Sunday, July 11, 2010

Virgil "Gus" Grissom:
Hoosier American Hero

"You get a well trained crew
and you go fly!"

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, IUPUI asked the Grissoms to write a Salute to their brother, "Gus." Their tribute resurfaced last month when Lowell gave it a couple quick edits and forwarded it to the Club, to be read as a Salute at the June 24 Grissom Scholarship Banquet.

The siblings' Salute to Gus...

OUR BROTHER, VIRGIL GRISSOM, was born in Mitchell, Ind., on April 3, 1926. That was long before he became known as “Gus.” He graduated from Mitchell High School in 1944. In high school he was not an out- standing student nor athlete.  

He briefly served in World War II as an air cadet. After his discharge in 1945, he enrolled 
at Purdue Uni- versity. 

Virgil got the nickname “Gus” while at Purdue. He was playing cards with some
of his buddies one day, and had written “Gris” on the scorepad. One of the fellows looked at it and said, “What is that, ‘Gus'?” From that point on, he has been known as “Gus.” 

After graduating from Purdue in 1950 with a Mechanical Engineering degree, he enlisted in the Air Force. After earning his wings in jet aircraft, he flew at least 102 com- bat missions in Korea. After a stint as a flight instructor, he became a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Base, in Dayton, where he tested high-performance jets, including the F-104 Starfighter, which had a wing span of 7 ’ and was referred to as “a missile with a man inside.”

In 1958, the President gave NASA and its rocket scientists a job to do, and NASA spent months determining the cri- teria for selection of its astronauts. Ultimately, NASA’s requirements were expressed this way:

1. An astronaut must be daring and courageous.
There must be proof of this fact.   
2. He must remain cool and adept under pressure.
3. He must be physically strong and unusually healthy. 
4. He must have nerves of steel, showing a balanced emotional makeup. 
5. He must be 30 to 40, mature but not rigid, not taller than 5’ 11”, and weigh no more than 180 pounds, and
6. He must have a formal degree in engineering or its equivalent. 

As one general said, “What we are looking for is a group of ordinary supermen.”

In 1959, Gus was selected as one of seven Mercury astro- nauts out of a pool of 508 military test pilots. Many fac- tors played a part in his success, starting with his calm manner: He took things in stride. He was a cool and effi- cient pilot. His poise and composure were inbred. Our family environment was quiet and calm. Hardship and crisis were faced with quiet confidence. Success and pop- ularity were faced the same way. Gus had great drive and determination. 

Perhaps a better explanation for his success was his fasci- nation for flying. Virgil’s experience points out that a per- son’s real potential and ability might never be realized unless he or she is working in his area of interest.

From the seven Mercury astronauts, Gus was selected with John Glenn and Alan Shepard as candidates to be the first American in space. In July 1961, Gus became the second American to go into space, following Alan Shep- ard’s suborbital flight. Gus' flight ended badly when the hatch on Liberty Bell 7 blew prematurely, and the space- craft sank in the Atlantic Ocean. 

In 1999, Gus’ Liberty Bell 7 was recovered from a depth of more than 3 miles, 38 years to the day after his flight. Liberty Bell 7 was restored and, after a nationwide tour, now resides at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kan. The recovery was documented in a Discovery Chan- nel presentation entitled, “In Search of Liberty Bell 7.”

Gus had a tremendous influence on the design and man- ufacture of the Gemini spacecraft, prompting the other astronauts to dub it the “Gusmobile.” NASA showed great confidence in Gus, selecting him as Command Pilot for the first Gemini flight. After the problems with Liber- ty Bell 7, he named his Gemini spacecraft “The Unsink- able Molly Brown,” but only after NASA turned down his first choice, “The Titanic.” After “Molly Brown,” NASA temporarily suspended the tradition of allowing the astronauts to name their spacecraft.

Gus was the first American to enter space twice. The Gemini spacecraft was the first vehicle that could man- euver in space and change its orbital path. This capability was very necessary if America was to reach the moon.

After a very successful Gemini flight with John Young as his pilot, Gus was again selected as Command Pilot to make the first flight of a new spacecraft, “Apollo.” Even though America had enjoyed phenomenal success with the McDonnell Mercury and Gemini spacecrafts built in St. Louis, NASA turned to North American-Grumman
to build Apollo.

On January 27, 1967, at 1:19 p.m., Gus and his crewmates Edward White and Roger Chaffee climbed into the Apol- lo command module for a “plugs-out” test. During this test everything was to be run as it would be for the real mission. The plan was to go through the entire count- down sequence.

Launch day was less than one month away, so a sense of urgency pushed them beyond their normal quitting time. There were many things wrong with the spacecraft. At one point, Gus had hung a lemon on the simulator, ex- pressing his displeasure with the quality. Mom and dad visited him two weeks earlier and he said to them, “This is supposed to be a two-week mission, but I seriously doubt that it will go more than three orbits.”

He was extremely frustrated with the communications system, prompting him on the 27th to say, “How're we gonna get to the moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings!?" 

There was no extraordinary concern for the safety of the crew that day, because the rocket tanks were not filled with fuel.

Inside Apollo 1, there were thirty miles of electrical wiring, 13,000 segments tied in bundles. Power for the spacecraft flowed through those 13,000 segments, all insulated with special materials so none would arc to another.

Yet, it happened, at 31 minutes, 4.7 seconds, after 6 p.m. somewhere within the Apollo 1 Command Module 12, atop a Saturn 1, Rocket 204, on Launch Pad 34B at John
F. Kennedy Space Center: Somewhere in that tangle of wires, cables, switches and segments, a spark jumped
into the capsule.

Just 12 seconds later, at 19.5 seconds after 6:31 p.m., the Apollo capsule cracked and burst from the tremendous heat and pressure fueled by the 100-percent oxygen atmosphere.

That spark and that fire took the lives of...

Lt. Col. Edward White II. Lt. Col. White graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1952. In 1965, Lt. Col. White became the first American to walk in space;

Lt. Cmdr. Roger Chaffee. Lt. Cmdr. Chaffee graduated from Purdue in 1957. Apollo 1 would have been his first flight as an astronaut, and

Our brother, “Gus,” the veteran of the Mercury and Gemini flights. Just a few weeks before the fire, NASA had told him he would probably have the honor of being the first man to set foot on the moon.

But… all three of them were gone in an instant.

Gus had said to us that there was always the possibility of a catastrophic failure. “So, you just plan the best you can to take care of all the eventualities, you get a well trained crew, and you go fly.”

There is no doubt that Gus, Ed and Roger would have gone to the moon had they lived. As we remember their deaths, let us honor them for their lives, for their vision and for their courage, for striving to take aloft the hopes and dreams of everyone, and for reaching for the stars.

All of us, including Gus, thank all of you for taking time to remember.
– Wilma, Norman & Lowell

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