Remembering Gus Grissom, NASA's most controversial astronaut

For NASA and space fans alike, the Space Shuttle program could not be winding down at a headier time. The landing of Atlantis this morning marks the end of an era, and comes the same day as one of NASA's early milestones 50 years ago exactly: Virgil "Gus" Grissom's suborbital voyage aboard the Liberty Bell 7 — the second launch for Project Mercury, NASA's earliest manned spaceflight program. Yesterday also happened to be the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and just this May was the 50th anniversary of the first manned NASA spaceflight ever — also part of Project Mercury. So, yeah: heady times.

Gus Grissom was the second American to go up into space, and the first to do it twice. He was an active influence on all of NASA's initial manned spaceflight programs, starting with his controversial Mercury flight, then on to Gemini and, finally, Apollo, where Gus Grissom would make the ultimate sacrifice.

It should be stated here — and it's no slight to the man — that while this article focuses primarily on Grissom and includes interviews with people who worked in the space program, it's also about the untold thousands who go unmentioned. As Apollo programmer Homer Ahr told us over the phone, "We wanted to fly a successful mission, and sooner or later when you get people to discuss it from that vantage point, egos tended to go away." It was a team effort, through and through.

With that in mind, join us as we take a look back at Grissom's contribution to our space program by way of his three landmark spacecraft, and the fierce controversy that threatened to tarnish an amazing legacy.


Meet The Mercury Seven

Seen above are the seven Project Mercury astronauts. They are the face of the very beginnings of manned spaceflight for NASA, and we wouldn't have had a shuttle fleet — even one to retire — without their courage. All are national heroes, though only six of the seven flew missions at the time.

Donald "Deke" Slayton (front row, third from left) didn't pilot a capsule during Project Mercury. He was grounded due to a heart murmur, though he would later go up during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and held various integral positions throughout the entirety of his NASA career. Sitting beside Slayton are astronauts Scott Carpenter (front, second from left), Wally Schirra (back, middle) and Gordon Cooper (front, far right).

Project Mercury, which was tasked with realizing and advancing manned spaceflight, broke early ground for NASA with one milestone after the next. Alan Shepard (back row, left) was the first American to get to space with his Mercury-Redstone 3 flight, the first manned Mercury launch. John Glenn (back row, right) followed two manned missions later atop an Atlas rocket to become the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the planet.

Compared to the other six manned spaceflights, Gus Grissom's Mercury-Redstone 4 launch may not seem as exciting, especially bracketed by Shepard's before it and Glenn's after. (Grissom is pictured above: front row, left.) He wasn't the first; he didn't orbit. Still, he risked life and limb in what was one of the most perilous Mercury missions.


Liberty Bell 7 Controversy

Mercury-Redstone 4 was the second manned mission for Project Mercury that again used a Redstone rocket, and very much followed along the same lines as Shepard's historic first launch: it was a suborbital test with Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft taking him along a set trajectory.

On July 21, 1961, over the span of 15 and a half minutes, Grissom traveled 302 miles, reaching a maximum height of just over 118 miles and experiencing about five minutes of weightlessness, before finally reentering and splashing down in the Atlantic. Everything from blastoff to re-entry and even splashdown went as expected — until shortly after Grissom had landed, that is.

Liberty Bell 7 featured something new: an explosive hatch that would allow the astronaut to make a hasty exit or rescue crews to extricate Grissom in the event of an emergency. Problem is, the hatch blew early, flooding Grissom's capsule and threatening to drown him before a team could reach him.

The moment is described in This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (provided for free online by NASA):

Impact was milder than he had expected, although the capsule heeled over in the water until Grissom was lying on his left side… Preparing for recovery, he disconnected his helmet and checked himself for debarkation… After logging the panel data, Grissom asked the helicopters to begin the approach for pickup. He removed the pin from the hatch-cover detonator and lay back in the dry couch. "I was lying there, minding my own business," he said afterward, "when I heard a dull thud." The hatch cover blew away, and salt water swished into the capsule as it bobbed in the ocean. The third man to return from space was faced with the first serious emergency; Liberty Bell 7 was shipping water and sinking fast.

(Grissom was third after American Alan Shepard, who was second, and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who beat Shepard by less than a month, and even completed a full orbit.)

