One of Ours
Fifty years ago Gus Grissom’s Gemini flight put him back in the running to be the first man to the moon.
Summer, 1934. The little boy stands outside the small white house his model airplane. The wooden wings stretch across his palms, the propeller tilts slightly in the breeze as he prepares for lift-off. He looks to the sky. Three. Two. One. The balsa-wood plane sails from his fingertips and climbs into the sky. He follows the shape against the clouds and watches it barrel into the ground. This is it. He wants to fly.
March 23, 1965. The silhouette of the Gemini GT-3 rocket stands against the bright, cobalt sky at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Gus Grissom and John Young are pinched in their seats before a palette of switches, gauges and joysticks. It’s an arcade of steel primed to launch men into Earth’s orbit, and one day, to the moon. Today marks the second time the Mitchell native has braced himself for the thrust of the rocket engines. Thousands line the sandy beach and throngs of media focus on the rocket. Gus radios mission control, captain of a flight few thought he would ever take again.
At 9:24 a.m., Gemini mission control speaks like the voice of God.
The control board is green.
Television broadcasters are silent behind their cameras, waiting.
Somewhere in Houston, Betty Grissom and her boys wait for news.
The umbilical cords holding the rocket to the launch pad snap and the rocket roars towards the heavens leaving a trail of smoke and fire.
ABSOLUTE DETERMINATION earned Mitchell’s favorite son a seat on that Gemini flight 50 years ago — an often-overlooked mission that silenced critics of his ill-fated Liberty Bell 7 mission and restored Virgil “Gus” Grissom’s position as one of America’s elite astronauts.
The small-town boy from the hills of Southern Indiana was once again to the nation what he had always been to his community: a hero. Soon, he was booked to fly yet again on Apollo I. And NASA officials began whispering once-unthinkable words in his ear, “the first man to walk on the moon.”
In the mid 1920s, the bustling town of Mitchell was sustained by railroads and limestone quarries. A movie theater, a popular restaurant owned by a Greek family and an opera house lined the picturesque main street. Churches dotted street corners, and families trekked along trails at Spring Mill State Park.
At the Grissom home at 715 Baker Street, the aroma of apple pie often wafted from kitchen windows as Cecile baked and Dennis relaxed in his pine-green armchair. The Grissoms had five children. Their oldest daughter died shortly after the birth of their first son, Virgil Ivan, on April 3, 1926. Virgil, later nicknamed Gus, shared one of three bedrooms with his brothers Norman and Lowell. His little sister Wilma slept one room over.
Times were hard for the town of just over 3,000 when the Great Depression swept the United States in the ‘30s. But the Grissoms fared better than many. “His father had a job with the railroad and was able to keep his job,” says Ray Boomhower, author of the book, Gus Grissom: The Last Astronaut . “There was always food on the table.”
Still, Gus tried to help the family by delivering newspapers and working part time at a meat factory. Neighbors and friends all knew Dennis and Cecile Grissom as generous and kind. Steve Grissom, a cousin to Gus, remembers coming to the Grissom house some afternoons and leaving well-fed. “Cecile always thought if you walked through her door, you must be hungry,” he says.
Cecile was renowned for her pies and strung petunias along her front porch. Dennis took care of his family and did his best to instill Christian values in his kids. The Grissoms attended the First Christian Church just down the road from their home.
“The sons of railroad workers often followed in their fathers' footsteps,” Boomhower says. “But Dennis encouraged him to explore other opportunities.”
Gus later said, “In truth, he encouraged us to think about some other careers in which he felt there were better chances of getting ahead.”
Instead of sports, Gus, small at 5-foot-7, threw himself into Troop 46 of the Boy Scouts and eventually became part of the Honor Guard. Like most boys his age, he loved flipping through the escapades of Flash Gordon and getting his knees dirty, but Gus knew he one day wanted to fly.
In school Gus was an average student, excelling mostly in math and science. In his senior yearbook photo, Gus smiles faintly next to a caption reading, “Example of how a Senior can become attached to a Junior girl.” That girl was Betty Moore.
