Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom – After Shepard, before Glenn
On April 3, 1926, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom – one of the original “7” Mercury astronauts – was born. Unlike Alan Shepard, who became the United States’ first astronaut in space, or John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth, Grissom straddled the divide between the former’s suborbital hop and the latter’s three orbits. Grissom’s legacy is erroneously fixated on his first voyage into the black – the Project Mercury flight of Liberty Bell 7. More specifically, the loss of the capsule after the craft’s hatch was blown due to a malfunction.
Some attempted to blame Grissom for this, but evidence provided by fellow Mercury Seven astronaut Wally Schirra served to exonerate him. Grissom would go on to be a pivotal element for the next chapter of NASA’s effort to be the Soviet Union in terms of sending crews to the Moon – Gemini.
Given Grissom’s engineering involvement in the Gemini spacecraft’s development, some had taken to calling it the “Gusmobile ”. His technical prowess provided a stark contrast between the monosyllabic pilot portrayed by Fred Ward in the 1983 film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.
In fact, NASA knew full well both the type of engineer and pilot that Grissom was. The space agency’s head of the astronaut office, and fellow Mercury Seven astronaut Deke Slayton, tapped Grissom and rookie astronaut John Young as the first pair of space flyers to conduct the maiden flight of the Gemini spacecraft on March 23, 1965.
Grissom had been selected when Alan Shepard was forced to step down when his Ménière’s disease caused him to suffer frequent bouts of dizziness and nausea.
Grissom had stated that upon completion of his first, suborbital (the flight of Liberty Bell 7 was similar to Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission) flight – that he was reasonably sure he would be tapped to conduct missions under Project Gemini. He would go on to take on an expanding role on the interim step between Mercury and Apollo. For the Indiana astronaut, Gemini would mark a crucial turning point in his career.
Grissom’s ascendancy would continue onward after the highly-successful flight of the Molly Brown (Grissom’s name for the spacecraft), as the Gemini spacecraft that roared aloft from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 19.
Slayton selected Grissom as well as Gemini 4’s Ed White and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee to conduct the first test flight of the Block I version of the new Apollo spacecraft.
It was not to be.
On January 27, 1967, during a “plugs out” dress rehearsal of the North American Aviation-built Apollo Command and Service Module – a fire broke out in the cabin killing all three of the crew as they desperately tried to open the hatch. In a sad twist of irony, Apollo’s hatch was a far more involved piece of equipment than the one of Liberty Bell 7 which caused Grissom so much grief.
The tragedy of Apollo 1 would echo through the ages. History would record the first man to walk on the Moon as Neil Armstrong. However, if not for the accident, that historic name would have likely been – Grissom.
The public, by and large, has forgotten the name of Gus Grissom and the sacrifices made by the crew of Apollo 1. However, Grissom’s own words detail what he thought should be the course in the event that he and his crew were to lose their lives.
“If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re 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.” – Gus Grissom, as cited in John Barbour’s Footprints on the Moon.
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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.