How A Corned Beef Sandwich Got A NASA Astronaut Into Big Trouble

Real space food isn't the freeze-fried astronaut ice cream of science museum gift shops. In fact, an extraordinary amount of time, planning, and money goes into developing the food astronauts bring to space.

Beyond Earth's atmosphere, astronaut Christina Koch told Women's Health, meals are formatted differently due to the zero-gravity environment. Most lunches and dinners consist of dried and vacuum-sealed meals that astronauts rehydrate and heat in small pouches. Menus have improved over the decades: Koch says her crew was able to eat a variety of vegetables and main dishes ranging from pasta to shrimp to chicken. And recently, astronauts enjoyed tacos with peppers they grew fresh in space, a major first for NASA.

However, there are plenty of common foods that won't fly on long space missions (because they'll literally fly away). Bread, for example, isn't allowed, since it doesn't last long enough and creates crumbs that might interfere with specialized equipment, per Grunge. Salt, pepper, and other granulated spices could also clog up vents and even astronauts' noses, mouths, and lungs, so NASA has created liquid versions for space meals.

Bringing non-approved food into the spacecraft can be a major safety hazard and is strictly banned. But in the 1960s, an astronaut did just that — and got in a bit of trouble.

Why John Young's sandwich was such a big deal

In the 1960s, a hankering for a favorite Earth food landed one NASA astronaut in hot water. Before John Young was set to take off on Gemini 3 in March 1965, fellow astronaut Wally Schirra — an infamous prankster who the Toronto Star called "NASA's funniest astronaut" — handed him a corned beef sandwich he'd bought a few days earlier. Instead of eating it right away, Young zipped it into his spacesuit.

During the flight, Young pulled out the two-day-old sandwich and noted that it was starting to smell — and crumble. "It was a thought...not a very good one," he joked, according to transcripts of the mission logs.

However, Congress did not find the situation funny. Apart from safety hazards, the House Appropriations Committee was concerned that the sandwich was a distraction from Gemini 3's actual scientific objectives, which included testing new dehydrated meal kits that would be necessary for longer planned journeys to the moon, per the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. They thought the astronauts had simply ignored instructions and wasted millions of dollars, according to Atlas Obscura. Even though this wasn't true, Congress gave Young the first reprimand any NASA astronaut had ever received up to that point. But in a delightful twist ending, corned beef was finally added to the official menu on the very first Space Shuttle mission in 1981 – a launch commanded by none other than John Young.