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Gus Grissom
Grissom in 1964
Virgil Ivan Grissom

(1926-04-03)April 3, 1926
DiedJanuary 27, 1967(1967-01-27) (aged 40)
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery
EducationPurdue University (BS)
Air University (BS)
Space career
NASA astronaut
RankLieutenant Colonel, USAF
Time in space
5h 7m
SelectionNASA Group 1 (1959)
Mission insignia

Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom (April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967) was an American engineer and pilot in the United States Air Force, as well as one of the original men, the Mercury Seven, selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for Project Mercury, a program to train and launch astronauts into outer space. Grissom was also a Project Gemini and Apollo program astronaut for NASA. As a member of the NASA Astronaut Corps, Grissom was the second American to fly in space in 1961. He was also the second American to fly in space twice, preceded only by Joe Walker with his sub-orbital X-15 flights.

Grissom was a World War II and Korean War veteran, mechanical engineer, and USAF test pilot. He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster, two NASA Distinguished Service Medals, and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

As commander of AS-204 (Apollo 1), Grissom died with astronauts Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee on January 27, 1967, during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Kennedy, Florida.

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  • The Boilermakers: Gus Grissom
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  • Apollo 1 Crew Announcement - Complete, two camera edit - March 1966
  • Virgil "Gus" Grissom's Liberty Bell 7; Inside the Cockpit
  • Apollo 1: The Tragic Irony Behind NASA's Darkest Hour | Just Interesting Stories


