WHEN THE MERCURY ASTRONAUTS went into space, strapped down in capsules set atop primitive ICBMs originally designed to carry warheads, they were famously derided by their fellow test pilots as “SPAM in a Can.”
Today, SPAM’s legacy as a term for junk mail drowns out any other association, but in the case of the astronauts, we are talking about ur-Spam, the meat product squeezed into a can — a name provided by the winner of a write-in contest, Kenneth Gaidneau (who had considered it “a good, memorable trade-name for some time, [and] had only waited for a product to attach it to”).
John Glenn and his fellow Mercury astronauts were squeezed into a metal enclosure only slightly bigger than themselves — half the size, for comparison, of a contemporaneous VW beetle. But tight quarters — common for test pilots in prototype craft — were not the catalyst for the Spam-in-a-can taunt. Rather, the Mercury crew members were mocked by their brethren (Chuck Yeager is said to have coined the phrase) for their relative impotence. Unlike more earthly pilots — but, presumably, much like their namesake processed pork product — the Mercury astronauts were mere passengers in their steel capsule, with no control over its historic trajectory. [MORE]