The Cosmonauts’ Dining Table

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Mir space station base module table, c. 1990. See full detail in the excellent catalogue – Millard, D (ed.) Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. London: Scala, 2014, p 133.

After years of research and diplomacy – and unimaginable feats of transport and exhibition construction – the London Science Museum’s new show, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, is at last underway. Besides setting the record straight on the USSR’s pre-eminence in the development of space travel, Cosmonauts brilliantly expresses not only the technological prowess but also the deep humanity and emotional intelligence underlying these developments. While much of what is on show is impressive and awe inspiring, there is also something deeply moving about seeing Tereschkova’s charred and abraded Vostok capsule, Gagarin’s space suit, contemporary film clips and assorted relics of commemorative souvenirs – a lab coat scrawled with an impromptu celebratory slogan, specially designed china, playing cards and even a samovar. They bring the whole epic adventure back down to earth even as you find yourself gasping in front of an experimental lunar lander and marvelling at the range of technological suiting designed for maximum comfort and safety in every extreme of the space environment.

For me, though, the most thrilling aspect of the exhibition is one of the most basic and ostensibly least exciting: the table from Mir, shown in the photograph above looking as much like a model from Thunderbirds as a relic of the space age. I’ve written and thought about that table, and used it as a core argument for the contrast in space culture between the USSR and the USA, but I’ve never seen even a decent photograph of it before. I knew it was an amazing object, with its central suction device to manage crumbs and its heating compartments for the food; and that the very presence of a dining table was a radical statement of convivial intent in a total habitable space of 90 cubic metres, but I was unprepared for its beautifully designed fold-out sections and contrasting grey-blue and ancient red colouring. It’s still hard to imagine being a Cosmonaut strapped down to dine on some canned chicken stew and Borsch from a tube as the cosmos hurtles by, but seeing an object of this nature and scale certainly helps me to begin to enter that imaginative space. If you are anywhere near London before 13th March 2016, don’t miss it.

Space food anniversaries: the first sandwich in space

Commemorative corned-beef sandwich on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum (image courtesy of colllectspace.com)

Last week the world commemorated fifty years since the first space walk. Today we should be rejoicing in the less known – but for space food enthusiasts far more significant – 50th anniversary of the very first Earth food-as-we-know-it to appear in the United States’ space programme: a corned beef sandwich.

On 23rd March 1965 Command Pilot Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom and Pilot John Young spent almost 5 hours in orbit in Gemini 3, successfully testing various aspects of manned space flight, including the food. Yet they came down to Earth with a bump, becoming the subject of excited news headlines and furious discussion at a US Congress House Subcommittee hearing that resulted in an official reprimand for John Young. What could possibly have happened?

Wolfie’s Restaurant & Sandwich Shop, Cocoa Beach, Florida (image courtesy of collectspace.com)

At least part of the answer lay in the food.The astronauts obediently sampled the securely packaged ‘official’ hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and applesauce they had been provided with, washed down with germicide-protected water and orange juice. But then, to Gus Gissom’s surprise, John Young produced from his pocket some illegal contraband – a fresh corned-beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant in Cocoa Beach, smuggled to him immediately pre-flight by Walter Schirra (another astronaut who was not flying that day). They gave it a taste, commented on the food smell (notably absent from the ‘real’ space food), and shoved it back in a pocket as it started to crumble. It was over in less than half a minute. The repercussions were felt all the way through the Apollo missions.

There were lots of reasons given for all the fuss. The US space programme was notoriously paranoid about crumbs, making a bread-clad sandwich seem the height of irresponsibility. It also seems to have been a question of control: in a billion-dollar mission with the eyes of the world upon it, there wasn’t much room for a sense of humour, and individuals simply couldn’t be allowed to introduce additional, unauthorised ‘human’ risks. If sanctioned, a contraband sandwich could be just the tip of a very significant iceberg. Most of all, perhaps, it was the contrast in the Cold War era headlines. There is a wide gulf between the heroic potential in “Cosmonaut (USSR) achieves first space walk” versus “Astronaut (USA) eats first space sandwich” – despite its subsequent significance to food historians.

For more on this incident see my 2010 article for Endeavour, on this site under ‘Publications’, and at Academia.edu.