[ Music ] >> Twenty-two Purdue graduates have gone on to become astronauts including the first and last man to walk on the moon. Hi I'm Randy Roberts and welcome to The Boilermakers. The astronaut tradition at Purdue began with a 1950 graduate who had a passion for flying. The irrepressible Virgil I. Gus Grissom, the second American in space, the first Purdue astronaut and the subject of this edition of The Boilermakers. [ Music ] They were just a few weeks away from launch that would send them into earth's orbit for fourteen days led by Purdue graduate Gus Grissom, the three-man crew suited up for a series of tests in the spacecraft. Forty-one year old Gus was a seasoned veteran of the group, one of the last original Mercury 7 astronauts in the program. He was the first man to fly in space twice and the trusted veteran NASA chose to command the first Apollo flight. The Apollo program set out to finally achieve the monumental goal President Kennedy established six years earlier to send a man to the moon and return him safely by decade's end. [ Music ] It was January 27, 1967 and Gus Grissom, NASA and all of America were on the verge of doing something that was thought to be for century's pure science fiction. [ Music ] >> We're getting the amazing interplanetary adventures of Flash Gordon. [ Music ] >> Randy Roberts: Comic strips and sci-fi radio serials captured young Gus' imagination. >> Last week Flash >> Randy Roberts: He flew his balsawood model airplane out in the front yard acting out the latest space adventures of buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. He wanted to fly but growing up in the Depression in a small Indiana town, becoming a pilot seemed as likely as well going to the moon. [ Music ] Gus was born Virgil Ivan Grissom on April 3, 1926, the oldest of four children to Dennis and Cecilia Grissom. >> My dad worked on the B&O Railroad for 47 years. Fortunately dad had a job all during the Depression and my folks didn't have a lot of means but they're very sharing people and they helped a lot of people out that didn't have very much back in those days. My mother was one of these people that if you walked in her front door she thought you must be hungry. >> Randy Roberts: Dennis and Cecilia raised their four children in Mitchell, Indiana, a hard-working town of 3,000 in the southern part of the state, known for the railroad, limestone quarries and the Carpenter's Bodyworks School Bus Factory. Growing up Gus was an adventurist spirit who was a doer and not a talker. The Grissom's encouraged their eldest son's active nature and it was one family trip that made a particular impression on Gus. >> Well according to his father, it was one summer day they took a ride out to Vincennes and Gus had his first ride in an airplane. Gus later said that he made his share of model airplanes when he was a kid growing up but didn't consider himself to be a flying fanatic but that might have changed after that first experience in the air because later family legend has it that he traded an air rifle for another airplane flight. >> Randy Roberts: His enthusiasm for flying didn't quite cross over into the classroom. In high school he enjoyed math and science but he never distinguished himself as a standout student. [ Music ] >> I guess you'd rank him as a fair student. The issue comes up was he putting forth all the effort he could in those years and I'd answer probably no. >> When he was in high school he wasn't that big you know he was only around a hundred pounds and about five four and he wasn't an athlete from the standpoint of playing basketball or football but he was very competitive. He was quite an individual with extreme amount of charisma that just always shined through. >> Randy Roberts: Betty Moore became acquainted with Gus' charm at a high school basketball game. She was a year younger and a drummer in the band. At halftime Gus made his way over to where she was sitting and sat down beside her on the bleacher. >> Lore has it that they you know took one look at each other and knew that they were made for one another and dated throughout high school and there was always an understanding, though Gus never really got down on his knee and formally proposed, that they would be married. >> Randy Roberts: In 1944 as Gus finished up his senior year World War II was raging. He was eager to enlist and saw it as an opportunity not only to serve his country but to train as a pilot. Gus was ordered to report to duty on August 8, 1944 as an air cadet in the U. S. Army Air Corp. >> and I said what'd you do out there and he said well they had so many of them they didn't know what to do with so they transferred him to I believe Boca Raton, Florida and made a clerk typist out of him. [ Typewriter ] >> Randy Roberts: Eleven months into his service he made a quick trip back to Mitchell to marry his high school sweetheart Betty. They exchanged vows on July 6, 1945. A month later the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Japan soon surrendered ending the war. Gus was discharged without seeing any action or the inside of a cockpit. The dream of flying looked like it would remain just that, a dream. Besides, he had responsibilities now. He was a newlywed with a wife to support and he returned to Mitchell to find a job and start a new life. He was nineteen years old. >> Gus got a job at the Carpenter Bus Factory putting doors on school buses but was not very happy with that. He had that drive to do something more with his life and not that it was a bad job. It just wasn't of his interest. He just had higher aspirations than that. >> Randy Roberts: Gus' growing frustration was putting a strain on the young marriage so Betty was somewhat relieved when Gus asked her one morning what she thought of him enrolling at Purdue University. She was all for it. >> And he had these partial benefits from the GI Bill. It was a little iffy at first if he'd be accepted into Purdue because his grades weren't the best in high school. As he said you know I'm kind of drifting, didn't know what I wanted to do. >> Kind of interesting the high school superintendent did not endorse his recommendation to go to Purdue. >> But because of his status as a veteran and a personal interview he did get accepted to Purdue University and when he went there of course, Purdue was experiencing an explosion of students after the war like a lot of colleges and universities were across the country. There was an influx of returning servicemen who wanted to get on with their lives, had the support of the GI Bill to further their education. >> Randy Roberts: Gus knew that he was lucky to get into Purdue and unlike high school he became very academically focused. He had shown an aptitude in math and was determined that a degree in mechanical engineering would provide him with a suitable career to support his family. With only partial benefits from the GI Bill Gus flipped burgers on nights and weekends and when Betty joined him during his second semester she took a job as a telephone operator. They scraped by and saw little of each other. [ Music ] During those rare occasions when they were together they'd take in a Purdue football game or play cards. It was during a card game that the man known as Virgil Grissom would be changed forever. >> They had a scorecard where he had abbreviated his last name as Gris and someone read that upside down as Gus and started calling him Gus and the nickname stuck and he went by that for most of his life. >> Randy Roberts: Gus graduated from Purdue a semester early in February 1950 armed with a degree in mechanical engineering he faced the job market flooded with new college graduates and a nagging desire that just wouldn't go away. >> After he graduated he half-heartedly looked for a job. His specialty was in heating and air conditioning and I remember him going on two, three interviews but I don't think his heart was really in that. I think that he knew all along that he was going to go back in the Air Force because he wanted to fly. >> Randy Roberts: It was the dawn of the Cold War and the U.S. was convinced that to stop the spread of communism they needed to strengthen the military forces, especially air power. The Air Force became a separate military branch in September 1947. Gus signed up and went off to basic flight training in Texas to finally realize his dream which almost turned into a nightmare. >> He had some problems with landings. He didn't get the aircraft in the proper altitude for landing and thinking maybe he was even going to be washed out of flight school and they said you can always be a navigator. Well he didn't want to be a navigator. He wanted to be a pilot and he went up with a senior instructor and he was having trouble again and he pointed out an instrument on the aircraft panel that Gus had not known about which gave him a clue in how to set up the airplane for the proper landing and once he did know about that he did his landings successfully and became a certified pilot. >> Randy Roberts: From them on you couldn't keep Gus out of the air building up his hours and proficiency, graduating from a P6 trainer to a jet fighter. It wasn't long before his fighter flyer skills were tested in combat. [ Music ] In 1950 Communism was on the move and Gus was ordered to Korea. >> Gus flew F-86 Sabre Jet fighters against opponents in the MIG 15 aircraft. There was a mission he was involved with flying cover for a [ Noise ] Reconnaissance plane that came under attack from MIG fighters and Gus through his flying was able to scatter those MIGs attack on the reconnaissance plane and for that he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. In fact, after he completed his 100 combat missions which meant a ticket back home to the United States, Gus wanted to stay and fly more missions. >> Randy Roberts: His request was denied. He was promoted to first Lieutenant and assigned to a base in Texas as a flight instructor. As Gus continued to rise in the ranks his family continued to grow. Scott was born in 1950 followed by Mark in 1953. >> My father was always very interested in the kids and so we were always going to the baseball game or hunting or fishing or water skiing, snow skiing. We went and did something. >> Randy Roberts: A typical military family, they moved around the country base to base, following Gus' advancing career. He took his job seriously and was very good at it but he wasn't above having a little fun every now and then. >> He used to buzz the town of Mitchell and you'd be lying there in bed some Sunday morning fairly early and all at once here'd be this big roar. [ Airplane ] And it just scared the daylights out of you because you knew what it was and it was Gus buzzing the town of Mitchell at night. Some of the townspeople didn't appreciate it too much but it was kind of fun. >> Randy Roberts: In 1956 Gus was selected to attend test pilot's school at Edwards Air Force Base in California. From the day he enlisted Gus wanted to be a test pilot. They were the elite flyers on the forefront of aviation technology, testing out the next generation of fighter jets. It was the risk and the challenge of being a test pilot that appealed to Gus' adventurous spirit but it held less appeal for Betty. During the 1950s test pilot deaths averaged one a week. >> These were aircraft with a lot of bugs in them that needed to be tested out. If you were the wife of a pilot you never knew from day to day whether the man you loved would walk through the door that evening. It was that dangerous of a business. >> Randy Roberts: Much to Betty's delight, Gus walked through the door every night for a year and graduated from test pilot school in May 1957. In just ten years Gus had gone from putting doors on school buses to being one of the best jet jockeys in the military but Gus' journey was only beginning. [ Music ] >> Today a new moon is in the sky. A 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian. >> Randy Roberts: On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. >> It's weight. >> It's hard to imagine what kind of a shock reverberated throughout the country with this news. Here was this country, you