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Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom
by Mary C. Zornio

Grissom photo “If we die, we want people to accept it. We're 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.”

—Gus Grissom (John Barbour et al., Footprints on the Moon (The Associated Press, 1969), p. 125.

Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom had been part of the U.S. manned space program since it began in 1959, having been selected as one of NASA's Original Seven Mercury Astronauts. His second space flight on Gemini III earned him the distinction of being the first man to fly in space twice. His hard work, drive, persistence and skills as a top notch test pilot and engineer had landed him the title of commander for the first Apollo flight. Yet for Grissom, Apollo I was to be just the beginning. He had been told privately that if all went well, he would be the first American to walk on the moon. Although Grissom already had stacked up a very impressive list of career accomplishments, being first on the moon would be the ultimate achievement for the man who grew up in a small town during the lean years of the Great Depression.

Virgil Ivan Grissom was born on April 3, 1926 in Mitchell, Indiana, a tiny Midwestern community of about three thousand residents tucked away in the southern half of the state. Virgil was the eldest of Dennis and Cecile Grissom's four children, which included two brothers, Norman and Lowell and one sister, Wilma. Dennis Grissom managed to hold on to his job at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in spite of the numerous layoffs which were going on all around him. Although they were far from being wealthy, Mr. Grissom's twenty-four dollar per week salary allowed his family to live comfortably in their white frame house in town.

Although Grissom was too short to participate in high school sports, he found a niche for himself in the local Boy Scout troop where he eventually served as leader of the Honor Guard. To earn spending money, he delivered newspapers twice a day throughout the year and, in the summer, he was hired by the local growers to pick peaches and cherries in the orchards outside of town.

Throughout high school, Virgil used a good portion of his money to take Betty Moore to the late shows at the local theater. He had first met her during his sophomore year and he immediately knew that she was the girl for him. "I met Betty Moore when she entered Mitchell High School as a freshman, and that was it, period, exclamation point! It was a quiet romance, as far as anyone could see, but a special closeness started then and has developed into something light years beyond the power of mere words to describe."1

Grissom was, in his own words "not much of a whiz in school."2 Without having set specific goals for himself, he simply seemed to drift through his classes. He excelled in math, but only pulled average grades in his other subjects. His high school principal remembered him as "an average solid citizen who studied just about enough to get a diploma."3

However, World War II helped Grissom start forming some personal and career goals. He enlisted as an aviation cadet as a high school senior and reported for duty in August 1944 following graduation. He took a short leave during July 1945 to marry Betty Moore and returned to the base with high hopes of receiving flight instructions and flying combat missions. However, Japan surrendered a short time later and the war ended before he could receive his training. Grissom found himself going from one routine desk job to another. Knowing that he had joined the Air Force to fly and not to type, he decided to leave the service. His discharge came through in November 1945.

Grissom soon realized that his limited military career was going to get him nowhere. Eventually, he found a job at Carpenter's Bus Body Works. However, he knew that he did not want to spend the rest of his life installing doors on school buses in Mitchell, Indiana. Therefore, he set another goal for himself. He would earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.

While Gus attended classes during the day, Betty worked as a long distance operator. After class, Gus worked thirty hours a week flipping burgers at a local diner. Their combined incomes plus a small grant from the GI Bill financed the cost of his education and their "pint-sized apartment near the campus."4 After three and one half years of study, Grissom graduated in 1950 with a BS in mechanical engineering. Many years later, Gus still was quick to give credit to Betty, for "she had made my degree possible."5

After graduation, Gus made several half-hearted attempts to find employment. At one point, he considered accepting a mechanical engineering position at a brewery. However, because his heart was set on becoming a test pilot, he re-enlisted in the Air Force, finished air cadet training and won his wings.

