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Profiles In Badassery: Gus Grissom

The last week of January is always one of tragic remembrance in the space program. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, an event that makes me feel old because I watched it live on TV in kindergarten. The Columbia disaster happened early in the morning on February 1. The first of NASA's three major disasters happened 44 years ago yesterday, and was first commemorated last week in the Profile In Badassery on Roger Chaffee.

The Apollo I fire was the first major screwup in NASA's history, and it claimed the lives of two Purdue astronauts. While Chaffee never got to go into space, Gus Grissom was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. There is also a chance that had Grissom lived, he and not Neil Armstrong would have been the first man on the moon.

Early Life

Grissom was born on April 3, 1926 in Mitchell, Indiana, a small town south of Bedford deep in Southern Indiana. He was raised in Mitchell, becoming a Boy Scout and attending Mitchell High School. He spent his free time at Bedford's small airport and developed an interest in flying. While in high school a local attorney who owned a small plane took him on flights for a $1 fee and taught him the basics of flying.

World War II also broke out while he was in high school and like many men his age, Grissom was eager to join the military as soon as he was done with High School, mostly because of his badass status. He enlisted as an aviation cadet and completed the entrance exam in November of 1943. After graduating from high school in 1944 he entered the army and Indianapolis' Ft. Benjamin Harrison.

His war record during World War II was basic. He never went overseas, attended basic training in Kansas, and served as a clerk before being discharged in 1945. He married his wife at the age of 19 so he wouldn't be on the market for the massive amount of women that would later be interested in him in the summer of 1945 and moved back to Mitchell, where he worked as a carpenter.

Time at Purdue

While he had trouble making an income for his new family Grissom decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and attend college. He enrolled at Purdue in the fall of 1946 and graduated with a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1950. After graduating he returned to the military by re-enlisting in the Air Force during the Korean War.

Korean War Record

As with other certifiable badasses from Purdue, Grissom began to earn his badass rating while serving in combat. He was dispatched to Korea in 1951, where he eventually flew over 100 combat missions in an F-86 Sabre. He never shot down any aircraft, but his service as a wingman often scared off inferior Korean MiG fighters. He was eventually promoted to 1st Lieutenant for his superior airmanship before being transferred back to the U.S. He later served as a flight instructor at Bryan AFB in Texas.

As a testament to his badass status, Grissom had a harrowing flight experience as an instructor. While flying with a trainee on an exercise the trainee caused a flap to break on the aircraft. Grissom managed to climb from the rear seat of the aircraft while it was spinning out of control and land the plane safely.

In 1955 Grissom was transferred Air Force Institute of Technology where he earned a bachelors degree in aero-mechanics. The next year he transferred again to Edwards Air Force Base in California, where his road to NASA began as a Test Pilot.

Astronaut Life

For a man who flew in combat and later into space, the role of a test pilot was merely a stepping stone up the ladder of adrenaline rushes. After working as a test pilot back in Ohio for two years, Grissom was chosen as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts in 1959. Two years later, he became the second ever American in space when he was launched on a brief suborbital flight. The mission, dubbed Liberty Bell 7, lasted little more than 15 minutes. Grissom was shot to an altitude of 118 miles before splashing back down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The flight itself was rather uneventful, but he became the first astronaut to officially pilot a craft in space with a series of pitch and yaw maneuvers. His craft splashed down and he began his post-flight checklist. Unfortunately, the new explosive hatch, which was installed in case the astronaut needed to make a quick escape, unexpectedly blew while his craft was floating in the ocean awaiting pickup. The spacecraft began to take on water. Grissom left the spacecraft and swam away, but then he encountered another problem. His space suit began to take on water, dragging him down while the recovery helicopters tried to recover the capsule. A second helicopter was able to retrieve him before he sank, while the first helicopter was forced to drop the spacecraft, which quickly sank.

The spacecraft itself was later recovered in 1999 and it is now housed at the Kansas Cosmosphere and space museum. The explosive hatch would later come back to bite Grissom again in a tragic twist of fate that resulted in his death.