know, our foe, the communists actually putting something over technology wise on the United States. Here was a country that couldn't build a tractor and yet they had you know leaped ahead of the United States in the race to get into space. >> Randy Roberts: In the midst of the Cold War the United States was determined not to let the Russians control space. In July of 1958 President Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act which created the civilian space agency NASA. With the Russians claiming victory with the first satellite, the next race for space superiority would involve sending a man into space. [ Music ] Initially the newly created civilian space agency NASA was going to have an open application process for the occupation listed as astronaut. President Eisenhower wanted the selection process to be kept secret and only military test pilots that met certain criteria would be considered. >> You had to be under forty years old. You had to have a degree from an accredited college, had to be less than 5 feet 11 inches tall. You had to be a qualified pilot and also have at least 1,500 hours of time in the air to become an astronaut. >> Randy Roberts: Five hundred and eight military test pilots met the criteria and one of those pilots was 5 foot 7, 32-year-old Purdue graduate Gus Grissom. >> Well Gus was at Wright Patterson Air Force base when one of the agents on duty said you know Gus what kind of hell have you been raising lately because he had received secret orders to report for Washington DC and Gus was wondered you know maybe he was in trouble because he didn't salute some general or something. >> Randy Roberts: Far from a reprimand, Gus discovered that he was one of a hundred astronaut candidates invited to interview at NASA. >> He told us he was going to Washington to be considered for this program called Project Mercury and you know that didn't mean anything to us but and when he started talking about going into space and all of that sort of thing, it just seemed like this is something out of this world. >> Randy Roberts: After making it through the first round in Washington, Gus and 31 other test pilots endured seven days worth of rigorous testing at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico. No one knew how difficult space flight would be so the doctors exposed the men to a thorough battery of evasive tests that pushed the men's physical and mental well being to the limit. The 32 were cut to 18 finalists and out of those seven men were selected. On April 9, 1959 NASA held a news conference to introduce to the public America's first seven astronauts, the Mercury 7. Bill Head and his wife knew that Gus would be in the running and were pretty confident that their high school classmate would be one of the seven. [ Music ] >> Me and her gathered around the TV because we said we know who one of them going to be and they started naming them all and when his name come up we said we knew it long before the public did. We were sure. We were just sure because that was him. Anything new or had something to do with flying you could bet your life he was going to be getting on it. >> Randy Roberts: Joining Gus in the Mercury program were Deke Slayton and Gordo Cooper from the Air Force, Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Alan B. Shepard and Wally Schirra from the Navy and John Glenn from the Marines. >> When the astronauts were introduced the cynical hard-bitten reporters actually stood up and gave them a standing ovation which was unprecedented at the time and there was just a media firestorm. They were inundated with questions by the media. A lot having to do with their personal lives, how their families felt about them being selected for the space program. >> Well my wife feels the same way or of course I couldn't be here. She's with me all the way and the boys are too little to realize what's going on yet but I'm sure they'd feel the same way. >> My dad was very enthused by it. He thought it was just the greatest thing which could happen and my mother was not so enthused at all. She just didn't understand all this and of course was very concerned about reentering the atmosphere and things burning up and you know on and on. There was so many unknowns at that time. >> Randy Roberts: But what was immediately known was the presses and the public's insatiable appetite to know these seven men. Life Magazine paid $500,000 to obtain exclusive story rights to the astronauts and their families. Career servicemen living a quiet, anonymous existence in the military were now internationally known celebrities. >> You know the fact that it was almost like instant stardom was just amazing and I think it stunned those seven Mercury astronauts and the families were also taken back by it. >> Everyone wanted to get a sound bite from one of the original seven astronauts and Gus was not comfortable in dealing with the press. Hadn't been used to it and so for one of his flights to try to get away from the media hordes he'd even donned a disguise. He put on a floppy hat and a pair of sunglasses. >> Randy Roberts: The magazine covers, newspaper headlines and TV cameras became a routine part of life for Gus and the other astronauts but they all felt uneasy about the lionization. In the public's eyes the astronauts represented the courageous American spirit attempting to conquer a new frontier and defeat the Soviets. In the behind the scenes political chess match of the Cold War, space was one of the few opportunities where one country could claim a public victory over the other. The Soviet Union was leading the space race but now the United States was about to change that with this group of men, the Mercury 7. [ Music ] The early days of the Mercury program were marred by technical setbacks and delays. The success rate of launching test rockets were 60% and the public's confidence with the space program was on the decline. John F. Kennedy summed up the nation's attitude in a 1960 campaign speech when he said if man orbits the earth this year his name will be Ivan and he wasn't talking about Virgil Ivan Grissom. Lagging behind in the race there was no time for rest. Gus and his fellow astronauts logged long hours trying to catch up. >> We saw him less and less and I think my mom kept track and for a period of time there we probably seen him between four and five days a month was all we'd see my dad. >> Randy Roberts: As pilots the Mercury 7 were very involved in the spacecraft design. Contrary to popular belief the relationship between the astronauts and the NASA engineers was mostly productive and positive but some disagreements did occur. >> At first the engineer's had called the spacecraft the capsule which the astronauts didn't like and even the Macdonald Aircraft Corporation president said you know we're not building a pill, we're building a spacecraft but the engineers did try to get input from the astronauts. I mean they were all college educated. Many of them had degrees in engineering. They had been use to testing out new procedures on aircraft as test pilots so they got their input including trying to have a window on the spacecraft. It seemed a little odd that they would be you know the first people in space and not be able to describe you know what space was like and they wouldn't without a window. There was a hatch that was bolted on with seventy bolts and the astronauts were worried that they couldn't get out in time in an emergency and asked for an explosive hatch that could be triggered to be blown off in case there was an emergency. >> Randy Roberts: In February 1961 the Life Magazine cover revealed to the public the three candidates vying to be the first man in space. NASA insiders already knew the flight order. Alan Shepard would be the first followed by Gus and then John Glenn but before Shepard could take the maiden voyage, Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space with a one-orbit flight on April 12, 1961. Again the United States was left with the disappointment of finishing second. Three weeks after Gagarin's flight on May 5th, Alan Shepard became the second man and the first American into space. Inspired by the success of Shepard's flight and desperate to one up the Russians, President Kennedy chartered a new course for NASA. >> President Kennedy: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other thing, not because they are easy, but because they are hard because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we're willing to accept, one we aren't willing to postpone and one we intend to win. >> Randy Roberts: Shepard's flight lasted fifteen minutes and went 115 miles. The moon was 240,000 miles away. Mankind's most ambitious goal was NASA's new objective but first they had to successfully repeat a suborbital flight. A mishap would be disastrous for the program and likely end all discussion of the moon. All this pressure rested on the shoulders of Gus Grissom as he prepared for launch in July of 1961. >> He was going on board what was called the Liberty Bell 7. Gus said that the spacecraft resembled a bell and decided to name it after the most famous bell, the Liberty Bell and they even painted a crack on the spacecraft to resemble the Liberty Bell. >> Randy Roberts: In the early morning of Tuesday, July 18th Gus climbed into Liberty Bell 7, the one person spacecraft was so cramped that it was said that you didn't ride in it but you wore it. The Liberty Bell sat seven stories high above a Mercury-Redstone rocket. The nation's eyes turned to launch pad 5 waiting for the countdown to begin. Tucked into one of Gus's spacesuit pockets were two rolls of dimes, souvenirs from his boys, eleven-year-old Scott and seven-year-old Mark. Through his observations window Gus could see the cloud cover thickening. Ten minutes before launch flight controllers called for a five-minute hold. The hold went from five minutes to a half an hour and then after four hours of waiting for the weather to clear, the mission was scrubbed. Three days later on July 21, 1961 at 7:20 a.m. the Mercury-Redstone rocket filled with eighteen tons of fuel launched Liberty Bell 7 and Gus Grissom towards space. >> Gus Grissom: Roger, this is Liberty Bell 7. The clock is operating. Ok it's a nice ride up until now. >> [Inaudible] >> Gus Grissom: Roger. Ok the feel is go about 1 1/4 Gs. Cabin pressure is just coming off the [inaudible]. Oxygen is go. We're at 26 amps. >> Randy Roberts: The acceleration was smooth until the spacecraft broke through the sound barrier causing Liberty Bell to vibrate violently. Two minutes into the flight Gus was travelling at over 4,000 miles per hour. Gus watched from his window as the sky went from light to dark blue and then dissolved into the blackness of space. At 118 miles above Cape Canaveral he looked down at a mesmerizing view that only two other men had seen, the Earth from space. >> Gus Grissom: [Inaudible] such a fascinating view out the window you just can't help but look out that way. >> Randy Roberts: he fired the retrorockets positioning the spacecraft for reentry. As Liberty Bell descended back down into the Earth's atmosphere the g forces increased rapidly. >> Gus Grissom: [Inaudible] 6, there's 9. There's about 10. >> Randy Roberts: The pressure at that force makes speaking and breathing difficult. The spacecraft slowed and the g forces decreased as it pierced the Earth's atmosphere. The blackness of space faded back to blue sky. At 12,000 feet the main chute deployed and Liberty Bell landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean. From launch to splashdown the fifteen-minute flight was an unqualified success. >> But after it splashed down it seemed that everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Gus. >> Randy Roberts: Gus bobbed up and down in the sealed spacecraft, recording switch positions in his log as he waited for the recovery helicopters to arrive. [ Helicopter ] >> So he was sitting there when he heard a dull thud and saw the hatch skip off across the water and immediately of course water started gushing into the spacecraft. Gus said he never moved as fast as he had in his life in getting out of the Liberty Bell and