Gus Grissom never seemed to fit the archetypal American hero mold. A stocky and somewhat stubby man who stood at 5 feet 7 inches, he looked more like the neighborhood motor mechanic or television repairman than an astronaut. But he excelled as an Air Force test pilot and as a Mercury astronaut, becoming an integral part of NASA’s drive to the Moon. While he may not have been the most sociable or loquacious member of the astronaut group, he was well respected by them. “Gus was a very bright young man who didn’t have a lot to say most of the time,” fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter told the author in 2013, “but when he said something it was of great value and always worth listening to.”1
Category Liberty Bell 7
Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper always seemed to live on the edge. Not just the edge of space and adventure, but in testing the patience of his NASA bosses. He loved flying, and his enthusiasm was never more evident than when he finally heard that his pal Gus Grissom had successfully completed his suborbital trip into space.
Cooper was flying an F-106 chase plane over the Cape that day, and he wanted to show the officials below how he felt about his astronaut colleague’s safe return from the perils of space. When information was passed to him that the MR-4 mission had been a success he barreled across the Cape, over the heads of newsmen assembled at the press platform, then swung around for a second pass over the area. This time around he performed a slow victory roll, leading NASA’s somewhat bemused Public Affairs spokesman Lt. Col. ‘Shorty’ Powers to announce, “In case there is any doubt in anyone’s mind, that was a fellow astronaut who just came by in that F-106, celebrating.”1
Where to begin? There has been a tremendous amount of material generated regarding my brother Gus, from the early days of the space program through the Apollo 1 tragedy, but I will always talk to anyone who wants to talk about him. I can tell people who he was.
What I remember most of all about Gus was the thoroughness with which he approached everything he did, and this carried over into many things – even those not related to flying. But to know about Gus, it is important to also know about our parents, Dennis and Cecile. Dad worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for 47 years, as a signal maintainer. He was one of the fortunate few who had a job during the Depression. Our parents were very giving and generous people. Although they had modest means they were always very willing to share what they had with others in need. It seemed that when I was growing up there was always a relative living with us.
I was one of four children (Gus was the oldest) and we were blessed with parents who exhibited emotional stability and a sense of security. We were all born and raised in Mitchell, Indiana, and lived in the same house until we left home. That house at 715 West Grissom Avenue – it was Baker Street until it was named after Gus – is now in the process of restoration to become a museum.
We all attended Mitchell High School. Surprisingly, Gus was not an outstanding student in high school. In fact, he probably would have been classified as an underachiever. The high school principal did not endorse his application to enter Purdue University. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression… he did excel in math and sciences. I guess he just didn’t see the importance of those other classes.
When Gus entered high school he was 5 feet 4 inches and weighed about 100 pounds, not quite what the high school coaches were interested in for the athletic teams, but he was well coordinated and one of the most competitive people that I have ever known, and he tried harder.
Right after high school he went into the Air Force. Shortly after World War II ended he entered Purdue University where he earned a degree in engineering. He then returned to the Air Force and went on to fly 100 combat missions in Korea, became a test pilot, and joined the space program. NASA chose Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Gus as the three astronauts who would be candidates for the first American space flight, ultimately selecting Shepard for the first flight and Gus for the second suborbital flight.
There was a tremendous amount of anxiety in the Grissom house that morning of July 21, 1961, as we all waited for the liftoff of Liberty Bell 7. It was quite a relief when we heard that the spacecraft had gone through reentry and had successfully landed. Of course, we later learned that the most dangerous part of the mission occurred in the water, when the hatch unexplainably blew, and Gus almost drowned. The fact that NASA selected Gus as the Command Pilot for the first Gemini flight clearly indicated that they knew that he was not responsible for the hatch prematurely opening.
As a mild extrovert, Gus could surprise you with his wit and humor, and it appeared when you least expected it. He was also a man of few words. He was once asked to speak to the workforce at Convair, a space contractor in Southern California. After a lengthy introduction, Gus got up in front of a couple of thousand workers and gave his famous, three-word speech: “Do good work.”
