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Virgil Ivan Grissom, more widely known as Gus Grissom, (April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967) was one of the original NASAmarker Project Mercury astronauts and a United States Air Force pilot. He was the second Americanmarker to fly in space. Grissom was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a training exercise and pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at the Kennedy Space Centermarker. He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.


Grissom was born in Mitchell, Indianamarker. As a child he attended the local Church of Christ and became a lifelong member. He was a member of Boy Scout Troop 46. Grissom graduated from Mitchell High School in 1944. He married Betty Moore Grissom on July 6, 1945. They would have two children, Scott and Mark. Grissom was a master Mason and member of Mitchell Lodge 228.

Military career

World War II

Grissom enlisted in the Army Air Forces following his graduation from high school in 1944. He was sent to Sheppard Field in for basic training after which he was assigned as a clerk at Brooks Fieldmarker in . Grissom took advantage of the G.I. Bill, enrolling at Purdue Universitymarker upon his November 1945 discharge from the Air Corps at war's end.

In 1950 he earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.

Korean War

Grissom re-enlisted in the Air Force after his graduation from Purdue. He was accepted into the air cadet basic training program at Randolph Air Force Basemarker in . Upon completion of the program, he was assigned to Williams Air Force Basemarker in .

March 1951 Grissom received his pilot wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant. Nine months later, Grissom received orders for Korea. There he would serve as an F-86 Sabre replacement pilot with the 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Kimpo Air Basemarker. Grissom flew 100 combat missions during the Korean conflict with the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.

After returning from Korea he served as an instructor pilot at Bryan AFB in . In August 1955 Grissom entered the Air Force Institute of Technologymarker at Wright-Patterson Air Force Basemarker, Ohio to study aeronautical engineering. In October 1956 he entered the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Basemarker, California and returned to Wright-Patterson in May 1957 as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.


As an Air Force captain in 1959 Grissom underwent a series of physical and psychological tests and was then chosen as one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts.

Liberty Bell 7

Grissom in front of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule.
In 1961, Grissom was pilot of Mercury-Redstone 4, popularly known as Liberty Bell 7, the second American (suborbital) spaceflight. After splashdown explosive bolts blew the hatch off unexpectedly and water flooded into the tiny capsule. Grissom exited through the open hatch and into the ocean but nearly drowned as water filled his flightsuit while a helicopter tried to lift and recover the spacecraft. The capsule became too heavy with water and sank. Grissom strongly asserted he had done nothing to blow the hatch and NASA officials eventually concluded that he was correct. Initiating the explosive egress system required hitting a metal trigger with the side of a closed fist. This would always leave a large, obvious bruise on the Astronaut's forearm, but Grissom was found to not have any of the tell-tale bruising associated with triggering the emergency hatch release. The capsule was recovered in 1999 but no evidence was found which could conclusively explain how the explosive hatch release fired on its own. Years after, Guenter Wendt (who was pad leader for the early American manned space launches) wrote that he believed a small cover over the external release actuator was accidentally lost sometime during the flight or splashdown and the T-handle may have been tugged by a stray parachute shroud line, or was perhaps damaged by the heat of re-entry, cooled upon splashdown, contracted and then fired.

Grissom was flooded by reporters in a news conference after his space flight in America's second manned ship. "Well, I was scared a good portion of the time; I guess that's a pretty good indication." -Grissom.

Gemini 3

In early 1964 Alan Shepard was grounded after being diagnosed with Ménière's disease and Grissom was designated command pilot for Gemini 3, the first manned Project Gemini flight. This mission would make him the first astronaut to fly twice beyond the accepted boundary of space. Grissom was one of the smaller-sized astronauts, and he worked very closely with the engineers and technicians from McDonnell Aircraft who built the Gemini capsule. The first three spacecraft were built around him and the design was humorously named the Gusmobile. However by July 1963 NASA discovered 14 out of the 16 astronauts could not fit themselves into the cabin and later cockpits were modified. During this time Grissom innovated a multi-axis joystick for controlling the maneuvering thrusters with one hand.

Naming of the Molly Brown

In a joking nod to the sinking of his Mercury craft Grissom named the first Gemini capsule the Molly Brown after the popular Broadway show The Unsinkable Molly Brown but NASA publicity officials were unhappy with this name. When Grissom and his pilot John Young were ordered to come up with a new one they offered The Titanic. Aghast, NASA executives gave in and allowed the name Molly Brown but didn't use it in any official references. Subsequently and much to the agency's chagrin, on launch CAPCOM Gordon Cooper gave Gemini 3 its sendoff by saying over the uplink, "You're on your way, Molly Brown!" and ground controllers used this name throughout the flight.

After the safe return of Gemini 3 NASA announced new spacecraft would not be named. Hence Gemini IV was not named American Eagle as planned. The naming of spacecraft resumed in 1967 after managers found the Apollo flights needed a name for each of two flight elements, the command module and lunar module. Lobbying by the astronauts and senior NASA administrators also had an effect. Apollo 9 had the callsigns Gumdrop for the command module and Spider for the lunar module. However, Wally Schirra had been prevented from naming his Apollo 7 spacecraft the Phoenix in honor of Grissom's Apollo 1 crew since it was believed the average taxpayer would not take a "fire" metaphor as intended.