Of course, Gus Grissom didn't die that day inside Liberty Bell 7. He was picked up by helicopter after about four minutes in the water. The Navy also tried to recover his water-laden spacecraft; in fact, the Navy made that attempt before grabbing Grissom. According to This New Ocean, the pilot of the primary 'copter felt that "astronauts seemed at home in and to enjoy the water," so tried for the capsule instead. Grissom, his suit filled and hampering his buoyancy, found his head "barely above water" by the time a second chopper reached him.

Howard Bedford, who oversaw the Launch/Abort system software for Project Mercury, watched it all on a TV: "I don't think they expected it to fill up with so much water. It was so damn heavy. The helicopter that we saw probably started about 100 feet high," Bedford told DVICE over the phone, "and then when the frogmen jumped in they attached a cable from the helicopter [to the capsule] and that's when they started pricking it up but the helicopter kept coming down lower and lower until its wheels were almost touching the water." After that, Bedford told us, they had to let the capsule go.

It wouldn't be recovered until 1999. It was a new situation for all involved, from the helicopter pilots to Grissom himself, and, really, the final outcome was the best that could be hoped for.

Whether or not Grissom himself is at fault for the blown hatch remains a mystery. A telltale sign that Grissom didn't was the fact that his hand wasn't bruised: to blow the hatch required the astronaut to hit a plunger with five or six pounds of fist-force and resulted in bruising. If he did blow it, Grissom was the only astronaut to use the system and not receive an injury for his troubles. Today, NASA doesn't officially blame or hint that Grissom was at fault.

Almost all the people we interviewed did not remark directly about this incident. "NASA's 'unwritten' rule was to never criticize the astronauts during a mission or during the post-flight analysis," Bedford told us.

Another person involved in Mercury who asked not to be identified said, "That's not Gus Grissom. Gus Grissom is a smart son of a bitch," adding that whether or not Grissom blew the hatch didn't matter, only that Grissom came back in one piece.


The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Grissom didn't let what happened with Liberty Bell 7 sour his passion for NASA's mission. Where Project Mercury was all about establishing a foundation for space travel, the Gemini program was tasked with refining it as the space agency marched toward Apollo with an aim to land on the Moon.

As for the prospect of going back into space, the astronaut was unsure. "When my Mercury flight aboard the Liberty Bell capsule was completed, I felt reasonably certain, as the program was planned, that I wouldn't have a second space flight." Grissom said, as seen in a NASA biography by Mary C. White. "By then Gemini was in the works, and I realized that if I were going to fly in space again, this was my opportunity, so I sort of drifted unobtrusively into taking more and more part in Gemini."

Despite the humble way he put it, the people who worked with Grissom and almost anything you'll read online about him — including the biography just cited here — all credit Grissom with having an active hand in the missions he was involved in from the very start. Grissom was trained as a mechanical engineer, and helped design spacecraft controls that "rely on the input of its pilots," according to White.

The Mercury capsules, in contrast, featured very simplistic controls, and didn't allow an astronaut to do much more than make slight adjustments during a flight. The Soviet's Vostok spacecraft, too, virtually lacked controls altogether, following a set flight plan.

In 1965, Grissom not only commanded Gemini's first mission, but he did so with a sense of humor, nicknaming his Gemini-Titan 3 spacecraft "The Molly Brown." It was a reference to the Broadway play The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and a direct response to what happened on his previous flight. NASA wasn't enthused, apparently.

We go again to Mary C. White's NASA biography:

Molly Brown had been strong, reliable and most importantly, unsinkable. It was a perfect name for Liberty Bell's successor. However, some of Grissom's bosses insisted that he choose a more respectable name. Gus replied, "How about the Titanic?" It was clear that Grissom was not going to back down on this one. Given a choice of Molly Brown or Titanic, disgruntled officials backed off. Without further ado, Gemini-Titan 3 became known as Molly Brown.

Capsule Communicator Gordon Cooper even gave Grissom's name his blessing during liftoff, according to the mission transcripts, saying, "You're on your way, Molly Brown."

Grissom (pictured above, right) commanded the mission with astronaut John Young (above, left) as his pilot. The Molly Brown "flew like a queen," according to Grissom, and the first Gemini flight — the second flight for Grissom, which made him the first person on the planet to ever visit the up-and-yonder twice — completed without running into barely any snags.

