From Planet 51:

I never had the right stuff.
I'm a button pusher, Spam in a can.
I don't even fly the ship. It's all automatic.
I only got this far on charm and my rugged good looks.

Is "spam in a can" an idiom? Is it just for space and astronauts etc. or is it a common expression? And what's the exact meaning of it?

  • 3
    More context is needed. It can be quite literal: spam is a type of meat (or vaguely meat-like and allegedly meat-based product) that is usually sold in cans/tins. Did the usage you saw imply that the literal sense was not the intended one? If so, please quote the paragraph and context where it was used; otherwise, it's pure guesswork. Jan 26, 2014 at 12:27
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about lyrics interpretation. Jan 26, 2014 at 12:33
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    FWIW I think he's saying he's just a "meat-based product" (a human being) in a "can" (the spaceship). Jan 26, 2014 at 12:35
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    Spam 2. trademark a canned meat product made mainly from ham. -- To be like Spam in a can is to be lazy and inactive by implication.
    – Kris
    Jan 26, 2014 at 12:36
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    @Kris: It's not an established idiom, so I suppose you can interpret it any way you like. But I see no allusion to laziness or inactivity. He's just being self-deprecating and saying there's nothing attractive or useful about him. (Spam is always slagged off as unattractive, unappetising, etc.) Jan 26, 2014 at 12:40

4 Answers 4


It's what the test pilots of the time called the original American Mercury astronauts, because the astronauts were not really "flying" the craft due to lack of control surfaces or (in the beginning) even windows. "Spam in a can" is heard in the movie version of Tom Wolfe's non-fiction book, The Right Stuff.

Although test pilots at Edwards AFB mock the Mercury program for sending "spam in a can" into space, they recognize that they are no longer the fastest men on Earth, and Yeager states that, "It takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially when it's on national TV."

"Spam in a can" is a metaphor evoking the image of the astronauts as nothing but meat in a metal enclosure.

  • 1
    Doubtless its usage in Planet 51 is meant to be a deliberate reference to The Right Stuff.
    – Robusto
    Jan 26, 2014 at 13:51
  • I'd heard "man in a can" for that idiom, but the analogy certainly makes sense.
    – keshlam
    Jan 26, 2014 at 18:37
  • One more source: books.google.de/books?id=OZ_jQVH3oMwC&q=spam%20in%20a%20can
    – Carsten S
    Jan 26, 2014 at 22:42
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    Adding to the metaphor were the facts that the Mercury capsule (a) had the appearance of a small metal cannister similar to a Spam™ can, and (b) the interior was compact, tightly fitted with equipment leaving barely enough room for a man similar to the way the meat product fills a Spam can. Jan 27, 2014 at 0:10
  • @Basil: To be fair, there isn't a lot of "wiggle room" in the cockpit of a jet fighter, either. It's a pretty tight fit.
    – Robusto
    Jan 27, 2014 at 12:20

'Spam' was the brand name of a pork-based luncheon meat launched in the United States in 1937. It was a staple in Britain during the second world war, when food was rationed. It remained for some years after the war an important contribution to the diet.

Perhaps because of its slightly uncertain ingredients, it has often been the butt of comedian's jokes etc.

Wiki has a good article on the subject. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spam_(food)

  • 2
    It is probably also relevant that SPAM is sold in cans (rather like sardines) and was a staple of American military rations during and immediately after the Second World War (everyone involved in the "space race" from the USA side had probably eaten these rations at least once).
    – zwol
    Jan 26, 2014 at 23:37
  • @Zack I certainly ate it many times myself. Spam fritters were a favourite, consisting of slices of spam dipped in batter and deep-fried with chips. During the war itself eggs were in short supply so I don't suppose they had much batter.
    – WS2
    Jan 27, 2014 at 0:33

The gist of spam in a can is that the overriding, and possibly only, qualification is being flesh and blood.

For example, where there is far too much data for a human to have any hope of making a reasoned decision, so a computer will be computing all actions (also possible for a remote pilot), but some theory of legal liability requires a human element who can be held responsible for mistakes.


I believe that spam originally referred to "spiced ham," that is ham in cans using "spices" as a preservative. Coming as it did at the end of the depressed 1930s, it was considered a "delicacy" in its time, and an "inferior good" after World War II, when fresh meat, rather than "canned" meat, became the order of the day.

In modern terms, "spam" refers to "canned" (and usually off-topic) content.

In the passage, the person laments that he is a "canned" pilot for the ship, who "only got this far with my charm and rugged good looks." That's more like "spam," not someone with the "right stuff."

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