Grissom, Virgil Ivan ("Gus")

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GRISSOM, Virgil Ivan ("Gus")

(b. 3 April 1926 in Mitchell, Indiana; d. 27 January 1967 in Cape Kennedy [now Cape Canaveral], Florida), U.S. Air Force pilot who in the 1960s became one of the first seven U.S. astronauts; the second American to fly in space and the first to maneuver his spacecraft; the first American to fly into space twice; and the commander of Apollo 1, the prototype vessel for those used to fly astronauts to the Moon.

Grissom was the first of four children of Dennis Grissom, an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and Cecile (King) Grissom, a homemaker. Almost as soon as he could read, Grissom was studying airplanes, and for much of his youth he made wooden models of planes, fascinated by their mechanical complexity as well as by their ability to fly. He wanted to become a pilot.

Grissom graduated from Mitchell High School in 1944 and enlisted in flight school for the U.S. Army Air Corps with an eye to flying in World War II. He married Betty Moore, his high-school sweetheart, on 6 July 1945; they had two sons. With the end of the war, instead of flying, Grissom was assigned a desk job, much to his dismay. He soon left the air corps in November 1945 to take a job maintaining buses.

Grissom wanted to be more than a bus mechanic and enrolled at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. He graduated with a B.S. in 1950, enlisted in the air force, and received his wings in 1951. He was assigned to the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Korea, where he flew one hundred combat missions as a wing man. Grissom won the Air Medal with an oak-leaf cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in Korea.

After completing his combat missions, Lieutenant Colonel Grissom was assigned to Bryan, Texas, to train raw pilots; he half-jokingly said that training those pilots was much more dangerous than flying in combat. He wanted to become a test pilot and therefore put in many extra hours of flying and training, earning a reputation as a dedicated worker and as one of the air force's best pilots. In 1955 he was sent to Edwards Air Force Base in California to attend test pilot school, and in 1957 he began test flying cutting-edge jet aircraft at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

In 1958 the U.S. Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Grissom received a mysterious order from the air force to report to Washington, D.C., in civilian clothes for a top-secret mission. It turned out he was one of the 110 pilots selected as candidates for a NASA program to launch people into space. Grissom felt honored and excited and agreed to undergo lengthy, unpleasant tests in order to qualify to become an astronaut.

On 13 April 1959 Grissom was named as one of the Mercury Seven, the seven pilots chosen to become the first U.S. astronauts. The Grissoms moved to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to be near the training site for his space-flight. On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union became the first person to travel in space. Alan Shepard was selected to be the first American in space, taking a short flight on 5 May 1961. Grissom was chosen for the next flight, and he named his craft Liberty Bell 7 because the capsule was bell shaped. His craft was an improvement over Shepard's, with a bigger window and better controls. Grissom's mission was to test how the spacecraft maneuvered (he found the controls sluggish) and to confirm some of what was learned from Shepard's flight.

Fifteen minutes after his launch on 21 July 1961, Grissom splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. He went through all of his splashdown procedures, then relaxed and waited for helicopters to hoist the capsule out of the water so he could safely exit the craft. According to Grissom, the hatch to the craft abruptly boomed and popped off. The door had explosive bolts on it, so that it could be blown open by the astronaut inside or a rescuer from the outside. Only days earlier a test had been scrubbed because one of the bolts was misaligned. There are many theories about what happened on 21 July. One is that Grissom panicked and blew the door open prematurely, although the engineers involved said this was not possible without Grissom's leaving evidence of his actions.

When NASA opened its new headquarters in Houston, Texas, the Grissoms moved to nearby Seabrook, where they had a house built with no windows facing the street; Grissom disliked the news media prying into his private life. At the Manned Space Center in Houston, Grissom joined the Gemini space program, which involved having two astronauts, not just one, inside spacecraft. He was made the backup for Shepard for a 23 March 1965 spaceflight. When Shepard became seriously ill, Grissom was named as the commander of the flight. He had worked on the Gemini designs from the beginning of the program. The craft he flew showed his influence, especially in the layout of the controls, which his fellow astronauts admired for their good sense. After the launch at Cape Kennedy, Grissom became the first person to fly in space twice.

Grissom was next assigned to the Apollo program, which was intended to send people to the Moon and back. He was named as the commander of Apollo 1, a test craft meant only to orbit Earth. Grissom was dismayed by the spacecraft's design flaws, and many parts had to be replaced, redesigned, or eliminated. On 27 January 1967 Grissom and his fellow astronauts Roger Chaffee and Edward White were sealed inside the Apollo 1 capsule, testing its systems, when a spark ignited the oxygen in the chamber. Although the Soviets had been using ordinary air successfully, the U.S. program was using only pure oxygen for the astronauts to breathe. The oxygen exploded. The door required ninety seconds to open, by which time all three astronauts had died of suffocation. Grissom was buried on 10 February 1967 in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Grissom's most lasting accomplishment may have been his development of a system of controls that put astronauts in charge of their craft. This was important for the first Moon landing in 1969, during which the landing craft had to be manually maneuvered to a safe landing place, and in 1970, when the Apollo 13 crew members still were able to maneuver their craft after most of the automatic controls had ceased functioning. Grissom's design influence continued in the space shuttles of the 1980s and 1990s, in which the controls allowed pilots to take the initiative.

Grissom, Gemini: A Personal Account of Man's Venture into Space (1968), offers a firsthand account of his experiences. Another good resource is Betty Grissom and Henry Still, Starfall (1974). See also M. Scott Carpenter, We Seven, by the Astronauts Themselves (1962) and Carl L. Chappell, Seven Minus One: The Story of Gus Grissom (1962). An obituary is in the New York Times (28 Jan. 1967).

Kirk H. Beetz