Gus Grissom

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Gus Grissom
Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S.
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery
EducationPurdue University (BS)
Air University (BS)
Space career
NASA astronaut
RankLieutenant Colonel, USAF
Time in space
5h 7m
SelectionNASA Group 1 (1959)
Mission insignia

Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom (April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967) was an American engineer and pilot in the


Grissom was a World War II and Korean War veteran, mechanical engineer, and USAF test pilot. He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster, two NASA Distinguished Service Medals, and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

As commander of AS-204 (

Cape Kennedy
, Florida.

Early life

Virgil Ivan Grissom was born in the small town of Mitchell, Indiana, on April 3, 1926,[1] to Dennis David Grissom (1903–1994), a signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and Cecile King Grissom (1901–1995), a homemaker. Virgil was the family's second child (an older sister died in infancy shortly before his birth). He was followed by three younger siblings: a sister, Wilma, and two brothers, Norman and Lowell.[2] Grissom started school at Riley grade school. His interest in flying began during that time, building model airplanes.[1] He received his nickname when his friend was reading his name on a scorecard upside down and misread "Griss" as "Gus".[1]

As a youth, Grissom attended the local

Star Scout.[3] Grissom credited the Scouts for his love of hunting and fishing. He was the leader of the honor guard in his troop.[4] His first jobs were delivering newspapers for The Indianapolis Star in the morning and the Bedford Times in the evening.[1] In the summer he picked fruit in area orchards and worked at a dry-goods store.[4]
He also worked at a local meat market, a service station, and a clothing store in Mitchell.

Grissom started attending Mitchell High School in 1940.[4] He wanted to play varsity basketball but he was too short. His father encouraged him to find sports he was more suited for, and he joined the swimming team.[4] Although he excelled at mathematics, Grissom was an average high school student in other subjects.[5] He graduated from high school in 1944.

In addition, Grissom occasionally spent time at a local airport in Bedford, Indiana, where he first became interested in aviation. A local attorney who owned a small plane would take him on flights and taught him the basics of flying.[6]

Grissom was a Freemason.[7][8]

World War II


Post-war employment

Grissom was discharged from military service in November 1945, after the war had ended, and returned to Mitchell, where he took a job at Carpenter Body Works, a local bus manufacturing business. Grissom was determined to make his career in aviation and attend college. Using the G.I. Bill for partial payment of his school tuition, Grissom enrolled at Purdue University in September 1946.[10]

Due to a shortage of campus housing during her husband's first semester in college in West Lafayette, Indiana, Grissom's wife, Betty, stayed in Mitchell living with her parents, while Grissom lived in a rented apartment with another male student. Betty Grissom joined her husband on campus during his second semester, and the couple settled into a small, one-bedroom apartment. Grissom continued his studies at Purdue, worked part-time as a cook at a local restaurant, and took summer classes to finish college early, while his wife worked the night shift as a long-distance operator for the Indiana Bell Telephone Company to help pay for his schooling and their living expenses. Grissom graduated from Purdue with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in February 1950.[11]

Korean War

Grissom in the United States Air Force

After he graduated from Purdue, Grissom re-enlisted in the newly formed

second lieutenant. Nine months later, in December 1951, Grissom and his family moved into new living quarters in Presque Isle, Maine, where he was assigned to Presque Isle Air Force Base and became a member of the 75th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron.[12]

With the ongoing

MiGs. On March 11, 1952, Grissom was promoted to first lieutenant and was cited for his "superlative airmanship" for his actions on March 23, 1952, when he flew cover for a photo reconnaissance mission.[14] Grissom was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster for his military service in Korea.[15]

