Category Liberty Bell 7


On 5 November 1958, NASA’s Space Task Group, or STG, was created, reporting directly to the Director of Space Flight Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D. C. With Robert Gilruth at its head, the STG originally comprised of 27 engineers from the Langley Research Center and another 10 from the Lewis Research Center, plus eight secretaries and “computers.” The latter designation was applied to women who ran calculations on mechanical adding machines. They all served as the nucleus for the work carried out on Project Mercury.

As the head of the STG, Gilruth was responsible for reporting to Dr. Abraham (‘Abe’) Silverstein, NASA’s Director of Space Flight Development, who in turn reported to the agency’s Administrator, Dr. T. Keith Glennan. The STG included Charles Donlan (Gilruth’s deputy); Chuck Mathews (head of flight operations); Chris Kraft (also in flight operations); and Glynn Lunney, who at age 21 was the youngest member of the group. The head of the public affairs office was Lt. Col. John (‘Shorty’) Powers.


Dr. Robert R. Gilruth. (Photo: NASA)

Work had already begun on the writing of detailed specifications for a Mercury capsule even while the group was still designated as the NACA. By the end of October 1958 a preliminary draft had been completed.

On 17 December 1958 NASA issued an official statement in which the space agency announced the formation of Project Mercury and outlined the program’s objectives:

1. To put a manned space capsule into orbital flight around the Earth.

2. To recover successfully the capsule and its occupant.

3. To investigate the capabilities of man in this new environment.

Flight Plan

1. An intercontinental ballistic missile rocket booster will launch the manned capsule into orbit.

2. A nearly circular orbit will be established at an altitude of roughly 100 to 150 statute miles to permit a 24-hour satellite lifetime.

3. Descent from orbit will be initiated by the application of retro-thrust rockets incorporated in the capsule system.

4. Parachutes, incorporated in the capsule system, will be used after the vehicle has been slowed down by aerodynamic drag.

5. Recovery on either land or water will be possible.

Description of Manned Capsule System

1. Vehicle. The manned capsule will have high aerodynamic drag, and will be stati­cally stable over the Mach number range corresponding to flight within the atmo­sphere. The capsule, which will be of the nonlifting type, will be designed to withstand any known combination of acceleration, heat loads, and aerodynamic forces that might occur during boost or reentry. It will have an extremely blunt leading face covered with a heat shield.

2. Life Support System. A couch, fitted into the capsule, will safely support the pilot during acceleration. Pressure, temperature, and composition of the atmo­sphere in the capsule will be maintained within allowable limits for human envi­ronment. Food and water will be provided.

3. Attitude Control System. A closed loop control system, consisting of an attitude sensor with reaction controls, will be incorporated in the capsule. The reaction con­trols will maintain the vehicle in a specified orbital attitude, and will establish the proper angle for retro-firing, reentry, or an abort maneuver. The pilot will have the option of manual or automatic control during orbital flight. During manual control, optical displays will permit the pilot to see portions of the Earth and sky. These displays will enable the pilot to position the capsule to the desired orbital attitude.

4. Retrograde System. A system will be provided to supply sufficient impulse to permit atmospheric entry in less than one half an orbital revolution after applica­tion of the retro-rockets. These rockets will be fired upon a signal initiated either by a command link from ground control or by the man himself. The impact area can be predetermined because of this control over the capsule’s point of reentry into the atmosphere.

5. Recovery System. As the capsule reenters the Earth’s atmosphere and slows to a speed approximately that of sound, a drogue parachute will open to stabilize the vehicle. At this time, radar chaff will be released to pinpoint the capsule’s location. When the velocity of the capsule decreases to a predetermined rate, a landing parachute opens. The parachute will open at an altitude high enough to permit a safe landing on land or water. (The capsule will be buoyant and stable in water.) After landing, recovery aids will include: tracking beacons, a high-intensity flashing light system, a two-way voice radio, SOFAR [Sound Fixing and Radar] bombs and dye markers.

6. Escape System. In an emergency situation before orbital altitude is reached, escape systems will separate the capsule from the booster. After the capsule is in orbit, the space pilot can reenter the atmosphere at any time by activating the retro-rockets. Other safety control features will be incorporated.

Guidance and Tracking

Ground based and booster equipment will guide the capsule into the desired orbit. Ground and capsule equipment will then determine the vehicle’s orbital path through­out its flight. The equipment will be used to initiate the vehicle’s descent at the proper time and will predict the impact area.


Provisions will be made for two-way communications between the pilot and ground stations during the flight. Equipment will include a two-way voice radio, a receiver for commands from the ground, telemetry equipment for transmission of data from the capsule to ground stations, and a radio tracking beacon. This communications equip­ment is supplemented by the special recovery aids.


1. Medical instrumentation to evaluate the pilot’s reaction to space flight.

2. Instrumentation to measure and monitor the internal and external capsule envi­ronment, and to make scientific observations. Note: Data will be recorded in flight and telemetered to ground recorders.

Test Program

As in the case of new research aircraft, orbital flight of the manned space capsule will take place only after the logical buildup of vehicle capabilities and scientific data. Project Mercury includes ground testing, development and qualification flight testing, and pilot training.


