Spaceflight Insider

Book Review: Calculated Risk – The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom

Gus Grissom in Mercury flight suit. NASA / George Leopold image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

Whenever the subject of U.S. space flight is mentioned, the names John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, and perhaps Alan Shepard come to mind. Gus Grissom is unlikely to top that list, but perhaps he should. A new review of the astronaut’s life, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom, came out last month (June) and highlights a career, and a life, of someone willing to take risks to achieve great things.

This book is a welcome addition to the scant information about Grissom’s life. Moreover, in the age of internet journalism where writers state everything in the definitive – even when those statements are only loosely verified – George Leopold doesn’t have this issue.

Astronaut Virgil I. Grissom laughs while getting suited up in preparation for his flight on Liberty Bell 7 in 1961. Photo Credit: NASA posted on SpaceFlight insider

Astronaut Virgil I. Grissom laughs while getting suited up in preparation for his flight on Liberty Bell 7 in 1961. Photo Credit: NASA

Where there are parts of Grissom’s life that can be directly corroborated, Leopold states what is commonly viewed as being true, and also denotes first-hand reports that counter these views.

Even more importantly – the author has obviously done his homework – Grissom’s formative years in Mitchell, Indiana, are covered at length as is the Korean War veteran’s military and NASA years.

“The historical record is incomplete regarding Gus and his career. This was apparent to me and many who have followed the history of manned spaceflight. My goal was to place Gus’s contributions in the context of the history of manned spaceflight and the Cold War. Ultimately, Grissom was a Cold Warrior,” Leopold told SpaceFlight Insider.

Each stage of the aviator and two-time space flight veteran’s career and personal experiences is covered in citations, something which helps provide the reader with sources that validate the accuracy of what they are reading. While this might seem like a common procedure in writing, it isn’t always so.

Moreover, rather than just reuse the tried and true images that the public has seen. One photo, which shows Grissom’s mischievous nature very clearly, has him giving the “single finger salute” to a member of the “media”.

Gus Grissom Apollo 1 commander photo credit NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Grissom suited up during training for Apollo 1. Photo Credit: NASA

Grissom’s career at NASA, in some ways, was “guided” – for want of a better word – by the hatches of the spacecraft that he commanded. At the end of his first suborbital trip in Liberty Bell 7 (Mercury-Redstone 4) on July 21, 1961, shortly after splashdown, what appears to have been a short circuit caused the hatch to blow – flooding Liberty Bell 7 with the salty water of the Atlantic.

Six years later on Jan. 27, 1967, it is believed that the exposed wiring inside the Block I spacecraft, tasked with carrying the Apollo 1 crew to orbit, interacted with the 100 percent pure oxygen environment and ignited.

The crew of Grissom, Edward White, and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee fought to the end – but it was hopeless.  The hatch prevented the crew from escaping to safety. The trio lost their lives and provided NASA with the agency’s most public tragedy at that time. NASA would recover and within a year-and-a-half, the Apollo spacecraft – new and improved – would take to the skies.

What Grissom should have been remembered for is his solid work ethic. What those who don’t know about the inner office politics at play during the time might not be aware of is that, in the beginning, the first man on the Moon’s name.

Gus earned everything he achieved. Nothing was given to him. He worked. He also played hard, but mostly he worked his entire life – all 40 years and 9 months. He was happiest solving problems, flying and preparing for his next flight in space, caring not a whit about personal prestige but understanding completely the political and technological significance of being first on the Moon and doing it all in full view of the entire world.

The book Leopold produced works to correct misperceptions about Grissom. Rather than the “hard luck” astronaut, one who could not catch a break. Rather than work from this angle, Leopold takes the view that Grissom, himself, likely had. That the astronaut knew the risks and determined or “calculated” what would likely be the best trajectory.

“Sacrificing the self to a greater cause is still a worthy goal. I think this is why Americans admire Gus so much: He never called attention to himself, would have been amused by all the attention my book has received, focusing instead on getting the job done and moving on to the next challenge,” Leopold said. “America needs heroes, and that is what Gus Grissom represented.”

Retailing for around $29.95, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom provides insights into one of the astronauts who was there at the beginning of the Space Age. Published by the Purdue University Press, the book is an exceptional read and well worth the investment.


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Gus was a true hero, quiet, but a true hero!

Marlene E. Arenas Fierro

Gus Grisson was one of the first seven brave and amazing astronauts.

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