Grissom, Virgil "Gus"

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Virgil "Gus" Grissom

Born April 3, 1926
Mitchell, Indiana

Died January 27, 1967
Kennedy Space Center,
Cape Canaveral, Florida

American astronaut

Frustrated that the Soviet Union had launched the first manmade object into orbit in 1957, the United States stepped up its efforts to be the first to put a human into space. To win the space race, the U.S. Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Among the first to respond to his country's call to pioneer space travel was Virgil "Gus" Grissom. From among five hundred military pilots who met the standards NASA set for its first astronauts, Grissom passed weeks of testing to be named one of America's first astronauts for the Mercury 7 project launch on April 9, 1959. Grissom's work over the next eight years helped create a strong foundation for the future of the U.S. space program.

"If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

—Gus Grissom, several weeks before his death.

For the love of flying

Born Virgil Ivan Grissom on April 3, 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana, "Gus" Grissom grew up in a loving family. His father, Dennis, a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad employee, and his mother, Cecile, raised Gus with his two younger brothers and sister. As a child, Gus assembled balsa wood airplane models, learned to hunt and fish, and became a Boy Scout. He earned spending money delivering newspapers twice a day. In the summer, he picked peaches and cherries in the orchards near town.

The United States was involved in World War II (1939-45) as Grissom finished high school. During his senior year, he enlisted as an aviation cadet. After graduation he immediately reported to the Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force, to learn to become a pilot. The war had ended by the time he had finished training. Grissom was discharged in November 1945.

Grissom married his high school sweetheart, Betty Moore, on July 6, 1945. The couple settled in Mitchell. Grissom worked at a bus manufacturer in Mitchell to earn money but knew he did not want to install doors on school buses forever. He decided to study mechanical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Betty worked as a long distance telephone operator, and Gus flipped hamburgers at a local diner to pay for his education. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1950.

Earns his wings

With his degree in hand, Grissom set a new goal for himself. He sought to become a military test pilot and rejoined the U.S. Air Force. By 1951 he had earned the rank of lieutenant and his pilot's wings. His first assignment was to fly an F-86 fighter jet during the Korean War (1950–53). Unlike other pilots who named their planes after their wives or girlfriends, Grissom chose the name "Scotty" for his plane, in honor of his newborn son. He flew one hundred combat missions, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals by war's end.

In 1953, Grissom became an Air Force flight instructor and the father of a second son, Mark. Over the next few years, Grissom's good work earned him the rank of captain and a coveted spot in the test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Grissom had just become a test pilot when in 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first manmade object to go into orbit. When the U.S. Congress established NASA to seek and train astronauts to man the first rockets into space, Grissom met all the requirements. He was younger than 40; less than 5 feet 11 inches tall; had more than 1,500 hours of flying time; and had graduated from test-pilot school.

Grissom did not just sign up to become an astronaut, he was given an invitation. One day he received a message classified as "Top Secret" instructing him to report in civilian (non-military) clothes to an address in Washington, D.C., on a particular date. Grissom said, "in the Air Force you get some weird orders, but you obey them, no matter what.… I was convinced that somehow or other I had wandered right into the middle of a James Bond novel," according to his memoir, Gemini. At his appointment, Grissom learned that he was among the 110 candidates selected to go through extensive medical and psychological testing. The tests would determine who among them would be the first American astronauts.

Those selected went through weeks of testing. This included challenges such as being locked in a completely darkened room, enduring high frequency noises while being shaken by a vibrating machine, and activating buttons and switches at an increasingly quick pace. Grissom was nearly disqualified. He was allergic to ragweed pollen, and this fact worried Air Force officials. But Grissom convinced the Air Force to let him continue. According to Betty Grissom and Henry Still in Starfall, Gus argued that "there won't be any ragweed pollen in space." On April 9, 1959, Grissom and six others were named America's first astronauts. The group was nicknamed the Mercury 7 after the rocket that would hurl them into space. Mercury 7 included Grissom, Navy Lieutenant M. Scott Carpenter, Air Force Captain L. Gordon Cooper Jr., Marine Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn Jr., Navy Lieutenant Commander Walter M. Schirra Jr., Navy Lieutenant Commander Alan B. Shepard Jr., and Air Force Captain Donald K. Slayton. These seven would man the flights of Project Mercury, NASA's attempts to orbit Earth in the early 1960s. Upon accepting his new position, Grissom moved his young family to the Langley Air Force Base in Virginia so he could live near the training program.

