Official NASA Photo of Gus Grissom. Image credit This Day in Aviation
Official NASA Photo of Gus Grissom. Image credit This Day in Aviation

Hailing from Mitchell, Indiana, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. He was the shortest of the Mercury astronauts at 5’5″ and one of the least talkative of the early astronauts. He flew the successful Liberty Bell 7 and Gemini 3 missions and gave his life for the space program in the Apollo 1 fire.

Mitchell, Indiana

Mitchell Opera House. Image credit Mitchell History Page
Mitchell Opera House. Image credit Mitchell History Page

Mitchell, Indiana was one of many small towns that sprang up at the intersection of railroad lines. Until Gus Grissom became an astronaut, it was best known for its manufacturing companies, which included Carpenter Body Company, and as the birthplace of train robber Sam Bass.

Gus Grissom was the second child of Dennis and Cecile King Grissom. Dennis Grissom was a signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His older sister died not long after his birth on April 3, 1926, and the family grew until he had three younger siblings. He was a Boy Scout and the mother of his future wife would remember that, while he did get into the normal amount of mischief as a child, he wasn’t one of the real hell-raisers in the town. He was a little smaller than most of the boys his age and he quickly developed his lifelong habit of pushing himself to prove he was as good as the big boys.

He met Betty Moore at a basketball game when he was a sophomore and she was a freshman in high school. She was shy at first but Grissom recognized that she was the one he wanted. “The first time I saw you I decided you were the girl I was going to marry,” he told her. Her mother tolerated the relationship and they were usually able to get seats together on the bus to and from games. Betty was one of the first girl drummers in the Indiana school system and she played for the games. Grissom was part of the honor guard. When they were both old enough to drive, he taught her how.

As often as he could, Grissom would make the trip to Bedford, Indiana, and its airport. A local attorney who owned a plane taught him the basics of flying. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he was fifteen years old and frustrated at the fact that he couldn’t enlist right then. With no choice, he stuck to school and earned a reputation as a solid citizen but an uninspired student. In the winter of 1943, he was finally able to enlist as an aviation cadet and reported to Sheppard Field, Texas, in August 1944.

Betty Grissom wanted to join the aviation industry as a flight stewardess, but missed the height limit by half an inch. Gus Grissom came home on leave long enough to marry her on July 6, 1945 and enjoy a brief honeymoon in Indianapolis. Then, he had to return to duty but never saw action in World War II. Japan surrendered not long afterwards.

Spring Mill State Park

Spring Mill State Park

If you are ever in the Mitchell, Indiana, area, be sure to visit Spring Mill State Park, which includes the Virgil Grissom Museum. Enjoy hiking trails and learn more about this astronaut.

Purdue University

Image credit: Purdue University
Image credit: Purdue University

After the war, there weren’t as many flying opportunities for an Air Force aviator as Gus Grissom would have liked. He had no wish to be stuck behind a desk, so he left the Air Force and returned home. He went out to find a job and quickly decided he would have more and better opportunities if he had a college degree, so he applied to Purdue University. Here, his lackluster performance in high school came back to haunt him. Grissom talked a reluctant high school principal into giving him a letter of recommendation.

The next problem was money. Grissom’s GI Bill benefits would not last forever and, while his wife did have a job, their combined income did not add up to much. He found a kitchen job at a cafe near Purdue. He moved into a room near the college but had to share with another student, so Betty Grissom moved back in with her parents. Eventually, they were able to find a private room. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering in three and a half years, with the graduation ceremony in February 1950, and Betty Grissom became pregnant with their first child, whom they would name Scott.

The job market was tight, with many veterans with degrees looking for jobs. Grissom turned down a job at a brewery. He was still in the Air Force reserves and had talked to a recruiter about becoming a test pilot. He was accepted into the last test pilot class to accept married men. He would be back where he really wanted to be, in the cockpit of an airplane.

Test Pilot Training

Grissom’s test pilot training at Randolph Field got off to a rocky start. If he thought he was through with classroom learning after graduating at Purdue, he was wrong. He often got impatient with classwork and ended up with quite a few demerits because of it.

