Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom (April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967) was one of the original NASA Project Mercury astronauts, a United States Air Force test pilot, and a mechanical engineer. He was the second American to fly in space, and the first member of the NASA Astronaut Corps to fly in space twice.
Grissom enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet during World War II. As the end of the war neared, Grissom sought to be discharged and married Betty Moore. Grissom enrolled at Purdue University, graduating with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1950. He reenlisted in the United States Air Force, earning his pilot’s wings in 1951. Grissom flew over 100 combat missions during the Korean War, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster. He was reassigned to work as a flight instructor at Bryan Air Force Base. He attended the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology for a year and earned a bachelor’s degree in aeromechanics.
Selected as one of the Mercury Seven astronauts, Grissom was the pilot of the second American suborbital flight, in the Liberty Bell 7. The hatch of the craft blew off and filled with water, causing it to sink to the bottom of the ocean. His next flight was in the Project Gemini Program in a craft named the Molly Brown, which was a successful mission. He was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (then known as Cape Kennedy), Florida. He was the first of the Mercury Seven to die. He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Family and background
Grissom was born in Mitchell, Indiana, on April 3, 1926, the second child of Dennis David Grissom and Cecile King Grissom. His father was a signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and his mother a homemaker. His older sister died shortly before his birth, and he was followed by three younger siblings, Wilma, Norman and Lowell. As a child he attended the local Church of Christ, where he remained a lifelong member. He joined the Boy Scouts’ Troop 46 earning the rank of Star Scout.
Grissom attended public elementary schools, and went on to Mitchell High School. He met and befriended Betty Lavonne Moore, his future wife, at school through their extracurricular activities. His boy scout troop carried the American flag at school basketball games, while she played the drum in the high school band. His first jobs were delivering newspapers for the Indianapolis Star in the morning, and the Bedford Times in the evening. He also worked at a local meat market, a service station, and a clothing store. He occasionally spent time at a local airport in Bedford, Indiana, where he first became interested in flying. A local attorney who owned a small plane would take him on flights for a $1 fee and taught him the basics of flying.
World War II
World War II broke out while Grissom was still in high school, and he was eager to enlist upon graduation. He enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Forces, and completed an entrance exam in November 1943. Grissom graduated from high school in 1944, and was inducted into the United States Army at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, on August 8, 1944. He was sent to Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, for basic flight training, after which he was sent to Brooks Field in San Antonio, Texas, and then, in January 1945, was assigned to Boca Raton Army Airfield in Florida as a clerk.
Grissom sought to be discharged as the war neared its end, and married Betty Moore on July 6, 1945. They married at the First Baptist Church in Mitchell while on leave, and his brother Norman served as his best man. He was discharged from the army in November 1945. Grissom took a job at Carpenter Body Works, a local bus manufacturing business, and rented an apartment in Mitchell. He had trouble earning a sufficient income and was determined to attend college. Using the G.I. Bill for partial payment of his school tuition, Grissom enrolled at Purdue University in September 1946. During his time in college, Betty returned to live with her parents and took a job at the Indiana Bell Telephone Company while he worked part-time as a cook at a local restaurant. Grissom took summer classes to finish early and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering in February 1950.
Grissom re-enlisted in the military after he graduated from Purdue, this time in the newly formed United States Air Force. He was accepted into the air cadet basic training program at Randolph Air Force Base in Universal City, Texas. Upon completion of the program, he was assigned to Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Arizona. In March 1951 Grissom received his pilot wings and commission as a second lieutenant. Betty remained in Indiana, and while he was away his first child, Scott, was born. After his birth they joined Grissom in Arizona. The family remained there only briefly and in December 1951 they moved to Presque Isle, Maine, where Grissom was assigned to Presque Isle Air Force Base and became a member of the 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
With the ongoing Korean War, Grissom’s squadron was dispatched to the war zone in February 1952. There he flew as an F-86 Sabre replacement pilot and was reassigned to the 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing stationed at Kimpo Air Base. He flew 100 combat missions. On multiple occasions he broke up Korean air raids as their MiGs would often flee at the first sign of superior American aircraft. On March 11, 1952, Grissom was promoted to first lieutenant and was cited for his “superlative airmanship”. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster.
