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Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom
Gus Grissom photo portrait head and shoulders.jpg
NASA Astronaut
Status Died during a plugs-out test of the AS-204 Command Module
Born April 3, 1926(1926-04-03)
Mitchell, Indiana
Died January 27, 1967 (aged 40)
Cape Canaveral, Florida
Other occupation Test pilot
Rank Lieutenant Colonel, USAF
Time in space 5h 7m
Selection 1959 NASA Group
Missions Mercury-Redstone 4, Gemini 3, Apollo 1
Mission insignia
Liberty bell insignia.jpg Gemini3.png Apollo 1 patch.png

Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom, (April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967) was one of the original NASA Project Mercury astronauts and a United States Air Force pilot. He was the second American to fly in space. Grissom was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a training exercise and pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at the Kennedy Space Center. He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.


Family and background

Virgil Ivan Grissom was born in Mitchell, Indiana on April 3, 1926, the second child of Dennis and Cecile King Grissom.[1] 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.[2] As a child he attended the local Church of Christ where he remained a lifelong member and joined the Boy Scouts' Troop 46. He was enrolled in public elementary schools and went on to attend Mitchell High School. Grissom met and befriended Betty Lavonne Moore at school through their extracurricular activities.[3] He worked delivering newspapers for the Indianapolis Star and in a local meat market for his first jobs.[4]

Grissom occasionally spent time at a local airport in [[Bedford, Indiana]Bedford]] 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 an airplane.[5] World War II broke out while Grissom was still in highschool, and he was eager to enlist upon graduation. Grissom enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Corp and completed an entrance exam in November 1943. He graduated from high school in 1944 and was inducted into the army at Fort Benjamin Harrison on August 8, 1944.[6] He was sent to Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas for basic training after which he was assigned as a clerk at Brooks Field in San Antonio, Texas.[7]

As the war neared its end, Grissom sought to be discharged. He married Betty Moore on July 6, 1945 while on leave, and secured his discharge in September.[8] He took a job in carpentry at a local business and rented an apartment in Mitchell. He had trouble providing a sufficient income and determined to attend college. He took advantage of the G.I. Bill for partial payment of his school tuition and enrolled at Purdue University in September 1946.[9] 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.[10] Grissom took summer classes to finish early and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1950.[11]

Korean War

Grissom re-enlisted in the newly formed United States Air Force after his graduation from Purdue. 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.[12] In March 1951 Grissom received his pilot wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant.[13] Grissom's wife remained in Indiana and while he was away his first child was born, Scott. After his birth they join Grissom at his new post in Pheonix, Arizona.[14] The family remained there only briefly and in December 1951 they moved to Presque Isle, Maine where Grissom became a member of the Seventy-Fifth Fighter Interceptor Squadron.[15]

USAF F-86F similar to the aircraft Grissom flew in Korea.

With the ongoing Korean War, Grissom's squadron was dispatched to the war zone in February 1951. There he flew 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.[16] Grissom flew 100 combat missions during his time in the war, serving as a wing man protecting the lead fighters. The position was not one that put him in a position to attack the enemy and he did not shoot down any planes while he was in service. He did personally drive off Korean air raids on multiple occasions; their MIGs would often flee at the first sign of superior American aircraft.[17] On March 11, 1952, Grissom was promoted to second lieutenant and was cited for his "superlative airmanship".[18]

He requested to remain in Korea to fly another 25 flights, but his request was denied. He was given the option of what base he would like to be stationed at in the United States and he requested the Bryan AFB in Bryan, Texas. There he served as a teaching instructor and was joined by his wife and son. His second child was born in Bryan in 1953.[19] During a training exercise with a cadet, the new pilot throttled the aircraft too quickly and a flap broke of the plane causing it to spin out of control. Grissom climbed from the rear seat of the small craf to take over the controls and safely land the jet.[20]

In August 1955 Grissom was reassigned to the US Air force Institute of Technology located in Dayton, Ohio. There he earned a bachelors degree in aero mechanics after completing a year long course.[21] In October 1956 he entered the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, California and returned to Wright-Patterson in May 1957 as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.[22][23]


The Project Mercury astronauts with a model of an Atlas rocket, July 12, 1962. Grissom is at the far left.

As an Air Force captain in 1959 Grissom underwent a series of physical and psychological tests and was then chosen as one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts.[24]


Liberty Bell 7

Grissom in front of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule.