After flying his quota of one hundred missions, Grissom asked to remain in Korea to fly another twenty-five flights, but his request was denied. Grissom returned to the United States to serve as a flight instructor at Bryan AFB in Bryan, Texas, where he was joined by his wife, Betty, and son, Scott. The Grissoms' second child, Mark, was born there in 1953. Grissom soon learned that flight instructors faced their own set of on-the-job risks. During a training exercise with a cadet, the trainee pilot caused a flap to break off from their two-seat trainer, sending it into a roll. Grissom quickly climbed from the rear seat of the small aircraft to take over the controls and safely land it.[16]

In August 1955, Grissom was reassigned to the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio of Air University. After completing the year-long course he earned a bachelor's degree in aeromechanics in 1956.[17] In October 1956, he entered the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and returned to Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio in May 1957, after attaining the rank of captain. Grissom served as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.[18][19][20]

NASA career

Grissom (far left) with fellow Project Mercury astronauts and a model of the Atlas rocket, July 12, 1962

In 1959, 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 ordered not to discuss its contents with anyone. Of the 508 military candidates who were considered, he was one of 110 test pilots whose credentials had earned them an invitation to learn more about the U.S. space program in general and its Project Mercury. Grissom was intrigued by the program, but knew that competition for the final spots would be fierce.[21][22]

Grissom passed the initial screening in Washington, D.C., and was among the thirty-nine candidates sent to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Aeromedical Laboratory of the Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio, to undergo extensive physical and psychological testing. He was nearly disqualified when doctors discovered that he suffered from hay fever, but was permitted to continue after he argued that his allergies would not be a problem due to the absence of ragweed pollen in space.[23]

On April 13, 1959, Grissom received official notification that he had been selected as one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts. Grissom and the six other men, after taking a leave of absence from their respective branches of the military service, reported to the Special Task Group at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia on April 27, 1959, to begin their astronaut training.[24][25][26]

Project Mercury

Liberty Bell 7

On July 21, 1961, Grissom was pilot of the second Project Mercury flight,

spacesuit began losing buoyancy due to an open air inlet. Grissom managed to stay afloat until he was pulled from the water by a helicopter and taken to the U.S. Navy ship. In the meantime another recovery helicopter tried to lift and retrieve the Liberty Bell 7, but the flooding spacecraft became too heavy, forcing the recovery crew to cut it loose, and it ultimately sank.[22]

Liberty Bell 7, recovered in 1999, was restored and is displayed at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas

When reporters at a news conference surrounded Grissom after his space flight to ask how he felt, Grissom replied, "Well, I was scared a good portion of the time; I guess that's a pretty good indication."[27] Grissom stated he had done nothing to cause the hatch to blow, and no definitive explanation for the incident was found.[22][28] Robert F. Thompson, director of Mercury operations, was dispatched to USS Randolph by Space Task Group Director Robert Gilruth and spoke with Grissom upon his arrival on the aircraft carrier. Grissom explained that he had gotten ahead in the mission timeline and had removed the detonator cap, and also pulled the safety pin. Once the pin was removed, the trigger was no longer held in place and could have inadvertently fired as a result of ocean wave action, bobbing as a result of helicopter rotor wash, or other activity. NASA officials concluded Grissom had not necessarily initiated the firing of the explosive hatch, which would have required pressing a plunger that required five pounds of force to depress.[29] Hitting this metal trigger with the hand typically left a large bruise,[30] but Grissom was found not to have any of the telltale hand bruising.[22]

While the debate continued about the premature detonation of Liberty Bell 7's hatch bolts, precautions were initiated for subsequent flights. 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 of the spacecraft, bruising his hand.[22][31]

