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