Less than one year later, Grissom was shipped out to Korea to complete one hundred combat missions with the 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. He ignored the tradition of naming a jet after one's wife or girlfriend and chose to fly his F- 86 Sabre jet with the name "Scotty" boldly printed on it in honor of his son who had been born the year before. Another code of conduct existed on the bus ride which transported pilots from the barracks to the flight line. Pilots who personally had been shot at by a MIG were allowed to sit. Those who had not yet experienced a real piece of the action were unworthy of a seat and forced to stand. After only two missions, Gus took a seat on the bus. His first experience of being shot at came as a bit of a surprise. "I was flying along up there and it was kind of strange. For a moment I couldn't figure out what those little red things were going by. Then I realized I was being shot at."6 Grissom "usually flew wing position in combat, to protect the flanks of other pilots and keep an eye open for any MIGs that might be coming across."7 He was proud to be able to say, "I never did get hit and neither did any of the leaders that I flew wing for."8 After spending six months in Korea, Gus reached the one hundred combat missions mark. His request to fly twenty-five additional missions was denied and he was sent back to the states, having earned both the Air Medal with cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross during his tour of duty.

The next few years brought a variety of assignments and changes for Grissom. He served as a flight instructor for new cadets, a task which Gus soon learned could be even more dangerous than the combat missions he had flown in Korea. "At least you know what a MIG is going to do. Some of these kids were pretty green and careless sometimes, and you had to think fast and act cool or they could kill both of you."9

The family of three became a family of four when a second son, Mark arrived in 1953. In addition to his duties as an instructor, Grissom spent as much time as he could racking up extra flight hours and honing his flying skills. He "gained the reputation among his peers as one of the best jet jockies in the business."10 Finally, after receiving additional instruction at the Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, Grissom attended test pilot school at Edwards AFB. He received his test pilot credentials in 1957 and was transferred back to Wright-Patterson, where he specialized in testing new jet fighters. "This was what I wanted all along, and when I finished my studies and began the job of testing jet aircraft, well, there wasn't a happier pilot in the Air Force."11

Then, out of the blue, 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 not to discuss its contents with anyone. "Well, in the Air Force you get some weird orders, but you obey them, no matter what. On the appointed day, wearing my best civilian suit, and still as baffled as ever, I turned up at the Washington address I'd been given... I was convinced that somehow or other I had wandered right into the middle of a James Bond novel."12 Nonetheless, as bizarre and surreal as the order might have seemed at the time, it would change Grissom's life completely.

Grissom discovered that he was one of 110 military test pilots whose credentials had earned them an invitation to learn more about the space program in general and Project Mercury in particular. Gus liked the sound of the program but knew that competition for the final spots would be fierce. "I did not think my chances were very big when I saw some of the other men who were competing for the team. They were a good group, and I had a lot of respect for them. But I decided to give it the old school try and to take some of NASA's tests."13

Taking some of NASA's tests turned out to be more of an ordeal than Grissom could have imagined. He was sent to the Lovelace Clinic and Wright-Patterson AFB to receive extensive physical examinations and to submit to a battery of psychological tests. Grissom was nearly disqualified when doctors discovered that he suffered from hay fever. Without missing a beat, Grissom informed them that his allergies would not be a problem because "there won't be any ragweed pollen in space."14 Since no one could argue that point, they passed him on to the next series of tests.

Grissom was pleased with his performance in all but one of the physical tests. "I was real disappointed in myself, and I thought that I should have done better" on the treadmill test.15 Like most of his colleagues, Grissom had an intense dislike and distrust of the psychological exams. It simply did not seem logical to him for grown men to be asked who they perceived themselves to be or what hidden figures or meanings they saw lurking in random blots of ink or blank sheets of paper. "I tried not to give the headshrinkers anything more than they were actually asking for. At least, I played it cool and tried not to talk myself into a hole. I did not have the slightest idea what they were trying to prove, but I tried to be honest with them...without getting carried away and elaborating too much."16