Learning to be the "man in the can"

When Grissom and his fellow astronauts began training to fly into space, no one really knew what to expect. No one had ever done such a thing. Scientists gauged what space might feel like to humans by using mathematical calculations and sophisticated guesses. NASA technicians created simulators, testing devices that created the forces that astronauts might experience when the rocket blasted off and reentered Earth's atmosphere. Astronauts were strapped in a huge centrifuge, a device that simulates the effects of differing forces of gravity. The device spun at dizzying speeds that imitated the pressure of blast off and reentry. NASA technicians also figured out how to imitate the weightlessness, called zero gravity, that they expected to exist in space. Astronauts experienced zero gravity inside the cargo hold of a transport plane. The plane gained altitude and then quickly dove steeply, tossing the astronauts into a moment of weightlessness, and often each other. Even though these astronauts were accomplished pilots and spent hours studying rocket and flight operations, they were not expected to actually fly a rocket. The astronauts joked that they were just the "man in the can"; the only control they learned was how to abort the flight in an emergency.

Why Did America Care about Beating the Soviets to the Moon?

The U.S. space program was established to demonstrate the technological and economic superiority of the United States. It became an important strategic tool in 1961 to help the United States show its strength during the Cold War (1945–91). The Cold War was the long-simmering political conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. U.S. president John F. Kennedy felt pressure to establish the United States as a leader of rival nations. The nation had just bungled an invasion of Soviet-aided Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The United States also endured the rise to worldwide fame of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin (1934–1968) after the Russian became the first to orbit Earth in 1961. Kennedy conceived of Project Apollo as a tool to put America on top in the political conflict. He believed that having American feet be the first on the Moon would prove to the world that the United States was the most powerful nation.

The program took economic power as well as technological knowledge. Project Apollo was the second most expensive non-military technological expenditure in U.S. history at the time, costing $25.4 billion. It was second only to the building of the Panama Canal. When the monitors in the control center in Houston flashed the words "TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969," announcing the successful Apollo trip to the Moon, the United States had proven itself to be a world leader.

At the same time Americans were preparing to orbit Earth, the Soviets were making similar preparations. One month before Alan Shepard (1923–1998) manned the first U.S. rocket flight on May 5, 1961, the Soviets successfully sent a cosmonaut (the Russian term for astronaut) once around Earth. Shepard's fifteen-minute flight in Freedom 7 reached an altitude of 116 miles (186.6 kilometers) above Earth and raced at a speed of 5,146 miles per hour (8,279.9 kilometers per hour) but did not go into orbit. The Soviets had beat the Americans again. Rather than admitting defeat, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry) saw the Soviets' accomplishment as proof that a new goal should be set for the space race. He proposed that the United States commit itself to sending a man to the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

Grissom's first flight

Kennedy's challenge inspired Congress to fund NASA with huge amounts of money to continue its efforts to orbit a man around Earth and to prepare for a successful trip to the Moon. On July 21, 1961, Grissom manned the second U.S. space flight in Liberty Bell 7. Grissom's fifteen-minute, thirty-seven-second flight did not go into orbit, but Grissom did perform some maneuvers with his spacecraft, becoming the first astronaut to be more than just a "man in the can."

Liberty Bell 7 splashed into the Atlantic Ocean as planned. Grissom began checking his instruments while helicopters flew to retrieve him. "I was sitting there minding my own business when, POW … I saw blue sky," Grissom later said, according to Starfall. The capsule hatch cover had blown off and water started pouring into Liberty Bell 7. Grissom threw off his helmet and swam out into the ocean, but the downdraft from the helicopters hovering overhead pushed him underwater. After three attempts, Grissom was finally able to grab the rope that pulled him to safety. In the meantime, the Liberty Bell 7 sank to the ocean floor.

In all, Project Mercury included six preparatory flights that helped develop a space program to fly a man to the Moon. John Glenn (1921–) followed Grissom's flight to become the first American to orbit Earth. During the next three flights, NASA increased the number of orbits. On May 15, 1963, Gordon Cooper (1927–) completed Project Mercury by successfully orbiting Earth twenty-two times. NASA was now ready to start Project Gemini, the program that would put a man on the Moon.

The unsinkable Molly Brown

Rather than one astronaut, the capsules of the next program, called Gemini, held two. Unlike the earlier flights, the twelve missions planned for Project Gemini required astronauts to fly the spacecraft, dock with other capsules, and even perform repairs while "walking" in space. Work on Project Gemini was done in Houston, Texas, at NASA's new Manned Space Center, which opened in 1964. The Grissom family moved into a new house near the space center the same year. This allowed Gus, who spent ten to twelve hours training each day, to be able to spend more of his free time with his wife and two sons.

On March 23, 1965, Grissom became the first person to fly into space twice. He flew with John Young in the first Gemini mission. Nicknaming the capsule Molly Brown after the popular Broadway play The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Grissom hoped his second flight might not have such a disastrous ending as his first. The flight, which orbited Earth three times, lasted five hours. During the flight Grissom performed a series of maneuvers that altered the rocket's orbit. At the same time, Young prepared the first food in space. As Grissom flew, Young asked him if he wanted to eat. Instead of offering the typical mushy space food, Young pulled a corned beef sandwich out of his spacesuit. Grissom took a bite but quickly stashed it away as bread crumbs scattered and began floating all around the cabin.