Grissom asked to remain in Korea to fly another 25 flights, but his request was denied. He was given the option of choosing which base he wished to be stationed at in the United States; he requested Bryan AFB in Bryan, Texas. He served there as a flight instructor, and was joined by his wife and son. His second child was born there in 1953. During a training exercise with a cadet, a trainee pilot caused a flap to break off the plane, sending it spinning out of control. Grissom climbed from the rear seat of the small craft to take over the controls and safely land the jet.
In August 1955, Grissom was reassigned to the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology located in Dayton, Ohio. After completing the year-long course he earned a bachelor’s degree in Aeromechanics in 1956. In October 1956, he entered USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and returned to Wright-Patterson AFB in May 1957 as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.
In 1958, 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. He was one of 110 military test pilots whose credentials had earned them an invitation to learn more about the space program in general and Project Mercury in particular. Grissom was intrigued by the program, but knew that competition for the final spots would be fierce.
Grissom was sent to the Lovelace Clinic and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to undergo extensive physical examinations and to submit to a battery of psychological tests. He was nearly disqualified when doctors discovered that he suffered from hay fever, but was permitted to continue when it was determined that his allergies would not be a problem due to the absence of ragweed pollen in space. On April 13, 1959, Grissom received official notification that he had been selected as one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts.
On July 21, 1961, Grissom was pilot of the second Project Mercury flight, Mercury-Redstone 4, which he named Liberty Bell 7. This was a sub-orbital flight that lasted 15 minutes and 37 seconds. After splashdown, emergency explosive bolts unexpectedly fired and blew the hatch off, causing water to flood into the spacecraft. Quickly exiting through the open hatch and into the ocean, Grissom nearly drowned as water began filling his spacesuit. A recovery helicopter tried to lift and retrieve the spacecraft, but the flooding spacecraft became too heavy, and it was ultimately cut loose before sinking.
Grissom stated he had done nothing to cause the hatch to blow. Robert F. Thompson, Director of Mercury Operations, was dispatched to the 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.
Initiating the explosive egress system called for pushing, or hitting, a metal trigger with the hand, which would have left an unavoidably large obvious bruise, but Grissom was found not to have any of the telltale hand bruising. Still, controversy remained, and 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, bruising his hand.
Grissom’s spacecraft was recovered in 1999, but no further evidence was found which could conclusively explain how the explosive hatch release had occurred. Later, Guenter Wendt, pad leader for the early American manned space launches, wrote that he believed a small cover over the external release actuator was accidentally lost sometime during the flight or splashdown, and the 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, contracted and fired.
Grissom was surrounded by reporters at a news conference after his space flight in America’s second manned ship. When asked how he felt, he replied, “Well, I was scared a good portion of the time; I guess that’s a pretty good indication.”
In early 1964 Alan Shepard was grounded after being diagnosed with Mnire’s disease and Grissom was designated command pilot for Gemini 3, the first manned Project Gemini flight, which flew on March 23, 1965. This mission made him the first NASA astronaut to fly into space twice. This flight made three revolutions of the Earth and lasted for 4 hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds. Grissom was one of the eight pilots of the NASA paraglider research vehicle.
Grissom was one of the smaller astronauts, and he worked very closely with the engineers and technicians from McDonnell Aircraft who built the Gemini spacecraft. The first three spacecraft were built around him and the design was humorously referred to as “the Gusmobile”. However, by July 1963 NASA discovered 14 out of the 16 astronauts could not fit themselves into the cabin and later cockpits were modified. During this time Grissom invented the multi-axis translation thruster controller used to push the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft in linear directions for rendezvous and docking.
Naming of the Molly Brown
In a joking nod to the sinking of his Mercury craft, Grissom named the first Gemini spacecraft Molly Brown (after the popular Broadway show The Unsinkable Molly Brown); NASA publicity officials were unhappy with this name. When Grissom and his Pilot John Young were ordered to come up with a new one, they offered Titanic. NASA executives gave in and allowed the name Molly Brown, but did not use it in any official references. Subsequently, and much to the agency’s chagrin, on launch CAPCOM Gordon Cooper gave Gemini 3 its sendoff by telling Grissom and Young, “You’re on your way, Molly Brown!” and ground controllers used this name throughout the flight.
