Today marks the anniversary of Gus Grissom’s birth. Grissom, born Virgil but known as Gus, was a veteran of three spaceflight missions across three space programs. The shortest of the original seven astronauts would have been 87 years old today.
He flew the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft on the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission on July 21, 1961. Grissom was aloft for less than sixteen minutes and never reached orbit. He was the second American in space, Alan Shepard having been the first a couple of months earlier. Upon his return, as Liberty Bell 7 sloshed in the waves and Grissom finished some flip-switching while the recovery helicopter made its final moves, emergency explosives blew the hatch. Grissom scrambled out and nearly drowned, tangled in external lines and waving to helicopters to drop him a lifeline. Filling with water and the resulting weight, Liberty Bell 7 sank, unable to be lifted by the recovery helicopter and recovered decades later in 1999.
Grissom’s next big foray to space was on Gemini 3, the first manned flight of that space program. He had been Shepard’s backup, and Shepard was grounded with an inner ear disorder, so Grissom became the first person to fly to space twice.
In a nod to Grissom’s previous mission, he and fellow Gemini 3 astronaut John Young named their spacecraft Molly Brown, as in the unsinkable. When NASA disapproved of the name, the crew is said to have suggested Titanic as an alternative. While this story emanates a whiff of apocrypha, we have come to think of astronauts as a somewhat cheeky bunch and are willing to believe that Young and Grissom were of that ilk at the time. After that, NASA took a break from naming the capsules, until Apollo 9.
For its time, Gemini 3 was a lengthy mission, at more than four hours and three complete orbits. This flight also involved Young sneaking a corned beef sandwich on board and presenting it to a surprised and hungry Grissom. Fellow Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins, in his book Carrying the Fire, notes that, during the parachute deployment, which can wrench the spacecraft violently at the mission’s conclusion, Grissom “whack[ed] his head into the instrument panel, cracking his helmet visor.”
Grissom, seemingly beset by odd mishaps, was assigned to the first planned Apollo mission, designated AS-204 based on a complicated naming system. Sadly, he and his crewmates, Roger Chaffee and Ed White died in that spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967. A fire had started near Grissom’s seat and had flourished in the 100% oxygen at the ground pressure of 16 psi.
Of that fateful day, Collins writes of getting the initial news in Houston:
After what seemed like a long time, Don [Gregory] finally hung up and said very quietly, ‘Fire in the spacecraft.’ That’s all he had to say. There was no doubt about which spacecraft (102) or who was in it (Grissom-White-Chaffee) or where (Pad 34, Cape Kennedy) or why (a final systems test) or what (death, the quicker the better). All I could think of was, My God, such an obvious thing and yet we hadn’t considered it. We worried about engines that wouldn’t start or wouldn’t stop; we worried about leaks; we even worried about how a flame front might propagate in weightlessness and how cabin pressure might be reduced to stop a fire in space. But right here on the ground, when we should have been most alert, we put three guys inside an untried spacecraft, strapped them into couches, locked two cumbersome hatches behind them, and left them no way of escaping a fire.
One of the Apollo 1 crew reported the fire, then White said clearly, “Fire in the cockpit.” Communication continued for seventeen seconds. The crew struggled to escape. In ideal circumstances, escape took 90 seconds, but even in practice, the crew had never been able to egress that quickly. Someone uttered, “Get us out.” The fire burned so hot and the hatches were so complicated that it took the rescuers five minutes to reach the bodies of Grissom, Chaffee, and White. Though they suffered serious burns, which may have contributed to their deaths, their suits had been surprisingly effective protection against the flames. The three astronauts had died of asphyxiation.
Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington Cemetery, while White rests at West Point. Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space only days before his death. There, he had written. “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”