Flying did not go much better at first. He wrestled with a T-6 trainer, trying to get it into the proper landing attitude, until an instructor suggested that he think about becoming a navigator. Grissom refused and the instructor gave him another chance. A senior instructor went up with him and pointed out the problem. There were two small wheels on the left side that could be used to adjust the plane for landing. Grissom admitted that he had no clue what they were for. Apparently, nobody had told him. He was making perfect landings an hour later.

He successfully finished basic training and went out to Williams Air Force Base for advanced training. Betty Grissom gave birth to their son in May 1950 and moved out to the nearby Phoenix, Arizona six months later. After he graduated, he got a month’s leave and they packed up their car to head to Indiana. From there, he moved on to Luke Air Force Base for gunnery training, and then on to the 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. Before long, his entire squadron shipped out to Korea.

Kimpo Air Force Base

An F-86 Sabre Jet
An F-86 Sabre Jet

The 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron was stationed twelve miles from the front, at Kimpo Air Force Base. Because Air Force pilots had a tradition of naming their planes, Gus Grissom named his Scotty, after his son. This earned him some kidding from other pilots, most of whom had named theirs after girlfriends or wives.

By the time Grissom made it to the action, the North Koreans were making heavy use of Russian-made MiGs. When told that he wouldn’t be allowed a seat on the bus until he shot it out with a MiG, Grissom went looking for one and found it on his very first mission. He dualed with the enemy pilot but didn’t make a kill.

He didn’t want to worry his family and tried not to describe the fighting too much in letters home. Occasionally, he would refer to it in a line or two: “For a moment, I couldn’t figure out what those little red things were going by. Then I realized I was being shot at.”

In between missions, entertainment meant games of Ping Pong, handball and cards and drinks at the bar. Pilots could also hop over to Japan for some R&R time and Grissom found a Japanese robe and some dishes to send home. He also made sure to send home pictures of himself and his F-86 Sabrejet with his son’s name painted on it.

He would have liked to become one of Korea’s aces, with five kills. As the war went on and he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for chasing off a MiG that was attacking a reconnaissance plane, he would have settled for one kill. He flew one hundred missions, which meant he could now be transferred back to the States. He requested twenty-five more missions but his request was denied.

He was assigned to Bryan, Texas, where he became a flying instructor. It could be nearly as risky as combat and many instructors had stories of horrific accidents caused by a student’s mistake.

His second son, Mark, was born in December of 1953. Betty Grissom did not care much for playing the political game of the military wives’ social club and mostly stayed at home with the two boys. Her husband understood and didn’t push her into it.

He never let his eyes off his goal of becoming a test pilot. He was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1955, where he met Gordon Cooper. They became flying buddies and were both assigned to Edwards Air Force Base the next year. When Grissom earned his test pilot credentials, he returned to Wright-Patterson in May 1957. Then, the Soviet Union shocked the world with the world’s first artificial satellite, named Sputnik. Not long afterwards, Grissom received a call from a puzzled adjutant.

“Gus, what kind of hell have you been raising?” the adjutant asked.
Grissom was just as puzzled. “None that I know of.”
“Well, if you haven’t, then who do you know in Washington? You must have some important friends in the Pentagon, old buddy.”
“Look, I don’t know a soul in Washington and so far as I know I haven’t done anything wrong, so what gives?”

The adjutant handed Gus Grissom an envelope containing top secret orders to report to Washington. It didn’t give a reason, only orders to report to an address other than the Pentagon in civilian clothes. He talked the matter over with his wife and she made a joke out of it.

“What are they going to do? Shoot you up in the nose cone of an Atlas?”

It was the most outrageous thing she could think of. The Atlas and Vanguard had been the United States’ answer to Sputnik and a spectacular failure lead to hoots of “Kaputnik!” from the press. They would eventually succeed in putting a satellite in orbit with Wernher von Braun’s Jupiter-C rocket. At the time, she had no clue how close she was to the truth.