The late John A. (‘Shorty’) Powers, former NASA Public Affairs Officer would have agreed with Carpenter’s characterization. “Gus is the quiet one,” he once observed. “He doesn’t talk much, but when he does speak, the words come out in short bursts – like a fighter pilot’s measured use of limited ammunition. When he fires off a burst, one had better be listening carefully, because he’s only going to say it once and there won’t be any surplus words.”2

Fellow Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra had a good grasp on the personality of Gus Grissom, saying he brought a vast amount of knowledge and experience into the space program, and his opinions as an extremely capable and competent test pilot and engineer were highly valued and respected. “Gus did not consider himself as the hero type, nor was he impressed with personal prestige. He was a quiet, unassuming, and completely unpretentious person, and his reasons for wanting to participate in this venture were really quite basic. Should the officials at NASA share his belief that he was one of the better qualified people for this new mission, then he was proud and happy to help out. Although Gus was the shortest of any of us chosen in that first group of astronauts, his physical stature did not in any way hinder or inhibit his enormous competitive spirit. He possessed a strong desire to succeed in everything he undertook, and this unbeatable desire to win was matched only by his determina­tion and perseverance to see a job through to its satisfactory conclusion.”3

The family name Grissom actually evolved from England and the surname Gresham. According to genealogists the Greshams came to America from Surrey, England, and later chose to distinguish themselves from the loyalists by changing their name to Grissom. The first Gresham to immigrate to America was John Gresham, who, with his wife and son, settled in Arundel County, Maryland in the mid-1600s. For Gus Grissom it was a similarly long and difficult trek from Mitchell, Indiana to flying into space, but his tenacity and a driving urge to go beyond any limitations imposed by others was always an integral part of his character.

Virgil Ivan Grissom was born at 8:00 a. m. on 3 April 1926 in the small mid-western city of Mitchell in southern Indiana, the second child of Dennis and Cecile King Grissom. In a significant and somewhat connective sense, that same day American rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard conducted a second successful launch of a liquid – fueled rocket at his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts.

Grissom’s father was a signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, while his mother was a homemaker. An older sister had died in infancy before his birth, and he was followed in turn by three younger siblings, Wilma, Norman and Lowell. The family lived in a simple, white-frame house at 715 Baker Street (later to be renamed Grissom Street). He took his early education at Mitchell’s Riley Elementary School, a short walk from his house, and while he possessed an IQ said to be around 145 he was only an average student and had no real plans for the future. He did, however, become


The Grissom home, circa 1968 (Photo: Carl L. Chappell)

Joining the Air Force 57

moderately interested in flying airplanes. “I guess it was a case of drifting and not knowing what I wanted to make of myself,” he said. “I suppose I built my share of model aeroplanes, but I can’t remember that I was a flying fanatic.”4 As a child he attended the local Church of Christ where he remained a lifelong member and later joined Beaver Patrol with the local Boy Scout Troop 46, developing his enduring love of the outdoors.

Every morning, in order to have a little pocket money for his own activities, young Gus would make his way to the downtown bus station and collect that day’s edition of the Indianapolis Star newspaper for his delivery route. In the evenings he would also pick up and deliver the local newspaper, the Bedford Times.

In 1940 Grissom was enrolled at Mitchell High School, where he soon found to his chagrin that his short stature precluded him from playing varsity sports. Instead he became a fierce competitor in the school’s swimming pool. While he could not play basketball for his school, he took immense pride in being a member of the Boy Scout Honor Guard, which presented the American flag before any games. While engaged in this activity during one game, he caught the eye of fellow student Betty Lavonne Moore, who played the drum in the school band. When he came and sat with her dur­ing the half-time break, Betty realized to her delight that the attraction was mutual. “I met Betty Moore when she entered Mitchell High School as a freshman,” Grissom later admitted, “and that was it – period, exclamation point!”5


When Grissom reached the capsule level, he peered briefly down from a window in the green Plexiglas curtain surrounding the capsule, then disappeared from sight of those on the ground. Surrounding the capsule, as usual, were specialists wearing pure white smocks and white skull caps. McDonnell’s pad leader, Guenter Wendt, was there as he had been for Alan Shepard two months earlier. “I felt very handsome in my clean white jacket, white baseball cap with the word ‘McDonnell’ across the front, my headset, and white shirt with a bow-tie,” Wendt would later recall.1

As Bill Douglas later said of the process of inserting the astronaut into the capsule, “After the pilot climbs into the spacecraft and positions himself in the couch, the

pressure-suit technician [Joe Schmitt] attaches the ventilation hoses, the communica­tion line, the biosensor leads and the helmet visor seal hose, and finally he attaches the restraint harness in position but only fastens it loosely. At this point the suit and envi­ronmental control system is purged with 100-percent pure oxygen until such time as analysis of the gas in the system shows the oxygen concentration exceeds 95 percent. When the purge of the suit system is completed, the pressure-suit technician tightens the restraint harness; the flight surgeon [Douglas] makes a final inspection of the interior of the spacecraft and of the pilot, and the hatch installation commences. During the insertion procedures, it is the flight surgeon’s duty to monitor the suit purge procedure and to stand by to assist the pressure-suit technician or the pilot in any way he can. The final inspection of the pilot by the flight surgeon gives some indication of the pilot’s emo­tional state at the last possible opportunity.”2


Grissom prepares for insertion into the waiting spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)


John Glenn assists his fellow astronaut into the tight confines of his spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)

Once Grissom was settled into his form-fitting couch inside Liberty Bell 7 he was given a reassuring pat on the back by John Glenn, who had once again performed the final checks on the capsule prior to Grissom’s arrival. Then Joe Schmitt completed his tasks, strapping the astronaut in and linking him to the onboard communications and ventilation systems before wishing him good luck and withdrawing. Guenter Wendt and his team then took over.

