gelatin to prevent crumbs from floating away. Gemini 3 was the first crewed spacecraft to test maneuvering thrusters in space.
The sandwich was purchased at Wolfie's Restaurant and Sandwich Shop at the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach, Fla., two days before the start of the mission.
"I must admit that as test pilots John and I were not quite as fascinated by sea urchins and sandwiches as we were the chance to carry out some real 'firsts' in space flight," Grissom told Life Magazine following the crew's return to Earth.
After the story of the smuggled sandwich first became known 50 years ago, a few members of Congress expressed ire that Young had wasted millions of taxpayer dollars by ignoring the space food being tested during the flight.
During the Mercury Program, the Liberty Bell 7 space capsule sunk, but pilot Grissom was rescued. At the time, NASA allowed astronauts to name their spacecraft, and he named the Gemini 3 vehicle The Unsinkable Molly Brown, after a passenger who did not go down with the Titanic. NASA, apparently, was not amused since after that astronauts were no longer allowed to name their capsules, a museum in Grissom's hometown notes.
In 1981, Young commanded the first flight of the Space Shuttle. Perhaps as a joke from NASA officials to the veteran space traveler, the space agency included corned beef on the official menu of STS-1. This sandwich was treated to avoid the formation of potentially-hazardous crumbs. Today, most sandwiches eaten by astronauts are in the form of wraps, reducing the quantity of crumbs produced.
A duplicate of Young's corned beef sandwich, encased in acyrlic, is on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Ind.