Astronaut Candidate

NasaLogoThe Russians followed the successful Sputnik with Sputnik II, which carried the dog Laika. It was obvious that they would soon have the capability to launch men into space, so Congress and the President acted quickly to create the National Astronautics and Space Administration. It was to be the focal point of America’s space effort and one of their first jobs would be to choose America’s first astronauts. Space-minded geniuses like Robert Gilruth, Walt Williams, and Wernher von Braun were quickly brought into the space effort.

When Gus Grissom reported to Washington, he learned that he was one of more than a hundred astronaut candidates, separated into three groups. NASA officials assumed that not very many of the candidates would be interested. After all, one unspoken rule in the rank-and-file military was Never Volunteer. Most of the candidates were intrigued by the chance to fly at new heights, however, and they ended up not needing to call the third group.

Gus Grissom certainly met all the requirements. He was short; in fact, he was among the shortest of the candidates at 5’5″ tall. He was a test pilot with a bachelor’s degree. He was under forty years old and met a few of the unspoken criteria: He had a family with children, which implied stable habits, and he had combat experience, which implied an ability to keep his cool under pressure.

The medical and psychological testing was, by necessity, as tough as the best military doctors and psychiatrists could make it. Nobody really knew what to expect of the human body’s reaction to being flung above Earth’s atmosphere and they wanted to cover every contingency. The field of candidates dwindled as men were eliminated or backed out. Gus Grissom had allergies but pointed out to the doctors that there wasn’t likely to be any ragweed pollen in space. He was informed that he made the final cut by early April.

The Press Conference

April 9, 1959

None of the astronauts were really prepared for the reaction of the press. At this press conference, reporters tried to squeeze past each other for the best camera angles. John Glenn had the most experience with reporters and it showed in his answers to their questions. Because the astronauts were seated in alphabetical order, Gus Grissom was sitting beside Glenn and was probably embarrassed that he couldn’t be as articulate as his fellow astronaut. Years later, Gordon Cooper would remember that he felt sorry for Grissom when he had to answer a question with a one-line answer after Glenn had just given a brilliant speech. Over the years, the astronauts’ ability to deal with the press would improve.

Project Mercury

Mercury7patchGus Grissom received his formal orders on April 13, 1959 and reported to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia on April 27. He saw his assignment to Project Mercury as a kind of destiny, something that he had been working toward all his life. He and his wife both knew it was risky but didn’t think it was any worse than being a test pilot or fighting in Korea.

They weren’t prepared for the media attention. Betty Grissom developed a case of the flu around then and did not appreciate being ambushed by reporters. The Grissom boys fared better. Scott was treated like a hero at school and quite happy to share what he knew of the space program. It was a relief when an attorney named Leo D’Orsey worked out a deal with Life magazine that would cut down on the invasion of their privacy and bring in some extra money. Many newspapers and magazines would complain about Life’s exclusive access. If the astronauts heard about it, they could have reasonably pointed out that Life’s bid of $500,000 was the only one Leo D’Orsey had received. In any case, it got the reporters off their front lawns.


The press wasn’t their only problem when dealing with the public. While some astronauts certainly enjoyed the attention of admirers, it could be a bit much at the end of a long, stressful day. Grissom got so sick of being recognized whenever he went out for a little relaxation that he tried disguising himself. He asked Deke Slayton what he thought and Slayton laughed at him. “You look exactly like Gus Grissom in dark glasses and a straw hat.”

For Grissom, being called an astronaut took some getting used to. He would have preferred astronaut-trainee at the outset, while they were still preparing men, machines and facilities for actual space flight. Behind the scenes, he would gripe, “I’m not an ‘ass’ anything. I’m a pilot. Isn’t that good enough?”

NASA engineers were still in the process of developing the spacecraft and invited the new astronauts to give their input. To make the work easier, the Mercury Seven divided it up and flew across the country, visiting contractors and subcontractors. Gus Grissom got the job of helping design a manual control system. They inspected work and chatted with employees on all levels at the companies who had contracts with NASA. Once, Gus Grissom was asked to give a little pep talk and came up with the shortest one on record: “Do good work.” The employees loved it so much that they had signs made.

Whenever they could, the seven astronauts would have meetings, share what they had learned, and discuss the recommendations they would make to NASA officials. They would hash out any differences in private so that they could take their recommendations to NASA as a team. One thing they agreed on was the need for a window on the Mercury capsule and a way to manually control it. If things went wrong, an astronaut would need to be able to take manual control of the spacecraft and see outside to orient himself.

The Mercury 7
The Mercury 7

They also insisted on redesigning the method for exiting the spacecraft. In an early design, the astronaut would have had to crawl through a narrow space. If he needed to get out in a hurry, he would be in trouble. The designers changed it to a hatch on the side.

Just running an unmanned test launch could be risky at times. Once, Grissom and fellow astronaut Gordon Cooper were flying chase on Mercury-Atlas 3. Their job was to take airplanes up and observe the rocket close-up while it did its job. Something went wrong and the only warning Grissom got was the escape tower pulling the Mercury capsule away from the rocket. Then, it went up in a fireball with Grissom right next to it. It looked to observers like Grissom had just flown right through the explosion and both he and Cooper had to dodge shrapnel. Neither of their planes were damaged but it was certainly not something Grissom wanted to go through again.

merc7aNecessary training could take them as far afield as keeping up with the contractors did. The centrifuge was at a Navy facility in Johnsville, Philadelphia. They visited a planetarium at the University of North Carolina as part of an astronomy course. They spent many hours in a simulator, practising abort scenarios and solving malfunctions, and flew in a C-135 to simulate weightlessness. The Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama, would eventually build a pool they could use to simulate EVA. It wasn’t always pleasant training, either. The above picture is one example of what they might look like after a few days of survival training.

The astronauts had to use commercial airlines a lot at first. NASA eventually found T-33 and, later, T-38 jets for cross-country flying. The constant travel meant that the astronauts were frequently absent from their families. Langley Air Force Base became the central hub for all their activity and they came to think of it as just a place to get clean laundry. The absenteeism would take a toll on several astronauts’ families but Betty Grissom managed to keep herself busy enough not to mind much. It probably helped that the Schirras and the Slaytons lived nearby, so she could have company if she wanted.

Grissom was one of the first astronauts to talk about going to the moon. “I guess because it’s there and I’m capable of going,” he explained to Betty when she asked. This was before Kennedy made his famous challenge to reach the moon before the end of the decade. Grissom saw it as an inevitable step in the exploration of space.

Who Goes First?

Mercury7withplaneThe Mercury Seven were a highly competitive group of people. They would play fierce games of handball, race their cars and try to outdo each other in every way they could, including the gotchas that would become part of the legend surrounding them. Each of them hoped to be the first American in space.

When NASA officials were nearly ready to make the choice, the astronauts were asked to rate their peers. Weeks later, they were called together for the announcement and were kept waiting. The tension got so bad that Gus Grissom tried to lighten it with a joke. “If this keeps up, I may have to make a speech.” That got grins from the others. Grissom was the least talkative of the astronauts, known to the press as Gloomy Gus and Great Stone Face because of his tendency to clam up during press conferences. Finally, Bob Gilruth came in and announced that Alan Shepard would be first, Gus Grissom would be second, and John Glenn would be backup for both.

While Alan Shepard tried to can a grin, six astronauts swallowed their disappointment. Gus Grissom would be in second place and he, Shepard, and Glenn would become known as “The First Three.” Shepard’s suborbital flight on the Freedom 7 came off successfully and then it was Grissom’s turn.

The Liberty Bell 7

Launch Day

Liberty_Bell_7The goal of MR-4, named Liberty Bell 7 by Gus Grissom because the shape reminded him of the iconic American symbol, was to confirm the success of the Freedom 7 flight. Kennedy had answered the successful first flight with a bold dare to reach the Moon by the end of the decade, which had some NASA officials worried. They had planned on seven suborbital flights, the schedule had already slipped and they simply had to decide that Grissom’s would be the last suborbital. He had only a few weeks to prepare after Shepard’s flight.