The recovery of Liberty Bell 7 from the ocean in 1999 exemplifies the pioneering spirit, the dedication and the resourcefulness of Gus. Standing on the dock in that hot July sun, 38 years to the day from liftoff, waiting for Liberty Bell 7 to be hoisted from the recovery ship, I wondered what Gus would be thinking and feeling as that tiny craft came swinging over onto the dock. I know I had many emotions that were aroused, from deep sadness that Gus wasn’t there to see it, to immense pride in knowing that the only craft that he had flown and lost had now come home. Just like it had been said that man could not fly in space, it had also been said that Liberty Bell 7 was so deep it could never be recovered. Gus was always up for a challenge and I think he would have been very pleased that those who said, “It can’t be done,” had, again, been proven wrong.
Lowell Grissom, brother of NASA astronaut ‘Gus’ Grissom, photographed at Grissom Air Force Reserve Base, Indiana. (Photo: U. S. Air Force, taken by Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner, 434th ARW Public Affairs.)
After his Gemini flight, Gus was again selected to be the Command Pilot for the first Apollo flight, leading America to the Moon. Unfortunately, a fire on the launch pad took the life of Gus, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. However, there is a general consensus that America would not have made it to the Moon in the decade of the sixties without the knowledge that was learned, and the corrections that were made as a result of that fire. There is no doubt that Gus would have stepped on the Moon had he lived.
We can honor him only if we follow in his footsteps and peacefully continue to explore space. Our future work in space is bound to include some failures. Yet Apollo 1 has taught us that we can never really fail as long as we persist in our efforts. The greatest lesson we can learn from Gus Grissom is that failure is impossible for those who refuse to abandon their goals. The most fitting tribute to Gus and his Apollo 1 crew is for us to continue doing that for which they gave their lives and to renew our dedication to their quest.. ..REACHING FOR THE STARS!
Lowell Grissom Mitchell, Indiana March, 2013
In time Grissom basically became a living, integral part of Spacecraft No. 11, as the component that no mechanism could replace. His confidence had grown to the point that he knew his vehicle as well as, or better than, any high-performance aircraft he had flown in the past.
“Actually, during the final weeks and days before the launching of MR-4 „.I felt really good,” Grissom recalled in We Seven. “We kept spotting problems, as we knew we would. But there were very few of them, considering the state of the art, and the simulations we went through for practice went very well. If anything was building up inside me, it was that I was anxious. I kept wanting to go tomorrow, and I guess I got slightly impatient whenever some technician came up with a new modification in the system that might have caused a long delay if we had accepted it. The only thing I was afraid of was that something might happen to prevent me from making the flight.”13
On Friday, 23 June, Redstone launch vehicle MRLV-8 was installed on Launch Pad 5 for a mission expected in mid-July. Technicians began conducting extensive checkouts of the 69-foot rocket before mating it with the one-ton Mercury capsule, checking and rechecking to ensure the booster was ready for the upcoming flight. Once the launch pad crews had completed their final inspections and systems tests, Liberty Bell 7 would be moved from Hangar S to the launch pad and mated with the Redstone. Three Redstone rockets, including the one on the launch pad, remained for the planned Mercury suborbital flights. If the NASA schedule held, the last two launchings would take place in August and September.
Grissom conducts systems checks inside Liberty Bell 7. (Photo: NASA)
The MR-4 Redstone being raised to vertical at Launch Complex 5. (Photo: NASA)
Preparing to mate Liberty Bell 7 with the Redstone booster. (Photo: NASA)
As Grissom recalled, it was a happy day for him when the booster and spacecraft were finally being spliced together. Incredibly, however, he was almost barred from being on the pad to observe the process. “I had locked my hard hat in the office and forgotten the key, and no one is allowed near an active gantry without a special hard hat to protect his head. Someone finally loaned me one, and I made it just in time.”14 Over the next three days, further compatibility tests involving thousands of parts would take place in order to ensure that all systems involving the spacecraft and booster worked together. George Baldwin served as a manufacturing foreman with McDonnell, overseeing the launch pad crew. He spent his days at the Cape in preparing for the Mercury launches. He still recalls that time with great fondness, as he said in 2011. “My experience with it was wonderful because of the camaraderie and willingness of the workers and engineers [and] because everyone had one goal in mind. It was a time when we had Sputnik going over top of our heads, and [President Kennedy] setting the goal of going to the Moon within the decade. It was an absolutely exciting time.”15 As final preflight operations proceeded on schedule at the Cape, NASA personnel began manning stations on Bermuda and Grand Bahama Island in readiness to track
Mating the Mercury spacecraft with the Redstone booster. (Photo courtesy Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)
the MR-4 flight. At sea, ships and aircraft of the Mercury recovery force were either on station or moving into position, ready to pluck Grissom and his capsule from the sea.
Gus Grissom admired dedication in most people, but there was one particular profession that caused him to be wary in their presence. Normally outspoken and gregarious people, NASA’s astronauts would readily discuss most things in order to get the answers they sought – except when it came to the space agency’s medical staff. They knew from their days of flying high-performance aircraft that any hint of a complaint relating to their wellbeing could attract the unwanted attention of the doctors.
Prior to his unexpected but ultimately lengthy assignment as a NASA flight surgeon in 1960, Robert H. Moser was an Army major taking a fellowship in hematology at the Utah Medical School in Salt Lake City. As he recalls, little was known at that
In October 1963, Grissom was the proud recipient of an award from the Air Force Communications Service in recognition of becoming the first Air Force officer to receive astronaut wings for his flight into space and communicating with ground stations. (Photo: NASA)
time about a human being’s psychological and physiological capability to endure and function in space. He and his fellow Army officers would get to know the Mercury astronauts quite well over the years, but there was always something of an unspoken chasm between an astronaut and any medical practitioner.
In September 1962 Dr Moser was stationed on the island of Kauai in preparation for the six-orbit Mercury flight of Wally Schirra the following month. Occasionally, he and Gus Grissom would spend time kicking back together in a local bar.
“We had become chums during the seemingly endless simulated missions that always preceded orbital flights,” Moser once reflected for The Pharos magazine. “This was a rare downtime. Gus was our CapCom and I was the medical flight controller. I asked him why flyers hated doctors. He straightened himself on the bar stool, and peered into the bottom of his glass. ‘I’ll tell you, doc. When you walk into the flight surgeon’s office, you have your ticket. When you walk out, you might not.’’’
Moser pressed further. “I asked him, ‘Gus, if you were sitting on top of that big firecracker and the countdown got to about minus seven, and suddenly you felt the worst sort of pain imaginable pressing down on your mid-chest and radiating down the inside of your left arm, what would you do? Would you let us know?’
“Gus took a long moment to gaze at the bay. ‘Only if I thought I was going to die.’”31
Gus Grissom with an early model of the Gemini spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)
After much deliberation and testing, a decision had been reached on the style and composition of the capsule’s heat shield. For the initial suborbital flights, it had been decided to adopt a proven system known as a ‘heat sink,’ which had been developed for the ballistic missile program. Previous testing had revealed that although the intense shock wave generated by a missile cone’s trajectory through the atmosphere managed to keep the massively high temperatures away from the forward-facing blunt end of the cone, enough heat – estimated at a temperature of around 3,000°F – could potentially soak through to melt or even vaporize in an explosive release of gases any normal metal, greatly endangering the life of an astronaut. However, beryllium, with its unusual ability to absorb extremely large quantities of heat, was the obvious candidate to test as the heat sink for a manned capsule.
On Monday, 8 June 1959, after details had been kept secret to that time, it was announced that the Brush Beryllium Company, which operated a plant near Elmore, Ohio, had been assigned the task of producing six gently curved heat shields to protect astronauts from the tremendous frictional heat encountered when their spacecraft reentered the atmosphere.
Beryllium is a hard, light metal that has a high melting point and it was used due to its ability to absorb heat as well as its high conductivity, preventing disastrous buildups of concentrated surface temperatures. Specifications called for the heat shield to be constructed of “hot-pressed” beryllium, with a diameter of 80 inches and a radius of curvature of 120 inches. It would prove to be the largest single piece of beryllium ever forged to that time.17
In July 1959 Brush Beryllium and the Aluminum Company of America announced the successful production of the first giant, dish-shaped beryllium piece, forged by Alcoa from a record-size billet supplied by Brush.
To produce the heat-sink shield, Brush first hot-pressed a beryllium billet 62 inches in diameter, one of the largest ever made to that time using powder-metallurgy techniques. This was achieved using the company’s patented QMV (quantum mechanical vacuum) process, involving simultaneous applications of vacuum, heat and pressure to beryllium powder. Following preliminary machining by Brush, the billet was encased in steel for the high-temperature forging operation. It was then delivered to the Alcoa factory in Cleveland, where it was heated to approximately 2000°F in a specially designed furnace. A huge manipulator then removed the glowing,
steel-jacketed beryllium piece and placed it onto a pre-heated die. The mighty force of a 50,000-ton press, operated by Alcoa under the U. S. Air Force’s Heavy Press Program, squeezed the beryllium billet into a saucer-shaped disc 80 inches across and three inches thick.
Under the contract, Brush Beryllium then forged the final dimensions in their precision machine shop in Cleveland. The last operation in the manufacturing process – ultrasonic inspection – was carried out by Alcoa. Following this, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation received the finished piece, 72 inches in diameter, ready to be installed as a heat sink of one of the Mercury spacecraft.18
While a beryllium heat shield would be used on capsules in the early booster test flights and the two suborbital missions of Shepard and Grissom, for orbital missions a new, ablative heat shield weighing far less was developed for the Mercury-Atlas flights that would follow.
Jim Lewis was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on 10 November 1936, which he always proudly states happens to coincide with the birthday of the U. S. Marine Corps. His father had served as a Warrant Officer during World War II, “having enlisted by fudging a bit on his age.” After the war the Lewis family relocated to Oklahoma City, where his father had taken on employment with the International Harvester Company. Following several promotions and transfers, the family moved once again to Houston, Texas. Here Jim Lewis attended 6th grade right through to high school, later attending the University of Houston, which meant he could live at home and work various jobs while undertaking his studies. During his junior year he joined the Marine Corps Platoon Leader’s program. By attending Platoon Leader’s Class (PLC) in the summer between his junior and senior years, he was able to be commissioned a 2nd lieutenant on graduation and receive twelve hours of college credits for the PLC program.
While at Quantico, Virginia, that summer he applied for and was accepted into flight school, which he was scheduled to begin after graduating from college. He admits that he had only chosen the Marine Corps because his father had enlisted in the U. S. Army, and like most young people he wanted to do something different. He served in the Far East after graduation from flight school, spending six months in
Lewis’s Marine buddy Wayne Koons (left) and helicopter co-pilot George Cox flank MR-3 astronaut Cdr. Alan Shepard during a recovery training session. (Photo: Wayne Koons)
Japan and several more on the island of Okinawa, before serving with Marine Light Helicopter Squadron HMR(L) 261 on carriers engaged in supply duties to Vietnam in 1959. However he was not involved in any combat operations.
On his return to the United States he took the advice of Wayne Koons, a friend from flight school, and requested a transfer to the 2nd Marine Air Wing on the east coast at MCAS New River, North Carolina. He opted for this unit because Koons was then involved with the Air Wing in the Mercury capsule recovery program for NASA. Lewis’s request was approved, and he later became primary recovery pilot for the MR-4 mission.
“The Marine Corps had been selected [to recover the Mercury spacecraft from the ocean] for several reasons,” Lewis told the author. “One was that our helicopters had the payload capacity to lift the capsule. Similar Navy models combined a lot of sonar search equipment that reduced their payloads considerably. In addition, one of the Marine Corps’ missions was to deposit heavy external loads in small, tight jungle-type areas surrounded by trees… a task which required a fairly high degree of precision. While most pilots could accomplish this after training, Marine Corps pilots had been practicing it as part of their normal duties for quite a while.”
Another factor in favor of the Marine Corps acting as the recovery force was that they operated a base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which was reasonably close to Langley AFB, Virginia, where NASA’s recently formed Space Task Group (STG) was then located.
Lewis was serving in HMR(L)-262 when he first met Gus Grissom at Langley. The astronaut was visiting the STG for a meeting concerned with the recovery of Mercury spacecraft. Asked how well he got to know Grissom back then, Lewis responded, “I didn’t get to know Gus really well… there was little personal contact at Langley.
The USS Randolph (CVS-15) at sea in 1962. (Photo: U. S. Navy)
I didn’t get to know Gus really well until I was a Manned Spacecraft Center employee [in Houston, Texas]. I think my impressions were like most. Gus was a serious guy, and the more one had the opportunity to work directly with him, the more one appreciated how good he was. He worked technical problems well, penetrating to the core, and making sure he and all of us took care of any peripheral concerns. In other words, I really appreciated how comprehensive his work ethic was. I imagine that’s one of the things that helped him survive his combat missions in Korea.”1
As primary recovery pilot for the suborbital MR-4 mission, Lewis was assigned to the lead helicopter, a Sikorsky HUS-1 Seahorse of the Marine Medium Transport Squadron, and given the transmission call-sign of Hunt Club 1. While in training for the assignment, Lewis and his team practiced for every conceivable scenario, which included the recovery of unmanned capsules from Little Joe booster flights fired out of Wallops Island, Virginia.
As the time grew near for Grissom’s suborbital flight, Lewis and his co-pilot John Reinhard from Bloomington, Illinois selected the three best-performing helicopters from their base and flew them to the USS Randolph (CVS-15), the prime recovery aircraft carrier. On the morning of the space flight they test flew all three helicopters to ensure they were at peak performance for the recovery effort.
The Air India experience caused Newport to ponder further the difficult question of locating and salvaging the lost Mercury spacecraft. As he researched where it might be on the ocean floor, he realized that no existing ROV was capable of reaching an object three miles down. After returning from Ireland he asked the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) about Liberty Bell 7 “but got nowhere.” His next major salvage assignment involved the tragic loss of NASA’s space shuttle Challenger and her crew of seven on 28 January 1986. Newport spent two months working out of Port Canaveral, Florida on the contract salvage ship Stena Workhorse. The major discovery of the operation occurred while Newport was on a midnight shift piloting the Gemini ROV and brought a booster section to the surface. It happened to be the most crucial find of the search – the segment of the right-hand solid rocket booster where the burn-through of an O-ring had set in motion the fatal explosion and NASA’s greatest tragedy to that time.
A 4,000-pound segment of Challenger’s nght-hand solid rocket booster is offloaded at Port Canaveral from the Stena Workhorse following its recovery on 13 April 1986. (Photo: NASA-JSC)
“The operation was a real grind,” he says, “mostly due to the numerous technical problems we had with the Gemini ROV. During six weeks we repaired its electrical umbilical a staggering 32 times and even replaced the whole thing four times: not a good record. But while I was in Florida and on one of my rare days off, I visited the archives at the Kennedy Space Center and collected a little more data on Liberty Bell 7.”6 He also began to establish solid contacts in his ongoing research into the loss of Grissom’s spacecraft, including the Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford, who would not only prove to be a staunch advocate of Newport’s plans but also provided important leads and privileged access to documents and information to assist him in his quest to pinpoint the location of the sunken craft. “Gene Cernan, John Yardley (McDonnell Aircraft Corporation) and Robert F. Thompson (JSC) were also a big help.”7
Another interested and influential ally was Max Ary, then President of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, who had also considered the possibility of finding and recovering Liberty Bell 7. As he told Lawrence McGlynn for collectSPACE, “Actually my interest, relative to the Cosmosphere, in recovering the Liberty Bell 7 goes way back. In 1978, before the Cosmosphere opened but when we were still trying to put together a space artifact collection, one of my many basic goals was to place on exhibit examples of all three of the early manned spacecraft. We knew when we were going to get the Gemini and Apollo, but we knew, because of the rarity of the Mercury [capsules] that it was going to be our biggest challenge. When I realized that all of the available Mercury [craft] were on long-term exhibit, it occurred to me there was still one that might be made available, and that was LB7.
Being from Kansas, and with no knowledge of the ocean, I didn’t specifically see why there would be any problem in recovering something from 16,000 feet down. As they often say ‘ignorance is bliss.’”8
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
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