“I met Betty Moore when she entered Mitchell High School as a freshman, and that was it, period, exclamation point,” Gus later wrote in a personal account. “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.”
After graduation, Gus joined the Air Force to fight in World War II, but the conflict ended in 1945, and he headed back to Mitchell. “He wasn’t satisfied with civilian life and never would be,” his mother said of Gus. “He loved flying and that was going to be his life.”
In 1946 Gus enrolled in Purdue University’s mechanical engineering program. He graduated in three years and immediately decided to reenlist. “Gus liked the romance of aviation,” Boomhower says. “It was just something he really enjoyed doing — he loved working with mechanical things.”
In 1950, North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, crossed into South Korea, backed by the United States. Both superpowers responded with military forces and developing air technology. Gus flew more than 100 missions in the Korean War and received a Distinguished Flying Cross after taking on fire from an enemy plane.
Gus was a cool customer in the face of danger, Boomhower says. “On one flight he was a passenger, and the pilot came close to a tree. Gus was waving out the window.”
His skills and sanguine attitude landed him a job as a test pilot after the Korean War. Eventually he became a test-pilot teacher, arguably one of his most dangerous undertakings. The student pilots tested out new maneuvers and technologies. One mistake could be fatal. “Some of these kids were pretty green and careless sometimes,” Gus said later. “And you had to think fast and act cool, or they could kill both of you.”
Gus also took on the roles of husband and then father when he married Betty and they had two sons, Scott and Mark. But the role that would define him for the nation was yet to come. One afternoon in 1958, Gus received a secretive letter from Washington D.C.: Report to the capital in civilian attire and don’t say a word to anyone.
THE COLD WAR chess match between the Soviet Union and the United States continued, and fears over spy technology and nuclear fallout propelled the race to space. Whoever could establish supremacy in the cosmos would set the tone for the rest of the world. America would need more than soldiers to win this war. They would need conquerors.
Americans feared the Soviets were winning the race to space. On October 3, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first craft into space. A month later, they sent a dog up in Sputnik 2. The United States spent 1958 trying to catch up and get its footing in the galaxy.
In January 1959, the Soviets sent Luna 1 to orbit the moon for the first time, and America panicked. “The fact that Russia beat us was a great shock,” Boomhower says. “We were led to believe that we were this giant and Russia was backwards. Their achievements really messed with the American psyche.”
More than 100 men invited to Washington that year competed to become pioneers in outer space. A week of brutal testing in New Mexico trimmed the pool of candidates to seven. “Wally” Schirra, “Deke” Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper and “Gus” Grissom became the Mercury 7.
At a press conference to introduce them, the astronauts sat in suits and ties, wedding rings on their fingers, some flicking cigarettes in black ashtrays and fielding questions from the press. One reporter asked the men if they had ever dreamed of going to space.
Gus bent towards the microphone and in a deep voice simply said, “I’m just going to say yes and for a very long time.”
The Mercury program was the first manned-flight operation for NASA. They wanted to send a man into space and return both him and the craft safely. Even a few of the astronauts were surprised by the audacity of the missions.
The public couldn’t get enough of the astronauts; their pictures showed up on television, in magazines and even on baseball cards. But the limelight could be harsh. Gus valued privacy and tried to shield his family from the media, even building a house with no windows facing the street.
“You had people selling maps to astronaut's homes," says Scott Grissom, Gus' oldest son, who now lives in Texas. "He was probably a little on the gruff side for most people looking in, but I don't think you could find anybody that really knew him that would back him up as being gruff. He just kept things private."
This new breed of celebrity reached a frenzy when the first flight by Alan Shepard splashed into the Atlantic in 1961. Shepard, now a bonafide American hero, visited the White House and rode down Broadway in a ticker-tape parade. Hungry for more triumphs, all eyes turned to the man who would fly the next Mercury mission — Gus Grissom.
AFTER SEVERAL DAYS of delay due to poor weather, Gus walked to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral on July 21, 1961. Finally, all indicators were good, and the small boy from Mitchell, now a seasoned pilot, blasted into space.
Aptly named the Liberty Bell 7 for its bell-like shape, Gus’ craft had two new features: a bigger window and a lighter hatch, which required just five pounds of force to open from the inside, less than the previous hatch.
While in space, Gus gazed through the new window at the galaxy as it dimmed from indigo to black. The planet was a blue-and-green orb beneath him. His flight lasted just 15 minutes, and while the landing was bumpy, the Liberty Bell 7 settled into the Atlantic Ocean nearly 100 miles north of the Grand Bahamas.
While waiting for the recovery helicopter, Gus heard a dull thud and the hatch to the capsule hurled into the ocean. Seawater flooded in.
Gus dove into the water to escape the sinking hunk of metal, but his foot caught in a network of wires. He began to sink with the capsule, barely keeping his head above water. When he did manage to get free, a portion of his spacesuit opened and began to take on water.
Chopping waves pounded Grissom as he struggled to stay afloat. He waved to a helicopter, and they waved back, assuming everything was fine. Finally, another helicopter dropped a flotation collar for him. He was safe.
But it was too late to save the Liberty Bell 7. The capsule sank to the bottom of the ocean.
When Gus arrived back on land, NASA officials wanted to know what had just cost the agency millions of dollars. Reporters pressed him on what had gone wrong. “It was especially hard for me, as a professional pilot,” Gus later said. “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.”
That flight haunted him, Boomhower says. “He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Years later, author Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff about the Mercury astronauts. The book was later turned into a movie, and many feel it portrayed Gus unfairly and hinted that he’d panicked and blew the hatch himself.
“I think you had to understand what a professional my father was,” Scott says. “Things are going to happen and that’s what test pilots do. They go out there and make things work or make things break.”
But back home in Mitchell, the town never wavered. They were proud of him for reaching the sky and making it safely back to earth. In fact, the town threw an impromptu parade that drew 5,000 people along Main Street.
“He was open and honest about what happened,” Boomhower says. “Everyone who knew him, believed in him.”
A review board ultimately determined Gus was not at fault. But he knew he would have to take matters into his own hands if he was going to fly again.
FOURTEEN MONTHS AFTER Grissom’s ill-fated Mercury flight, President John F. Kennedy gave the nation a new calling: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
The Mercury missions proved men could reach the heavens. Now the Gemini missions had to prove they could survive there. The project would test the effects of gravity on two people, practice rendezvousing with other spacecrafts and improve landing accuracy.
After the Mercury flight, Gus was reasonably certain he wouldn’t have a second space flight. “By then,” he later said, “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.”
Gus got involved at all levels. He used his mechanical engineering degree to help design the new Gemini crafts so they’d need input from the pilots. Astronaut Deke Slayton later wrote about Gus’ influence. “Gemini would not fly without a guy at the controls,” he said. “It was laid out the way a pilot likes to have the thing laid out . . . . Gus was the guy who did all that.”
Despite the hundreds of hours he spent working on Gemini, Gus made time for his family. “We had as good a father as we could have,” Scott says. “When he did come home, he made sure he did something with us.”
Scott remembers going to the Indy 500, hunting, fishing and snow and water skiing with his parents. They would have conversations about the high-speed areodynamics in space, and Gus would draw models of his crafts.
“When he was home, it was quality time,” Scott says.
Once Scott told his father that he wanted to grow up and become a pilot, too. “He told me, ‘You can’t do both,’ “ Scott says of the memory.
AFTER MONTHS OF PREPARATION, Alan Shepard was selected to be the first Gemini pilot. But after he had periods of nausea and dizziness, he was diagnosed with an inner-ear disorder. Gus, the skilled test pilot and engineer who had worked so hard on the craft, became the new commander, with John Young as his co-pilot.
The Molly Brown, sardonically named after the Broadway show “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” about a real-life survivor of the Titanic, would carry the pilots in three orbits around the world.
