In Memoriam
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About the Author

Lt. Col. Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom (USAF)


Born: 3 April 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana.

Education: Received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.

Marital Status: Married the former Betty L. Moore.

Children: Scott (born 16 May 1950) and Mark (30 December 1953).

Other Activities: His hobbies include hunting, fishing, skiing, and boating.

Professional Organizations: Member of Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

Special Honors: 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; Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Experience: Gus Grissom received his wings in March 1951. He flew 100 combat missions in Korea in F-86s with the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and, upon returning to the United States in 1952, became a jet instructor at 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, with 3,500 hours in jet aircraft.

NASA Experience: Gus was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts selected on 9 April 1959. Each of the seven was assigned to a specific duty regarding the design and construction of the Mercury spacecraft, and the Redstone and Atlas boosters. Gus was assigned to manual and automatic control systems. He visited the Convair plant where the Atlas was being built. Expected to give a speech to the employees but unsure what to say, he told them, "Do good work." The employees loved it, and it became their motto and inspiration.

Gus' first mission was aboard Mercury/Redstone-4, which he named Liberty Bell 7. Jokingly, a white 'crack' was painted onto the spacecraft. He lifted off on 21 July 1961, for a 15 minute, 37 second suborbital mission. After splashdown, his hatch blew off, causing the spacecraft to fill with water and sink. In Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, it was hinted that Gus blew the hatch himself. Here is what Deke Slayton, another of the Mercury Seven astronauts, had to say about that reference:

"No one should have the idea that Gus was going around being defensive about this hatch thing... But he told me, sure, there was a possibility he had banged the thing by mistake... All I know is that when Wally Schirra blew the hatch on his flight, he wound up with a big bruise on his hand. Gus never had one. We got one joke out of it, though. Never again would we launch a manned spacecraft with a crack in it."

NASA engineer Sam Beddington worked to determine the cause of the blown hatch.   Gus participated in tests where he intentionally bumped into the plunger, failing to blow the hatch.  After studying the parachutes from the mission the cause was found.  The exterior handle of the explosive hatch was covered by a small shingle held in place by a single screw and two clips. During the harsh re-entry period, the screw apparantly had popped loose and both of the clips had let go. As a result, the shingle flew off of the hatch handle and ripped into the chute, causing the small tear Grissom had reported.  Once the chute was perforated, the cable assembly deployed immediately.  When the capsule landed in the water, the cable dangled loosely and the exterior hatch handle got caught up in the landing bag straps. The wave action had been relatively strong that day and Liberty Bell was bobbing around like a cork. As the spacecraft moved up and down in the swells, the cord pulled tighter and tighter against the handle until it pulled tightly enough to trigger the hatch to blow off, just as Grissom had described.

For the upcoming Gemini program, Gus was first scheduled to command Gemini 6. He was later moved to Gemini 5, and finally to Gemini 3, the first manned Gemini mission with pilot John Young. Around the same time, he was made chief of the Gemini branch. Gemini 3 was launched on March 23, 1965 for a three-orbit mission. After the conclusion of the flight, Gus served as backup command pilot for Gemini 6.

After supporting the Gemini 6 mission, Gus was assigned as command pilot of the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 1. His crew included senior pilot Edward White and pilot Roger Chaffee.

Designing the Apollo spacecraft proved to be a very challenging job. The first one was delivered by North American, NASA accepted it with its problems. After the meeting with North American and NASA, Gus presented Joe Shea, head of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, a picture of his crew bowed in prayer in front of an Apollo model. He told him, "It isn't that we don't trust you, Joe, but this time we've decided to go over your head."

On 27 January 1967, Gus Grissom and his crew lost their lives when a fire swept through their Apollo 1 spacecraft while conducting a test on the pad. The mission was scheduled for a 21 February launch on a 14 day Earth-orbit mission. It was over 1 1/2 years before any Americans flew into space. In his autobiography, Deke Slayton, who was the Chief Astronaut and assigned the crews, wrote, "One thing that would probably have been different if Gus had lived: the first guy to walk on the moon would have been Gus Grissom, not Neil Armstrong." Deke always believed that the first on moon should have been one of the original Mercury astronauts. Gus along with crewmate Roger Chaffee were buried at Arlington National Cemetery on 31 January 1967.

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