Fun fact: Gemini-Titan 3 was also the first time NASA tried out specially packaged "space food" after Mercury pilots had various difficulties eating during flights. That didn't stop Young from sneaking a treat on board: "I was concentrating on our spacecraft's performance, when suddenly John asked me, 'You care for a corned beef sandwich, skipper?' If I could have fallen out of my couch, I would have. Sure enough, he was holding an honest-to-john corned beef sandwich."

Young and Grissom were reportedly reprimanded, by the latter's account, and informed that "corned beef sandwiches were out for future space missions."


Apollo 1 Tragedy

Pictured directly above are the three astronauts who made up the primary crew for Apollo 1. Virgil "Gus" Grissom, who you know pretty well by now, is on the left. Directly to his right is astronaut Edward White, who performed the first spacewalk for the U.S. space program during Gemini 4 on June 3, 1965. Gemini 4 was the mission right after Grissom and Young went up in The Molly Brown. To the right of White stands Roger Chaffee, who operated comms alongside Grissom during White's Gemini 4 flight. Chaffee's first ticket to space was on Apollo 1.

On January 27, 1967, all three men were seated in the Apollo 1 capsule, performing a full simulation ahead of the mission's February 21 launch date. You can read the full report on what happened that day right here, but here's the summary from NASA:

At 6:31 one of the astronauts (probably Chaffee) reported, "Fire, I smell fire." Two seconds later White was heard to say, "Fire in the cockpit." The fire spread throughout the cabin in a matter of seconds. The last crew communication ended 17 seconds after the start of the fire, followed by loss of all telemetry… Nearby technicians tried to get to the hatch but were repeatedly driven back by the heat and smoke. By the time they succeeded in getting the hatch open roughly 5 minutes after the fire started the astronauts had already perished, probably within the first 30 seconds, due to smoke inhalation and burns.

Apollo 1 sat ruined where it rested:


The U.S. space program had lost its first astronauts in the line of duty. About this very possibility Grissom himself had written the following in his 1968 book, Gemini : A Personal Account of Man's Venture Into Space, "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."


Spaceflight After Grissom

It's easy enough to boil Gus Grissom's career down and say that his two biggest contributions to NASA were the agency's first big controversy, and its first catastrophic failure resulting in a loss of life. The hard part is not shying away from that, and realizing that without both of these events, NASA probably wouldn't have gone so far so fast. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard just barely kissed suborbit during America's first spaceflight. Just eight years later on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong planted its boots on the damn Moon.

Homer Ahr, mentioned earlier, wasn't part of it all during Apollo 1, but he was at Houston for Apollo 11's success, and Apollo 13's failure. "Maybe it was necessary at some point to have [Apollo 1] happen," he told us. "Out of 13 came the famous expression 'failure is not an option.' The sense we always had was — and maybe it got to be more so after Apollo 1 — was that we had to do everything we could to make things a success and we were gonna do that, but we knew things could fail. Our biggest fear was that we hadn't thought of something that could fail. If we could think of something that can go wrong, then chances are we'd think of what we can do about it."

NASA was only able to do what it did because astronauts such as Gus Grissom were willing to sit down in chairs in cramped capsules on top of rockets and blast off. Those astronauts were only able to do what they did because of the countless command crew members and scientists and engineers and astronomers and programmers and construction teams and designers who all heeded the call. Our race to space was guided by NASA, but it took folks from all over, from the families at home supporting them, to all the companies and agencies that played nice together to realize one common dream.

In closing, when we asked Howard Bedford to sum it up, we think he did a pretty good job, too: "It was as exciting as hell, no question about it."

Special thanks to Homer Ahr, Howard C. Bedford and other IBM programmers and engineers involved in the space program for talking to us (it was a pleasure); to NASA for the agency's wealth of freely available information online; to the DVICE writers for this week putting up with, "Can't help you right now — writing about space;" and to Art Cohen for his email last week, in which he helped put the 50th anniversary of Gus Grissom's historic first flight on our radar and for supplying us with so many wonderful people to talk to. Thanks to you, too, for reading all of this. Personal note: This went up later in the day than we planned, but we wanted to get it right and talk to everyone we needed to. Thursday, July 21, 2011 is the 50th anniversary of Gus Grissom's MR-4 mission.

Images courtesy the NASA Image Archive. Plaque picture via Phil Konstantin.

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