Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom (1926-1967) was one of the first astronauts in the American space program. During his brief career, he entered space twice, and was the second American in space, after Alan Shepard. Grissom was selected as the commander of the Apollo mission in 1967, after which, along with his two fellow crewmen, he was tragically killed in a fire during pre-launch training. He was a distinguished pilot and astronaut during his lifetime, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal during the Korean War as well as several NASA decorations and a posthumous Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
– Early Life and Military Service –
Grissom was born in 1926 to a railway signalman in Mitchell, India, the second of five children (although his older sister died before he was born). He became interested in aviation when, as a youth, he began to hang out at the Bedford, Indiana airport, where he took informal flying lessons from a lawyer. When he graduated, in 1944, he followed his love of flying into the U.S. Army Air Force, though during the war he never earned his wings, instead working at a desk at Brooks Field, Texas.
After getting a university education in science via the GI Bill in the early postwar years, Grissom returned to the U.S. Air Force as an air cadet, this time earning his wings in 1951 in time to see service in the Korean War of 1950-1953. Grissom flew as an F-86 Sabre jet fighter pilot, during which time he was commended for his flying ability but had no kills. After a tour of duty in Korea Grissom was returned to the U.S., and re-assigned as a flight instructor. From there, he became a test pilot, a vocation which NASA considered ideal for many of its early astronauts.
– Project Mercury –
In 1959, NASA recruited its first seven astronauts as part of Project Mercury, the race to send a man into space before the Soviet Union could. (The Americans lost this race, but the experience did help them in sending men to the Moon, which the Soviet space program never attempted.) In July 1961, Grissom was sent into space as the pilot of the primitive spacecraft Liberty Bell 7, part of the Mercury Redstone program. This made him the second American in space, after Alan Shepard in Freedom 7.
Although technically designated Mercury-Redstone 4, Grissom’s spacecraft was colloquially known as Liberty Bell 7. The craft never went high enough, or fast enough, to actually achieve orbit. Instead, after a short flight, he began re-entry and, as was standard for early American spacecraft, made a parachute-slowed plunge into the Pacific Ocean. In an odd but fortunate (in its timing) technical malfunction, shortly after landing the vehicle’s escape hatch suddenly blew off, probably because of the failure of the single screw which upheld its release system. This design flaw was later repaired to prevent a similar recurrence from happening at a more sensitive time during re-entry.
– Project Gemini –
In 1965, after four years on the ground, Grissom returned to space as the commander of Gemini 3, part of the new series of manned flights under Project Gemini. The Gemini series of launches were the second manned space project attempted by NASA, and the first to use two crewmen, in this case Grissom and future Apollo astronaut John Young.
This time, Grissom and Young did orbit the Earth: Gemini 3 circled the planet three times during its roughly five-hour flight, before re-entering the atmosphere to make the usual splashdown. Once again, several minor technical issues plagued the flight; in perhaps the most serious incident, the craft was yanked under the force of its parachutes so hard that Grissom cracked the faceplate of his space suit against the control panels. To prevent a recurrence of the accident, NASA switched from plexiglas to polycarbonate for its faceplate construction.
– Apollo 1 –
In what was, in retrospect, a fateful decision, Grissom’s success on the Mercury and Gemini flights led him to be selected in 1966 for the flight crew for the first flight of NASA’s new series of manned space flights to the moon, the Apollo project. Along with Edward White and Roger Chaffee, Grissom was chosen for Apollo 1, intended to be a test flight of the spacecraft’s command module and which would not leave Earth orbit. NASA’s plans called for future test flights to gradually push the Apollo spacecraft out to the orbit of the moon, and finally (beginning with Neil Armstrong’s, Buzz Aldrin’s, and Michael Collins’s Apollo 11) to actually land there.
Tragically, Apollo 1 did not become the much-hoped-for triumphant beginning of the new project. It missed its first launch date in 1966, and there were sharp disagreements between NASA and the lead contractor, North American Aviation, over whether it should carry explosive bolts to allow its escape hatch to open quickly. The company argued that an emergency would require a quick exit strategy, especially given that the early spacecraft flew with pure oxygen rather than a nitrogen-oxygen air mixture. NASA argued that similar bolts had failed on Grissom’s first flight, the Liberty Bell. If the bolts failed again, during launch, orbit, or re-entry, it would surely be fatal to the astronauts. NASA won the argument, although other engineering concerns remained. Grissom himself allegedly labelled the spacecraft a lemon.
On January 27, 1967, Grissom and his crew entered the Apollo spacecraft on the launch site to conduct a series of training and testing procedures, with the craft operating under its own power and unplugged from the tower. At 6:31 p.m., while running through a routine checklist, the astronauts reported a power surge and then, horrifyingly, a fire. The flames spread extremely rapidly thanks to the pure-oxygen atmosphere. In less than a minute, all three men were dead. It took the outside crew several minutes to open the hatch. The Apollo project went on to succeed admirably in reaching the Moon, but Grissom, White and Chaffee tragically never lived to see it happen.
– Sources and More Reading –
NASA. “Detailed Biographies of Apollo I Crew.”
SpaceFacts. “Biographies of U.S. Astronauts.”