The number of test pilots had dwindled steadily since the initial invitation to Washington had been issued. Finally, seven were chosen. On April 13, 1959, Air Force Captain Virgil Grissom received official word that he had been selected as one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts. Six others received the same notification:

Lieutenant Malcolm Scott Carpenter, U.S. Navy
Captain LeRoy Gordon Cooper, Jr., U.S. Air Force
Lieutenant Colonel John Herschel Glenn, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps
Lieutenant Commander Walter Marty Schirra, Jr., U.S. Navy
Lieutenant Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., U.S. Navy
Captain Donald Kent Slayton, U.S. Air Force

"After I had made the grade, I would lie in bed once in a while at night and think of the capsule and the booster and ask myself, 'Now what in hell do you want to get up on that thing for?' I wondered about this especially when I thought about Betty and the two boys. But I knew the answer: We all like to be respected in our fields. I happened to be a career officer in the military and, I think, a deeply patriotic one. If my country decided that I was one of the better qualified people for this new mission, then I was proud and happy to help out."17 Having made the decision to accept NASA's invitation to join Project Mercury, Grissom moved his family to Langley AFB, Virginia and considered himself a very fortunate man to be participating in such a "weird, wonderful enterprise."18

The next two years involved a constant round of crisscrossing the globe for flight training, planning and preparations, survival skills training, additional education, engineering work, monitoring spacecraft design and production and, of course, public relations. Sixteen hour days were not uncommon. After the first year, Grissom tallied up the number of days that he had spent away from home. He was surprised to discover that he had been gone for 305 of the past 365 days. Yet, the pressure was on to win the prize for being the first nation in space. Grissom and his colleagues knew that hard work and long hours were integral parts of the job. They kept their eyes on the prize and worked to get the job done.

However, the prize which awaited NASA's team as a reward for all of their grueling work and training was snatched right out from under their noses on April 12, 1961. History would forever record that date as the day that Russian cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin became the first man in space when he completed his successful orbital flight aboard Vostok I. The space race had begun and we had been left behind, still stuck at the starting gate.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he successfully piloted a suborbital flight on board the Freedom 7 spacecraft. His flight closed the gap a bit, but his fifteen minute suborbital flight could not compare with Gagarin's one and three quarter hour orbital flight.

Gus Grissom had missed out on the opportunity to be the first American in space; he had been selected to fly the second flight. Shepard's flight had been a very successful one. However, before the U.S. manned space program could move on to orbital flights, it was up to Grissom to prove that Shepard's successful suborbital flight had not been just a fluke.

Grissom named his MR-4 spacecraft Liberty Bell 7. It seemed a logical choice "because the capsule does resemble a bell."19 It had three significant improvements over Shepard's spacecraft. The control panel had been redesigned to accommodate future orbital flights. A large picture window replaced the small portholes used in MR-3. This allowed the pilot to enjoy a better view but more importantly, it offered an improved capability for visual orientation of the spacecraft. Finally, Liberty Bell 7 was the first Mercury spacecraft to include a newly designed explosive hatch. Although the hatch had not been tested previously, it was considered to be superior in design to the older model used on Shepard's capsule. The explosive hatch was held in place by seventy bolts and was opened by triggering a Mild Detonating Fuse, or MDF. By delivering a five pound blow to a special plunger, the pilot could activate the MDF which would blow the hatch completely off of the spacecraft, enabling the pilot to make a quicker and easier egress from the capsule.

After two postponements because of poor weather, Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 finally was given the go ahead for launch on July 21, 1961. Grissom patiently waited out two holds during the countdown while strapped into his couch inside the spacecraft. The first hold was called so that a misaligned explosive bolt on the capsule's hatch could be replaced. The second hold became necessary when cloud cover blocked the tracking cameras.

