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Foooood iiiiin Spaaaaace: The Curious Case of the Contraband Corned Beef

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In 1965, Command Pilot Gus Grissom and Pilot John Young successfully piloted the Gemini 3 spacecraft on a four-hour and forty-three-minute mission into Earth’s orbit, completed a handful of tests of the craft’s capabilities and returned safely to solid ground. Afterwards, their actions during the mission were the subject of a Congressional House Subcommittee hearing and both Congress and the NASA brass gave Young strongly worded reprimands.

What went wrong? It all starts with snacks.

Tubes and Cubes

Food is essential to voyages of exploration, especially in outer space. Space travel has a significant effect on the human body – bone density decreases, muscles waste, red blood cells are lost, etc. – so good nutrition is incredibly important to keep astronauts healthy and functioning. Today we think of “space food” as Tang, food sticks, dehydrated ice cream and other fun, appealing items, but in the early days of the manned space flight, the culture was driven by the military and the food was approached in a certain utilitarian fashion.

In the development of space foods – some of the earliest of which were adapted from items designed for earthbound use in high-altitude, high-speed scenarios by fighter jet pilots – minimal weight and bulk and long-term preservation in extreme conditions were prioritized above flavor, texture and presentation. While astronauts’ enjoyment of the food was supposed to be factored into the creation and selection of food items, their feedback was often brushed aside.

The USA and USSR both started off using puréed foods in aluminum tubes for space flights. The food could be eaten through a polystyrene extension tube connected to the astronaut or cosmonauts’ helmets. Both countries used a wide variety of foods in these containers, including John Glenn's first orbital meal: applesauce. Astronauts had their tubes complemented by bite-sized compressed food cubes, created to address scientists’ concerns about free-floating crumbs that couldn’t easily be cleaned up and might damage equipment, clog vents or be inhaled by the astronauts. Flavors included bacon, cheese and crackers, peanut butter and fruitcake, but it appears most astronauts didn’t notice a difference in flavor from one cube to the next.

Soviet cosmonauts, meanwhile, rounded out their meals with fresh items like bread, salami, jelly, roast veal, apples, oranges and caviar. Scientists there had the same concerns about crumbs, but instead of putting effort and money into mission-appropriate food, they concentrated on methods and equipment for cleaning the crumbs up. Red Menace 1, America 0.

Stowaway Sandwich

When Gemini 3 was ready to launch, both the space race and the space food situation were pretty unappetizing. If JFK wanted a man on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had plenty of work to do, and each flight and each mission had to achieve certain goals to move the whole operation toward that end. One of the jobs the Gemini 3 crew was tasked with was testing some food tubes and some new specially packaged fresh items. Scientists wanted to know for future flights how the packaging fared and how well the crew could work and eat at the same time. Grissom and Young were given several food tubes and sealed packs containing fresh hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and applesauce.

Knowing that Grissom often complained of the “dehydrated delicacies concocted by NASA nutritionists,” Walter Schirra, an astronaut who had acquired a reputation as a joker, decided that the Gemini crew would have a little something extra to munch on while in orbit. The day of the launch, he went to Wolfie's Restaurant, a deli not far from the space center, and bought a corned beef on rye sandwich. He brought the sandwich back to the base and slipped it Young, who proceeded to hide it in his pocket smuggle it on board the craft.

About an hour and 45 minutes into the flight, Young pulled the sandwich from his pocket and handed it to his surprised Commander, provoking the following exchange.

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, anyway.

Grissom: Yep.

Young: Not a very good one.

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

Young: Want some chicken leg?

Grissom: No, you can handle that.

A Crumby Reaction

In all, the astronauts spent about 30 seconds talking about the sandwich and only ten seconds of that time tasting it before it began to fall apart in the absence of gravity and Grissom tucked it away. The half-minute incident created a good deal of fallout, though.

Congress, responsible for NASA's budget grant, wasn’t too amused with the idea that highly trained and supposedly highly disciplined astronauts felt that a practical joke was appropriate and/or funny on an expensive and high-profile space mission.

Schirra, Grissom and especially Young received a full dressing-down from Congress and the press, despite their senior technical managers coming to their defense. The Associate Administrator of the Office of Manned Spaceflight was quick to tell Congress that, “there was no detriment to the experimental program that was carried on, nor was there any detriment to the actual carrying out of the mission because of the ingestion of the sandwich.”

In the end, though, NASA’s then-Administrator James Webb sided with Congress instead of his pilots and Young was officially reprimanded. The incident didn’t do much to damage the astronauts’ careers – Young served in the Apollo Program, landed on the moon during Apollo 16 and later piloted the Shuttle; Schirra flew several more missions; Grissom flew on the first Apollo mission was scheduled to fly on the first Apollo mission, but died during a pre-launch test and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor – but it did prompt a flurry of regulations governing what could and could not be consumed in space.