it immediately began sinking under the waves. On the recovery helicopter managed to hook onto the Liberty Bell 7 and actually started pulling it out of the water but unfortunately for the helicopter pilot he received a warning light on his engine panel that there was going to be an engine failure on his helicopter and so he had to cut loose the Liberty Bell 7 and it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. While all this was going on Gus was treading water and sinking lower and lower under the waves. Waves would break over him. He swallowed a lot of seawater. >> He had closed his neckband on the suit but he had forgotten to close one of the valves on the bottom of the suit so he was taking on water and it was he said it was getting harder and harder to stay afloat. He kept waving to the helicopters and they kept thinking he's ok and he wasn't. >> He was about ready to drown. He was wondering you know I'm going to sink below the waves in front of all these people. Fortunately for him a second helicopter had come by, dropped the horse collar and he swam hard, got into it and was winched aboard. >> Randy Roberts: An official inquiry into the hatch self triggering corroborated Gus's story and found him not to be at fault but without the major piece of evidence, the spacecraft, the report failed to eliminate doubt for some within NASA and among the test pilot fraternity. A harmless and honest admission to a reporter that he was scared only fueled the speculation that Gus panicked and blew the hatch prematurely. >> I was angry about the way it was handled because knowing Gus if he said he didn't do it, he didn't do it. I thought it was always a little ridiculous to think that he would panic. You know here was a man that had flown 100 combat missions in Korea. He had just been sitting on a rocket, blasted into space. He had come through reentry and now he's sitting down in the water, you would think this is all over. Would you panic at that point in time? It just never did make any sense to me. >> Randy Roberts: The debate was finally put to rest when Liberty Bell 7 was salvaged from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in May 1999. All evidence from the Liberty Bell restoration supported Gus's story that the hatch blew without being triggered. In February of 1962, seven months after Gus's flight John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. While the Mercury program continued with four more successful flights, Gus had turned his attention to NASA's next program and the design of the two-man spacecraft. In order to bridge the technological gap between simply sending a man into space to getting a man to the moon, NASA needed to develop several new systems and processes. >> They had to test out if an astronaut could last in space for the approximately 500,000-mile trip to the moon and back. Could a spacecraft rendezvous with one another? So to test out these various procedures that needed to be done to get to the moon safely, NASA came up with the Gemini program, a kind of middle step. You have the initial steps with the Mercury program. The Gemini would test out the procedures used for going to the moon and the Apollo program would be the actual moon mission. >> Randy Roberts: Gus was frustrated with the hatch controversy and being blamed by some for losing the spacecraft. He used that disappointment as motivation and was now more determined than ever to set his mark on America's space effort. >> The summer before his Gemini flight he spent that whole summer in St. Louis working on that Gemini spacecraft with the Macdonald engineers and had so much input into the design of Gemini that the other astronauts ended up calling it the Gus mobile. >> Randy Roberts: Flight director Deke Slayton chose Gus to command the first Gemini mission with rookie astronaut John Young serving as pilot. >> They were testing out an entirely new spacecraft and he wanted someone he could depend upon to make sure that everything went right and Gus had been so involved in development of the Gemini craft that I think he was the most logical person to be selected for that flight. >> Randy Roberts: Continuing the naming tradition that started in the Mercury program Gus christened the spacecraft the Molly Brown after the Broadway hit show The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a jocular reference to the Liberty Bell sinking. NASA was not amused with Gus's sense of humor and the naming tradition ended with the Molly Brown. [ Music ] On March 23, 1965 Gus Grissom became the first man to go into space twice. [ Music ] The Molly Brown splashed down in the Atlantic near the Grand Turk Islands after a successful four-hour fifty-three minute 18-orbit flight. Nine more Gemini flights followed and by the end of 1966 NASA was entering into the final phase in the race to the moon, the Apollo Missions. [ Music ] As a Gemini project wrapped up only two of the original Mercury 7 astronauts remain active in the space program, Wally Schirra and Gus. With a brand new spacecraft, flight director Deke Slayton was again looking for experience to lead the three-man crew in the first Apollo flight. Gus was selected as commander for the Apollo 1 mission. Ed White and rookie astronaut and Purdue graduate Roger Chaffee filled out the crew. The technological challenges of landing a man on the moon towered over any of NASA's previous achievements. In just six years they'd gone from sending a single man into space for fifteen minutes to planning a mission that would last fourteen days, involve three astronauts and two separate spacecrafts that would have to dock together in flight while orbiting the moon. It was an Everest size engineering undertaking and the clock was ticking. >> NASA had this goal set by John Kennedy, the former president, of getting a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade and so there was this just go fever developed that you know we had to rush and beat the Russians and get to the moon before they did. >> Randy Roberts: Gus was concerned that the same level of thoroughness that was a hallmark of the Mercury and Gemini programs was being compromised in favor of expediency with Apollo. The development of the new spacecraft was plagued with technical glitches. >> He was extremely concerned about Apollo. My folks were down at the cape two weeks before the accident and he told them that it was designed as a two-week mission and he said never go more than three orbits. At one point I guess he had hung a lemon on one of the simulators to express his dissatisfaction with the quality in that spacecraft. >> Randy Roberts: On the afternoon of Friday, January 27, 1967 the Apollo 1 crew, Gus, Roger Chaffee and Ed White boarded the spacecraft to participate in a routine test. In order to simulate a real launch environment they were suited up, the hatch was sealed and the cabin was filled with 100% oxygen. >> They were undergoing what was called a plug's out test. This would be to test out that the spacecraft could operate under its own power without any external power source. >> Randy Roberts: The test stretched on for hours into the late afternoon and the early evening. >> And there were problems from the first part of the test. There was sour odor that pervaded the interior of the spacecraft that Gus likened to sour buttermilk. There were a lot of communication snafus back and forth. They couldn't communicate properly with one another and Gus said you know we can't talk between a few buildings how are we going to talk you know, from the moon back to the Earth. >> Randy Roberts: Thirty miles of electrical wiring coiled through the interior of the spacecraft and at five seconds before 6:31 p.m. a tiny spark jumped from a wire behind Gus's seat. >> And in the pure oxygen atmosphere under pressure, the smallest sparks could turn into a raging inferno in a very brief amount of time. >> Randy Roberts: The intense smokeless fire burned white hot. The flames shot up the spacecraft walls and across the astronauts feeding on the fabric of spacesuits, Velcro, Styrofoam padding and anything that was combustible. >> Controllers on the ground were aghast to hear from you know reports of you know fire in the spacecraft from the astronauts inside Apollo 1. >> Randy Roberts: Radio transmission cut in and out and a voice called out, we're fighting a bad fire. Let's get out. Open her up and then the radio went silent. They attempted to open the hatch but unlike the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, Apollo was not equipped with an explodable hatch. The cumbersome process would take minutes and they only had seconds. >> Before they could get out the fire actually burned through their air hoses and the poisonous gases inside the spacecraft asphyxiated them so all three astronauts were killed as a result of the fire. >> Well that was a tremendous shock. You know you might have expected that if they were in orbit but to have that happen on the ground was just unbelievable. I mean it was just really a shock to think that you know this can happen like it did. [ Music ] >> You know it was a shock in one sense and in another sense he knew the risk. He knew it. [ Music ] >> When your father's your own personal hero you know that's a crushing blow. [ Music ] >> Randy Roberts: On a bitterly cold day in January 1967 Virgil Ivan Grissom was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. [ Music ] [ Silence ] >> There was an extensive investigation undertaken by NASA to find out what had gone wrong with the Apollo 1 disaster and there was a long list of modifications including a two-gas system instead of a pure oxygen system on the launching pad. There was a new hatch developed that would be could be opened in a matter of seconds if there was an emergency on the ground so all of these changes really resulted in a spacecraft that NASA and the astronauts could depend upon on subsequent missions to the Moon and back. In fact a lot of the NASA officials said that really the fire Apollo 1 disaster was somewhat of a blessing in disguise. Of course they were stunned at losing these three astronauts but if it had happened in space they would never have realized what had gone wrong and they couldn't have made the subsequent changes. It also slowed everything down. Go fever was dissipated. Safety became a top priority instead of speed. >> Randy Roberts: After a twenty-one month delay the Apollo program continued and on July 20, 1969 Purdue graduate Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. Man, Moon, Decade was accomplished. >> It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. >> Randy Roberts: The legacy of Virgil Gus Grissom lives on in the memorials, schools and military facilities that bear his name. An Air Force Base in Indiana, 14 schools across the country and 3 university buildings including one at his alma mater Purdue University. A museum in Indiana's Spring Mills State Park welcomes thousands of visitors every year celebrating his accomplishments and vital contributions to America's space program and in his home town of Mitchell, Indiana the Gus Grissom Memorial sits on the site of his old elementary school and a few blocks from the front yard where his boyhood dream first took flight. >> I'm completely amazed at at what he did. You know he was just shy of being 41 years old when he lost his life and you look at the amount of things that he had done is staggering. I mean he he'd kind of been in the military twice, you know, got released once, used the GI Bill, went to college, learned how to fly, went to war and went through test pilot school. I mean the the it's a staggering amount of things that my father did in less than 41 years. I mean just I can't I can't believe it. [ Music ] >> Randy Roberts: After a successful Gemini flight in 1965 Gus addressed the dangers associated with space travel. He wrote if we die we want people to accept it. We are in 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. For The Boilermakers I'm Randy Roberts. [ Music ] 656 with space travel. He wrote if we die we want people to accept it. We are in risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest

Early life

Virgil Ivan Grissom was born in the small town of Mitchell, Indiana, on April 3, 1926,[1] to Dennis David Grissom (1903–1994), a signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and Cecile King Grissom (1901–1995), a homemaker. Virgil was the family's second child (an older sister died in infancy shortly before his birth). He was followed by three younger siblings: a sister, Wilma, and two brothers, Norman and Lowell.[2] Grissom started school at Riley grade school. His interest in flying began during that time, building model airplanes.[1] He received his nickname when his friend was reading his name on a scorecard upside down and misread "Griss" as "Gus".[1]

As a youth, Grissom attended the local Church of Christ, where he remained a lifelong member. He joined the local Boy Scout Troop and earned the rank of Star Scout.[3] Grissom credited the Scouts for his love of hunting and fishing. He was the leader of the honor guard in his troop.[4] His first jobs were delivering newspapers for The Indianapolis Star in the morning and the Bedford Times in the evening.[1] In the summer he picked fruit in area orchards and worked at a dry-goods store.[4] He also worked at a local meat market, a service station, and a clothing store in Mitchell.

Grissom started attending Mitchell High School in 1940.[4] He wanted to play varsity basketball but he was too short. His father encouraged him to find sports he was more suited for, and he joined the swimming team.[4] Although he excelled at mathematics, Grissom was an average high school student in other subjects.[5] He graduated from high school in 1944.

In addition, Grissom occasionally spent time at a local airport in Bedford, Indiana, where he first became interested in aviation. A local attorney who owned a small plane would take him on flights and taught him the basics of flying.[6]

Grissom was a Freemason.[7][8]

World War II

World War II began while Grissom was still in high school, but he was eager to join the armed services upon graduation. Grissom enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Forces during his senior year in high school, and completed an entrance exam in November 1943. Grissom was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on August 8, 1944, at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. He was sent to Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, for five weeks of basic flight training, and was later stationed at Brooks Field in San Antonio, Texas. In January 1945 Grissom was assigned to Boca Raton Army Airfield in Florida. Although he was interested in becoming a pilot, most of Grissom's time before his discharge in 1945 was spent as a clerk.[9]

Post-war employment

Grissom was discharged from military service in November 1945, after the war had ended, and returned to Mitchell, where he took a job at Carpenter Body Works, a local bus manufacturing business. Grissom was determined to make his career in aviation and attend college. Using the G.I. Bill for partial payment of his school tuition, Grissom enrolled at Purdue University in September 1946.[10]

Due to a shortage of campus housing during her husband's first semester in college in West Lafayette, Indiana, Grissom's wife, Betty, stayed in Mitchell living with her parents, while Grissom lived in a rented apartment with another male student. Betty Grissom joined her husband on campus during his second semester, and the couple settled into a small, one-bedroom apartment. Grissom continued his studies at Purdue, worked part-time as a cook at a local restaurant, and took summer classes to finish college early, while his wife worked the night shift as a long-distance operator for the Indiana Bell Telephone Company to help pay for his schooling and their living expenses. Grissom graduated from Purdue with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in February 1950.[11]