Apollo 1 crew, Grissom, White and Chaffee
Grissom was backup command pilot for Gemini 6A when he shifted to the Apollo program and was assigned as commander of AS-204, which was meant to be the first manned Apollo flight. He was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee when the Apollo 1 command module caught fire and burned on the launchpad during a training exercise and pre-launch test at Cape Kennedymarker on January 27, 1967. The fire's ignition source was never determined, but their deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal design hazards in the early Apollo command module, such as its highly pressurized 100% oxygen atmosphere during the test, many wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials in the cockpit, a hatch which might not open at all in an emergency, and even the flight suits worn by the astronauts. After the tragedy, these, along with other flaws and design problems, were fixed so the Apollo program could carry on successfully.

Grissom was a Lieutenant Colonel at the time of his death, and he had logged a total of 4,600 hours flying time, including 3,500 hours in jet airplanes. In his 1994 autobiography Deke!, the chief astronaut Deke Slayton said he wanted one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to be the first on the moon and, "Had Gus been alive, as a Mercury astronaut he would have taken the step." Slayton also wrote, "My first choice would have been Gus, which both Chris Kraft and Bob Gilruth seconded."

Gus Grissom is buried in Section 3 of the Arlington National Cemeterymarker, near Roger Chaffee. Ed White is buried at the West Point Cemetery, West Point, New Yorkmarker.

Spacesuit controversy

When the Astronaut Hall of Fame opened in 1990 his family loaned it the spacesuit worn by Grissom during Mercury 4 along with other personal artifacts belonging to the astronaut. In 2002 the museum went into bankruptcy and was taken over by a NASA contractor, whereupon the family asked for everything back. All the artifacts were returned to them except the spacesuit, which NASA claimed was government property. NASA insisted Grissom got authorization to use the spacesuit for a show and tell at his son's school and never returned it but some Grissom family members claimed the astronaut rescued the spacesuit from a scrap heap.

Awards and honors


  • Navi (Ivan backwards), a star also named Epsilon Cassiopeiae: Grissom and one of his flight crews had used the star to calibrate their equipment, wrote the name in logs as a joke and it eventually stuck.
  • Grissom Hill is 7.5 km (4.7 mi) southwest of Columbia Memorial Station on Mars and is one of the Apollo 1 Hills.
  • A landmark on the moon is called Marina Grissom.
  • Grissom's boyhood home on Grissom Avenue in Mitchell, Indianamarker, was being restored into a small museum, but ran out of funds. A limestone carving of the Titan II rocket which launched the Gemini flight is in downtown Mitchell. (Indiana is known for its limestone.) There is also a memorial in Spring Mill State Parkmarker. Grissom attended Mitchell High School and its auditorium is named for him.
  • Virgil I. Grissom Library, Denbigh section of Newport News, Virginiamarker.
  • Virgil I. Grissom Bridge across the Hampton River, on Rt 258 (Mercury Blvd, named after the Mercury program) in Hampton, VA, is one of the six bridges and one road named after the original 7 Mercury astronauts, who trained in the area.
  • Virgil "Gus" Grissom Park, Fullerton, Californiamarker. (Fullerton also has parks named for White and Chaffee).
  • The Gus Grissom Stakes, thoroughbred horse race run each fall at Hoosier Park in Anderson, Indianamarker.
  • Grissom Island, artificial island, Long Beach Harbormarker off Southern California .



Film and television

Grissom has been noted and remembered in many film and television productions. Before he became widely known as an astronaut, the film Air Cadet (1951) starring Richard Long and Rock Hudson briefly featured Grissom early in the movie as a U.S. Air Force candidate for flight school at Randolph Fieldmarker, San Antonio, Texasmarker. Grissom was depicted by Fred Ward in the film The Right Stuff (1983) and (very briefly) in the film Apollo 13 (1995) by Steve Bernie. He was portrayed in the TV mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998) by Mark Rolston. Actor Kevin McCorkle played Grissom in the third season finale of the NBC television show American Dreams. Bryan Cranston played Grissom as a nervous variety-show guest in the film That Thing You Do!

In the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock the Federation starship sent to survey the newly formed Genesis Planet is named USS Grissom. The character Gus Griswald in the popular children's TV show Recess is named after Grissom (his fictional father is a General in the US Army and Gus is his recruit). The character Gil Grissom in the CBS television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the character Virgil Tracy in the British television series Thunderbirds are named after the astronaut. NASA footage including Grissom's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions was released in high definition on the Discovery Channel in June 2008 in the television series When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions.


A family-approved account of Grissom's life appears in the 2003 book Fallen Astronauts by Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan. Ray E. Boomhower wrote a biography of Grissom titled Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut in 2004, published by the Indiana Historical Society Press. Betty Grissom wrote a memoir titled Starfall in 1974.

Grissom died while putting the finishing touches on Gemini!, his account of the Gemini Program, in which he was heavily involved. The final chapter is dated January 1967, a few days before Grissom's death on the Apollo launch pad. According to editor Jacob Hay, the book's final form was "reached with the approval of Mrs. Betty Grissom."


::::::::- after the Gemini 3 mission, March 1965


  1. Discovery Channel, When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, "Ordinary Supermen," airdate June 8, 2008 (season 1)
  2. Fallen Astronaut
  3. pdf of City of Long Beach Economic Zones

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