From the moment the rocket left the launch pad that spring morning, it was a textbook flight, with no major errors and few kinks. The Molly Brown splashed down 4 hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds after the launch.
The flight made front-page headlines around the United States. The New York Times said, “The Gemini 3 opened a new era in man’s use of space, as Major Grissom flew it with its nose forward and backward and upside down and changed its flight path in three different ways on a three-orbit journey.” The Chicago Tribune ran photos of the astronauts and their Titan rocket. Gus was back on top.
Despite his new success, Gus never forgot his roots. He reached an agreement with the mayor of Mitchell that anytime he was flying in the area, he could sweep once across the town.
Charlotte Speer, a family friend of the Grissoms, clearly remembers those low flights. “Everything would shake,” she says. “Even you would shake. You could feel it everywhere.”
NINE OTHER MANNED MISSIONS followed Gus’ Molly Brown flight, and Gus was set to fly again, this time on the first of the Apollo missions that would realize America’s dream to put a man on the moon. Unlike the Gemini missions, the Apollo crafts were built with the astronauts in mind, but without their help. Pressure mounted as engineers and pilots rushed to reach their end-of-the-decade deadline.
“There were a lot of problems with the Apollo 1 mission,” Boomhower says. “‘Go fever.’ There were technical difficulties, complicated, complex machinery, miles of wiring in the command module and a new contractor.”
The three Apollo I astronauts — Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee — were onboard the command module for a launchpad test on January 27, 1967, when a spark ignited a fire in the oxygen-filled craft, killing the astronauts in a matter of seconds.
The nation was stunned by its first space casualties. President Lyndon Johnson spoke to grieving Americans, saying, “Three valiant young men have given their lives in the nation’s service. We mourn this great loss, and our hearts go out to their families.”
But the accident wasn’t really surprising, Boomhower says. “Ask any of the test pilots. They knew things sometimes just break. They’re made by humans. Human error is involved. Many of them were used to losing friends. One day they’d be laughing and joking, the next day that person would be dead.”
Grissom especially knew the danger. His death made an earlier comment to reporters seem prophetic. “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.”
While Gus received a hero’s burial in Arlington Cemetery, Mitchell fell silent. Memorial services were held at the high school and elementary school, flags flew half-staff and many businesses were closed. Mitchell later memorialized Gus in a museum at nearby Spring Mill State Park. Relics of his life and work can also be found in his childhood home-turned-museum and in the history museum in Lawrence County. His two sons still work to commemorate their father’s life.
“I think Indiana should be extremely proud of Gus Grissom,” Scott says. “I really think Indiana needs to pick a day and call it Gus Grissom day. If you look at Indiana history, two people come to mind: Eli Lilly and Gus Grissom. Nobody else comes close.”
ON A RECENT SPRING AFTERNOON, two slabs of plywood stretch across puddles from Grissom Avenue to the sidewalk of Gus’ childhood home. As the last group of fourth-graders from Burris Elementary troop off the bus, the Grissom home fills with voices once again.
Gus’ cousin Steve, now a teacher at Mitchell Junior High School, leans against the white kitchen cabinets Gus’ father made. The kids gather around.
“It was in this house, these walls, that one of America’s truest, greatest heroes was born,” Steve begins. “Who was it?”
“Gus Grissom!” a chorus of young voices replies.
Steve asks questions about Gus and calls on raised hands. He was the first astronaut from Purdue. He served in a war. He was the first person to fly in space twice. Finally, there was only one hand up.
“Well he, well he died in a spaceship fire,” the boys says. The children nod in silence.
Steve tells the class that he talked to Betty, Gus’ wife, and she has a message for them.
“She goes, ‘His legacy to me shows you what hard work can do. If you work hard, don’t ever give up on your dreams, it doesn’t matter who you are, what your last name is, how much money you have or where you come from, even from little Mitchell, Indiana. You can still go on and do big things in the world. And that’s Gus’ legacy. That’s how I want him remembered.’”
Gus may never have gotten the chance to walk on the moon. But his memory lives on in this small Indiana town where he first dreamed he might fly.