After the corned beef boldly went where no sandwich had gone before, NASA only allowed officially sanctioned food on spacecraft and the days of astronauts packing their own lunches were over.

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AMNH // R. Mickens
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science
What It’s Like to Write an Opera About Dinosaurs
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AMNH // R. Mickens

There are many challenges that face those writing the lyrics to operas, but figuring out what can rhyme with dinosaur names isn’t often one of them. But wrangling multisyllabic, Latin- and Greek-derived names of prehistoric creatures into verse was an integral part of Eric Einhorn’s job as the librettist behind Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, a new, family-friendly opera currently running at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Created by On Site Opera, which puts on operas in unusual places (like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) across New York City, in conjunction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt follows the true story of Rhoda Knight and her grandfather, the famous paleoartist Charles R. Knight.

Knight worked as a freelance artist for the American Museum of Natural History from 1896 until his death in 1953, creating images of extinct species that paved the way for how we imagine dinosaurs even now. He studied with taxidermists and paleontology experts and was one of the first to paint dinosaurs as flesh-and-blood creatures in natural habitats rather than fantastical monsters, studying their bones and creating sculptural models to make his renderings as accurate as contemporary science made possible.

In the 20-minute opera, singers move around the museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, performing among skeletons and even some paintings by Knight himself. Einhorn, who also serves as the director of On Site Opera and stage director for the opera, wrote the libretto based on stories about the real-life Rhoda—who now goes by Rhoda Knight Kalt—whom he met with frequently during the development process.

Soprano Jennifer Zetland (Rhoda) sings in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.
AMNH // R. Mickens

“I spent a lot of time with Rhoda just talking about her childhood,” he tells Mental Floss, gathering anecdotes that could be worked into the opera. “She tells this great story of being in the museum when they were unpacking the wooly mammoth,” he says. "And she was just there, because her grandfather was there. It's being at the foot of greatness and not even realizing it until later.”

But there was one aspect of Rhoda’s childhood that proved to be a challenge in terms of turning her story into a performance. “Unfortunately, she was a really well-behaved kid,” Einhorn says. “And that doesn't really make for a good opera.”

Knight Kalt, who attended the opera’s dress rehearsal, explains that she knew at the time that if she misbehaved, she wouldn’t be allowed back. “I knew that the only way I could be with my grandfather was if I was very quiet,” she says. “Sometimes he would stand for an hour and a half discussing a fossil bone and how he could bring that alive … if I had interrupted then I couldn't meet him [at the museum anymore].”

Though Knight Kalt was never an artist herself, in the fictionalized version of her childhood (which takes place when Rhoda is 8), she looks around the museum for the missing bones of the dinosaur Deinocheirus so that her grandfather can draw them. The Late Cretaceous dino, first discovered in 1965, almost didn't make it into the show, though. In the first draft of the libretto, the dinosaur Rhoda is searching for in the museum was a relatively new dinosaur species found in China and first unveiled in 2015—zhenyuanlong suni—but the five-syllable name proved impossible to rhyme or sing.

Rhoda Knight Kalt stands next to the head of a dinosaur.
Rhoda Knight Kalt
Shaunacy Ferro

But Einhorn wanted to feature a real dinosaur discovery in the opera. A paleontologist at the museum, Carl Mehling, suggested Deinocheirus. “There are two arms hanging right over there,” Einhorn says, gesturing across the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, “and until [recently] the arms were the only things that had ever been discovered about Deinocheirus.” Tying the opera back to an actual specimen in the museum—one only a few feet away from where the opera would be staged—opened up a whole new set of possibilities, both lyrically and otherwise. “Once we ironed that out, we knew we had good science and better rhyming words.”

As for Knight Kalt, she says the experience of watching her childhood unfold in operatic form was a little weird. “The whole story makes me laugh,” she says. But it was also a perfectly appropriate way to honor her grandfather. “He used to sing while he was painting,” she says. “He loved the opera.”

Performances of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt will be performed at the American Museum of Natural History on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until October 15. Performances are free with museum admission, but require a reservation. The opera will later travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera.

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iStock
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Animals
11 Buoyant Facts About Humpback Whales
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iStock

Humpback whales are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Hunted almost to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their populations are slowly recovering, and now they’re a favorite sight for whale-watchers. Here are 11 facts you might not have known about the mysterious marine giants, who are known for their acrobatics and for sidling right up alongside boats to get a good look at their human observers.

1. THEY’RE LONGER THAN A SCHOOL BUS.

North American school buses max out at about 45 feet long. Female humpback whales—which are larger than males—can be up to 60 feet long, and their pectoral fins alone can be 15 feet long. At birth, humpbacks weigh around 1 ton, doubling in size during their first year of life and eventually reaching up to 40 tons.