Gus reported a very smooth liftoff. The new picture window offered a panoramic view, and Grissom was mesmerized by the contrasting blackness of the sky with "the blue of the water, the white of the beaches and the brown of the land."20 The only difficulty Grissom experienced during the actual flight was with the attitude controls, which he described as "sticky and sluggish."21 G forces reached a peak of 11.2 during the re-entry period but were not a major problem for Grissom, who had handled up to sixteen G's during training. The successful flight ended approximately fifteen minutes after lift-off when Liberty Bell 7 popped its chutes and landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean.

After splashdown, Grissom began final preparations for egress. "I opened up the faceplate on my helmet, disconnected the oxygen hose from the helmet, unfastened the helmet from my suit, released the chest strap, the lap belt, the shoulder harness, knee straps and medical sensors. And I rolled up the neck dam of my suit."22 Grissom then turned his attention to preparing the hatch for egress by completing standard procedures for arming the detonator. He notified the recovery helicopter, code named "Hunt Club," that he would need a few more minutes to mark all of the switch positions on the capsule's instrument panel. Grissom's final transmission was to the helicopter. "As soon as I had finished looking things over, I told Hunt Club that I was ready. According to the plan, the pilot was to inform me as soon as he had lifted me up a bit so that the capsule would not ship water when the hatch blew. Then I would remove my helmet, blow the hatch and get out."23 Grissom was lying in his couch, waiting to receive final confirmation that it was time for him to blow the hatch and exit the spacecraft "when suddenly, the hatch blew off with a dull thud."24 Water flooded the cabin. Grissom automatically threw off his helmet, grabbed the sill of the hatch, hauled himself out of the sinking capsule and swam furiously to get away from the spacecraft. The capsule had been equipped with a special dye marker package which would spew out its bright green contents in order to help recovery vehicles locate the spacecraft once it splashed down. The package was attached to the capsule by a set of lines. Once he was in the water, Grissom got tangled up in those lines and thus remained attached to the sinking spacecraft. He finally managed to extricate himself and swam away from the capsule. When the recovery chopper finally hooked on to the spacecraft, Grissom figured that both he and Liberty Bell 7 were home free.

The helicopter made a valiant effort to recover the spacecraft but with the added weight of the water which had flooded it, the capsule proved to be too heavy a load. Red warning lights flashed on the control panel, signifying that the extra weight was putting too much strain on the chopper and that an engine failure was imminent. The recovery team had no choice but to cut the spacecraft loose. Grissom watched helplessly as Liberty Bell sank from sight.

By now, Gus realized that he was having a hard time just keeping his head above the water. "Then it dawned on me that in the rush to get out before I sank I had not closed the air inlet port in the belly of my suit, where the oxygen tube fits into the capsule. Although this hole was not letting much water in, it was letting air seep out, and I needed that air to help me stay afloat."25 With his suit quickly losing buoyancy, Grissom wished that he could dump the souvenirs he had stored in the left leg pocket of his space suit. "I had brought along two rolls of fifty dimes each for the children of friends, three one dollar bills, some small models of the capsule and two sets of pilot's wings. These were all adding weight that I could have done without."26

Unaware of the difficulty Grissom was having in staying afloat, none of the helicopters surrounding him were dropping him a life line. Their rotor blades were churning up the surface of the water, making it necessary for Grissom to swim even harder to keep from going under. He took a salty swill of the Atlantic with every wave that washed over his head. As exhaustion set in, he thought, "Well, you've gone through the whole flight, and now you're going to sink right here in front of all these people."27 Fear gave way to anger as he tried once again to wave for help, but no one seemed to respond. Finally, a third helicopter approached and dropped Grissom a horse collar. He managed to loop it over his neck and arms, albeit backwards, and was hoisted up. Grissom was so exhausted that he could not even remember that the chopper had to drag him fifteen feet across the water before he finally started going up. As soon as he was safely inside the helicopter, he grabbed the nearest life jacket and made sure that it was buckled on securely. After the ordeal he just had experienced, Grissom simply wanted to be certain that if the recovery helicopter went down and he went for another swim in the choppy waters of the Atlantic, he would be well prepared for the dunk.

