Remembering "Gus" Grissom: NASA Astronaut

Image of the Week for Awaiting Orders
Awaiting orders to proceed to the launch site for Project Mercury's second attempt to launch a man into space, astronaut Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom relaxes in the Personal Equipment Room Hangar "S," Cape Canaveral, FL. NASA

Gus Grissom: Pilot and Astronaut

In the history of NASA's space flights, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom stands out as one of the first men to orbit the Earth, and was on the career track to become an Apollo astronaut bound for the Moon at the time of his death in 1967 in the Apollo 1 fire. He wrote in his own memoirs (Gemini! A Personal Account of Man's Venture into Space), that "If we die, we want people to accept it.

We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." 

Those were haunting words, coming as they did in a book he did not live to complete. His widow, Betty Grissom finished it and it was published in 1968.

Gus Grissom was born April 3, 1926, learned to fly while still a teenager. He joined the U.S. Army in 1944, and served stateside until 1945. He then got married and went back to school to study mechanical engineering at Purdue. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served in the Korean War. 

Grissom rose through the ranks to become an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and received his wings in March 1951. He flew 100 combat missions in Korea in F-86 aircraft with the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. When he returned to the United States in 1952, he became a jet instructor in Bryan, Texas.

In August 1955, he entered the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to study Aeronautical Engineering.

He attended the Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in October 1956 and returned to Wright-Patterson in May 1957 as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.

He logged 4,600 hours flying time, including —3,500 hours in jet aircraft over the course of his career. He was a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, a group of fliers who regularly flew untested new aircraft and reported back on their performance.

 

NASA Experience

Thanks to his lengthy experience as a test pilot and instructor, Gus Grissom was invited to apply to become an astronaut in 1958. He went through the normal range of tests and in 1959, he was selected as one of the Project Mercury astronauts.  On July 21, 1961, Grissom piloted the second Mercury flight, called the “Liberty Bell 7 to space. It was final suborbital test flight in the program. His mission lasted just over 15 minutes, attained an altitude of 118 statute miles, and traveled 302 miles downrange from the launch pad at Cape Kennedy.  

Upon splashdown, the explosive bolts for the capsule door went off prematurely, and Grissom had to abandon the capsule to save his life. Subsequent investigation showed that the explosive bolts could have fired due to rough action in the water, and that an instruction that Grissom followed just prior to splashdown was premature. The procedure was changed for later flights and more stringent safety procedures for the explosive bolts were engineered. 

On March 23, 1965, Gus Grissom served as command pilot on the first manned Gemini flight and was the first astronaut to fly into space twice. It was a three-orbit mission during which the crew accomplished the first orbital trajectory modifications and the first lifting reentry of a manned spacecraft.

Subsequent to this assignment, he served as backup command pilot for Gemini 6.

Grissom was named to serve as command pilot for the AS-204 mission, the first three-man Apollo flight

The Apollo 1 Tragedy

Grissom spent the time until 1967 training for upcoming Apollo missions to the Moon. The first one, called AS-204, was to be the first three-astronaut flight for that series. His crewmates were Edward Higgins White II and Roger B. Chaffee. Training included test runs on the actual pad at Kennedy Space Center. The first launch was scheduled for February 21, 1967. Unfortunately, during one pad test, the Command Module caught fire and the three astronauts were trapped inside the capsule and died. The date was January 27, 1967.

Follow up investigations by NASA showed that there were many problems in the capsule, including faulty wiring and flammable materials.

The atmosphere inside was 100 percent oxygen, and when something sparked, the oxygen (which is very flammable) caught fire, as did the interior of the capsule and the astronauts' suites. It was a hard lesson to learn, but as NASA and other space agencies have learned, space tragedies teach important lessons for future missions.

Gus Grissom was survived by his wife Betty and their two children. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and during his lifetime was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with cluster for his Korean service, two NASA Distinguished Service medals and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal; the Air Force Command Astronaut Wings.