Korean War

Grissom in the United States Air Force

After he graduated from Purdue, Grissom re-enlisted in the newly formed U.S. 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, where his wife, Betty, and infant son, Scott, joined him, but the family remained there only briefly. In March 1951, Grissom received his pilot wings and a commission as a second lieutenant. Nine months later, in December 1951, Grissom and his family moved into new living quarters in Presque Isle, Maine, where he was assigned to Presque Isle Air Force Base and became a member of the 75th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron.[12]

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.[13] He flew one hundred combat missions during approximately six months of service in Korea, including multiple occasions when he broke up air raids from North Korean MiGs. On March 11, 1952, Grissom was promoted to first lieutenant and was cited for his "superlative airmanship" for his actions on March 23, 1952, when he flew cover for a photo reconnaissance mission.[14] Grissom was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster for his military service in Korea.[15]

After flying his quota of one hundred missions, Grissom asked to remain in Korea to fly another twenty-five flights, but his request was denied. Grissom returned to the United States to serve as a flight instructor at Bryan AFB in Bryan, Texas, where he was joined by his wife, Betty, and son, Scott. The Grissoms' second child, Mark, was born there in 1953. Grissom soon learned that flight instructors faced their own set of on-the-job risks. During a training exercise with a cadet, the trainee pilot caused a flap to break off from their two-seat trainer, sending it into a roll. Grissom quickly climbed from the rear seat of the small aircraft to take over the controls and safely land it.[16]

In August 1955, Grissom was reassigned to the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio of Air University. After completing the year-long course he earned a bachelor's degree in aeromechanics in 1956.[17] In October 1956, he entered the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and returned to Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio in May 1957, after attaining the rank of captain. Grissom served as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.[18][19][20]

NASA career

Grissom (far left) with fellow Project Mercury astronauts and a model of the Atlas rocket, July 12, 1962

In 1959, 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. Of the 508 military candidates who were considered, he was one of 110 test pilots whose credentials had earned them an invitation to learn more about the U.S. space program in general and its Project Mercury. Grissom was intrigued by the program, but knew that competition for the final spots would be fierce.[21][22]

Grissom passed the initial screening in Washington, D.C., and was among the thirty-nine candidates sent to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Aeromedical Laboratory of the Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio, to undergo extensive physical and psychological testing. He was nearly disqualified when doctors discovered that he suffered from hay fever, but was permitted to continue after he argued that his allergies would not be a problem due to the absence of ragweed pollen in space.[23]

On April 13, 1959, Grissom received official notification that he had been selected as one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts. Grissom and the six other men, after taking a leave of absence from their respective branches of the military service, reported to the Special Task Group at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia on April 27, 1959, to begin their astronaut training.[24][25][26]

Project Mercury

Grissom in front of the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft

On July 21, 1961, Grissom was pilot of the second Project Mercury flight, Mercury-Redstone 4. Grissom's spacecraft, which he named Liberty Bell 7, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, a sub-orbital flight that lasted 15 minutes and 37 seconds.[19][22] After splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, the Liberty Bell 7's emergency explosive bolts unexpectedly fired, blowing off the hatch and causing water to flood into the spacecraft. Grissom quickly exited through the open hatch and into the ocean. While waiting for recovery helicopters from USS Randolph to pick him up, Grissom struggled to keep from drowning after his spacesuit began losing buoyancy due to an open air inlet. Grissom managed to stay afloat until he was pulled from the water by a helicopter and taken to the U.S. Navy ship. In the meantime another recovery helicopter tried to lift and retrieve the Liberty Bell 7, but the flooding spacecraft became too heavy, forcing the recovery crew to cut it loose, and it ultimately sank.[22]

Liberty Bell 7, recovered in 1999, was restored and is displayed at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas

When reporters at a news conference surrounded Grissom after his space flight to ask how he felt, Grissom replied, "Well, I was scared a good portion of the time; I guess that's a pretty good indication."[27] Grissom stated he had done nothing to cause the hatch to blow, and no definitive explanation for the incident was found.[22][28] Robert F. Thompson, director of Mercury operations, was dispatched to 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.[29] Hitting this metal trigger with the hand typically left a large bruise,[30] but Grissom was found not to have any of the telltale hand bruising.[22]

While the debate continued about the premature detonation of Liberty Bell 7's hatch bolts, precautions were initiated for subsequent flights. 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 of the spacecraft, bruising his hand.[22][31]

Grissom's spacecraft was recovered in 1999, but no evidence was found that could conclusively explain how the explosive hatch release had occurred. Later, Guenter Wendt, pad leader for the early American crewed space launches, wrote that he believed a small cover over the external release actuator was accidentally lost sometime during the flight or splashdown. Another possible explanation was that the hatch's 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 it contracted and caught fire.[25][32] It has also been suggested that a static electricity discharge during initial contact between the spacecraft and the rescue helicopter may have caused the hatch's explosive bolts to blow. The co-pilot of the helicopter, U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant John Reinhard, had the job of using a cutting pole to snip off an antenna before the helicopter could latch onto the capsule. In the 1990s, he told a researcher that he remembered seeing an electric arc jump between the capsule and his pole right before the hatch blew.[33] Jim Lewis, the pilot of Grissom's rescue helicopter, told Smithsonian Magazine that closer inspection of film footage made him remember the day in better detail. He recalled that "Reinhard must have cut the antenna a mere second or two before I got us in a position for him to attach our harness to the capsule lifting bale," indicating that the timing of the helicopter's approach aligned with the static discharge theory.[34]

Project Gemini

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 crewed Project Gemini flight, which flew on March 23, 1965.[22] This mission made Grissom the first human and thus first NASA astronaut to fly into space twice.[35] The two-man flight on Gemini 3 with Grissom and John W. Young made three revolutions of the Earth and lasted for 4 hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds.[36] Grissom was one of the eight pilots of the NASA paraglider research vehicle (Paresev).[37]

Grissom, the shortest of the original seven astronauts at five feet seven inches tall, worked very closely with the engineers and technicians from McDonnell Aircraft who built the Gemini spacecraft. Because of his involvement in the design of the first three spacecraft, his fellow astronauts humorously referred to the craft as "the Gusmobile". By July 1963 NASA discovered 14 out of its 16 astronauts could not fit themselves into the cabin and the later cockpits were modified.[38][39] 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.[40]

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).[22] Some NASA publicity officials were unhappy with this name and asked Grissom and his pilot, John Young, to come up with a new one. When they offered Titanic as an alternate,[22] NASA executives decided to allow them to use the name of Molly Brown for Gemini 3, but did not use it in official references. Much to the agency's chagrin, CAPCOM Gordon Cooper gave Gemini 3 its sendoff on launch with the remark to Grissom and Young, "You're on your way, Molly Brown!" Ground controllers also used it to refer to the spacecraft throughout its flight.[41]

After the safe return of Gemini 3, NASA announced new spacecraft would not be nicknamed. Hence, Gemini 4 was not called American Eagle as its crew had planned. The practice of nicknaming spacecraft resumed in 1967, when managers realized that the Apollo flights needed a name for each of two flight elements, the Command Module (CSM) and the Lunar Module. Lobbying by the astronauts and senior NASA administrators also had an effect. Apollo 9 used the name Gumdrop for the Command Module and Spider for the Lunar Module.[42] However, Wally Schirra was prevented from naming his Apollo 7 spacecraft Phoenix in honor of the Apollo 1 crew because some believed that its nickname as a metaphor for "fire" might be misunderstood.[43]

Apollo program

Grissom was backup command pilot for Gemini 6A when he was transferred to the Apollo program and was assigned as commander of the first crewed 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.[22] The three men were granted permission to refer to their flight as "Apollo 1" on their mission insignia patch.

