- Category : Astronaut
- Type : PE
- Profile : 5/1 - Heretical / Investigator
- Definition : Split - Small (12,35)
- Incarnation Cross : LAX Endeavor 1
Virgil Ivan Grissom, Lt Col, USAF (April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967), known as Gus Grissom, was one of the original NASA Project Mercury astronauts and a United States Air Force pilot. He was the second American to fly in space, and the first member of the NASA Astronaut Corps to fly in space twice.
Grissom was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (then known as Cape Kennedy), Florida. He was the first of the Mercury Seven to die. He was also a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Family and background
Grissom was born in Mitchell, Indiana, on April 3, 1926, the second child of Dennis and Cecile King Grissom. His father was a signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and his mother a homemaker. His older sister died shortly before his birth, and he was followed by three younger siblings, Wilma, Norman and Lowell. As a child he attended the local Church of Christ where he remained a lifelong member and joined the Boy Scouts' Troop 46. He was enrolled in public elementary schools and went on to attend Mitchell High School. Grissom met and befriended Betty Lavonne Moore at school through their extracurricular activities. He worked delivering newspapers for the Indianapolis Star and in a local meat market for his first jobs.
Grissom occasionally spent time at a local airport in Bedford, Indiana, where he first became interested in flying. A local attorney who owned a small plane would take him on flights for a $1 fee and taught him the basics of flying an airplane. World War II broke out while Grissom was still in high school, and he was eager to enlist upon graduation. Grissom enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Forces and completed an entrance exam in November 1943. He graduated from high school in 1944 and was inducted into the army at Fort Benjamin Harrison on August 8, 1944. He was sent to Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, for basic training after which he was assigned as a clerk at Brooks Field in San Antonio, Texas.
As the war neared its end, Grissom sought to be discharged. He married Betty Moore on July 6, 1945, while on leave, and secured his discharge in September. He took a job at Carpenter Body Works, a local bus manufacturing business, and rented an apartment in Mitchell. However, he had trouble providing a sufficient income and was determined to attend college. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill for partial payment of his school tuition, Grissom enrolled at Purdue University in September 1946. During his time in college, Betty returned to live with her parents and took a job at the Indiana Bell Telephone Company while he worked part-time as a cook at a local restaurant. Grissom took summer classes to finish early and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1950.
Grissom re-enlisted in the military after his graduation from Purdue, this time in the newly formed United States Air Force. He was accepted into the air cadet basic training program at Randolph Air Force Base in Universal City, Texas. Upon completion of the program, he was assigned to Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Arizona. In March 1951 Grissom received his pilot wings and commission as a second lieutenant. Grissom's wife remained in Indiana and while he was away his first child, Scott, was born. After his birth they joined Grissom at his base in Arizona. The family remained there only briefly and in December 1951 they moved to Presque Isle, Maine where Grissom was assigned to Presque Isle Air Force Base and became a member of the 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
With the ongoing Korean War, Grissom's squadron was dispatched to the war zone in February 1952. There he flew as an F-86 Sabre replacement pilot and was reassigned to the 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing stationed at Kimpo Air Base. Grissom flew 100 combat missions during his time in the war, serving as a wingman protecting the lead fighters. The position was not one that put him in a position to attack the enemy and he did not shoot down any planes while he was in service. He did personally drive off Korean air raids on multiple occasions as their MiGs would often flee at the first sign of superior American aircraft. On March 11, 1952, Grissom was promoted to First Lieutenant and was cited for his "superlative airmanship".
Grissom requested to remain in Korea to fly another 25 flights, but his request was denied. He was given the option of which base he would like to be stationed at in the United States and he requested the Bryan AFB in Bryan, Texas. There he served as a flight instructor, and was joined by his wife and son. His second child was born in Bryan in 1953. During a training exercise with a cadet, a trainee pilot caused a flap to break off the plane, causing it to spin out of control. Grissom climbed from the rear seat of the small craft to take over the controls and safely land the jet.
In August 1955, Grissom was reassigned to the Air Force Institute of Technology located in Dayton, Ohio. There he earned a bachelors degree in aero mechanics after completing the year-long course. In October 1956, he entered test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, California and returned to Wright-Patterson in May 1957 as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.
In 1958, Grissom received an official teletype message instructing him to report to an address in Washington, D.C. wearing civilian clothes. The message was classified "Top Secret" and Grissom was not to discuss its contents with anyone. Grissom discovered that he was one of 110 military test pilots whose credentials had earned them an invitation to learn more about the space program in general and Project Mercury in particular. Grissom liked the sound of the program, but knew that competition for the final spots would be fierce.
Captain Grissom then underwent a series of physical and psychological tests and on April 13, 1959 was notified that he had been chosen as one of the seven Mercury astronauts.
Liberty Bell 7
On July 21, 1961, Grissom was pilot of the second Project Mercury flight, Mercury-Redstone 4, popularly known as Liberty Bell 7. This was a suborbital flight that lasted 15 minutes and 37 seconds. After splashdown, emergency explosive bolts unexpectedly fired and blew the hatch off, causing water to flood into the spacecraft. Quickly exiting through the open hatch and into the ocean, Grissom was nearly drowned as water began filling his spacesuit. A recovery helicopter tried to lift and recover the spacecraft, but the flooding spacecraft became too heavy, and it was ultimately cut loose before sinking.