After the safe return of Gemini 3, NASA announced new spacecraft would not be named. Hence, Gemini 4 was not named American Eagle as its crew had planned. The naming of spacecraft resumed in 1967 after managers found the Apollo flights needed a name for each of two flight elements, the Command Module (CSM) and Lunar Module. Lobbying by the astronauts and senior NASA administrators also had an effect. Apollo 9 had the call signs Gumdrop for the Command Module and Spider for the Lunar Module.:138-139 However, Wally Schirra had been prevented from naming his Apollo 7 spacecraft Phoenix in honor of Grissom’s Apollo 1 crew since it was believed the average taxpayer would not understand the “fire” metaphor as intended.
Grissom was backup command pilot for Gemini 6A when he shifted to the Apollo program and was assigned as commander of the first manned 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. The three men were granted permission to refer to their flight as “Apollo 1” on their mission insignia patch.
Before its planned February 21, 1967, launch, the Command Module interior caught fire and burned on January 27, 1967, during a pre-launch test on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy. All three men were asphyxiated. The fire’s ignition source was never determined, but their deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal hazards in the early (CSM) design and conditions of the test, including: a pressurized 100% oxygen prelaunch atmosphere, many wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials used in the cockpit and in the astronauts’ flight suits, and an inward-opening hatch which could not be opened quickly in an emergency, and could not be opened at all with full internal pressure.
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 manned Apollo mission.” NASA pressed on, and mid-January 1967, preparations were being made for the final pre-flight tests of Spacecraft 012.
The simulator problems proved extremely annoying to Grissom. On January 22, 1967, before returning to the Cape to conduct the January 27 plugs-out test, Grissom took a lemon off a tree in his back yard. When his wife Betty asked him what he planned to do with it, he replied, “I’m going to hang it on that spacecraft.” He actually hung the lemon on the simulator, not the spacecraft.
After the accident, NASA decided to give the flight the official designation of Apollo 1 and then skip to Apollo 4 for the first unmanned orbital test of the CSM, counting the two unmanned suborbital tests AS-201 and 202 as part of the sequence. The spacecraft problems were corrected, and the Apollo program carried on to reach its objective of landing men on the Moon successfully.
Grissom had attained the rank of lieutenant colonel at the time of his death, and had logged a total of 4,600 hours flying time, including 3,500 hours in jet airplanes. Until his death, it was possible he would become one of the astronauts to walk on the moon. Slayton wrote that he had hoped for one of the original Mercury astronauts to go to the Moon, noting: “It wasn’t just a cut-and-dried decision as to who should make the first steps on the Moon. If I had to select on that basis, my first choice would have been Gus, which both Chris Kraft and Bob Gilruth seconded.” Ultimately, Alan Shepard would receive the honor of commanding the Apollo 14 lunar landing.
Gus Grissom is buried in Section 3, plot number 2503-E, Arlington National Cemetery, directly beside Roger Chaffee, plot number 2502-F.of the
When the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame opened in 1990, his family lent it the spacesuit worn by Grissom during Mercury 4 along with other personal artifacts belonging to the astronaut. In 2002, the museum went into bankruptcy and was taken over by a NASA contractor, whereupon the family asked for everything back. All the artifacts were returned to them except the spacesuit, which NASA claimed was government property. NASA insisted Grissom got authorization to use the spacesuit for a show and tell at his son’s school and never returned it, but some Grissom family members claimed the astronaut rescued the spacesuit from a scrap heap. As of December 2016, the space suit remains in the Hall of Fame’s Heroes and Legends exhibit.
Grissom and his wife Betty (born 1927) had two sons: Scott (born in 1950) and Mark (born in 1953). He greatly valued being home with his family, stating that “it sure helped to spend a quiet evening with your wife and children in your own living room”. His wife Betty accommodated his hectic schedule by completing major chores and errands during the week so weekends would be free for family activities. Grissom refused to let work problems intrude on his time at home, and tried to complete technical reading or paperwork after the boys were asleep. Gus introduced his sons to hunting and fishing, two of his favorite pastimes.
Awards and honors
- Army Good Conduct Medal
- Honorary Doctorate, Florida Institute of Technology
- John J. Montgomery Award:465
- Member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots
- Honorary Mayor of Newport News, Virginia (posthumous)
- Inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1981.
- Enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1987.
- Inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 11, 1990.
- In a 2010 Space Foundation survey, Grissom was ranked as the #9 (tied with astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Alan Shepard) most popular space hero.
- The dismantled Launch Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station bears two memorial plaques.
- Grissom is named with his Apollo 1 crewmates on the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
- A limestone carving of the Titan II rocket which launched his Gemini flight is in downtown Mitchell, Indiana. There is also a memorial in nearby Spring Mill State Park.