Once he was on board the carrier, Grissom received a telephone call from President Kennedy. The President expressed relief that Gus was safe, but his words offered little consolation to the pilot who had flown a perfect flight but came back without his spacecraft. "It was especially hard for me, as a professional pilot. In all of my years of flying—including combat in Korea—this was the first time that my aircraft and I had not come back together. In my entire career as a pilot, Liberty Bell was the first thing I had ever lost."28

After the flight, Grissom participated in a conventional debriefing during which he recounted the details of the flight. Grissom met his family upon returning to Patrick AFB. He was welcomed by NASA officials and held a press conference with reporters. Gus was never comfortable speaking with the press. In fact, he went to great lengths to avoid them whenever possible. On one occasion, he went so far as to disguise himself in a floppy straw hat and dark glasses in order to slip by reporters. Some members of the press crew responded by tagging him with the titles "Gloomy Gus" and "The Great Stone Face." The press conference turned out to be an uncomfortable experience because "the reporters skipped over the successful aspects of the flight... and probed around the question of whether Grissom had contributed to the loss of the Liberty Bell by accidentally bumping the plunger which blew the hatch."29 Grissom repeated his account. "I was just laying there minding my own business when, POW, the hatch went. And I looked up and saw nothing but blue sky and water starting to come in over the sill."30 The second question which Grissom had to field dealt with whether or not he had felt that his life was in danger at any time. Characteristically, his response was honest and to the point. "Well, I was scared a good portion of the time. I guess this is a pretty good indication."31 His reply made good sense. It also made good headlines and within no time, newspapers and magazines across the country shouted out variations on the same basic theme: "Astronaut Admits He Was Scared!" The press conference finally drew to a close and James Webb presented Grissom with NASA's Distinguished Service Medal.

Although a review board determined that Gus did not contribute in any way to the premature detonation of the hatch, questions surrounding the incident simply would not go away. "Engineers spoke of a transient malfunction but were helpless to identify it because the capsule and the hatch were now on the bottom of the ocean."32 Grissom was frustrated by the lack of a technical explanation. "We tried for weeks afterwards to find out what had happened and how it had happened. I even crawled into capsules and tried to duplicate all of my movements, to see if I could make the whole thing happen again. It was impossible. The plunger that detonates the bolts is so far out of the way that I would have had to reach for it on purpose to hit it, and this I did not do. Even when I thrashed about with my elbows, I could not bump against it accidentally."33

Grissom did not like the idea of being unable to come up with a concrete reason for the hatch blowing prematurely. Yet, he was not going to waste precious time worrying about it. "It remained a mystery how that hatch blew. And I am afraid it always will. It was just one of those things."34 The important thing was that he had flown a successful flight which corroborated Alan Shepard's experiences and the program could move ahead.

As preparations continued for the first American orbital flight, NASA announced its plan to develop an intermediate phase space program. It would feature a spacecraft that would use the Titan II as a booster and be designed to carry a two man crew. NASA officially named the program Gemini, after the constellation represented by the twin stars Castor and Pollux.

"When my Mercury flight aboard the Liberty Bell capsule was completed, I felt reasonably certain, as the program was planned, that I wouldn't have a second space flight. By then Gemini was in the works, and I realized that if I were going to fly in space again, this was my opportunity, so I sort of drifted unobtrusively into taking more and more part in Gemini."35

Gus liked to be in on a project from its inception and he was able to do that with Project Gemini. He combined his skills in mechanical engineering and test piloting to help produce a manned system which was designed to rely on the input of its pilots. "Gemini would not fly without a guy at the controls... It was laid out the way a pilot likes to have the thing laid out... Gus was the guy who did all that."36

In response to NASA's plan to build its new Manned Space Center near Houston, the Grissom family left Virginia and moved into a three bedroom home in Timber Cove, one of the new housing developments outside of Seabrook, Texas. Grissom took steps to help shield his family from the onslaught of media attention and curiosity seekers. He had a pool installed in their backyard so that they could relax and swim in privacy. Additionally, "Grissom built a house...with no windows on the side facing the street. He simply did not want people peering into his windows."37

Grissom greatly valued being home with his family, stating that "it sure helped to spend a quiet evening with your wife and children in your own living room."38 Betty accommodated his hectic schedule by completing major chores and errands during the week so weekends would be free for family activities. She did not wear him down by constantly grilling him about the details of his job. In turn, Gus refused to let work problems intrude on his time at home and tried to complete technical reading or paperwork after the boys were asleep. The family made what little time they had together count. They went boating and water skiing on Clear Lake. In the winter, the entire family traveled to Colorado so Gus and the boys could ski. An annual trip to the Indianapolis 500 was always a highlight and offered a chance to visit family members back in Mitchell. Gus also introduced his sons to hunting and fishing, two of his favorite hobbies. In spite of the fact that the public had thrown the Grissoms into the spotlight, Gus demanded a normal life for his family. "Betty and I run our lives as we please. We don't care anything about fads or frills or the P.T.A. We don't give a damn about the Joneses."39

Once the Gemini spacecraft was completed, Alan Shepard was selected as commander for its first manned flight. Grissom was his back up. The program was progressing steadily when everything came to a screeching halt for Alan Shepard.

Shepard began to experience severe nausea, vomiting and dizzy spells. The symptoms vanished after the first episode. Shepard felt fine and saw no reason to stop working. Then the symptoms came back again... and again... and again. Shepard knew that something definitely was not right so he had the flight surgeons check him over. Much to his dismay, he wound up with a diagnosis of Meniere's Syndrome, an inner ear disorder that caused periods of nausea, dizziness and disorientation. With symptoms like that and with no immediate cure available, it did not take long for Alan Shepard to be grounded. As a result, the commander's seat in the first manned Gemini spacecraft would be occupied by Gus Grissom. The pilot's seat went to Lieutenant John W. Young, a Navy test pilot with a BS in aeronautical engineering who had been part of the second group of astronauts selected in September 1962.

Grissom took his role as commander very seriously. "I was responsible for my own skin in my Mercury flight, but now that I'm going up for a second flight... I'm responsible for two. This will mean some of the decisions will come a little harder but I've asked for the responsibility and I've got it."40

Grissom and Young, plus their backups, Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford immersed themselves in the intensive training schedule. "I had thought training for Mercury was rigorous. Once we got caught up in the Gemini training program, our Mercury training looked pretty soft."41

Initially, Gus wanted to name his spacecraft Wapasha after a Native American tribe that had lived in Grissom's home state of Indiana. "Then some smart joker pointed out that surer than shooting, our spacecraft would be dubbed the Wabash Cannon Ball. Well, my Dad was working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and I wasn't too sure just how he'd take to the Wabash Cannon Ball. How would he explain that one to his pals on the B & O?"42 Wapasha got scratched off the list of prospective names and Grissom began a new search. The Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown provided him with a source of inspiration. With the loss of Liberty Bell still on his mind, Gus decided to poke fun at the whole incident. Molly Brown had been strong, reliable and most importantly, unsinkable. It was a perfect name for Liberty Bell's successor. However, some of Grissom's bosses insisted that he choose a more respectable name. Gus replied, "How about the Titanic?"43 It was clear that Grissom was not going to back down on this one. Given a choice of Molly Brown or Titanic, disgruntled officials backed off. Without further ado, Gemini-Titan 3 became known as Molly Brown.

On March 23, 1965, Molly Brown successfully lifted off from Pad 19 with Grissom and Young at the controls. Gus carried with him two specially engraved watches for Scott and Mark. Betty's souvenir, a new diamond ring, hung safe and sound on a string around Gus' neck.

The main objectives for the five hour flight were to test all of the major operating systems and to determine if controlled maneuvering of the spacecraft was possible. Being able to change orbit and flight path was crucial to upcoming rendezvous missions, so a lot was riding on Molly's performance. She did not let her crew down. "To our intense satisfaction we were able to carry out these maneuvers almost exactly as planned...The longer we flew, the more jubilant we felt. We had a really fine spacecraft, one we could be proud of in every respect."44

Scientific experiments were also part of the flight plan and Grissom had to perform one of them. "It was pathetically simple. All I had to do was turn a knob, which would activate a mechanism, which would fertilize some sea urchin eggs to test the effects of weightlessness on living cells. Maybe... I had too much adrenaline pumping, but I twisted that handle so hard I broke it off."45 Ironically, at the same time as Gus was performing his test, a ground controller was conducting an identical experiment on earth. The controller broke off his handle as well.

Another experiment that needed to be completed was testing the new array of specially packaged space food. Because future Gemini missions were scheduled to last several days, supplying the crew with an adequate diet was critical. John Young had been assigned to conduct this important experiment . Grissom constantly complained about the dehydrated delicacies concocted by NASA nutritionists. He was willing to eat the reconstituted food only because there was nothing else available. Or so he thought. Gus had no idea that John Young had more than just souvenirs stowed in his space suit pockets.

"I was concentrating on our spacecraft's performance, when suddenly John asked me, 'You care for a corned beef sandwich, skipper?' If I could have fallen out of my couch, I would have. Sure enough, he was holding an honest-to-john corned beef sandwich."46 John had managed to sneak the deli sandwich, which was one of Grissom's favorites into his pocket. As Gus sampled the treat, tiny bits of rye bread began floating around the pristine cabin and the crew was just about knocked over by the pungent aroma of corned beef wafting through the small confines of the spacecraft. "After the flight our superiors at NASA let us know in no uncertain terms that non-man-rated corned beef sandwiches were out for future space missions. But John's deadpan offer of this strictly non-regulation goodie remains one of the highlights of our flight for me."47

Molly Brown splashed down at 2:15 PM after flying eighty thousand miles and completing three successful orbits around the earth. Grissom and Young were ecstatic about their textbook flight. "I do know that if NASA had asked John and me to take Molly Brown back into space the day after splashdown, we would have done it with pleasure. She flew like a queen, did our unsinkable Molly, and we were absolutely sure that her sister craft would perform as well."48

The flight was followed by an enthusiastic reception and parade at Cape Kennedy. The following day Grissom and Young, accompanied by their families, flew to Washington. President Lyndon Johnson awarded both men NASA's Distinguished Service Medal. "For me, personally, the finest award I received was the opportunity for my wife and two sons to meet and shake hands with the President of the United States and Mrs. Johnson and with Vice President Humphrey. It was, I know, a moment that Scott and Mark Grissom will remember for the rest of their lives."49 Ticker-tape parades in New York and other cities followed. "After all the Russian space spectaculars, the United States was back in the manned space flight business with probably the most sophisticated spacecraft in the world, or out of it. Our reception was the public's way of expressing pride in a national achievement."50

Molly Brown's flight was followed by nine other manned missions. Each flight gave the program a wealth of knowledge, techniques and much-needed confidence. With each successful mission, we advanced closer to the moon.

Grissom remained directly involved with the Gemini program for quite some time, including several months of training as backup commander for the Gemini 6 mission. At the same time, work on the Apollo spacecraft was already well in progress. In March 1966, NASA publicly announced that Gus Grissom had been assigned as commander for the first Apollo Earth-orbit mission. Ed White would serve as Senior Pilot and Roger Chaffee was named Pilot. Jim McDivitt, David Scott and Russell Schweickart were assigned as backups. By the time Gus was freed up from his duties on Project Gemini to jump on board the Apollo program, the spacecraft and its systems were well advanced in terms of production and testing. Unlike Gemini, Grissom and his crew inherited a spacecraft that had been designed for them, but not with them.

