Gus Grissom, born on April 3, 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana, transitioned from successful Air Force test pilot to NASA astronaut. Grissom flew over 100 missions during the Korean War, making him an excellent candidate for NASA's space exploration program. Despite a controversial landing in the Liberty Bell 7, Grissom continued flying for NASA until his death in a test flight in 1967.
Born Virgil Ivan Grissom on April 3, 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana, Gus Grissom was one of the original members of the U.S. manned space program run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The oldest one of four children, Grissom grew up in a small town where he earned money by delivering newspapers. In high school, Grissom was bright, but not a standout student or athlete. he enlisted in the military after graduating from Mitchell High School in 1944.
Military Service and Education
After receiving basic training, Gus Grissom was stationed in San Antonio, Texas. In 1945, Grissom married his longtime sweetheart, Betty Moore. Later that year he was discharged at the end of World War II. Not long after he left the service, he was able to go college using the GI Bill. He went to Purdue University where he majored in mechanical engineering. Both Gus and Betty worked while Gus was in school to make ends meet. He graduated in 1950 with the goal of becoming a test pilot. To this end, he returned to the military. He enlisted with the U.S. Air Force and served during the Korean War. Flying approximately 100 missions, Grissom received the Air Medal with cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
Returning to the United States in 1952, Grissom served as a jet instructor in Bryan, Texas. Three years later, he went to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to study aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology there. He later had several months of test pilot training at Edwards Air Force Base in California in 1956. Finally realizing his dream, Grissom returned to Wright-Patterson in 1957 to serve as a fighter jet test pilot.
The First Astronauts
By the late 1950s, NASA was developing its space exploration program, Project Mercury. The organization was considering more than 100 military test pilots as possible candidates to become the first American astronauts. In April 1959, Grissom was one of the seven men selected for Project Mercury. The others included Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Walter Schirra, Donald "Deke" Slayton, and Alan Shepard. The astronauts underwent rigorous training in preparation for space missions.
Grissom got his first mission in 1961. On July 21, he piloted the second American manned suborbital flight on spacecraft known as Liberty Bell 7. The flight lasted only 15 minutes and 37 seconds. With its chutes open, the craft drifted down to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. While the landing was smooth, Grissom's departure from Liberty Bell 7 was difficult. The craft had an explosive hatch, which blew open suddenly, filling the cabin with water. Grissom struggled to get out and swam in the waters nearby, watching as the spacecraft sank.
Four years later, he was assigned another mission. As the commander of Gemini III, Grissom got a chance to orbit Earth three times. He and pilot John Young also conducted experiments and evaluated the spacecraft. Less than five hours after they launched on March 23, 1965, Gemini III—nicknamed "Molly Brown" after the musical about the Titanic survivor by the same name—safely returned to Earth as heroes. Shortly after their mission was complete, Grissom and Young were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Grissom was selected to command the first manned mission of what would become known as Apollo 1. Unfortunately, Grissom and the rest of his crew, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, never made it into space. They died on January 27, 1967, in fire during a pre-flight test at the NASA Space Center in Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral), Florida. Grissom left behind a wife and two children.
Like many other astronauts, Grissom knew his work was dangerous, but important. He is quoted in the book Footprints on the Moon as saying, "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."
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