On March 23, 1965, astronaut John Young was only a couple of days away from launching into space on the United States' Gemini 3 mission to study long-duration space missions, rendezvous and docking, and spacewalking with his commanding pilot, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom.

They would also spend the mission testing the space foods developed for them using millions of dollars of taxpayer funds.

But Young had his own mission.

This day, two days before launch, he was out to break rules by buying something to bring on the mission that apparently could have proved dangerous, even deadly. He bought the goods from Wolfie's in the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Two days later, he smuggled it onboard the capsule, not revealing it until it was just he and Grissom floating high above.

One hour and 52 minutes into the flight, the flight transcripts record Grissom asking, "What is it?" because Young had just taken his risky surprise out of the pocket where he stashed it.

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Corned Beef Sandwich on Rye. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Corned Beef Sandwich on Rye. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

"Corned beef sandwich," Young said.

"Where did that come from?" Grissom asked.

"I brought it with me," Young said. "Let's see how it tastes. Smells, doesn't it?"

Grissom took a bite before the trouble started.

"Yes," he said. "It's breaking up. I'm going to stick it in my pocket."

"Is it?" Young said. "It was a thought, anyways."

"Yep," Grissom said.

"Not a very good one," Young admits.

"Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together," Grissom said.

"Want some chicken leg?" Young said.

"No, you can handle that," Grissom said, before they returned to the mission.

When they returned to the ground they returned to intense scrutiny. The corned beef sandwich on rye that Young had brought on the flight was not the type of allowed food on space flights. As the pair quickly discovered, the dry, crumbly nature of the sandwich purchased from a Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House branch at the Ramada Inn made it ill suited to space flight.

Immediately upon biting into it, Grissom found that crumbs, bits of caraway and various other morsels were set free to drift inside the capsule where they could have clogged important filters, gotten in the pilots' eyes or generally made the mission more dangerous than it seemed.

The controversy sparked a review, though surprisingly not all of the focus was on the risks involved with the crumbly sandwich, but with the thought that the astronauts might be ignoring or wasting the expensive space rations provided to them by instead eating food they brought up with them.

But who could judge them if they were? Most of the approved foods were liquids in tubes, though some were cubed solids coated in gelatin. One member of the House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations called it the "$30 million sandwich."

It was notably also the first corned beef sandwich eaten in space, though in 1981, Young commanded a flight where a NASA approved corned beef sandwich was finally on the menu, likely on a tortilla bread.

Young later said he didn't understand why it was such a big deal, stating it was the third sandwich ever brought on a mission because astronauts brought food with them fairly regularly. He even later joked in his memoirs, "It didn't even have mustard on it, and no pickle."

The Wolfie's corned beef sandwich was the cornerstone of the establishment, which served foods in the style of a Jewish delicatessen. It was a stacked sandwich, meaning very tall and loaded with fold after fold of corned beef and a healthy mound of lettuce on a white rye.

Young said there was no mustard or pickle, but otherwise photos on Wikipedia and menus found online do not seem to give much detail about what might have been on this sandwich.

Kosher Corned Beef

Raw brisket beef cut. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Raw brisket beef cut. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Recipe from epicurious.com

  • 4- to 5-pound brisket
  • 1 medium clove garlic per pound of meat, minced
  • 1.5-2 cups kosher salt
  • 1 cup real brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup mixed pickling spices
  • 1 bay leave per each 2 pounds of meat
  • 1.5-2 quarts water
  • 2-3 tablespoons saltpeter
  • 12 ounces traditional beer

Wash and dry the brisket, then trim off some of the fat, but leave some. Combine equal parts garlic and salt and rub all over the brisket.

Homemade corned beef sliced on a cutting board.  Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Homemade corned beef sliced on a cutting board. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

In a bowl, combine the water, remaining salt, brown sugar and pickling spices. Stir to dissolve completely before adding the beer. Use a paring knife or fork to pierce the brisket all over and rub again with the salt and garlic mixture before placing it into a strong storage bag followed by the liquids. Eliminate as much air as possible and seal.

Place the bag on a tray with high sides in case of leaks and refrigerate for 6-8 days, turning 1-2 times per day. Remove it from the bag at the end of the time and rinse it thoroughly under cold water. Steam for three hours or until tender. You may add additional pickling spices to the steaming water for added flavor. Trim fat to your preference and slice as thin as 1/8-inch thick or slightly thicker.

Caraway Rye Bread

Loaf of fresh caraway rye bread. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Loaf of fresh caraway rye bread. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Courtesy of Kingarthurbaking.com

  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 1 cup white rye or medium rye flour
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1/2 cup sour cream (nonfat will not work)
  • 1-2 tablespoons of caraway seeds, to taste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour or first clear flour
  • 3 tablespoons vital wheat gluten or rye bread improver (optional)

Combine water, sugar, rye flour and yeast and mix to form a soft batter. Allow the mixture to rest 20 minutes, then combine the remaining ingredients. Mix and knead the dough together until fairly smooth (it should be somewhat sticky, so don't over flour it).

Oil a bowl and place the dough into it to rise 60-90 minutes before you gently deflate it, then turn it out to knead it briefly. This may be cut into two loaves or kept as one long loaf.

Place the loaf (or loaves) on a lightly greased or parchment- lined baking sheet. Cover and allow them to rise for about 90 minutes or until noticeably puffy. Spritz the loaves with water and slash them lengthwise about 1/2 inch deep before baking at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes (or 45-50 for one large loaf), or until a thermometer stuck in the middle reads 205-210 degrees.

Transfer them to a rack and brush the tops with melted butter if desired. Allow to cool thoroughly before bagging for sandwiches.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.