The Underrated Gus Grissom

A new biography confirms that the Mercury astronaut did indeed have the right stuff.

Gus Grissom just before his Gemini 3 launch in 1965. (NASA)
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Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, one of the Mercury 7 astronauts, was selected for the Apollo program in 1966. During a launchpad test of the command module the following year, he and crewmates Ed White and Roger Chaffee perished in a fire. Having researched Grissom’s life for seven years, author George Leopold has written a biography, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom, that defines the astronaut’s legacy in the history of human spaceflight.

Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?

Leopold: Gus Grissom was the forgotten man of the Space Race, partly as a result of his temperament, his disdain for the limelight, and the serendipitous circumstances of the early crew assignments. Everyone remembered Alan Shepard’s first flight and John Glenn’s orbital flight. Grissom was remembered mostly for losing his first spacecraft. All this struck me—and many others who admired Grissom—as unjust. Those who walked on the moon were indeed heroes, but they stood on the shoulders of men like Grissom. He did the tedious engineering work required to ensure that our magnificent machines worked and brought their crews back home. Grissom would have dismissed such talk, but I am convinced the facts of the Space Race confirm this view. His death at the age of 40 also contributed to his under-appreciation: Unlike the other early astronauts, Grissom never got the opportunity to publish his memoirs.

How would you describe Grissom’s personality?

Despite the celebrity of the Mercury 7 astronauts, Grissom kept a low profile and cared not a whit about personal prestige. He did, however, consider himself a pioneer, and understood that the nation reaching the moon first would reap considerable international prestige. Lowell Grissom described his brother as a “mild extrovert,” extremely hard working, meticulous, yet fun-loving. Gus appreciated a good joke and possessed a mischievous sense of humor. He was also flawed. He could be crude, surly, demanding, and probably unfaithful. Despite his taciturn nature, he was respected by his fellow astronauts. Grissom let his actions speak for themselves. By the end of his life, his work ethic had carried him to the very top.

Was the Apollo 1 launchpad fire in any way a failure of leadership on the part of Grissom? Shouldn’t he have spoken out about the unsafe conditions?

Despite deep reservations about his ship, it’s clear that Grissom and a narrow circle of senior NASA managers were—by the end of 1966—in the grip of a type of group-think that came to be known as “Go Fever.” Grissom did complain vociferously about many aspects of the early Apollo program: by hanging a lemon on the faulty Apollo simulator, for example. He also warned in the moments before his death: “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t even communicate between three buildings?”

In my view, Grissom found himself in the unenviable position of commanding the first flight of a deeply flawed machine. Yes, he should have known better than to seal himself inside a spaceship pumped full of pure oxygen, containing miles of bad wiring and flammable materials. But it must be remembered that he and the other astronauts—all test pilots—were supremely confident men and highly competitive. Grissom knew full well there would be a long line of colleagues more than willing to take his place. Everyone was in a hurry to beat the Russians to the moon. Grissom weighed the risks and decided he could fix his deadly machine. That calculated risk cost him and his crew their lives. Paradoxically, of course, the United States likely would not have reached the moon by the end of the 1960s had the Apollo 1 fire not occurred. That’s the hard lesson of manned spaceflight: Sacrifices are necessary to advance human progress. Grissom understood this.

In Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, Grissom is portrayed unfavorably, especially when his space capsule sinks after splashdown. Do you think it’s an accurate portrayal?

The literary and film portrayal of the end of the flight of Liberty Bell 7 is fiction. Gus Grissom did not hit the “chicken switch.” Why—after being sealed inside a cramped spacecraft for several hours, flying a ballistic trajectory, experiencing weightlessness for about five minutes, sustaining about 10 Gs during a fairly violent reentry, and observing a tear in his main reentry parachute—would Grissom have panicked while floating in the Atlantic? If anything he was elated. All who knew Grissom understood he did not lose his cool.

He followed the egress procedures at the end of his mission checklist while preparing for the recovery helicopters to hook on to his spacecraft. His only error was arming the poorly designed exploding hatch before the recovery helicopter had latched on. As the astronaut recalled, he was minding his own business when—“pow!”—the hatch unexpectedly blew. Somehow the 5-foot-7-inch astronaut managed to get out, and then assisted the recovery forces in the futile effort to salvage his waterlogged ship. It sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, and Grissom was devastated. It was the first ship he had ever lost, and he paid a heavy price. NASA immediately revised the egress procedures, and all later Mercury astronauts blew the hatch on the deck of the recovery ship.

Grissom nearly drowned that hot morning in July 1961, acknowledging during a post-flight press conference that he was “scared.” The reporters and author Tom Wolfe misinterpreted the admission: Grissom feared drowning, as his pressure suit lost buoyancy in the ocean swells. He struggled to remain afloat for nearly five minutes. If he had feared flying in space, he would never have volunteered for the astronaut corps.

The bottom line is this: Had NASA managers concluded that Grissom fouled up, he would never have flown again. Instead, he was awarded the maiden flights of two new ships—the two-man Gemini and Apollo—in the span of two years. Most test pilots never earned one maiden flight in their entire career much less two. Tom Wolfe got it wrong.

Any similarities between the Apollo 1 fire and Challenger in that NASA was willing to compromise safety in order to maintain a launch schedule?

One that I can think of: Backup commander Wally Schirra warned Grissom the night before to get out during the plugs-out test on January 27, 1967, if he didn’t like what was happening with his Block I Apollo spacecraft. Nearly 20 years later, the engineers at solid-rocket-booster maker Morton Thiokol warned NASA managers the night before to postpone the Challenger launch due to low temperatures. In each case, the warnings were prescient, and both were ignored.

Why do you think NASA has never released a detailed autopsy report for Grissom, Chaffee, and White?

My understanding is that release of the autopsy reports requires the approval of all three families as well as the space agency. I know of one instance where approvals were obtained from the families but NASA, for its own reasons, declined to release the autopsy reports. To my knowledge, they remain sealed at the National Archives. Responsible researchers should be given access to these primary historical documents to understand precisely what transpired during the Apollo 1 fire.

If the Apollo 1 launchpad technicians had gotten the men out of the command module sooner, would they have had a chance at survival?

The Block I Apollo command module’s pressure vessel ruptured in about 20 seconds. The crew of Apollo 1 was asphyxiated and sustained survivable burns. It is not known precisely how long the crew survived the toxic smoke and flames. No one—not even the world-class athlete Ed White—could have pried open the heavy, inward-opening Apollo hatch in the short time before the spacecraft split open. But White and Grissom fought to the end to get out, perhaps even cracking the seal on the inner hatch before they and Chaffee succumbed to toxic gases.

How are Grissom’s contributions viewed today?

During my research for the book, I was often struck by the great affection for Grissom around the world. He was an every-man from a small Indiana town who rose to the peak of his profession. He was given nothing, and earned everything he accomplished. America needs heroes. Gus Grissom fits the bill. As the former Indiana congressmen Lee Hamilton recalled, Grissom radiated competence. That quality—along with the willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause—are in short supply these days.

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