“After final hookups and adjustments, I shook Gus’ hand and requested the ‘go’ to close the hatch,” Wendt remarked. “In minutes, my technicians were busy torquing down the 70 hatch bolts. One of the bolts got cross-threaded and we called a halt in the count so that engineering management could assess the situation. It was quickly decided that the one bad bolt would not jeopardize proper function of the hatch and the count resumed.”3 After the flight, Grissom was given that bolt as a souvenir.

Despite the lack of space, Grissom felt quite at home within the tight confines of Liberty Bell 7. Countless hours of training – particularly inside the spacecraft – had ensured he was familiar with every switch, system, sound, and countless other facets of the tiny vehicle. “It is good to get into the flight capsule a number of times,” he related in his post-flight briefing. “Then, on launch day, you have no feeling of sitting on top of a booster ready for launch. You feel as if you were back in the checkout hangar – this is home, the surroundings are familiar, you are at ease. You cannot achieve this feeling of familiarity in the procedures trainer because there are inevitably many small differences between the simulator and the capsule.”4


Inside the Mercury Control Center, mission CapCom Alan Shepard prepares for the launch of MR-4. (Photo: NASA)

Meanwhile the tension was slowly building for everyone connected with the flight and the many thousands of people on hand to witness history being made. The Cape and Cocoa Beach areas were slowly coming to life as people woke early, had break­fast, and began gathering on the beaches and every vantage point, nervous but in a state of excited expectation. The news media people started reporting to their assigned pool units, ready to be escorted to the Cape.


Close on 1,000 miles away from the Cape, in Mitchell, Indiana, Gus Grissom’s rail­way signalman father told reporters he had felt mostly fear – “pride ran second” – as his son flew into space and returned to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. Dennis Grissom said that at one point of the flight he became so overwhelmed with a flood of differing emotions he could no longer watch the television coverage and walked into the kitchen away from the grainy images of his son’s flight. “It was the longest 15 minutes I ever lived through,” he revealed. “You wouldn’t realize this unless you had a son up there.” However his wife Cecile had endured every tense moment.


Gordon Cooper flying high above the Cape Canaveral launch site. (Photo: Dean Conger/NASA)

The evening before, the Grissoms had gone on a family picnic with around 40 relatives – “mostly my wife’s,” Dennis Grissom observed with a smile. But their nerves were still on a brittle edge when they arrived home, partly because their son’s flight had already been postponed twice, and then they didn’t get to sleep until about 1:00 a. m. Their daughter Wilma Beavers from Baltimore and her children, Rhonda, 12, Joan, 10, and Linda, 9, spent the night with them.

“I just kinda got a feeling they will call it off,” Dennis Grissom said of his thoughts before he turned in. Then, at 5:10 a. m. the lights suddenly went on in the little white frame house. Moments before their next-door neighbor, Addie Anderson, fearful the Grissoms might oversleep, had telephoned them. However Dennis said he and Cecile were just about to get up anyway. He then rang a service station across the street and asked the attendant to bring him a pack of cigarettes.

At 5:45 a. m. another son, Norman, a printer on the weekly Mitchell Tribune news­paper, arrived with his wife and their daughter Beth, 8. She quickly paired up with Linda Beavers, and the two little girls went out onto the front porch to blow soap bubbles as if it was just another day in their lives. Five minutes before launch time the adults called them back inside. All the children sat on the floor, with the adults nervously occupying the chairs and couches. The volume on the television set was turned right up.

At the moment of liftoff the roar of the Redstone reverberated from the television set. Not a word was spoken; everyone was tense as the gleaming white rocket slowly soared into the Florida skies and Col. Powers began describing the flight. When he mentioned that the escape tower had been jettisoned, Dennis Grissom stood up and walked into the kitchen, where he stayed for several minutes.


Norman Grissom shows his support for brother Gus. (Photo: Associated Press)

Once confirmation came through that their son had been safely recovered, the Grissoms made preparations to move outside and answer questions posed by the assembled news reporters and photographers. They knew by now that the spacecraft had been lost, but all they cared about was that Gus had survived his flight into space, been rescued from the sea, and was said to be uninjured and well. Dennis Grissom put on the coat of his good blue suit, while Cecile smoothed her blue print dress and brushed her hair. Nineteen minutes after the recovery the family stepped onto the porch, Cecile standing with one hand on her husband’s shoulder. A nervous but excited Dennis Grissom folded his hands in front of himself and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. On his tie, he wore a clasp in the shape of a Liberty Bell capsule, just like the one their son had flown into space.


Dennis and Cecile Grissom wave at the crowd gathered around their Mitchell home. (Photo: Associated Press)

The town’s mayor, Roy Ira, emerged from the crowd carrying his home movie camera and shook Dennis’s hand. Then, like a torrent, came the reporters’ questions. Inevitably, the first one centered on how they were feeling

“I feel fine,” Grissom said.