Although they did not have a hand in the basic design process, Grissom and his crew were able to exert some influence on Spacecraft 012, which was scheduled for an October 1966 launch. "He and Ed White and Roger Chaffee, along with their supporting staff of engineers and technicians, participated directly in the progressive design and manufacturing reviews and inspections as Spacecraft 012 neared completion. Some of the things Gus saw he did not like."51

As the pressure mounted and dissatisfaction grew, Grissom, for the first time, began to bring his work problems home. "When he was home he normally did not want to be with the space program. He would rather be just messing around with the kids. But now he was uptight about it."52

The arrival of Spacecraft 012 to the Cape only brought more problems. It soon became obvious that many designated engineering changes were incomplete. The environmental control unit leaked like a sieve and needed to be removed from the module. As a result, the launch schedule was delayed by several weeks. The Apollo simulator which was used for training purposes had its own set of problems and was not in any better shape than the actual spacecraft itself. According to Astronaut Walter Cunningham, "We knew that the spacecraft was, you know, in poor shape relative to what it ought to be. We felt like we could fly it, but let's face it, it just wasn't as good as it should have been for the job of flying the first manned Apollo mission."53 Nonetheless, the crew made do with what they had and by mid January of 1967, preparations were being made for the final preflight tests of Spacecraft 012.

On January 22, 1967, Grissom made a brief stop at home before returning to the Cape. A citrus tree grew in their backyard with lemons on it as big as grapefruits. Gus yanked the largest lemon he could find off of the tree. Betty had no idea what he was up to and asked what he planned to do with the lemon. " 'I'm going to hang it on that spacecraft,' Gus said grimly and kissed her goodbye."54 Betty knew that Gus would be unable to return home before the crew conducted the plugs out test on January 27, 1967. What she did not know was that January 22 would be "the last time he was here at the house."55


Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton

1. Virgil Grissom. Gemini: A Personal Account of Man's Venture Into Space (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968), p. 18.

2. Ibid., p. 17.

3. Betty Grissom and Henry Still. Starfall (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1974), p. 24.

4. Grissom, p. 18.

5. Ibid., p. 19.

6. Grissom and Still, p. 38.

7. M. Scott Carpenter, et al., We Seven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 55.

8. Ibid., p. 56.

9. Ibid.

10. Grissom and Still, p. 42.

11. Grissom, pp. 19, 21.

12. Ibid., pp. 21–22.

13. Carpenter, et al., p. 57.

14. Grissom and Still, p. 56.

15. Carpenter, et al., p. 57.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., p. 58

18. Grissom, p. x.

19. Carpenter, et al., p. 214.

20. Ibid., p. 221.

21. Ibid., p. 222.

22. Ibid., p. 224.

23. Ibid., p. 225.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid., p. 226.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., p. 227.

29. Grissom and Still, p. 106.

30. Turner Home Entertainment. Moon Shot (Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 1994).

31. Ibid.

32. Grissom and Still, p. 106.

33. Carpenter, et al., p. 227.

34. Ibid.

35. Grissom, p. 73.

36. Donald Slayton with Michael Cassutt. Deke!—U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1994), p. 185.

37. Henry Dethloff. Suddenly Tomorrow Came... A History of the Johnson Space Center (Houston: Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1993), p. 124.

38. Grissom, p. 84.

39. Editors, Life magazine. Project Mercury (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), p. 29.

40. Grissom and Still, p. 144.

41. Grissom, p. 73.

42. Ibid., p. 94.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., p. 112.

45. Ibid., p. 110.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid., p. 111.

48. Ibid., p. 116.

49. Ibid., p. 115.

50. Ibid., pp. 115–116.

51. Grissom and Still, p. 179.

52. Ibid.

53. Turner Home Entertainment, Moon Shot.

54. Grissom and Still, p. 182.

55. Ibid.


Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton