Virgil “Gus” Grissom was the first person to fly in space twice and chosen to command the first Apollo manned mission. Gus was described as being intellectually curious, a hard worker, and modest. He flew over 100 missions in the Korean War, was one of seven astronauts chosen for the Mercury space exploration program, and awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Gus was born in Mitchell, Indiana on 3 April 1926. He was the oldest of four. His father, Dennis, worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company. Gus joined the Boy Scouts, eventually serving as Honor Guard. In school, he excelled at math. Gus got a paper delivery job during the school year and did fruit picking work over summer breaks.
As a high school senior, Gus became an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Forces. Upon graduation in 1944, he joined the service. He was sent to Sheppard Field in Texas for basic flight training in the fall of 1944. As the war came to a close, he was transferred to Boca Raton Army Airfield in Florida and his role changed from pilot-in-training to desk clerk. During leave, he returned home to marry his partner Betty in July 1945.
Gus left the military in November 1945 since he no longer had the opportunity for flight training. He returned to Mitchell and began work at a bus manufacturing business. The pay wasn’t good, so Gus decided to attend college in hopes of improving his career outlook. He enrolled at Purdue University September 1946, using the GI Bill for tuition assistance. Gus attended classes during the summer to speed up his graduation date. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering in February 1950.
After graduation, Gus enlisted in the United States Air Force. This time, he was able to attend and complete the air cadet basic training program. The 8.5 week program was a requirement to become an Airman in the US Air Force, Reserves, and National Guard. He was then sent to Williams Air Force Base in Arizona for pilot training. Gus completed 400 flight hours to earn his pilot wings and Second Lieutenant rank.
Gus was assigned to the 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Presque Isle, Maine. His squadron was dispatched to Kimpo Air Base in Seoul, South Korea in February 1952. He was transferred to the 334th Fighter Squadron as a F-86 Sabre pilot. The F-86 was the primary air–to–air fighter jet used by America during the war. Gus named his jet “Scotty” after his newly born son. Gus Grissom flew 100 combat missions, driving off Korean air raid MiGs and avoiding bursts of gunfire. He was promoted to First Lieutenant and received the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross.
He requested to fly in additional missions, but was sent back to the states. Gus was stationed at Bryan Air Force Base in Texas as a flight instructor. In 1955 he was placed at the USAF Institute of Technology in Dayton, Ohio. He enrolled in a year-long Aeromechanics course that earned him a Bachelor of Science degree. He then began USAF test pilot school at Edwards Air force Base in California, ultimately settling into the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base fighter testing branch.
Gus Grissom received a government communication instructing him to go to Washington DC in 1958. The message was classified. Upon arrival, he found out that he was being considered among 110 military test pilots for the Project Mercury space program. Gus went through a variety of physical and psychological tests. He almost got dismissed from the program because the doctors discovered that he had hay fever. He assured the clinicians that the hay fever would make no difference in space. He was chosen along with 6 other astronauts for the Project Mercury Program.
Gus was the pilot of the second Mercury flight on 21 July 1961. The spacecraft used in the suborbital flight was named Liberty Bell 7 by Gus. The flight duration was 15 minutes and 37 seconds. Upon landing, the spacecraft hatch was blown and water flooded the spacecraft. Grissom was able to exit the spacecraft, even though his suit began filling with water. The rescue helicopter was unable to lift the spacecraft, and it sank. Controversy surrounded the event as no one could figure out if human intervention, re-entry, ocean wave activity, or malfunction had caused the hatch to open.
Gus Grissom was asked to go to space for a second time after Alan Shepard was grounded from flight for Project Gemini 3. The original crew of Command Pilot Sheppard and Pilot Thomas Stafford were replaced by Gus and John Young. This would be the first two-manned mission by the US and the first manned Gemini mission. The mission would allow astronauts to test the spacecraft and equipment that were planned for use in the upcoming Apollo missions.
Gus was able to participate in the engineering of the Gemini spacecraft. Gus made sure that the controls were laid out in a way that made sense to the pilot, ensuring all controls were responsive to a pilots input. Gus is quoted as saying that “we had a really fine spacecraft, one we could be proud of in every respect.”
The launch was scheduled for 23 March 1965. Gus was tasked with using an orbital maneuver (another first) to change the second orbit of the spacecraft. Gus requested that this spacecraft use the call sign Molly Brown, a reference to the unsinkable Molly Brown. Although it wasn’t officially recorded in NASA documentation, ground controllers referred to the spacecraft as Molly Brown during the flight.
While John Young may have been known for bringing a sandwich with him to space, Gus elected to bring watches for his two sons and a ring for his wife Betty. He gave them the space souvenirs upon his return. He is quoted as saying that his greatest award was getting to see his family meet President Lyndon Johnson.
Originally, Gus Grissom was scheduled as a back-up commander for the Gemini 6 mission when he was transferred to work on Apollo. Gus was designated as commander for the first mission. He wasn’t able to be involved in the creation of the spacecraft. On 27 January 1967, Gus Grissom was killed with astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee when a launch pad fire broke out during testing. The hastiness of the mission may have led to the faulty insulation wiring and unsafe door design that caused loss of life. At the time of his death, Grissom had logged over 4,600 flight hours. Memorials to Gus Grissom are located in Mitchell, Indiana and Spring Mill State Park. Following the lunar landing, a crater, asteroid, and star have been named after Gus Grissom.Each month, we research the events and people that have shaped aviation. Explore aviation history HERE