In 1961, Grissom was pilot of Mercury-Redstone 4, popularly known as Liberty Bell 7, the second American (suborbital) spaceflight. After splashdown explosive bolts blew the hatch off unexpectedly and water flooded into the tiny capsule. Grissom exited through the open hatch and into the ocean but nearly drowned as water filled his flightsuit while a helicopter tried to lift and recover the spacecraft. The capsule became too heavy with water and sank. Grissom strongly asserted he had done nothing to blow the hatch and NASA officials eventually concluded that he was correct. Initiating the explosive egress system required hitting a metal trigger with the side of a closed fist. This would always leave a large, obvious bruise on the Astronaut's forearm, but Grissom was found to not have any of the tell-tale bruising associated with triggering the emergency hatch release. The capsule was recovered in 1999 but no evidence was found which could conclusively explain how the explosive hatch release fired on its own. Years after, Guenter Wendt (who was 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 shroud line, or was perhaps damaged by the heat of re-entry, cooled upon splashdown, contracted and then fired.[24][25]

Grissom was flooded by reporters in a news conference after his space flight in America's second manned ship. "Well, I was scared a good portion of the time; I guess that's a pretty good indication." -Grissom.[26]

Gemini 3

In early 1964 Alan Shepard was grounded after being diagnosed with Ménière's disease and Grissom was designated command pilot for Gemini 3, the first manned Project Gemini flight. This mission would make him the first astronaut to fly twice beyond the accepted boundary of space. Grissom was one of the smaller-sized astronauts, and he worked very closely with the engineers and technicians from McDonnell Aircraft who built the Gemini capsule. The first three spacecraft were built around him and the design was humorously named 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.[27] During this time Grissom innovated a multi-axis joystick for controlling the maneuvering thrusters with one hand.

Naming of the Molly Brown

Gemini 3 mission patch design.

In a joking nod to the sinking of his Mercury craft Grissom named the first Gemini capsule the Molly Brown after the popular Broadway show The Unsinkable Molly Brown but 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 The Titanic. Aghast, NASA executives gave in and allowed the name Molly Brown but didn't 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 saying over the uplink, "You're on your way, Molly Brown!" and ground controllers used this name throughout the flight.[citation needed]

After the safe return of Gemini 3 NASA announced new spacecraft would not be named. Hence Gemini IV was not named American Eagle as 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 and lunar module. Lobbying by the astronauts and senior NASA administrators also had an effect. Apollo 9 had the callsigns Gumdrop for the command module and Spider for the lunar module. However, Wally Schirra had been prevented from naming his Apollo 7 spacecraft the Phoenix in honor of Grissom's Apollo 1 crew since it was believed the average taxpayer would not take a "fire" metaphor as intended.


Apollo 1 crew, Grissom, White and Chaffee
Apollo I mission patch design

Grissom was backup command pilot for Gemini 6A when he shifted to the Apollo program and was assigned as commander of AS-204, which was meant to be the first manned Apollo flight. He was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee when the Apollo 1 command module caught fire and burned on the launchpad during a training exercise and pre-launch test at Cape Kennedy on January 27, 1967. The fire's ignition source was never determined, but their deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal design hazards in the early Apollo command module, such as its highly pressurized 100% oxygen atmosphere during the test, many wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials in the cockpit, a hatch which might not open at all in an emergency, and even the flight suits worn by the astronauts.[28] After the tragedy, these, along with other flaws and design problems, were fixed so the Apollo program could carry on successfully.

Grissom was a Lieutenant Colonel at the time of his death, and he had logged a total of 4,600 hours flying time, including 3,500 hours in jet airplanes. In his 1994 autobiography Deke!, the chief astronaut Deke Slayton said he wanted one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to be the first on the moon and, "Had Gus been alive, as a Mercury astronaut he would have taken the step." Slayton also wrote, "My first choice would have been Gus, which both Chris Kraft and Bob Gilruth seconded."

Gus Grissom is buried in Section 3 of the Arlington National Cemetery, near Roger Chaffee. Ed White is buried at the West Point Cemetery, West Point, New York.

Spacesuit controversy

Grissom's MR-4 spacesuit on display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame

When the Astronaut Hall of Fame opened in 1990 his family loaned 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.[29] All the artifacts were returned to them except the spacesuit, which NASA claimed was government property.[30] 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.[31]

Awards and honors


One of two Apollo 1 memorial plaques at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 34.



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. He was portrayed in the TV mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998) by Mark Rolston. 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!

In the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock the Federation starship sent to survey the newly formed Genesis Planet is named USS Grissom. The character Gus Griswald in the popular children's TV show Recess is named after Grissom (his fictional father is a General in the US Army and Gus is his recruit). The character Gil Grissom in the CBS television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation[44] and the character Virgil Tracy in the British television series Thunderbirds are 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.[24]


A family-approved account of Grissom's life appears in the 2003 book Fallen Astronauts by Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan.[citation needed] Ray E. Boomhower wrote a biography of Grissom titled Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut in 2004, published by the Indiana Historical Society Press. Betty Grissom wrote a memoir titled Starfall in 1974.[citation needed]

Grissom died while putting the finishing touches on Gemini!, his account of the Gemini Program, in which he was heavily involved. The final chapter is dated January 1967, a few days before Grissom's death on the Apollo launch pad. According to editor Jacob Hay, the book's final form was "reached with the approval of Mrs. Betty Grissom."[citation needed]


If we die, we want people to accept it. We are 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.
- after the Gemini 3 mission, March 1965


  1. ^ Boomhower, p. 39
  2. ^ Boomhower, p. 40
  3. ^ Boomhower, pp. 43–45
  4. ^ Boomhower, p. 42
  5. ^ Boomhower, p. 47
  6. ^ Boomhower, p. 48
  7. ^ Boomhower, p. 49
  8. ^ Boomhower, p. 50
  9. ^ Boomhower, p. 52
  10. ^ Boomhower, p. 55
  11. ^ Boomhower, p. 56
  12. ^ Boomhower, p. 57
  13. ^ Boomhower, p. 58
  14. ^ Boomhower, p. 59
  15. ^ Boomhower, p. 60
  16. ^ Boomhower, p. 63
  17. ^ Grissom, p. 66
  18. ^ Grissom, p. 67
  19. ^ Boomhower, p. 68
  20. ^ Boomhower, p. 69
  21. ^ Boomhower, p. 71
  22. ^ "Astronaut Biographies: Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom". U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Retrieved January 23, 2008. 
  23. ^ "Astronaut Bio: Virgil I. Grissom". Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Retrieved June 11, 2008. 
  24. ^ a b c Discovery Channel, When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, "Ordinary Supermen," airdate June 8, 2008 (season 1)
  25. ^ Banke, Jim (June 17, 2000). "Gus Grissom didn't sink the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule". Retrieved December 26, 2008. 
  26. ^ "Year in Review". 
  27. ^ Hacker, Barton C.; James M. Grimwood (1977). On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini. NASA History Series #4203. NASA Special Publications. Retrieved January 23, 2008. 
  28. ^ "Findings, Determinations And Recommendations". Report of Apollo 204 Review Board. NASA. April 5, 1967. "No single ignition source of the fire was conclusively identified." 
  29. ^ Kelly, John (November 20, 2002). "Gus Grissom's Family, NASA Fight Over Spacesuit". Florida Today. Retrieved May 27, 2007. 
  30. ^ "Luckless Gus Grissom in the hot seat again". November 24, 2002. Retrieved May 4, 2007. 
  31. ^ Lee, Christopher (August 24, 2005). "Grissom Spacesuit in Tug of War". Washington Post. Retrieved May 27, 2007. 
  32. ^ "Post-landing Activities". Apollo 15 Lunar Surface Journal. NASA.  commentary at 105:11:33
  33. ^ "Apollo 10 Flown CSM Star Chart Directly from the Personal Collection of Mission Command Module Pilot John Young". Heritage Auction Galleries. Retrieved March 11, 2010. 
  34. ^ Wasik, John W. (April 4, 1965). "Virgil Grissom and John Young: Our Trail-Blazing "Twin" Astronauts". Family Weekly (The Herald-Tribune): p. 4.,1212947. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  35. ^ "Parks & Recreation: List of parks". City of Fullerton. Retrieved June 11, 2008. 
  36. ^ Fallen Astronaut
  37. ^ pdf of City of Long Beach Economic Zones
  38. ^ "Questions About Grissom". Grissom Air Reserve Base, USAF. Retrieved January 23, 2008. 
  39. ^ Sequin, Cynthia (October 14, 2005). "Purdue industrial engineering kicks off Grissom renovation, celebrates gifts". Purdue University News. Retrieved January 23, 2008. 
  40. ^ "Grissom High School". WikiMapia. Retrieved January 23, 2008. 
  41. ^ Jaques, Bob (June 6, 2002). "First spacewalk by American astronaut 37 years ago" (PDF). Marshall Star (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center): p. 5. 
  42. ^ "Mission Control". Virgil I. Grissom Elementary School. Houston ISD. Retrieved July 27, 2009. 
  43. ^ "Welcome to Virgil Grissom Elementary School". Old Bridge Township Public Schools. Retrieved January 23, 2008. 
  44. ^ Zaslow, Jeffrey (January 20, 2002). "A real reality show; William Petersen, star of CBS' surprise hit series CSI seeks ultimate truths in some unseemly places". USA Weekend. Retrieved January 23, 2008. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

We are 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.

Virgil Ivan Grissom, more widely known as Gus Grissom (3 April 192627 January 1967) was one of the original NASA Project Mercury astronauts and a United States Air Force pilot. He was the second American to fly into space. Grissom was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a training exercise and pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at the Kennedy Space Center. He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.


  • If we die we want people to accept it. We are 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. Our god-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.
    • On the dangers of the mission of going to the moon, quoted in Liftoff! The story of America's spaceport‎ (1968) by L. B. Taylor

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