The flight soon ended with a splash in the Atlantic Ocean. Grissom and Young waited patiently for the rescue ship to arrive before opening the hatch. The heat building in the capsule prompted the astronauts to strip down to their long underwear to keep from overheating in their space suits. Bobbing around in the ocean made Grissom and Young sick to their stomachs, and both were happy when the helicopter hoisted them onto the rescue ship filled with cheering sailors.

Reaching for the Moon

In all, Project Gemini's twelve flights gave NASA the information it needed to surpass the Soviet space program. It led to Project Apollo, the program that would land a man on the Moon. Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were selected to fly abroad the first Apollo mission. In preparation for their first Apollo flight, the three astronauts spent hundreds of hours learning emergency procedures.

As they practiced, the poor design of the spacecraft became apparent. Parts leaked and some engineering changes had not been completed. On January 22, 1967, Grissom stopped at home before going to the final preflight tests at Cape Canaveral. Upset with all the problems the crew had been having with the spacecraft, Grissom pulled a large lemon off a tree in his backyard. He told Betty as he kissed her goodbye: "I'm going to hang it on that spacecraft," she remembered in Starfall.

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 rocket sat on launch pad 34 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the official blast-off location. Grissom and his crew ate lunch and dressed in their full gear for a practice countdown. The actual departure was scheduled for the next month. The astronauts climbed into the cabin and took their seats in the capsule. The three reclining crew seats were located near hundreds of dials and switches, connected by 15 miles (24 kilometers) of wiring. The capsule hatch was sealed from the outside. The seal was designed to fit very tightly and would require ninety seconds to reopen from the inside. Once sealed, the cabin was filled with pure oxygen and pressurized, as was planned for the final launch.

At 1:00 p.m. the test began. For hours the crew checked the workings of the rocket. Clearly the rocket needed more work. Several times the transmissions between the capsule and the control center were disrupted by static. Grissom complained, "If I can't talk with you only five miles away, how can we talk to you from the Moon?" according to the Houston Chronicle. Frustrated by the huge number of problems found in the first five hours of testing, one NASA engineer suggested quitting for the day. Nevertheless, the test conductor began another practice countdown.

With ten minutes left in the countdown, White noticed a fire. Grissom confirmed, "I've got a fire in the cockpit!" according to Dick Lattimer in All We Did Was Fly to the Moon. Images of the cabin catching fire flashed on the control center monitors. The pad crew rushed to pry open the hatch, but an explosion inside the capsule poured out smoke and fire that kept them back for six minutes. "You wouldn't want a description of what we found in there," was all one worker could say after prying the hatch open, according to Lattimer.

The astronauts lay in a heap on the capsule floor near the hatch. They had been trying to get out. Their spacesuits had protected their bodies from the flames, but the capsule's pressurized, pure oxygen environment had burned quickly and with great intensity. The astronauts had suffocated. NASA studied the burned area for seven hours before moving the bodies. NASA's later study of the blast found that a spark from a wire that short-circuited near Grissom's seat was the likely cause of the fire. The cabin had become a deadly environment within twenty-four seconds after the fire started.

Grissom was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C., with full military honors on February 10, 1967. Chaffee was buried next to Grissom later the same day. White's funeral took place at the U.S. Military Academy in New York.

These tragic deaths were taken seriously. NASA re-designed the capsule hatch to open within seconds from the inside. Plus, the rocket cabin was filled with a mixture of gases that would not feed fire as well as pure oxygen does. The next three Apollo missions were flown unmanned to perfect the rocket before risking more lives. And on July 20, 1969, NASA succeeded in landing a man on the Moon with Apollo 11.

For More Information


Barbour, John. Footprints on the Moon. New York: Associated Press, 1969.

Bredeson, Carmen. Gus Grissom: A Space Biography. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.

Grissom, Betty, and Henry Still. Starfall. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974.

Grissom, Virgil. Gemini: A Personal Account of Man's Venture into Space. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Lattimer, Dick. All We Did Was Fly to the Moon. Gainesville, FL: Whispering Eagle Press, 1985.

Shepard, Alan, and Deke Slayton. Moon Shot. Atlanta, GA: Turner, 1994.


Rossiter, Al, Jr. "Apollo Astronauts Meet Death Sealed in Blazing Space Capsule." Houston Chronicle (January 28, 1967): p. A1.

"Saga of Liberty Bell." Time (July 28, 1961): p. 34.

Web Sites

Kennedy Space Center. (accessed August 2004).