Problems with the simulator proved extremely annoying to Grissom, who told a reporter the problems with Apollo 1 came "in bushelfuls" and that he was skeptical of its chances to complete its fourteen-day mission.[44] Grissom earned the nickname "Gruff Gus" by being outspoken about the technical deficiencies of the spacecraft.[45] 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 crewed Apollo mission."[22]

NASA pressed on. In mid-January 1967, "preparations were being made for the final pre-flight tests of Spacecraft 012."[22] On January 22, 1967, before returning to Cape Kennedy to conduct the January 27 plugs-out test that ended his life, Grissom's wife, Betty, later recalled that he took a lemon from a tree in his back yard and explained that he intended to hang it on that spacecraft, although he actually hung the lemon on the simulator (a duplicate of the Apollo spacecraft).[46][47]

Personal life

Grissom met Betty Lavonne Moore (1927–2018), in high school.[48] They were married on July 6, 1945, at First Baptist Church in Mitchell when he was home on leave during World War II. The couple had two sons, Scott (1950), and Mark (1953).[49][50]

Two of Grissom's pastimes were hunting and fishing. The family also enjoyed water sports and skiing.[51]


Charred remains of the Apollo 1 Command Module, in which Grissom was killed along with Roger B. Chaffee and Ed White

Before Apollo 1's planned launch on February 21, 1967, the Command Module interior caught fire and burned on January 27, 1967, during a pre-launch test on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy. Astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee, who were working inside the closed Command Module, were asphyxiated. Awaiting launch, Grissom said, "How are we going to get to the Moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings," then shouted "fire!"[52] The fire's ignition source was damaged wiring.[53] The pilots' deaths were attributed to lethal hazards in the early CSM design and conditions of the test, including a pressurized 100 percent oxygen prelaunch atmosphere, wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials used in the cockpit and in the astronauts' flight suits, and an inward-opening hatch that could not be opened quickly in an emergency and not at all with full internal pressure.[54]

Apollo 1 crew, Grissom, White, and Chaffee

Grissom's funeral services and burial at Arlington National Cemetery were held on January 31, 1967. Dignitaries in attendance included President Lyndon B. Johnson, members of the U.S. Congress, and fellow NASA astronauts, among others. Grissom was interred at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington County, Virginia,[55] beside Roger Chaffee.[56] White's remains are interred at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.[57]

Grissom's and Roger Chaffee's headstones during the NASA Day of Remembrance ceremony in 2013


After the accident, NASA decided to give the flight the official designation of Apollo 1 and skip to Apollo 4 for the first uncrewed flight of the Saturn V, counting the two uncrewed suborbital tests, AS-201 and 202, as part of the sequence. The Apollo spacecraft problems were corrected, with Apollo 7, commanded by Wally Schirra, launched on October 11, 1968, more than a year and a half after the Apollo 1 accident. The Apollo program reached its objective of successfully landing men on the Moon on July 20, 1969, with Apollo 11.[58][59]

At the time of his death, Grissom had attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and had logged a total of 4,600 hours flying time, including 3,500 hours in jet airplanes.[19] Some contend that Grissom could have been selected as one of the astronauts to walk on the Moon. Deke 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."[60] Ultimately, Alan Shepard, one of the original seven NASA astronauts, would receive the honor of commanding the Apollo 14 lunar landing.[61]

Liberty Bell 7 spacesuit controversy

Grissom's Project Mercury spacesuit on display at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame

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 sought the exhibit's return.[62] All the artifacts were returned to them except the spacesuit, which NASA claimed was government property.[63] NASA insisted Grissom got authorization to use the spacesuit for a show and tell at his son's school in 1965 and never returned it, but some of Grissom's family members claimed the astronaut rescued the spacesuit from a scrap heap.[64] As of December 2016, the space suit was part of the Kennedy Space Center Hall of Fame's Heroes and Legends exhibit.[65]

Awards and honors

Grissom in his Mercury spacesuit
Air Force Command Pilot Astronaut Wings[19]
Distinguished Flying Cross[66]
Air Medal with cluster[66] Army Good Conduct Medal[66] Congressional Space Medal of Honor[66]
NASA Distinguished Service Medal[22] with one star NASA Exceptional Service Medal[66] American Campaign Medal[66]
World War II Victory Medal[66] National Defense Service Medal
with one star[66]
Korean Service Medal
with two stars[66]
Air Force Longevity Service Award
with three bronze oak leaves
United Nations Korea Medal[66] Korean War Service Medal[66]

To celebrate his spaceflight in 1961, Grissom was made honorary Mayor of Newport News, Virginia, and a new library was dubbed the Virgil I. Grissom Library in the Denbigh section of Newport News, Virginia.[68]

The airport in Bedford, Indiana, where Grissom flew as a teenager was renamed Virgil I. Grissom Municipal Airport in 1965. A three-ton piece of limestone, inscribed with his name, was unveiled at the airport. His fellow astronauts ribbed him about the name, saying that airports were normally named for dead aviators. Grissom replied, "But this time they've named one for a live one."[69] Virgil Grissom Elementary School in Old Bridge, New Jersey, was named for Grissom the year before his death.[70] His death forced the cancellation of a student project to design a flag to represent Grissom and their school, which would have flown on the mission.[71]

Grissom was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his Mercury flight and was awarded it a second time for his role in Gemini 3.[72] The Apollo 1 crew was awarded the medal posthumously in a 1969 presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 11 crew.[73]

Grissom's family received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978 from President Carter (White's and Chaffee's families received it in 1997).[74]

Grissom was granted an honorary doctorate from Florida Institute of Technology in 1962, the first-ever awarded by the university.[75] Grissom was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1981,[76][77] and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1987.[78] Grissom was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1990.[79][80] His wife, Betty Lavonne Moore, donated his Congressional Space Medal of Honor to the accompanying museum.[81]

Grissom posthumously received AIAA's Haley Astronautics Award for 1968.[82]


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.