“I’m a lot more relieved and I’m glad it’s over,” Cecile added.

Would they like to see Gus make an orbital flight?

“I think 15 minutes is long enough,” Dennis replied.

What about a Moon flight?

“Well, yes. If he can do it safely.”

“No. Never,” said Cecile.

How did Dennis feel when the space capsule sank beneath the sea after their son had hurriedly evacuated it because the blown hatch permitted water to gush in?

“I was proud he was out of it,” was the response. “They can get another capsule…”

A reporter asked whether there were any tears during the flight.

“What do you think?” Cecile replied. “What would you do?”

According to newspaper reports from that day, the Grissoms looked drawn and tired after their son had been plucked from the sea, as if they had been mentally guid­ing Gus all the way. However they soon joined in the post-flight euphoria and took part in a specially prepared parade through the streets of Mitchell just before midday.

They sat in a convertible and waved to everyone as they trailed behind the high school band and the town’s fire truck, and anyone else who wanted to fall in. That day it seemed that this little southern Indiana town’s entire population of 3,550 was ready to party, and to celebrate America’s second successful space flight by one of their own.2


By the end of 1965, NASA’s focus was increasingly turning its attention from the highly successful Gemini series of missions to the forthcoming Apollo program. With the first manned orbital flight scheduled before the end of the following year Deke

Slayton, the agency’s Director of Flight Crew Operations, decided it was time to pro­visionally select the first Apollo crews.

Slayton’s initial choice to command the maiden flight, an Earth-orbiting test of the Apollo spacecraft would, under normal circumstances, have been Alan Shepard. But with Shepard’s flying future still in doubt owing to his affliction with Meniere’s Disease, Slayton opted for another of his experienced Mercury group. “Gus Grissom was going to be coming off the backup assignment to GT-6A,” he explained in his memoirs, “and so was a pretty natural choice for commander of the first mission.”9 Both Grissom and Young served as backups to the prime crew of Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford for this flight, which launched successfully on 15 December 1965 to perform the first orbital rendezvous mission of the program.

Also working in Grissom’s favor as command pilot for the first Apollo mission was the fact that he served as director of the Gemini program in the astronaut office before being named command pilot for the first two-man space flight. In February 1966 he was named to head the Apollo program in that office, so it seemed history would repeat itself.10

America’s first spacewalker Ed White was another name Slayton had penciled in for the first Apollo crew. With the lunar module still under development, there was no requirement for a lunar module pilot on this Earth-orbiting test flight, so Slayton decided he could assign a ‘rookie’ crewman to occupy the third seat, and his choice came down to two suitable candidates – Donn Eisele and Roger Chaffee. Both were Group 3 astro­nauts who had earlier been paired on tests of the lunar spacesuit’s life-support systems. But as the choice came down to a question of crew compatibility, Slayton decided that Eisele might be a better fit. He now had his first Apollo crew, although the three names still had to be submitted to NASA headquarters for the agency’s approval and official confirmation. His judgment in selecting crews had proven rock-solid in the past, so he envisaged little or no problems in having these three men approved.


NASA astronaut Donn F. Eisele. (Photo: NASA)

Unexpectedly, fate then brought about a last-minute crew change. In September 1964 Eisele had been participating in zero-gravity training aboard a NASA KC-135 aircraft when he accidentally dislocated his left shoulder. The injury had healed, but much to his chagrin Eisele dislocated the shoulder a second time in January 1966 while taking part in some strenuous physical exercises. This fresh injury prompted Slayton to replace Eisele with Chaffee on the crew list that he submitted to NASA headquarters.

Disappointed, but determined to make good and be reassigned, Eisele eventually overcame his shoulder injury and was provisionally assigned to the second planned Apollo mission along with Wally Schirra and Walt Cunningham. In view of some conjecture regarding early Apollo crewing, these crew changes were all verified by Eisele’s first wife, Harriett, by Walt Cunningham, and – prior to his death in 2007 – by Wally Schirra.

For Gus Grissom, Apollo 204 (as it was then designated because it would be the fourth launch of the Apollo IB rocket; ‘Apollo 1’ would be applied later) provided him with the chance to command a second test flight after the unqualified success of Gemini 3. It would also offer further vindication of his character and courage after all the rumors he had endured that he had panicked and blown the hatch on Liberty Bell 7 five years earlier. Had that been the case, it is highly unlikely he would have been awarded the first flight in the Gemini series, let alone the maiden test flight of the Apollo spacecraft whose duration was open-ended up to around two weeks.

In November 1966, Grissom penned a widely syndicated column concerning the upcoming mission in which he revealed his hopes for the mission and for America’s next steps in space. Reproduced here in part, it was published under the title Three Times a Command Pilot.


Robert Gilruth (far right) introduces the crew of the first Apollo mission, Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom. (Photo: NASA)

In Liberty Bell 7, I was a man in a can just along for the ride. Molly Brown, bless her heart, was a machine I could maneuver. And now in Apollo 204, Ed White, Roger Chaffee and I will be in a spacecraft designed to go to the Moon and back.

Soon I’ll be the first United States astronaut to make three flights – one in each of our first three space programs. My upcoming flight is in an Apollo spacecraft which makes my old Mercury Liberty Bell 7 look something like an early flivver [cheap automobile]. But in those days we weren’t all that concerned about maneuverability. We were out to discover whether man could survive G-forces of liftoff and the environment of space. And we learned that man could survive. During the past two years the Gemini program has taught us that we can fly our spacecraft, rendezvous and dock, and even perform meaningful tasks outside the spacecraft.

My fellow crewmembers and I are finding that our Apollo spacecraft is infi­nitely more complex than Gemini or Mercury. And so is the flight plan, even for our own Earth orbiting mission.

Our job will be to operate and observe and evaluate all of the spacecraft sys­tems. When necessary, we must come up with suggestions for solutions to any problem we encounter. And this we can only do in actual space flight. We may spend anywhere from three to fourteen days in orbit, possibly longer, learning as much as we can about the spacecraft’s performance. Even as we fly the mission, people on the ground will be working to make the Apollo lunar spacecraft an even more sophisticated vehicle than ours.11


Max Faget was one of the original STG formation team. As head of engineering he would personally contribute to the rapid advancement of that program by inventing an emergency escape tower to be used on Mercury and (later) Apollo spacecraft; a ‘survival couch’ which helped astronauts withstand the accelerations of launch and reentry; and by designing the final configuration of the Mercury capsule interior. However he will always be best remembered for designing the Mercury spacecraft with its iconic blunted leading face (the heat shield area), corrugated sides, and a top end that had the appear­ance of a screw-on bottle cap. Overall, it looked like an old-fashioned television tube.


Two early design models for the Mercury capsule. On the left is Shape A and on the right is Shape B, with the position of the astronaut indicated in both cases. Before the configuration was finalized, Shape B depicted a proposal very close to the design selected for the craft. (Photos: NASA)

In working with that basic shape, and harking back to his earlier conversations with Johnson and Thibodaux, Faget and his team solved one of the trickiest problems involved in the safe recovery of a manned spacecraft – protecting the vessel and its occupant from the ferocious buildup of heat during reentry. Rather than finessing the streamlined, low-drag shapes that earlier missile nosecones had utilized, Faget con­ceived of a bell-shaped spacecraft that during a reentry of around 17,000 miles an hour would form a supersonic shock wave well ahead of the blunt, curved heat shield in order to cause a great portion of the aerodynamic heating to occur before reaching the spacecraft.

Asked why a space vehicle should not be aerodynamic, Faget once responded, “Why? Because the higher drag vehicles have less heating during entry than the low drag vehicles. When you enter the atmosphere, when something enters the atmo­sphere, it slows down on account of drag. Now when you have a blunt face like that you create a huge shock wave, and all the drag is related to the shock wave and all the heat goes into the shock wave. If you don’t have that, you’ve got a very streamlined vehicle. Then you end up with what’s normally termed – which is not an accurate term – but it’s called friction drag. This drag is taken by the skin friction of the vehicle and all of the heat goes into the vehicle as opposed to it going into the shock wave.”5

Robert Gilruth stated that the major consideration had always been the shape of the spacecraft and Max Faget was undoubtedly the major contributor, although he recognized that Harvey Allen of the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory was the first, to his recollection, to propose a blunt body for flying a man into space. In Gilruth’s words, “In March 1958 Max Faget presented a paper that was to be a milestone in spacecraft design. His paper proposed a simple blunt body design that would reenter the atmosphere


A 1958 sketch of four shapes tested in the evolution of the Mercury capsule. (Illustration: NASA)

without reaching heating rates or accelerations that would be dangerous to man. He showed that small retro-rockets were adequate to initiate reentry from orbit. He suggested the use of parachutes for final descent, and small attitude jets for con­trolling the capsule in orbit during retro-fire and reentry."6

As Faget recalled, the other problem concerning him and his fellow designers was the impact high gravitational forces (g-forces) might have on an astronaut within the space capsule.

“It’s quite obvious now that when you launched a man, you put him in a couch so that the Gs come from his back, and then when he reenters, you turn the vehicle around so that the Gs come still from his back. But this was something no one had thought about: how to handle the Gs both during launch and entry. At least they hadn’t thought about it very well. I know one of these things, I think it was the Air Force configuration, had studied it enough to decide that, ‘Yes, we’d better do something about it,’ so they put the man in a sphere and gimbaled the sphere [inside a blunt­nosed capsule similar to one of their missile warheads] so that the vehicle would always be going in the same direction, and they’d turn the man 180 degrees within the sphere so that he could withstand the Gs during entry. [However,] it was ever so much simpler, and the configuration became so much better, if you let the blunt end be the rear during the launch, which would decrease the drag on the launch vehicle, and have the blunt end be forward during entry, where you wanted the drag."7

In his role as Chief of the Flight Systems Division at NASA, Faget contributed many of the original design concepts embodied in the Project Mercury spacecraft, and was responsible for numerous innovative spacecraft systems and the task of systems integration.


While at Mitchell High School, Grissom completed a year of pre-cadet training in the U. S. Army Air Corps, which he found most enjoyable. By this time his interest in aviation had taken a deeper hold, and he took on summer casual work in order to pay for brief flights in barnstorming airplanes at nearby Bedford airport, Indiana. A local attorney who owned a small aircraft would often take him on flights for a one dollar fee and taught him the basics of flying.

Grissom picked up the nickname ‘Gus’ during a card game when someone saw the abbreviated name on an upside-down score card and mistakenly translated it to “Gus.” Before long, Grissom’s friends also began calling him Gus, and it stuck. But he will always be known as Virgil to the people in his hometown in Mitchell.

World War II broke out while Grissom was still in high school, and he was eager to enlist upon graduation. On 8 August 1944 – Betty’s seventeenth birthday – he was inducted into the Army Air Forces at Fort Benjamin Harrison, with the expressed desire of becoming a pilot. He was subsequently ordered to Sheppard Air Force Base (AFB) in Wichita Falls, Texas, for five weeks of basic training. Then he was assigned to Brooks Field in San Antonio, where, to his extreme disappointment, he spent his days behind a desk as a lowly clerk.

Grissom took some short leave and on 6 July 1945, while still in his teens, he and Betty were married in the First Baptist Church in Mitchell. He then returned to the Air Force while Betty remained in Mitchell, working at the Reliance Manufacturing Company making shirts for the Navy. Soon after, Japan capitulated and the Second


Newlyweds Gus and Betty Grissom. (Photo: World Book Science Service)

World War came to an end. Dispirited with the lack of flight training within the Air Force, Grissom left the service in November 1945 with the rank of corporal and took up a job fitting out school buses in Mitchell’s Carpenter Body Works, but it was the kind of mundane and repetitive work he hated. Deciding to become a mechanical engineering student, he enrolled at Purdue University, Indiana under the G. I. Bill in September 1946. He and Betty took a small apartment near the campus, and while Betty worked as a long-distance telephone operator to help pay the bills, he found some after-class work as a short-order cook “frying hamburgers for 30 hours a week.”6 Fortunately he found his studies absorbing and to his liking, and he graduated with his bachelor of science degree in February 1950.

He had contemplated entering private industry at this stage of his life, but when the Korean war broke out Grissom decided to re-enlist in the Air Force and was assigned to Randolph AFB, Texas as an aviation cadet. On 16 May 1950, he and Betty wel­comed their son Scott into the world. In September Grissom graduated from basic flight training and was sent to Williams AFB in Phoenix, Arizona for more advanced training. He received his wings and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in March 1951. In December of that year he was shipped off to the conflict in Korea to fly North American F-86 Sabre jets with the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.


2nd Lieutenant Grissom after receiving his wings in March 1951. (Photo: Carl L. Chappell)

Six months after his arrival in South Korea Grissom had reached the 100-mission mark and was promoted to 1st lieutenant. He was eager to fly another 25 missions, but his request for an extension was refused and he returned home having earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with cluster. After a period in Flight Instructor School he was designated as a flight instructor at Bryan AFB, Texas. On 30 December 1954 he and Betty completed their family with the birth of second son, Mark. The following year Grissom was assigned a place at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, to study aeronautical engineering. He then won an assignment to the prestigious and highly prized Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California, checking out advanced-design fighter airplanes.


At 5:45 a. m. the expected liftoff was just 45 minutes away. As the sun rose over the flat, scrub-covered Cape it revealed a pale blue sky with some high, thin, scattered clouds. The weather, it seemed, was also ‘go’ at this time.

At 5:50 the enclosing launch tower slowly rumbled away from the slender, 83-foot Redstone and everyone’s excitement levels began to rise. At the same time the yellow steel “cherry picker” crane moved close to the capsule high atop the rocket. This ungainly-looking device had a cube-like cab at the end of an extended arm to provide a possible emergency evacuation route for Grissom if a serious situation developed before the rocket left the pad.

As the countdown moved beyond 6:00 a. m. – the planned launch time – a brief hold was called at T-30 minutes to allow technicians to turn off the pad searchlights. As it was now daylight and the lights could possibly cause interference with launch-vehicle telemetry, they were no longer needed. By this point, Grissom had been in the capsule for a few minutes beyond two hours.


The “cherry-picker” emergency evacuation device stands ready after the gantry has rolled back. (Photo: NASA)

At 6:25 a. m. there was another hold in the countdown. The reason this time was to allow some clouds to drift out of the way of the tracking cameras. As this might take some time, Scott Carpenter thoughtfully patched a call through to Betty so that she and the boys could enjoy several quiet minutes of conversation with Gus as he waited for the hold to end. Inside their Virginia home, and just like two days earlier, Betty had the astronaut wife’s support team of Jo Schirra, Marge Slayton and Rene Carpenter to keep her company, and everyone was crowded around their television set.

“Are you feeling all right?” Betty asked Gus, finding it a little surreal that she was talk­ing to him and watching images of his rocket on the pad a thousand miles away.

“Sure, I’m fine,” he responded. “In fact, if they’d stop yacking at me over that darned radio I just might take a nap!”5

After a brief conversation with her husband Betty handed the phone over to Scott and Mark, and then he had to sign off.

The sun finally broke through and shortly after 7:00 a. m., with the threatening clouds mostly dissipated, the countdown was resumed with the launch now set for 7:20 a. m. This latest hold had lasted 41 minutes. Grissom, who had been tightly strapped inside the capsule for more than three hours, had spent some of the delay time relaxing with deep breathing exercises and tensing his arms and legs to keep them from getting too stiff.

At 7:10 a. m. the Redstone rocket and the capsule switched over to internal power, meaning that it was now self-sustaining. On the nearby beaches and by the side of roads hordes of undaunted, excited spectators who had endured frustrating days of delay were crowded together with their eyes and binoculars facing the launch pad, but casting an occasional worried glance skyward. With the clouds almost gone, the peo­ple began to sense that this might finally be the day the white bird ripped into the sky. Hundreds of weary reporters and cameramen had also taken up their positions ready to finally record and report on the spectacular event.


Also facing a barrage of questions from reporters that day was the youngest sibling of the Grissom family, 27-year-old Lowell from St. Louis, Missouri, who worked as a systems analyst for the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, the firm which had made the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft. He had watched his brother’s successful shot from their St. Louis living room with his wife Bobette, and said that they had finally been able to relax for the first time in fifteen days. “We’re greatly relieved,” he stated. “One more postponement was about all we would have needed.”

Lowell disclosed that his brother had told him by phone fifteen days earlier that he would be the pilot for the next mission, well before the public announcement of Gus’s selection. “I couldn’t tell anyone that Gus would be the pilot,” he said. He also revealed that some top McDonnell officials knew his brother had been named, “but they weren’t talking about it.”

Lowell and Bobette said they only slept “on and off” during the night and were up around 5:00 a. m., “long before the alarm went off.” He said that once the Redstone rose from the launch pad safely he was confident everything would go well. His wife said, “I was really shaken up when they said they had lost voice contact for a time. I suppose Lowell was too, but we weren’t doing much talking during the shot.”

Lowell declined firmly, but politely, to permit newsmen and photographers into their suburban apartment during the space shot, but admitted them once his brother was in the recovery area and ready to be hoisted aboard the helicopter. They were obviously worn down by the two postponements.

“If Gus can stand it, so can we,” Bobette said.3

In Newport News, Virginia, a proud but relieved Betty Moore Grissom said she was “happy” her husband’s flight was a success. “But I’m so sorry the capsule was lost,” she remarked.

In her memoir Starfall, it was revealed that even though Betty knew Gus’s craft had been lost she had no idea how close she had come to losing him. “I didn’t have time to worry if he was safe,” she explained. “The first thing that went through my head was: I hope he didn’t do anything wrong. It was going through my mind, that probably was how the news people would write it. I knew if he had made a mistake he would never forgive himself. My second worry was now I had to go out and meet the press.”

“I’ve always known it would be a success,” she told a dozen newsmen several min­utes later on the lawn of her home, perched on the bank of a small lake, perhaps with more confidence than she felt at that moment. Together with their two sons, Scott, 11, and Mark, 7, and with the wives of her husband’s fellow astronauts Deke Slayton, Scott Carpenter and Walter Schirra there to support her, Betty had watched as the dramas unfolded on their television set. She had emerged from her home with Scott


Lowell and Bobette Grissom. Lowell was an engineer at the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation where Liberty Bell 7 was constructed. (Photo: Associated Press)

and Mark shortly after her husband was safely aboard the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. Wearing a light blue dress and a blue and white striped jacket, she was smiling and animated throughout the interview. “We achieved a first today – the boys and I talked by telephone to Gus as he lay flat on his back in the capsule before it was launched. He said if we stopped talking he could go to sleep,” she laughed.

How did the boys feel about their father’s achievement that day?

“Scott clapped his hands when the rocket went up,” Betty said.

“And I whistled too,” Scott remarked, then added he would have liked to have been with his father on the flight.

Responding to one question, Betty said that “the last two seconds before liftoff” were the most concerning moments for her. Asked if she prayed during the flight, she said, “certainly.” She was also asked if she would like for her husband to be the first astronaut to make an orbital flight. “I think I would, because he would,” she dutifully replied.


Betty Grissom at their Newport News home with sons Scott (left) and Mark. (Photo: Associated Press)

When asked about the last time she had seen her husband, Betty replied that she last saw him two weeks before the flight, but had talked to him by telephone daily during that time. “I hope he calls me when he reaches Grand Bahama Island,” she added.

Did she wish her husband was in a less strenuous occupation?

“I’ve always left it up to him to decide what to do,” was her considered response. Space flights were important she observed, but said she “will leave them to Gus and the boys.”

Did her sons wish to follow in their father’s footsteps? She said both boys would probably become pilots.

Finishing up the interview, Betty said, “Now I can rest for a few days and get back to normal.” She planned to spend the remainder of that day “watching television and answering the telephone.”

“And I’ll go swimming,” Scott chimed in. Betty would later state that her interview with the newsmen was “much worse than watching the flight on television.”4


By late January 1967, despite a variety of frustrating problems with their spacecraft and its systems, the three astronauts were fully trained and ready to fly on the Earth­orbiting test flight of a spacecraft that, with modifications, would one day carry three American astronauts to the Moon. As professional test pilots they were aware of the dangers they faced. During a 1966 address to the Associated Press, Grissom openly discussed his feelings on those dangers. “If we die,” he stressed, “we want people to accept it. We are 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.”12

Grissom’s words would prove sadly prophetic, and came tragically true during a mated test of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn IB rocket on 27 January.

Three critical objectives had to be met before the scheduled launch of Apollo 204 on 21 February 1967. They were a “Plugs Out” test, the Flight Readiness Test, and the Countdown Demonstration Test. The test on Friday, 27 January was the “Plugs Out”. Although the spacecraft cabin would be internally pressurized by 100 percent oxygen, it was not considered a particularly dangerous test of the spacecraft and its systems because the inert Saturn IB rocket was not loaded with fuel. A fuelled test would occur only as the final “wet” mock test immediately preceding the February launch.

On the morning of 27 January, technicians at KSC and MSC began the well – rehearsed task of checking the spacecraft systems for the test. By this time the space­craft had undergone 20 weeks of tests and checkout at the Downey plant in California, plus an additional 21 weeks of checks and modifications at the Cape.

At 7:42 a. m. on that fateful day, technicians began powering up the spacecraft, sending electric current surging through nearly 30 miles of wiring coiled in thick bundles around the floor of the spacecraft and through enclosed recesses above and below the three contoured couches the astronauts would occupy. After lunch, once all was in readiness, the crew was driven by van to the launch pad and made their way up to the spacecraft level on the massive gantry, ready for a long afternoon of checks and tests. Once inserted into their respective couches they plugged into the spacecraft’s communications and oxygen systems. It was now 1:19 p. m. The pad technicians then sealed the capsule’s pressure vessel inner hatch which, unlike the outward-opening hatches used during Mercury and Gemini, opened inwards above Ed White’s head. Once it had been secured, the hatch was held in place and sealed by a series of clamps. Next the technicians secured the much heavier, cumbersome outer crew access hatch. To complete the process, they locked the fiberglass-and-cork booster protection cap in place.

To exit the spacecraft, extensive ratcheting of the inner hatch by a torque wrench was required in order to retract six dog-leg locking bars. At the same time, the cabin pressure had to be reduced by operating a purge valve, which would then allow the hatch to be opened inwards, in much the same manner as a modern airliner. Once the hatch had been hauled into the cabin, White could then operate a quick-release mecha­nism that unlocked the outer hatch.

Initiating the day’s test, the crew, now strapped and plugged in, began to purge their spacesuits and the spacecraft of all gases except oxygen. The cabin was to be


During a training session Chaffee, White and Grissom run through ground checks aboard Spacecraft 012. (Photo: NASA)

pressurized above ambient in order to simulate normal flight conditions and ensure no contamination from outside. This involved raising the cabin pressure to 16.7 psi (pounds per square inch) of pure oxygen.

As the astronauts worked their way through a series of checklists, their irritation – particularly in the case of Grissom – grew as minor glitches disrupted the check-out sequence. He then reported a foul odor in the space suit loop, which he described as “a sour smell somewhat like buttermilk.” Adding to their displeasure, the crew had problems trying to communicate with the control center, which extended to include irregular communications between the Operations and Checkout Building and the blockhouse at Pad 34. Becoming increasingly agitated, Grissom reached the point where he vented his frustration. “How the hell can you expect us to get to the Moon if you people can’t hook us up with a ground station?” he growled at one point. “Get with it out there!”

At 6:20 p. m., during another in a series of holds, there is evidence to suggest that Grissom decided to do something about the communications problem without telling the control center. He unbuckled his seat harness and disconnected his cobra cable in an attempt to check connections below his feet. The cobra cable was a multi-wired communication cable within a sheath which connected each of the three astronauts to the instrument panel. Further evidence indicates that he then eased himself down into the cramped lower equipment bay under the feet of White and Chaffee in order to swap the cable with another. An electrocardiogram reading at this time indicates he was engaged in some form of mild activity, possibly with the assistance of White, who could be seen on television monitors removing his glove. Brushing and tapping noises could be heard from within the spacecraft. The cable would later be found in a discon­nected state, which could not have happened by accident.

At 6:30:55 p. m., something happened inside Spacecraft 012. Ground instruments monitoring the command module’s systems and environment unexpectedly recorded a two-and-a-half-second interruption of power on an alternating current bus. At the same time, other monitors showed a sudden spike in the oxygen flow into the men’s space suits. White’s heart and respiration rates suddenly shot up. It seemed that a brief electrical arc suddenly flared between two bare segments of wire, believed to have been in a panel below the left-hand side of Grissom’s couch and far removed from where he had been working on the cable.

Nine seconds later, flames appeared inside the spacecraft. Grissom yelled out what sounded like “Hey!” He scrambled up and knelt on his couch, banging his helmet hard on the upper instrument panel, leaving deep gouges in the top of the helmet. By now, clear oxygen-fed flames were sweeping up the inside wall of the cabin. Chaffee’s voice suddenly broke through on the intercom, saying, “Fire – I smell fire.” At 6:31:06, White’s voice, this time far more terrifying, was heard to call, “Fire in the cockpit!” At this point he disconnected his oxygen inlet hose in order to do battle with the inner hatch release.

With everything in the cabin saturated with pure oxygen at high pressure, the fire rapidly consumed a host of combustible materials. Meanwhile the pressure had risen alarmingly and the crew was frantically going through their initial evacuation drills.

Chaffee turned up the lights and opened communication links. Ten seconds later he yelled in despair, “We’ve got a bad fire – let’s get out – let’s open her up!”