CNN is reporting that John Young—one of the most celebrated astronauts in the history of American spaceflight—has died today, at the age of 87. It would be hard to overestimate Young’s influence on the NASA program; as the organization’s longest-serving active astronaut, he flew on the Gemini missions, piloted the Space Shuttle, and is one of only three people who’ve ever been to the moon on two separate occasions. Despite those storied accomplishments, Young never got as much name recognition as your Neil Armstrongs or your John Glenns. But he does hold one absolutely amazing record that deserves to be memorialized today, in a spirit of acknowledging the importance of playfulness (and hunger) in humanity’s journey toward the stars: He was the first man to get yelled at by Congress for smuggling a corned beef sandwich into space.
The inciting incident in question occurred on March 23, 1965, while Young and fellow astronaut Gus Grissom were orbiting the Earth as part of the Gemini 3 mission. The duo were meant, in part, to be testing how astronauts might be able to eat in space; hence Grissom’s slight surprise when his co-pilot suddenly pulled an unauthorized corned beef sandwich out of his pocket. Here’s the official NASA transcript, which we can’t believe hasn’t been made into a movie yet:
Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich.
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?
Grissom: Yes, it’s breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.
Young: Is it?
Young: It was a thought, anyways.
Young: Not a very good one.
Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.
The problem, of course, was crumbs (although the worries were more about them getting into components and shorting them out, and not attracting the wrath of our new insect overlords). Certain members of Congress, though, were incensed at the thought that Young had ignored all of his very expensive space food in favor of deli take-out, and ended up setting an appropriations committee meeting to question NASA administrator George Mueller about the event. Thus, the immortal congressional line: “We have taken steps…to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”
For his part, Young—who also served as a commander in the Apollo missions, and eventually moved into high administrative posts in the organization—eventually got a little annoyed at the way the sandwich story eclipsed the technical accomplishments of the Gemini flight. We can only hope he would forgive us, though, for highlighting and celebrating one of the most amusingly human moments in his long and illustrious career.