—Grissom, after his Gemini mission, March 1965[83][a]

Grissom's name with Roger Chaffee's and Ed White's on the Space Mirror Memorial
One of two Apollo 1 memorial plaques at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 34
Launch Complex 34 plaque

The dismantled Launch Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station bears two memorial plaques to the crew of Apollo 1.[84] The Kennedy Space Center features a memorial exhibit honoring the Apollo 1 crew in the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which includes artifacts and personal mementos of Grissom, Chaffee, and White. Grissom's name is included on the plaque left on the Moon with the Fallen Astronaut statue in 1971 by the crew of Apollo 15.[85]

The Grissom Memorial, a 44-foot (13 m) tall limestone monument representing the Redstone rocket and his Mercury space capsule was dedicated in downtown Mitchell, Indiana, in 1981.[86] The Virgil I. Grissom Memorial in Spring Mill State Park, near Grissom's hometown of Mitchell, Indiana, was dedicated in 1971, the tenth anniversary of his Mercury flight.[86][87] The governor declared it a state holiday for the second year in a row.[88] The Gus Grissom Stakes is a thoroughbred horse race run in Indiana each fall; originally held at Hoosier Park in Anderson, it was moved to Horseshoe Indianapolis in Shelbyville in 2014.[66]

Grissom Island is an artificial island off of Long Beach, California, created in 1966 for drilling oil (along with White, Chaffee and Freeman Islands).[89][90][91] Virgil "Gus" Grissom Park opened in 1971 in Fullerton, California. His widow and son were invited to the dedication ceremony and planted the first large tree in the park.[92] Grissom is named with his Apollo 1 crewmates on the Space Mirror Memorial, which was dedicated in 1991. His son, Gary Grissom, said, "When I was younger, I thought NASA would do something. It's a shame it has taken this long".[93][94]

Navi (Ivan spelled backwards), is a seldom-used 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.[95][96] Grissom crater is one of several located on the far side of the Moon named for Apollo astronauts. The name was created and used unofficially by the Apollo 8 astronauts and was adopted as the official name by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1970.[97][98] 2161 Grissom is a main belt asteroid that was discovered in 1963 and officially designated in 1981.[99] The name references his launch date of July 21, 1961.[100] Grissom Hill, one of the Apollo 1 Hills on Mars was named by NASA on January 27, 2004, the 37th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire.[101][102]

Bunker Hill Air Force Base in Peru, Indiana, was renamed on May 12, 1968, to Grissom Air Force Base. During the dedication ceremony, his son said, "Of all the honors he won, none would please him more than this one today."[103] In 1994, it was again renamed to Grissom Air Reserve Base following the USAF's realignment program.[104] The three-letter identifier of the VHF Omni Directional Radio Range (VOR) located at Grissom Air Reserve Base is GUS. In 2000, classes of the United States Air Force Academy began selecting a Class Exemplar who embodies the type of person they strive to be. The class of 2007 selected Grissom.[105] An academic building was renamed Grissom Hall in 1968 at the former Chanute Air Force Base, Rantoul, Illinois, where Minuteman missile maintenance training was conducted. It was one of five buildings renamed for deceased Air Force personnel.[106][107]

The Virgil I. Grissom Museum, dedicated in 1971 by Governor Edgar Whitcomb,[108] is located just inside the entrance to Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, Indiana.[109] The Molly Brown was transferred to be displayed in the museum in 1974.[110] His boyhood home in Mitchell, Indiana, is located on Grissom Avenue. The street was renamed in his honor after his Mercury flight.[111][112]


Florida Institute of Technology dedicated Grissom Hall, a residence hall, in 1967.[113] State University of New York at Fredonia dubbed their new residence hall Grissom Hall in 1967.[114] Grissom Hall, dedicated in 1968 at Purdue University, was the home of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics for several decades. It is currently home of the Purdue department of Industrial Engineering.[115][116]

Virgil I. Grissom Elementary School was built in Houston, Texas, in 1967.[117] Virgil Grissom Elementary School in Princeton, Iowa was one of four schools in Iowa named after astronauts in late 1967.[118][119] Grissom's family members attended the 1968 dedication of Virgil I. Grissom Middle School in Mishawaka, Indiana.[120] School No. 7 in Rochester, New York, was named for Grissom in April 1968.[121] Devault Elementary School in Gary, Indiana, was renamed Grissom Elementary School in 1969 after Devault was convicted of conspiring to forge purchase orders.[122] Virgil I. Grissom Middle School was dedicated in November 1969 in Sterling Heights, Michigan.[123] Virgil I. Grissom High School was built in 1969 in Huntsville, Alabama.[124] The school board in the Hegewisch community of Chicago, Illinois, voted to name their new school under construction Virgil I. Grissom Elementary School in March 1969.[125] Grissom Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was founded in 1969[126][127] and dedicated by Betty Grissom in 1970.[128] Grissom Memorial Elementary School was dedicated in 1973 in Muncie, Indiana.[129] Virgil I. Grissom Middle School was founded in Tinley Park, Illinois, in 1975.[130]

Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom Elementary School was operated by the Department of Defense Dependents Schools at the former Clark Air Base, Philippines.[131] Originally named the Wurtsmith Hill School, it was renamed on November 14, 1968.[132] It housed 3rd and 4th grade students. The school was severely damaged by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991.[133]

  • Virgil I. Grissom Junior High School 226, South Ozone Park, Queens, New York City[134]

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.[135] Grissom was depicted by Fred Ward in the film The Right Stuff (1983)[136] and (very briefly) in the film Apollo 13 (1995) by Steve Bernie.[137]: 43  He was portrayed in the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998) by Mark Rolston.[138] Actor Kevin McCorkle played Grissom in the third-season finale of the NBC television show American Dreams.[139] Bryan Cranston played Grissom as a variety-show guest in the film That Thing You Do![140][141] Actor Joel Johnstone portrays Gus Grissom in the 2015 ABC TV series The Astronaut Wives Club.[142] In 2016 Gus Grissom was included in the narrative of the movie Hidden Figures. In 2018, he was portrayed by Shea Whigham in First Man.[143] In 2020's Disney+ miniseries The Right Stuff, Grissom is portrayed by Michael Trotter.

In the 1984 film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Federation starship USS Grissom is named for Grissom.[144] Another USS Grissom was featured in a 1990 episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation,[145] and was mentioned in a 1999 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.[146] 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.[147][148] 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.[25]

When Grissom died, he was in the process of writing a book about Gemini.[149]


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Further reading

External links

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