Air Force Captain Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom was at the top of his game, working in pilot paradise as an all-weather test flyer at Wright Air Development Center in Ohio when he was summoned to Washington, D.C., via top-secret teletype message, instructed to report in civilian attire, and to discuss the order with no one.
Reporting as directed, he was ushered first to a room full of test pilots and then into a separate room to field “all kinds of odd-ball questions.” The new National Aeronautics and Space Administration was looking for volunteer test pilots to join something called Project Mercury, America’s response to Sputnik. The aim was to put men in space.
Grissom was conflicted. He had one of the best jobs in the Air Force and worked with engineers who were just as competent and committed to their roles as he was to his. But Grissom also sensed the glory days of test piloting were over. “It wasn’t really flight-test at all,” he recalled later. “It was mostly testing new gadgets.” The age of electronic warfare had begun. Grissom was ready for a different kind of challenge.
Grissom enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps right out of high school in 1944, hoping to fly. But by then, too many other aspiring pilots were ahead of him, and World War II was winding down. Private Grissom ended up as a clerk, flying a desk.
Returning home to Mitchell, Ind., Virgil (the more macho moniker “Gus” would came later), installed doors on school buses in a factory job before he finally decided to take advantage of the GI Bill. Married by then to his high school sweetheart, Betty Moore, Gus enrolled at Purdue University and earned a degree in mechanical engineering in just three and a half years.
But Grissom’s urge to fly had not subsided, so Grissom enlisted in the newly independent Air Force. Receiving his pilot’s wings in 1951, he deployed to Korea as an F-86 replacement pilot, flying 100 missions in about six months. He was then sent home to be a flight instructor, an assignment he viewed as dangerous as air-to-air combat.
A master’s degree in aeronautical engineering followed, then test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., followed by a plum assignment as an all-weather test pilot back in the Midwest. That’s where he was when the call came to report to Washington.
Unbeknownst to Grissom and the other astronaut candidates, NASA was looking for more than mere flying skills. The space agency wanted engineers—like Grissom. And it didn’t hurt that at 5-feet-7-inches, Grissom was compact enough to be easily shoehorned into space capsules so tight they were practically worn, almost like an out-layer pressure suit.
The astronaut candidates traveled to the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico, where military doctors poked and probed their unwitting subjects so mercilessly that aviator Wally Schirra concluded well patients were being tortured by sick doctors. When NASA made its final selections, it chose three candidates each from the Air Force and Navy, and one more from the Marine Corps. They would be known as the Mercury Seven, and Gus Grissom was among them. Featured on the cover of LIFE magazine, they were an instant public sensation. Not only did the astronauts represent the hopes of a nation, but both the media and public expected one of these guys to be blown-up on live TV.
Even among this exclusive fraternity, Grissom excelled. He was the first to fly twice in space and earned the maiden flight of two spacecraft in the space of 18 months: Gemini 3 in March 1965 and the ill-fated Apollo 1, scheduled to launch in February 1967. These followed Grissom’s first spaceflight, which came close to killing him when the hatch on his Mercury spacecraft detonated prematurely and the spacecraft started filling with water. Grissom escaped into the ocean waters and the capsule sunk.
The book and movie, “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s telling of the astronauts’ story, portrayed Grissom as uncharacteristically having panicked under pressure, but recent research vindicates the Airman-engineer-astronaut, pointing to a static charge traveling through the cutting device used by the helicopter rescue crew to clip an antenna prior to lifting it out of the water as triggering the explosive bolts that held the hatch.
After two spaceflights, Grissom was at the top of the test pilot pyramid, and the risks grew greater. No one knew better than he that the more trips he tried, the greater the chances he could “buy the farm,” as he said himself. As commander of the first Apollo mission, Grissom now faced his toughest challenge: to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s goal from 1961 “Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by “the end of this decade.”
As mission commander, Grissom was responsible for making that happen, and he’d have to do it with a Block 1 Apollo command module that was rife with design flaws: Thirty miles of wiring, a heavy, inward-opening hatch, and a pressurized, capsule environment of pure oxygen that would doom his entire crew.
On Jan. 27, 1967, Grissom joined Ed White and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 capsule atop a Saturn 1B booster in a full-dress rehearsal for the first Apollo launch. Strapped in, the countdown underway, a spark arced between the wires under the astronauts’ seats, igniting the pressurized oxygen in the cabin; the immense internal pressure held the hatch shut as the astronauts, desperately trying to escape, were asphyxiated.
NASA regrouped and redesigned the Apollo command modules, which would ultimately deliver 24 men to the moon and back again. The deaths of Grissom, White, and Chaffee helped ensure their success.
During the Mercury days, Grissom and the others had agreed that one of them would surely die before any man reached the moon. He calculated the odds and concluded it was worth the risk.
George Leopold is that author of “Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom.”