2. THEY HAVE HUGE MOUTHS.

In keeping with the rest of their bodies, their mouths are huge—their tongue alone is the size of a small car. But the opening to their throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, so they can’t swallow large prey. Instead, they eat krill, small fish, and plankton. They can eat up to a ton of food per day, according to the 2015 documentary Humpback Whales.

3. THOSE BUMPS ARE HAIR FOLLICLES.

Each of the distinctive bumps along a humpback’s head holds a single hair that the whale uses to sense the environment around it. These hairs help the whale glean information about water temperature and quality.

4. THEIR FLUKES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS.

Like human fingerprints, humpback tails can be used to identify individuals. The pigmentation and scarring on their flukes is unique, and scientists document these markings to keep track of certain whales that they see repeatedly during their research trips.

5. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME, BUT NOT AS LONG AS MANY OTHER WHALES.

Most humpback whales make it into their 60s, but scientists estimate that they may live up to 80 years. Still, that’s nothing compared to bowhead whales, a species whose oldest known individuals have lived to be 200 years old.

6. THEY HAVE THE LONGEST MIGRATIONS OF ANY MAMMAL.

Each year, humpbacks migrate from their feeding grounds in cold waters toward warm breeding areas—Alaskan whales head to Hawaii, while Californian whales head to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Australian whales migrate to the Southern Ocean. These biannual journeys can involve distances of up to 5000 miles, which is officially the longest known migration of any mammal on earth.

The fastest documented migration of a humpback whale was observed in 1988, when a humpback traveled from Sitka, Alaska to to Hawaii in just 39 days—or possibly less, depending on how soon it left Alaskan waters after the researchers sighted it the first time [PDF]. That’s a journey of about 2750 miles point to point.

7. THEY HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO DEFEND OTHER SPECIES FROM ORCAS.

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman watched two humpback whales rescue a seal from a group of orcas that were pursuing it. The seal ended up on one of the humpbacks’ chests, and when it began to fall off, the whale even nudged it back on with a flipper, indicating that it was an intentional act of altruism. Though it’s not entirely clear why they would do so, it appears to be an offensive response on the part of the humpbacks, who may intervene whenever they hear killer whales fighting, whether one of their own is involved or not.

8. ONLY THE MALES SING.

Their songs may have made the species famous, but not every humpback sings. It’s strictly a male behavior, and plays an important part in courtship displays. There’s plenty of mystery that still surrounds the science of whale songs, but in 2013, researchers discovered that it’s a group activity that involves even sexually immature males. Both young and mature whales sing in chorus, giving the immature whales a lesson in singing and courtship behavior, and helping older whales amplify their songs to draw females to the area from afar. Other research has found that these songs change over times, and whales learn them much like a human learns a new song, bit by bit.

9. BREACHING IS LIKE YELLING

Though humpbacks are famous for their songs, that’s not the only way they communicate. Scientists only recently discovered that breaching—when whales jump up into the air, crashing back down into the water—is a way to keep in touch with far-away friends. Humpbacks leap higher and more often than other whales, and while spectacular to witness, the moves come at a cost: It takes a lot of energy, especially when the whales are fasting. But after 200 hours observing humpbacks migrating past the Australian coast, a team from the University of Queensland found that the whales were more likely to breach when the nearest group of other humpbacks was more than two and a half miles away, and that they were more likely to do so when it was windy out. It appears that breaching is a way to communicate over long distances when there is a lot of competing noise.

10. THEIR SONGS ARE INCREDIBLY COMPLEX …

Humpback songs aren’t just showy. They have their own grammar, and their songs are hierarchical, like sentences. In human language, this means that the meaning of sentences depends on the clauses within them and the words within them. In 2006, mathematical analysis found that humpbacks use phrases, too. And they remix their tunes, too, tweaking them and changing them over time, often combining new and old melodies. Humpback songs have even been visualized as sheet music.

11. … AND HELPED END WHALING.

Researchers estimate [PDF] that prior to the whaling boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were around 112,000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic alone, but that by the time commercial whaling was banned in the region in 1955, there were less than 1000 individuals left. Between 1947 and the 1970s, the USSR alone killed an estimated 338,000 humpbacks, falsifying data it was required to submit to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to disguise the illegal magnitude of its hunting operation. It has been called “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

While the populations have grown and humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, some estimates put the worldwide humpback population at only 40 percent of what it was before the whaling era. Whaling was banned throughout the rest of the world in 1966, though Norway, Iceland, and Japan still practice it.

Roger Payne, one of the scientists who first discovered that humpbacks sing songs, later became instrumental in pushing to protect the species in the 1960s. In 1970, he released his recording of humpback songs as a record, which remains the best-selling nature recording in history. In 1972, the songs were played at a Greenpeace meeting, and ended up galvanizing a new movement: Save the Whales. “It certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an aesthetic,” as former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler told NPR in 2014. The campaign gained traction with other organizations, too, and helped lead to the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 whaling ban.

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