The flight of the Freedom 7 had turned up only a few glitches and the most noticeable changes to Grissom’s capsule was the addition of a large window and a hatch he could open by punching a plunger. He spent long hours familiarizing himself with the Liberty Bell 7, practising in the simulator, keeping himself fit and even cut back on water skiing to reduce risk to himself.

GusGrissomGusGrissomEnteringLibertyBellWhen he wasn’t training, Grissom could often be seen watching technicians work on his capsule. He felt it was good for them to know he was around and monitoring their work. He did lose his cool with one fellow who wanted to make a change he thought was unnecessary. He realized that the system was never going to be 100% perfect this early in the game and the technicians would try to redesign the whole thing if they thought they could get away with it. The Redstone rocket was also delayed and, when it finally arrived, he was there to meet it. A capsule test conductor told him not to worry so much. “They aren’t going to shoot it without you.” Grissom cracked back, “Hell, I’ve already ridden it bareback all the way from Huntsville.”

He rode out to the launch pad in an air-conditioned van. He climbed into the Mercury capsule and Douglas handed him a crossword puzzle book. “Gus, since the flight load has been reduced, we did not want you to get bored.” John Glenn passed him a note just before they closed the hatch: “Have a smooth apogee, Gus, and do good work. See you at GBI [Grand Bahama Island].” He could see technicians peering in through the window and worried about smudges interfering with his view. Somebody assured him that it would be cleaned off and joked about installing windshield wipers for the next flight.

GusGrissomInLibertyBellThey had to scrub the launch due to weather. Grissom was disappointed. He had just spent four hours sitting on the launch pad and now he had to wait until July 21st. When that day rolled around, it was the same routine: Get up early, eat breakfast, let the doctors look him over, suit up and head out to the launch pad. One of the doctors asked if he was afraid and he retorted that anyone who had never been afraid in his life obviously had something wrong with him. The doctors decided that he was fine. This time, they managed to get all the way through the countdown with only a couple of delays.

Thanks to the window, Grissom had the view that Alan Shepard wouldn’t get until Apollo 14. He watched the vivid blue of the sky gradually darken until it suddenly became jet black. He climbed at 6,561 feet per second, experiencing three G’s until the booster rocket shut down and separated from the Liberty Bell 7. The sudden transition to weightlessness gave him a momentary sensation of tumbling. The automated systems turned the capsule so that it was travelling blunt end forward. Then, it was Grissom’s turn to test the control system. He tried pitch and yaw and ended up maneuvering too far each time. Minor, but annoying. He got his first glimpse of Earth while trying roll and Cape Canaveral was so clear that it hardly seemed possible that it was 150 miles away.

The retro rockets fired at an altitude of 118.26 miles and he started back down. He ticked off numbers to Capcom as the Gs built up to 10.2. The parachutes popped out at the proper time and he made a smooth landing.

HelicopterLibertyBellThen, things began to go wrong. The hatch blew and water began to pour in. Grissom had to get out of there. He got tangled up in a line attached to a dye marker and had to pause to untangle himself. The helicopter hooked the Liberty Bell 7 and tried to hoist it. The copter nearly got dragged down with it and had to give up. The Liberty Bell 7 sank and would remain on the floor of the ocean for decades. In the meantime, Gus Grissom’s suit sprang a leak and began to fill up with water. He shouted and waved to the helicopter crew, trying to let them know he was in trouble, but they only waved back. Finally, one of the helicopters came close with a line and sling and Grissom caught hold of it. Taking no chances, he went for a life preserver as soon as he was on the helicopter. He was one waterlogged astronaut when he made it back to the recovery ship. They later retrieved the helmet he had whipped off while leaving the Liberty Bell 7 and told him they had found it next to a shark.

Life After Liberty Bell

Gus Grissom had little time to pause for breath before being swept into the world of debriefings and news conferences. There was no ticker tape parade in New York City. The White House was trying to deal with the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, so there was no invitation to visit the White House and he received the Distinguished Service Medal from NASA administrator James Webb at a ceremony held in a rented tent. He had to answer questions about the lost hatch. There was an idea floating around that he might have accidentally bumped the plunger that would release it. He was cleared only after Wally Schirra showed him a big bruise he had gotten after his Sigma 7 flight, when he quite deliberately whacked the plunger to blow the hatch. Grissom would have had a similar one if he had accidentally blown it off.

Overall, the lack of hoopla was a letdown for Grissom and his family and his wife finally lost her temper when she saw the contents of the refrigerator in a VIP guest house. She insisted on booking a room at a Holiday Inn where the astronauts were friends with hotelier Henri Landwirth. Senator Homer Capehart of Grissom’s home state of Indiana went on record with his displeasure at the White House’s apparent lack of recognition for Grissom’s accomplishment: “Mister President, there is an old saying in Indiana that nothing really important ever happens unless a Hoosier has a part in it!” Grissom’s flight would be nearly forgotten with Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7, which put the first American into space, and John Glenn’s Friendship 7, the first American orbital flight, as bookends.

In any case, Grissom went right back to work as soon as he could. A Russian named Gherman S. Titov orbited Earth for more than a day on August 6-7 and NASA shifted gears to put a man in orbit. The team of Mercury astronauts fell in line behind John Glenn to prepare the Friendship 7 for flight. Mercury successfully ran its course, ending with Gordon Cooper’s successful Faith 7 flight, which on top of successfully putting a man in orbit for more than a day, proved beyond a doubt the value of having a man on the spacecraft when he brought the capsule in for a landing with systems failing all around him. Project Gemini was up next, with the mission of proving out multi-manned spacecraft, developing maneuvering systems, rendezvousing and docking with another spacecraft, and developing the ability for extra-vehicular activity (EVA), more commonly known as space walks.

The Gemini Project

The Unsinkable Gusmobile

GeminiPatchAnyone who thought the Mercury astronauts were just going to go away when Project Mercury was completed did not count on the tenacity of the shortest man in the group. Gus Grissom did his best to make himself indispensable. Like the rest of the astronauts, he logged thousands of miles in airplanes as he flew from contractor to contractor to keep tabs on their work. He became so helpful with design for the Gemini capsules that other astronauts would dub it the “Gusmobile” and observe that it had been designed for a shorter man. He foresaw a time when spacecraft would be able to land at an Air Force base like Cape Canaveral, thus freeing up Navy resources that got tied up every time they had a space flight scheduled, but knew that it was only a distant second to Gemini’s primary objectives. He also predicted that rockets would eventually come with reusable parts and that some astronauts would be purely scientists conducting experiments in the weightlessness of orbit, freeing up the pilot-astronauts to focus on the job of flying the spacecraft. For the time being, though, they had to make do with what they had or could develop in a short amount of time.

A size comparison between Mercury and Gemini.
A size comparison between Mercury and Gemini.

Tweaks were made to help insure that they wouldn’t have a repeat of the Liberty Bell 7 sinking. Stability in the water was improved to help keep sea water from pouring in through the hatch and reduce crew seasickness. The improvements helped but Grissom would comment that it was more like a cork than a luxury yacht.

Other improvements included an increase in size. The Gemini capsule was big enough that the astronauts could feel less like “Spam-in-a-can” and made use of streamlined equipment to provide more room for the astronauts. Putting them next to each other was like putting Wally Schirra’s powerhouse of a sports car next to John Glenn’s Studbacker. The Studbacker might have gotten great gas mileage, but it wouldn’t win races.

mercury7atredstonearsenalNow that they had a better idea of what to expect of man’s ability to perform in space, the training process was refined. Because the astronauts would be performing experiments in space, they had to learn how to talk to Ph.D.-level scientists. That meant more dreaded classwork. The Mercury astronauts were thrown in with the New Nine, a second batch of astronauts that included Neil Armstrong, to learn about astronomy, computers, rocketry, geology, and much more. Gemini would allow NASA to refine its training process still further as unnecessary activities were weeded out and new ones added for the Apollo missions.

Gus Grissom’s experiences with the Gemini Project was later posthumously published in a book titled Gemini! Now out of print, it can be found as a collector’s item online. Please note that if you find an autographed copy, it is a fake.

The unmanned test flights of the first two Gemini spacecraft were successful, so the third one was designated as the first manned Gemini. Alan Shepard lobbied hard for the first Gemini flight, but was grounded due to an ear condition. So, the flight went to Gus Grissom and John Young.

Launch of Gemini 3

Molly Brown

gemini3patchFollowing the tradition of naming spacecraft, Gus Grissom named Gemini 3 the Molly Brown, from the Broadway play The Unsinkable Molly Brown. The public loved it but NASA PR staff hated it. Molly Brown would be the last named spacecraft until the Apollo missions began testing the lunar module and official documentation refers to it simply as Gemini 3.

The purpose of the flight was to confirm that the manual control system was fully operational. The plan was for the Gemini-Titan to launch to an orbit with an apogee (high point) of 137 nautical miles and perigee (low point) of 87 nautical miles. Grissom and Young would adjust their orbit so that their apogee was 90 miles and perigee was 87 miles, a nearly perfect circle, and then an apogee of 87 miles and perigee of 45 miles.

Gus Grissom and John Young. Image credit FlickRiver
Gus Grissom and John Young. Image credit FlickRiver

By now, prepping for a space flight was becoming almost routine. When March 23, 1965, rolled around, Gus Grissom and John Young were up bright and early. They had breakfast while their backup crew, Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford, finished checking out the spacecraft. They got suited up and Deke Slayton informed them that they were five minutes ahead of schedule. Wally Schirra found a beat-up old Mercury suit and told Grissom that he had decided to dress up for the occasion, just in case they chickened out.

They rode out to the launch pad and went through the pre-flight checks. They had only one delay due to a leaking pressurized liquid line in a propellant tank. The technicians fixed the problem. Grissom kept a tight grip on the ejection ring. If the Malfunction Detection System informed him of a problem, he would have to yank it hard to eject. Young didn’t even touch his. They lifted off and Grissom radioed to Capcom Gordon Cooper, “The clock has started. There’s roll program.”

corned_beefHigh-ranking NASA officials didn’t realize that John Young had planned a little experiment of their own. It became the first salvo in the Battle of the Space Flight Food. Grissom hated space flight food, so Young went down to a local deli and experimented with corned beef sandwiches to see what combination of ingredients would hold together best in free-fall. He smuggled the best corned beef sandwich on board and gave it to Gus Grissom. Grissom took a few bites and then wrapped it back up to keep crumbs from tumbling around the cabin. This caused such a huge ruckus among the medical staff, which then spread through NASA on up to Congress, that Chief Astronaut Deke Slayton exclaimed, “All this over a corned beef sandwich?” NASA ended up issuing a warning that any astronaut caught smuggling unauthorized items onto a spacecraft would face reprimands.

aexplor019p4Gus Grissom wished he could find some poetic way to describe the view from orbit. Of the early astronauts, only a few had a gift for artistry, the most famous of them being Alan Bean. Ask any astronaut, and they would probably say that even the highest-quality photographs don’t quite cut it and comments like Alan Shepard’s famous “What a magnificent view!” barely came close to describing it. Favorites include sunsets and sunrises, if you can imagine seeing one of each every ninety minutes, and the view of entire continents, especially at night when they can see the spider-web lights of civilization.

They got some erratic, and luckily false, readings on the oxygen readings from both the capsule and the spacesuits. Reacting reflexively, Grissom yanked the visor on his helmet shut and then felt sheepish. If both were gone, he was dead either way. John Young diagnosed the problem as a faulty electrical converter system and switched to a backup. Grissom activated an experiment that would fertilize some sea urchin eggs and yanked so hard that he broke the handle off. He blamed it on the rush of adrenaline and found out later that a flight controller who was duplicating their activities in real-time had done the exact same thing at the exact same moment.

The navigational activities came off without a hitch. They manually changed their orbit and flight path nearly as planned and adjusted the Molly Brown’s attitude for reentry. They fired the retro-rockets on schedule and prepared for another amazing sight: the interior of a “fireball” as the heat shield boiled away during their descent. It was like watching fire in all colors of the rainbow whiz past their spacecraft. Their main parachute deployed so forcefully that both Grissom and Young banged their helmets against windows. Grissom accidentally punctured his visor; Young’s helmet was only scratched.

Gemini3_cranedOne couldn’t quite blame Gus Grissom for being nervous when they hit the water but rescue teams were on the scene almost immediately. Even with all the protection provided against the heat of reentry, it got quite hot in that spacecraft and they both felt a bit queasy from seasickness. They were eager to get out of there. Grissom was out first and Young kidded him that this was the first time he had seen a captain leave his ship first. Grissom shot back that he was going to promote Young to captain on the spot. Young, a Navy man, joked back that this entitled him to christen the spacecraft the USS Molly Brown. A helicopter picked them up and they were soon on the recovery ship Intrepid.

Gus Grissom finally got his invitation to the White House, where he met with President Johnson, and his ticker-tape parades. He noted that the public interest in the Gemini flights declined steadily after Molly Brown and theorized that interest in his flight was so high because the Russians had recently pulled a couple of spectaculars including the first EVA. America was finally feeling like they were back in the space business.

Gemini kept plugging on with one success after another, giving astronauts and controllers only the occasional scare. Gus Grissom acted as Chief Capcom for Gemini 4, the first long-duration Gemini flight at four days in orbit. Gemini 5 lasted even longer, setting a record of eight days. Gemini 6 rendezvoused with Gemini 7, marking the first rendezvous of two spacecraft and also the first time NASA had two manned missions in progress at the same time. As Gemini began to wind down, they began to consolidate their plans for Apollo. They were getting to be a bit cocky and decided that Apollo 1 would be the first manned flight on the way to the Moon. Gus Grissom was selected as Mission Commander, with the other two crewmen being Edward White and Roger Chaffee.

Apollo 1

apollo1patchIt did not go well from the start. Early on, NASA officials had anticipated that there would be casualties among the astronauts. They heard rumors that some Russians had died in space, but the biggest hazard among the American astronauts seemed to be airplane accidents. While not all of the space missions had gone entirely as planned, they had only had a handful of real scares and people were getting complacent. Besides that, NASA had recently decided on a brand-new contractor to build the Apollo spacecraft. Technical errors were starting to slip through, starting with a new hatch that could only be opened from the outside. It got so bad that Gus Grissom showed his frustration by hanging a lemon on one of the test spacecraft.


Delays piled up on delays and they finally decided to run a full test on the launchpad on January 27, 1967. Even that developed problems. Some communications bugs showed up, causing an irritable Grissom to grouch, “How do you expect to get us to the moon if you people can’t even hook us up with a ground station?” The crew thought they smelled smoke twice and it always seemed to go away. They blamed it on a faulty ventilation system. The test dragged on for so long that one technician suggested calling it quits for the day, but he was overridden by his superiors.

apollo1aThe test was being conducted in a 100% oxygen atmosphere. The fire started somewhere next to Gus Grissom. “Whoa!” In the pure oxygen atmosphere, the fire spread quickly. “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit, get us out of here!” Ed White called over the radio. Then a scream, then silence. It took several minutes for technicians to open the hatch and they found the Apollo 1 crew sprawled on the floor of the cockpit. They had obviously been trying to open the hatch themselves.

Gus Grissom had always been aware of the risks of the space program. He would say that, if someone died, he wanted people to accept it and move on. He likely would have been proud of the honest way NASA investigated the Apollo 1 disaster, picked up the pieces and moved on to reach the Moon by the end of the decade.

Gus Grissom

April 3, 1926-January 27, 1967


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