Grissom would fly into space one more time when he flew aboard Gemini 3, the first manned flight of Project Gemini. He served as commander with John Young, and it was the first American Spaceflight with two people on board. The only misshap this time was as follows:

The only major incident during the orbital phase involved a contraband corned beef sandwich that Young had snuck on board (though director of flight crew operations Deke Slayton wrote in his autobiography that he gave Young permission to do so). Grissom found this to be highly amusing, saying later, "After the flight our superiors at NASA let us know in no uncertain terms that non-man-rated corned beef sandwiches were out for future space missions. But John's deadpan offer of this strictly non-regulation goodie remains one of the highlights of our flight for me."

The crew each took a few bites before the sandwich had to be restowed. The crumbs it released could have wreaked havoc with the craft's electronics, so the crewmen were reprimanded when they returned to Earth. Other crews were warned not to pull the same type of stunt.

This flight only last three orbits, but it proved the viability of the Gemini program. It was the Gemini program that allowed the Americans to pass the Soviets in the space race (insert America, F*** Yeah! Song here).

Apollo I

The Apollo Program was America's final step in reaching the goal of going to the Moon. It was scheduled to be the first flight of the three man capsule that would eventually take us into lunar orbit. The three man crew of Grissom, Chaffee, and Ed White expressed concerns over the capsule because it was much more complex than anything NASA had previously constructed. Ironically, Grissom and the astronauts lobbied for an outward opening hatch with explosive bolts in case of emergency. NASA trumped these demands, selecting an inward opening door. The second critical mistake was that a 100% oxygen atmosphere would be used at pressure.

These factors came into play on January 27th, 1967 during the "Plugs Out" test. This was a test to see how the spacecraft would function when completely unplugged from its umbilicals. The astronauts were in their suits with the cabin pressurized and locked. At 6:30pm a voltage transient was recorded somewhere in the miles of electrical wiring. That spark started a fire, which ten seconds later was detected by the astronauts. Because of the pure oxygen environment the fire quickly spread out of control. There was 34 square feet of Velcro, which virtually exploded in the pressurized environment. Over 70 pounds of flammable material was also in the spacecraft, adding more fuel. Just 17 seconds after the fire was detected transmission from the cockpit ended. Expanding gasses in the cockpit caused the pressure to spike to 29 psi, making escape virtually impossible with the inward opening hatch.

It took the ground crew more than five minutes to get the hatch open. By then, all three astronauts had been killed. Grissom suffered third degree burns over a third of his body and his spacesuit was found fused to White's. Had there been an explosive hatch like there was on Liberty Bell 7 it is highly likely all the astronauts would have survived.

NASA was able to recover from the tragedy, culminating in Neil Armstrong's famous step in July of 1969. The improvements made as a result of the fire allowed that step to happen. Deke Slayton, who was responsible for crew assignments, stated in his autobiography that he wanted an original Mercury 7 astronaut to take the first step. Grissom would have been his first choice had he survived.


Grissom's impact can still be seen today. Grissom Hall on Purdue's campus is named in his honor. Grissom Air Reserve Base, just north of my home town of Kokomo, is also named in his honor. His boyhood home in Mitchell is currently being restored in as a museum for him, replacing the museum in Spring Mill State Park that currently exists. He also has 13 schools named after him around the country.

Most importantly, Grissom is a badass that was the first of Purdue's many astronauts. He was officially a Lieutenant Colonel at the time of his death with over 4,600 of flight time, including 3,500 in jets. He was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in Korea, but more importantly, he paved the way for some of the greatest scientific advances of the past half century. Yes, the Apollo program was cool and it is awesome that we landed on the moon, but the scientific developments from the space program have bettered lives for billions around the globe. Grissom is a badass for boldly serving his country and going where few others went before him. I am proud that he is a fellow Purdue alumnus and the first of our many astronauts.