Grissom's spacecraft was

Guenter Wendt, pad leader for the early American crewed space launches, wrote that he believed a small cover over the external release actuator was accidentally lost sometime during the flight or splashdown. Another possible explanation was that the hatch's T-handle may have been tugged by a stray parachute suspension line, or was perhaps damaged by the heat of re-entry, and after cooling upon splashdown it contracted and caught fire.[25][32] It has also been suggested that a static electricity discharge during initial contact between the spacecraft and the rescue helicopter may have caused the hatch's explosive bolts to blow. The co-pilot of the helicopter, U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant John Reinhard, had the job of using a cutting pole to snip off an antenna before the helicopter could latch onto the capsule. In the 1990s, he told a researcher that he remembered seeing an electric arc jump between the capsule and his pole right before the hatch blew.[33] Jim Lewis, the pilot of Grissom's rescue helicopter, told Smithsonian Magazine that closer inspection of film footage made him remember the day in better detail. He recalled that "Reinhard must have cut the antenna a mere second or two before I got us in a position for him to attach our harness to the capsule lifting bale," indicating that the timing of the helicopter's approach aligned with the static discharge theory.[34]

Project Gemini

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 crewed Project Gemini flight, which flew on March 23, 1965.[22] This mission made Grissom the first human and thus first NASA astronaut to fly into space twice.[35] The two-man flight on Gemini 3 with Grissom and John W. Young made three revolutions of the Earth and lasted for 4 hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds.[36] Grissom was one of the eight pilots of the NASA paraglider research vehicle (Paresev).[37]

Grissom, the shortest of the original seven astronauts at five feet seven inches tall, worked very closely with the engineers and technicians from

translation thruster controller used to push the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft in linear directions for rendezvous and docking.[40]

In a joking nod to the sinking of his Mercury craft, Grissom named the first Gemini spacecraft

CAPCOM Gordon Cooper gave Gemini 3 its sendoff on launch with the remark to Grissom and Young, "You're on your way, Molly Brown!" Ground controllers also used it to refer to the spacecraft throughout its flight.[41]

After the safe return of Gemini 3, NASA announced new spacecraft would not be nicknamed. Hence,

Command Module (CSM) and the Lunar Module. Lobbying by the astronauts and senior NASA administrators also had an effect. Apollo 9 used the name Gumdrop for the Command Module and Spider for the Lunar Module.[42] However, Wally Schirra was prevented from naming his Apollo 7 spacecraft Phoenix in honor of the Apollo 1 crew because some believed that its nickname as a metaphor for "fire" might be misunderstood.[43]

Apollo program

Grissom was backup command pilot for Gemini 6A when he was transferred to the Apollo program and was assigned as commander of the first crewed mission, AS-204, with Senior Pilot Ed White, who had flown in space on the Gemini 4 mission, when he became the first American to make a spacewalk, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee.[22] The three men were granted permission to refer to their flight as "Apollo 1" on their mission insignia patch.

Problems with the simulator proved extremely annoying to Grissom, who told a reporter the problems with Apollo 1 came "in bushelfuls" and that he was skeptical of its chances to complete its fourteen-day mission.[44] Grissom earned the nickname "Gruff Gus" by being outspoken about the technical deficiencies of the spacecraft.[45] The engineers who programmed the Apollo training simulator had a difficult time keeping the simulator in sync with the continuous changes being made to the spacecraft. According to backup astronaut Walter Cunningham, "We knew that the spacecraft was, you know, in poor shape relative to what it ought to be. We felt like we could fly it, but let's face it, it just wasn't as good as it should have been for the job of flying the first crewed Apollo mission."[22]

NASA pressed on. In mid-January 1967, "preparations were being made for the final pre-flight tests of Spacecraft 012."

Cape Kennedy to conduct the January 27 plugs-out test that ended his life, Grissom's wife, Betty, later recalled that he took a lemon from a tree in his back yard and explained that he intended to hang it on that spacecraft, although he actually hung the lemon on the simulator (a duplicate of the Apollo spacecraft).[46][47]

Personal life

Grissom met Betty Lavonne Moore (1927–2018), in high school.[48] They were married on July 6, 1945, at First Baptist Church in Mitchell when he was home on leave during World War II. The couple had two sons, Scott (1950), and Mark (1953).[49][50]

Two of Grissom's pastimes were hunting and fishing. The family also enjoyed water sports and skiing.[51]