Quick – name a hero of the space program!
I bet I can guess who you thought of, within three: Neil Armstrong; Buzz Aldrin; John Glenn. Right? (Okay, within four – some people think of Alan Shepard.)
History is filled with names that ring down the centuries: George Washington calls to mind the Americans’ first fierce battle for liberty; Abraham Lincoln, the struggle of a young nation to remain united over details of principle. Other names sing of the progression of science: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, James Watson (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA); all of them pushing the boundaries of the possible, all of them remembered.
One of the famous names within the space program people don’t come up with is Virgil Ivan ‘Gus’ Grissom. He was the second American in space, after Alan Shepard (May 5, 1961); and because of the flight rotation, missed being the first American to orbit the earth (John Glenn, February 20, 1962).
But at least he was in the space program!
Reading the Wikipedia entry under his name, Gus Grissom seems like many another average citizen. He was a Boy Scout. He went to public school. He met his sweetheart, Betty Lavonne Moore, who later would become his wife. He eagerly served his country during the Second World War, and again in Korea. He experienced disappointments and challenges: though he enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was assigned as a clerk. After his discharge from the U.S.A.A.F, he and his wife both worked while Gus earned his first Bachelor’s of Science degree. During the Korean war, he reenlisted and became a pilot in the newly-formed U.S. Air Force and flew a hundred missions in an F-86 Sabre as wingman to the lead fighters; after his promotion to First Lieutenant, his request to stay in Korea to fly another 25 missions was denied, and he came back stateside to serve as a flight instructor on Bryan AFB.
He was one of 110 military test pilots to be summoned to Washington, D.C. in 1958, to be told of the Top Secret space program (specifically, Project Mercury), and during the testing for the limited spots in the program, was nearly disqualified because he suffered from hay fever. What a loss that would have been for NASA, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, and history itself! Working very closely with the engineers and technicians who built the Gemini spacecraft, the first few were built around him and the design was referred to as “the Gusmobile.” Now, Gus being one of the smaller members, NASA later discovered that 14 out of 16 astronauts couldn’t fit into the capsules, so modified later designs. During that time, Gus also invented – think about that for a minute, invented – the multi-axis thruster controller that allowed Gemini and Apollo to rendevouz and dock.
And he was almost rejected for having allergies.
The museum in his hometown of Mitchell, Indiana, honors this famous son of theirs with the Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom Memorial Museum. In the museum are displayed a sandwich, and the Molly Brown. And there’s a story behind both.
During Gus’ first flight (Mercury-Redstone 4, named Liberty Bell 7), the explosive hatch was triggered after splashdown. The capsule sank, and Gus nearly drowned when his spacesuit filled with water. When he was assigned the Gemini III, he named her Molly Brown, after a popular Broadway play, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Not liking the connontations, NASA requested he change the name; Gus suggested Titanic. The Molly Brown was the last Gemini Flight NASA allowed the pilots to name.
During the flight (March 23, 1965), part of the onboard experimentation was for John Young, the copilot, to test some new, specially packaged space food. Future Gemini missions were going to get longer in preparation for the trip to the moon, and being able to supply good nutrition aboard ship was going to be critical. Gus didn’t like the reconstituted food; he was willing to eat it only because nothing else was available… supposedly. In Gus’ own words, from his autobiography, “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.”
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.”
The Unsinkable Molly came to earth without major mishap, information was gleaned, and the space program advanced inexorably toward the moon.
It often seems as though our greatest triumphs are preceded by great tragedy. Nine Gemini missions after Molly Brown‘s flight all contributed greatly to our knowledge, expertise and confidence, and landing on the moon seemed assured. Chief Astronaut Deke Slayton wanted one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to be first on the moon; Chris Kraft (Flight Director in Mission Control) and Bob Gilruth (head of the Manned Spacecraft Center) agreed, and seconded Slayton’s first choice of Gus. But on January 27, 1967, during a pre-launch test of the Apollo 1, the capsule caught fire. The interior atmosphere was pressurized and 100% oxygen; the emergency escape hatch hinged inward, and couldn’t be opened while under full pressure; all three men – Ed White, Roger B. Chaffee, and Gus Grissom – died on the launching pad.
So stop by the Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom Memorial Museum. Pay homage to one of the lesser-sung but no less influential heroes of the American space program.