Grissom asserted he had done nothing to cause the hatch to blow, and NASA officials eventually concluded that he was correct. Initiating the explosive egress system required hitting a metal trigger with the side of a closed fist, which unavoidably left a large, obvious bruise on the astronaut's hand, but Grissom was found not to have any of the tell-tale bruising. Still, controversy remained, and fellow Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, at the end of his October 3, 1962 flight, remained inside his spacecraft until it was safely aboard the recovery ship, and made a point of deliberately blowing the hatch to get out, bruising his hand.
Grissom's spacecraft was recovered in 1999, but no further evidence was found which could conclusively explain how the explosive hatch release had occurred. Later, Guenter Wendt, pad leader for the early American manned space launches, wrote that he believed a small cover over the external release actuator was accidentally lost sometime during the flight or splashdown and the T-handle may have been tugged by a stray parachute shroud line, or was perhaps damaged by the heat of re-entry and after cooling upon splashdown, contracted and fired.
Grissom was surrounded by reporters in a news conference after his space flight in America's second manned ship. When asked how he felt, he replied, "Well, I was scared a good portion of the time; I guess that's a pretty good indication."
In early 1964 Alan Shepard was grounded after being diagnosed with Ménière's disease and Grissom was designated command pilot for Gemini 3, the first manned Project Gemini flight, which flew on March 23, 1965. This mission made him the first NASA astronaut to fly into space twice. This flight made three revolutions of the Earth and lasted for 4 hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds. Grissom was one of the eight pilots of the NASA paraglider research vehicle.
Grissom was one of the smaller astronauts, and he worked very closely with the engineers and technicians from McDonnell Aircraft who built the Gemini spacecraft. The first three spacecraft were built around him and the design was humorously referred to as "the Gusmobile". However by July 1963 NASA discovered 14 out of the 16 astronauts could not fit themselves into the cabin and later cockpits were modified. During this time Grissom invented the multi-axis translation thruster controller used to push the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft in linear directions for rendezvous and docking.
Naming of the Molly Brown
In a joking nod to the sinking of his Mercury craft Grissom named the first Gemini spacecraft Molly Brown after the popular Broadway show The Unsinkable Molly Brown; NASA publicity officials were unhappy with this name. When Grissom and his pilot John Young were ordered to come up with a new one, they offered Titanic. Aghast, NASA executives gave in and allowed the name Molly Brown, but did not use it in any official references. Subsequently and much to the agency's chagrin, on launch CAPCOM Gordon Cooper gave Gemini 3 its sendoff by telling Grissom and Young, "You're on your way, Molly Brown!" and ground controllers used this name throughout the flight.
After the safe return of Gemini 3, NASA announced new spacecraft would not be named. Hence Gemini 4 was not named American Eagle as its crew had planned. The naming of spacecraft resumed in 1967 after managers found the Apollo flights needed a name for each of two flight elements, the Command Module and Lunar Module. Lobbying by the astronauts and senior NASA administrators also had an effect. Apollo 9 had the callsigns Gumdrop for the Command Module and Spider for the Lunar Module. However, Wally Schirra had been prevented from naming his Apollo 7 spacecraft Phoenix in honor of Grissom's Apollo 1 crew since it was believed the average taxpayer would not take a "fire" metaphor as intended.
“I said, how are we gonna get to the Moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?”
—Grissom expressing frustration with the comm system during the test that took his life.
Grissom was backup command pilot for Gemini 6A when he shifted to the Apollo program and was assigned as Command Pilot of the first manned mission AS-204, with Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee. The three men were granted permission to refer to their flight as Apollo 1 on their mission insignia patch. Before its planned February 21, 1967 launch, the Command Module interior caught fire and burned on January 27, 1967 during a pre-launch test on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy, killing all three men. The fire's ignition source was never determined, but their deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal hazards in the early Apollo Command Module design and conditions of the test, including a pressurized 100% oxygen pre-launch atmosphere, many wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials used in the cockpit and the astronauts' flight suits, and an inward-opening hatch which could not be opened quickly in an emergency, and could not be opened at all with full internal pressure. After the tragedy, NASA adopted a new flight numbering system for Apollo, and honored the crew by making Apollo 1 official. The spacecraft problems were fixed, and the Apollo program carried on successfully to reach its objective of landing men on the Moon.
Grissom had attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel at the time of his death, and had logged a total of 4,600 hours flying time, including 3,500 hours in jet airplanes. Chief astronaut Deke Slayton wrote that he wanted one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to be the first on the Moon and, "Had Gus been alive, as a Mercury astronaut he would have taken the step ... My first choice would have been Gus, which both Chris Kraft and Bob Gilruth seconded."
Gus Grissom is buried in Section 3 38.873115°N 77.072755°W of the Arlington National Cemetery, near Roger Chaffee. Ed White is buried at the West Point Cemetery, West Point, New York.
When the US Astronaut Hall of Fame opened in 1990 his family lent it the spacesuit worn by Grissom during Mercury 4 along with other personal artifacts belonging to the astronaut. In 2002 the museum went into bankruptcy and was taken over by a NASA contractor, whereupon the family asked for everything back. All the artifacts were returned to them except the spacesuit, which NASA claimed was government property. NASA insisted Grissom got authorization to use the spacesuit for a show and tell at his son's school and never returned it, but some Grissom family members claimed the astronaut rescued the spacesuit from a scrap heap.