- Virgil “Gus” Grissom Park, Fullerton, California.
- The Gus Grissom Stakes, a thoroughbred horse race run in Indiana each fall; originally held at Hoosier Park in Anderson, it was moved to Indiana Grand Race Course in Shelbyville in 2014.
- Grissom Island, artificial island, Long Beach Harbor off Southern California (along with White & Chaffee Islands).
- Grissom crater is one of several located on the far side of the Moon named for Apollo astronauts, near a large crater (walled plain) named Apollo.
- Grissom Hill is one of the Apollo 1 Hills on Mars, located 4.7 miles (7.6 km) southwest of Columbia Memorial Station.
- Navi (Ivan spelled backwards), a nickname for the star Gamma Cassiopeiae: Grissom used this name, plus two others for White and Chaffee, on his Apollo 1 mission planning star charts as a joke, and the succeeding Apollo astronauts kept using the names as a memorial.
- 2161 Grissom is a main belt asteroid.
- The Virgil I. Grissom Museum is located just inside the entrance to Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, Indiana.
- Virgil I. Grissom Library, Denbigh section of Newport News, Virginia.
- The airport in Bedford, Indiana where Grissom flew as a teenager was renamed Virgil I. Grissom Municipal Airport.
- Grissom’s boyhood home on Grissom Avenue (renamed in his honor after his Mercury flight) in Mitchell, Indiana, is currently being restored into a museum.
- Bunker Hill Air Force Base in Peru, Indiana, was renamed on May 12, 1968, to Grissom Air Force Base. In 1994, it was again renamed to Grissom Air Reserve Base following the USAF’s realignment program. The three-letter identifier of the VHF Omni Directional Radio Range (VOR) located at Grissom Air Reserve Base is GUS, Grissom’s nickname
- Grissom Dining Facility, Misawa Air Base, Japan.
- Grissom was the “Class Exemplar” of the United States Air Force Academy class of 2007.
- Grissom Hall at the former Chanute Air Force Base, Rantoul, Illinois, where Minuteman missile maintenance training was conducted.
- Grissom Hall at Purdue University, his alma mater, was the home of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics for several decades. It is currently home of the Purdue department of Industrial Engineering.
- Grissom Hall, Florida Institute of Technology.
- Grissom Hall, State University of New York at Fredonia.
- Virgil I. Grissom High School, Huntsville, Alabama.
- Virgil I. Grissom Middle School, in Mishawaka, Indiana, Tinley Park, Illinois, and Sterling Heights, Michigan.
- Virgil I. Grissom Junior High School 226, South Ozone Park, Queens, New York City, New York.
- Grissom Elementary School, Gary, Indiana and Muncie, Indiana.
- Virgil I. Grissom Elementary School in the Hegewisch community of Chicago, Illinois, and Houston, Texas.
- Virgil Grissom Elementary School, in Princeton, Iowa, and Old Bridge, New Jersey, which was named for Grissom several years before his death.
- Virgil I. Grissom School No. 7, Rochester, New York.
- Grissom Elementary School, Tulsa, Oklahoma
- V.I. Grissom Elementary School, at the closed Clark Air Base, Philippines.
Film and television
Grissom has been noted and remembered in many film and television productions. Before he became widely known as an astronaut, the film Air Cadet (1951) starring Richard Long and Rock Hudson briefly featured Grissom early in the movie as a U.S. Air Force candidate for flight school at Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas. Grissom was depicted by Fred Ward in the film The Right Stuff (1983) and (very briefly) in the film Apollo 13 (1995) by Steve Bernie.:43 He was portrayed in the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998) by Mark Rolston.:195 Actor Kevin McCorkle played Grissom in the third-season finale of the NBC television show American Dreams.Bryan Cranston played Grissom as a nervous variety-show guest in the film That Thing You Do! Actor Joel Johnstone portrays Gus Grissom in the 2015 ABC TV series The Astronaut Wives Club.
In the 1984 film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Federation starship USS Grissom is named for Grissom. Another USS Grissom was featured in a 1990 episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and was mentioned in a 1999 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The character Gil Grissom in the CBS television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and the character Virgil Tracy in the British television series Thunderbirds are also named after the astronaut. NASA footage, including Grissom’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, was released in high definition on the Discovery Channel in June 2008 in the television series When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions.