Category Liberty Bell 7


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!”


Meanwhile, at McDonnell’s Advanced Design Department, Luge Luetjen said every­one had “hit the ground running" and the place was a beehive of frantic activity.

“The dynamics and aerodynamics people had developed the equations for the ascent trajectory, the orbital flight, and descent trajectory of a typical space vehicle. Working with the engineers in the computer lab, we managed to set up a program such that with any combination of the independent variables (thrust, weight, flight path angle, etc.) the characteristics of the flight could be determined, printed out, and plot­ted. The results obtained were critical for the structural, heat protection, and aerody­namic design of a spacecraft. Considerable research had been done by Max Faget and others at the NACA Langley Field facility on various spacecraft body shapes and their characteristics. They shared this information freely with all that were interested, and some of us spent considerable time in conference with them on the subject. The ‘wheels’ in the department, but mostly Yardley, had decided that we would bundle all our studies and calculations in a single report whose format was similar to what we thought that of a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a manned space vehicle might be. As it turned out, we didn’t have long to wait.”8

Even while Robert Gilruth’s STG team was still designated as part of NACA, it began work on the writing of detailed specifications for a Mercury capsule. By the end of October 1958 a preliminary draft had been completed.

On 7 November, two days after the official formation of the STG, a briefing of potential bidders for the contract to develop and construct a manned spacecraft was held at the Langley Research Center, where the STG was initially based.

Of the 40 companies in attendance, 20 later indicated that they were prepared to bid for the contract, and were given the preliminary specifications. A week later, on 14 November, NASA had received firm offers from all 20 companies – including McDonnell – to bid on the project. Three days after that, the final documentation, Specification No. S-6 “Specifications for Manned Spacecraft Capsule,” was mailed out to the interested parties. The deadline for the return of their proposals was set at 11 December.

“Our report was pretty much on target,” according to Luetjen, “and we had little trouble transforming our information into a proposal required to be submitted by December 11. We had our proposal quickly completed and simply spent the remainder of the time double checking and dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”9

Of the 20 companies that expressed further interest in submitting bid proposals, only 11 actually followed through. In turn, NASA passed these bids on to the STG for assessment. The people at McDonnell were delighted subsequently to learn that when the contender numbers were narrowed by almost half, their company was still in the running. After all their hard work in putting the proposal together, several employees took accrued vacation time in order to be ready to resume work if (or more optimisti­cally, once) they learned their bid had been successful.

Over the Christmas break the STG conducted a scrupulous evaluation of all the proposals and finally narrowed their choice down to the one contractor they felt best qualified from the standpoint of technical abilities, ideas, and approach to the issue. Over in Washington, D. C., meanwhile, NASA officials were also scrutinizing the pro­posals, conducting an evaluation of the business and management aspects of the twelve bidders.

In January 1959, after Administrator Keith Glennan had reviewed the NASA evaluation, the space agency opened further negotiations with McDonnell as the potential prime contractor. On 12 January, shortly after the McDonnell workers from the Advanced Design Department (Space) had returned from their Christmas and New Year break, all of the department’s workers were called to a meeting in Mike Weeks’ office where he told them that James McDonnell had been informed by NASA’s Space Task Group that following an evaluation of all the submitted proposals, McDonnell Aircraft had been named as the winner of the contract and negotiations would begin immediately for the design, production and support of twelve Mercury spacecraft.

“No one in Advanced Design slept much on Monday night after Mike Weeks’ announcement of our winning the Mercury competition,” Luetjen recalled. “Each individual was trying to determine what the next move in their expertise should be. As I remember, early on Tuesday, Yardley got the group together and indicated that most, though not all, of those who had worked on the proposal would be joining him on the project. Some of the pure scientists would remain in Advanced Design to do spade work on projects beyond Mercury.

“The early task facing each of the prime systems engineers was two-fold: to work with their NASA counterpart to roughly define their system such that specifications could be drafted on which subcontractors/suppliers could bid; and secondly, to esti­mate the effort and material costs to consummate their part of the program such that a basic contract could be agreed upon at an early date. It greatly helped that much coor­dination and contact with potential suppliers had taken place prior to the submission of our proposal. Two main systems were unsettled when it came time to sign the contract, and the contract wording had to be sufficiently loose to allow alternatives. It was yet to be determined whether the heat protection system should consist of a beryllium heat sink or a shield made of a material that would ablate and thus dissipate the heat upon reentry, and secondly, it was unknown at that juncture whether the escape system should be a rocket boost system to separate the spacecraft from the launch vehicle or a rocket pull system in which the escape rocket would be mounted on a tower on the forward (small) end of the capsule.”10

According to Max Faget, the Atlas rocket had been chosen as the most suitable booster for the later orbital missions. “Bob Gilruth came in one day and says, ‘Max… what are you going to do if the Atlas blows up on the way up?’ And I didn’t have an answer for that. And he said, ‘Well, you’d better get an answer for it.’ I’ve always said that was an invention on command. It was very fortunate that one of our colleagues, Woody Blanchard, again in the Pilotless Air Research Division, had been experiment­ing with tow rockets. He put canted nozzles on a rocket and towed models, research models, up to Mach 1 and above, but instead of pushing, he’d pull them. So knowing that you could do [that with] the rocket up front, it was just a small step instead of putting a cable up there, to put a structure up there that would hold it rigidly during launch but be in place whenever you need it. That turned out to be a very successful thing.”11

An initial contract for the construction of 12 similarly constructed spacecraft was formally signed on 6 February. This number was subsequently increased to 18, and then to 26, before finally being set to 20 as the development effort matured. During the


Robert Gilruth (left) views an engineering diagram of the Mercury capsule, along with D. Brainerd Holmes, Director of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight; Walter Williams, Operations Director; and John (‘Shorty’) Powers, Public Affairs Officer. (Photo: NASA)

negotiations, officials from McDonnell estimated it would be possible to deliver the first three capsules within ten months.

As Robert Gilruth noted in his unpublished memoirs, “During this same period of time we established an arrangement with the Ballistic Missile Division of the Air Force for the procurement of the Atlas launch rockets and for launch services. We [also] worked out a plan with [Major] General [John B.] Medaris [commanding the Army Ballistic Missiles Agency] and Dr. [Wernher] von Braun [of that agency] for the Redstone launch vehicles, and we started work in our own staff for a design and speci­fication for the Little Joe rocket to be used in tests at Wallops Island. We gave to Lewis the job of creating a full-scale Mercury model spacecraft for an unmanned flight at an early date to establish levels of heat transfer and stability in a full-scale free-flight test on an Atlas booster at Cape Canaveral…. The project was started in December 1958 and flew successfully in September 1959.”12


Following his graduation from Test Pilot School, Grissom, now bearing the rank of captain, returned to Wright-Patterson AFB in May 1957 as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.


An exultant Grissom after completing his 100th combat mission during the Korean war. (Photo: World Book Science Service)

One day in 1958, an adjutant handed Capt. Grissom an official teletype message marked “Top Secret,” instructing him to report to an address in Washington, D. C., and to wear civilian clothing. There were no other details, but he knew there was a challenge in there somewhere. As it turned out, he was one of 110 carefully selected candidates who had met the general qualifications for astronaut training. They would undergo initial briefings and medical screening in the quest to find America’s first astronauts for NASA.

After attending the briefing, in which the attendees were given information about Project Mercury, they were offered a crucial choice. If they decided to volunteer for the chance to become what NASA referred to as an “astronaut”, they would move onto the next phase of the selection process. If not, then they could return without prejudice to their present service. Some turned down the chance to be involved


Gus Grissom at the U. S. Air Force Test Pilot School, California. (Photo: U. S. Air Force)

in this new venture. There were too many unknowns and they preferred to continue with the work they were already involved in. Grissom now had to think seriously about his own future.

“It was a big decision for me to make. I figured that I had one of the best jobs in the Air Force, and I was working with fine people. I was stationed at the flight test center at Wright-Patterson, and I was flying a wide range of airplanes and giving them a lot of different tests. It was a job that I thoroughly enjoyed. A lot of people, including me, thought the [Mercury] project sounded a little too much like a stunt than a serious research program. It looked, from a distance, as if the man they were searching for was only going to be a passenger. I didn’t want to be just that. I liked flying too much. The more I learned about Project Mercury, however, the more I felt I might be able to help and I figured that I had enough flying experience to handle myself on any kind of shoot-the-chute they wanted to put me on. In fact, I knew darn well I could.”7

Afterwards, when he told Betty about Project Mercury and the chance that was being presented to him, she said that he would have her full support in whatever he decided to do. After a lot of thought, Grissom decided to volunteer, following which he was subjected to intense physical and psychological testing through early 1959. At one stage he came close to being disqualified when doctors discovered that he suffered from hay fever, and he had to convince them that it would not bother him in space. He argued that he would be sealed in a pressurized spacecraft, with no pollen present. It must have been a close call, as there was a tremendous emphasis on physical fitness. With his usual determination he won his case.

On Thursday evening, 2 April 1959, Gus Grissom received the phone call that would change his life forever. On the other end of the line was NASA’s assistant man­ager for the project, Charles Donlan, who officially informed him that he had been selected as one of the space agency’s seven Mercury astronauts.

“After I had made the grade, I would lie in bed once in a while at night and think of the capsule and the booster and ask myself, ‘Now what in hell do you want to get up on that thing for?’ I wondered about this especially when I thought about Betty and the two boys. But I knew the answer: We all like to be respected in our fields. I hap­pened to be a career officer in the military – and, I think, a deeply patriotic one. If my country decided that I was one of the better qualified people for this new mission, then I was proud and happy to help out. I guess there was also a spirit of pioneering and adventure involved in the decision. As I told a friend of mine once who asked me why I joined Mercury, I think if I had been alive 150 years ago I might have wanted to go out and help open up the West.”8

Following the announcement of the names of the seven Mercury astronauts in Washington on 9 April 1959, they became instant celebrities – something that caught them (and NASA) completely unawares. “It happened without us doing a damn thing,” Deke Slayton later mused. “We show up for a news conference… and now we’re the bravest men in the country. Talk about crazy!”9


Almost before he knew it, Grissom heard Blockhouse 5 capsule communicator Deke Slayton run the clock down to zero and then call “Ignition!” Grissom felt the launch vehicle begin to vibrate and could hear the engines start. Flames burst from the foot of the rocket.

Moments later the elapsed-time clock started and Alan Shepard, the CapCom in the Mercury Control Center, confirmed liftoff. Grissom quickly performed his next duties. “At that time, I punched the Time Zero Override, started the stopwatch function on the spacecraft clock, and reported that the elapsed-time clock had started.”6 Eight seconds into the launch he almost laughed out loud when he heard Shepard cheekily put on his best imitation of comedian Bill Dana – who had a hilarious routine as a reluctant astronaut named Jose Jimenez – warning Grissom, “Don’t cry too much!”

The Redstone left the launch pad gracefully and drove through a clear patch of blue sky before arching over and heading into the Atlantic target area. The powered ascent proceeded well, and was reported to be very smooth. A low-order vibration became noticeable at around T+50 seconds, but did not cause any interference in communica­tions or degrade Grissom’s vision. It quickly dissipated and could no longer be detected by T+70 seconds.

The only problem occurred at this time. One of the carbon jet vanes detached from the Redstone – it can be seen streaking away in footage of the ascent. These vanes, which served as the booster’s steering rudder, were mounted in the lower portion of the booster and extended into the rocket’s engine exhaust. They were used in conjunction with air rudders to control the Redstone’s attitude. During the early part of the ascent


Liftoff of the MR-4 mission. (Photo: NASA)

the Redstone was controlled by the jet vanes, but when the rocket had reached a velocity sufficient for it to become aerodynamically stable, the air rudders took over the control function. The loss of the jet vane at this point did not seem to have any noticeable effect on the stability or function of the booster.

“I looked for a little buffeting as I climbed to 36,000 [feet] and moved through Mach 1, the speed of sound,” Grissom later reported. “Al [Shepard] had experienced some difficulty here; his vehicle shook quite a lot and his vision was slightly blurred by the vibrations. But we had made some good fixes. We had improved the


In the Mercury Control Center, Alan Shepard signals the successful launch of the Redstone rocket. (Photo: NASA)

aerodynamic fairings between the capsule and the Redstone, and had put some extra padding around my head. I had no trouble at all, and I could see the instruments very clearly.”7

Whereas Alan Shepard had been restricted to external observations through a peri­scope device, Grissom had the benefit of the newly installed centerline window and commented that his vision out of the window was good at all times during the launch.

“As viewed from the pad, the sky was its normal light blue; but as the altitude increased, the sky became a darker and darker blue until approximately two minutes after liftoff, which corresponds to an altitude of approximately 100,000 feet, the sky rapidly changed to an absolute black. At this time, I saw what appeared to be one rather faint star in the center of the window. It was about equal in brightness to Polaris. Later, it was determined that this was the planet Venus.”8


The Redstone soars away from Launch Pad 5. (Photo: NASA)

As the Redstone continued its ascent, Grissom reported that he was receiving a force of 2.5 G. Then, 142 seconds after liftoff, the Redstone’s engine suddenly shut down. Although Grissom reported a slight tumbling sensation and several moments of disorientation, he had experienced similar sensations in centrifuge simulations so he knew what it was and it didn’t trouble him. The sensation occurred once again just ten seconds later when the escape tower clamp ring fired and the tower blasted free of the spacecraft. He later said that the explosive separation and firing of the escape tower was quite audible and he could see the escape rocket motor and tower throughout its tail-off burning phase and for some time after that, climbing off to his right.


Liberty Bell 7 climbs into the morning sky of the Cape, reaching for space. (Photo: NASA)


Spectators on the beaches below follow the ascent of the Redstone rocket as it streaks ever higher into the sky. (Photo: NASA)




Back in the Mercury Control Center, Wally Schirra lights a celebratory cigar for Alan Shepard. Partly obscured behind and between them is Joe Walker, one of NASA’s X-15 pilots. (Photo: NASA)

Grissom was observing the tower when the posigrade rockets of his spacecraft fired on schedule, separating it from the spent Redstone. This was accompanied by “a very audible bang and a definite kick, producing a deceleration of approximately 1 G.”9

On separation from the booster Grissom pitched forward slightly in reaction, but it was an anticipated sensation. At this point, Liberty Bell 7 was coasting upward in free flight.

In his later debriefing Grissom said that, like Shepard, he had to make a special effort to notice that he had entered into a weightless condition. His primary cue was a visual one, which became apparent when he noticed stray washers and some trash floating around; there was no other sensation of zero-g.

“Now, I was on my own,” he later recorded, as he described the view out of his enlarged window. “Shortly after liftoff I went through a layer of cirrus clouds and broke out into the sun. The sky became blue, and then – quite suddenly and abruptly – it turned black. Al had described it as dark blue. It seemed jet black to me. There was a narrow transition band between the blue and the black – a sort of fuzzy gray area. But it was very thin, and the change from blue to black was extremely vivid. The Earth itself was bright. I had a little trouble identifying land masses because of an extensive layer of clouds that hung over them. Even so, the view back down through the window was fascinating. I could make out brilliant gradations of color – the blue of the water, the white of the beaches and the brown of the land. Later on, when I was weightless and about 100 miles up – almost at the apogee of the flight – I could look down and see Cape Canaveral, sharp and clear. I could even see the buildings. This was the best reference I had for determining my position. I could pick out the Banana River and see the peninsula which runs further south. Then I spotted the south coast of Florida. I saw what must have been West Palm Beach. I never did see Cuba. The high cirrus blotted out everything except the area from about Daytona Beach back inland to Orlando and Lakeland, to Lake Okeechobee and down to the tip of Florida. It was quite a panorama.”10


In a proclamation signed and dated 21 July 1961, Indiana Governor Matthew E. Welsh declared that throughout Indiana the day would be called “Gus Grissom Day.” The proclamation read: “The citizens of Indiana are justly proud of their native son, who showed the exceptional courage and technical skill required to venture into the unknown, and Capt. Grissom’s name and daring exploits are now a part of the his­tory of man’s pioneering efforts to probe into space. Capt. Grissom has thereby brought honor and renown to his home town of Mitchell, Indiana, and to the state of Indiana.”5

Only a few hours after the United States had sent its second man into space, President Kennedy signed a bill authorizing vastly expanded space projects, including a start toward sending a man to the Moon. He took note of Grissom’s flight as he put his signature to the bill, which authorized the space agency to spend $1,784,300.00 in the year ahead. The amount was every cent Kennedy had asked for.

In a brief statement, the president said it was significant that the bill was signed on the day that America’s second astronaut made his flight before the eyes of the watch­ing world and with all the hazard that this entailed.

“It is also significant that once again we have demonstrated the technological excel­lence of this country,” the President said, adding, “As our space program continues… it will continue to be this nation’s policy to use space for the advancement of all man­kind and to make free release of all scientific and technological results.”

The bill had been passed only the day before by the House and Senate.6


Emergency escape procedures said that the hatches could be opened and the cabin evacuated in an orderly fashion in ninety seconds, but in simulations the crew had never achieved anything close to this time. In the evacuation exercises Grissom’s role was to lower White’s headrest so that White could reach above and behind his left shoulder to actuate the ratchet device that would simultaneously loosen the six dog­leg latches. The hatch itself was monstrously heavy, and opened inward. As shown on television monitors, White could be seen inserting the ratchet tool into a slot in the hatch. He suddenly snatched his hands back and then reached out once again as Grissom’s hands also came into view, in a desperate attempt to help White with the hatch. Meanwhile the flames, which were mostly on Grissom’s side of the cabin, rap­idly grew in intensity, releasing poisonous gases that quickly suffocated the three astronauts.

Some recent research, combined with the independent findings of some NASA engineers, indicates that Grissom also tried to purge the pressure by thrusting his gloved hand through the flames in an attempt to activate the cabin dump valves on a shelf over the left-hand equipment bay. He pressed so hard and so violently that the valves were later found bent. However the valves did not fully engage. In any case, it is doubtful they would have had much effect on the rapidly mounting internal cabin pressure. Meanwhile, the temperature inside the spacecraft had grown high enough to melt stainless steel fittings. Molten balls of nylon were dripping onto everything. White’s safety harness was on fire.

According to one source, White made part of a full turn of the ratchet before he was overcome by the deadly fumes, although it seems probable that the heat would have caused the metal in the hatch to expand and jam. It is widely acknowledged that White put in a mighty but futile effort to open the inner hatch. The last transmission from the spacecraft was a sharp, unidentified cry of pain.

In the meantime, the pressure inside the cabin had escalated to 36 psi, causing a sudden, violent rupture in the spacecraft’s hull from a position adjacent to Chaffee’s helmet across to below his feet. This explosion sealed the crew’s fate. Accompanied by a howling roar, fierce flames and debris spewed out of the breach into the White Room, and fire briefly enveloped the outside of the command module. As the pure oxygen environment in the cabin rapidly depleted, the clear flames deepened in color and lost much of their intensity, replaced by a thick, dark, choking smoke.

From start to tragic finish the fire inside Spacecraft 012 only lasted about 14-17 seconds. Once the violent hull rupture had purged the cabin of oxygen, the fire was essentially extinguished.

Five minutes after the alarm had been raised the booster cover cap was opened, followed soon thereafter by the inner and outer hatches. At first, no one could see through the thick, swirling smoke, and there were no signs of activity from the crew.

Almost another five minutes would pass before the smoke had cleared sufficiently to reveal the inert bodies of the crew. Chaffee, badly injured in the explosion, was still strapped in his seat, while White had collapsed across his seat after several frantic efforts to open the hatch had failed. Even White, said to be among the fittest of the astronauts and as strong as an ox, never really had any chance of opening the hatch in time.


The grim aftermath of the fire showing the smoke-blackened hull of Spacecraft 012 after the protective booster cover cap had been removed. (Photo: NASA)

Grissom was found lying on his back on the floor of the spacecraft, where he had apparently crawled in an attempt to escape the fire. All three had their visors closed. The bodies of Grissom and White were so intertwined below the multilayered hatch that it was difficult to tell them apart. Doctors Fred Kelly and Alan Harter conducted a brief examination of the occupants and pronounced what everyone had known they would find – all three men were dead.

The only thing that could have saved the lives of the three astronauts would have been a fast-opening hatch.