Virgil Ivan Grissom
Lt. Colonel Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom was one of seven men selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959 to be trained as astronauts for its Project Mercury manned spacecraft program.
Grissom was born on April 3, 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana. Following high school, he entered the U.S. Army Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Program in 1944. He graduated from Purdue University in 1950 with a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Grissom returned to service with the U.S. Air Force as an aviation cadet and finished his training at Luke Field in Arizona. He earned his wings in 1951.
He was first assigned to the 75th Fighter Squadron at Presque Isle Air Force Base in Maine as a F-86 Sabrejet fighter pilot. Grissom then transferred to Korea where he served with the 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing of the Fifth Air Force.
For his war service in Korea, during which he flew 100 combat missions, Grissom was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf cluster.
Grissom was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, when NASA was created on October 1, 1958, as a civilian agency to conduct an aggressive space exploration program. To implement its manned space program, NASA established Project Mercury, a program designed to launch a one-man spacecraft into orbit around the earth.
On July 21, 1961, Grissom made the second suborbital flight in his Mercury-Redstone 4(MR-4) spacecraft, “Liberty Bell 7”. He received the General Thomas D. White Air Force Space Trophy in recognition of the flight and in July 1962 was promoted to the rank of Major.
Grissom and John Young made the first manned orbital flight of the Gemini series on March 23, 1965, in the Gemini-Titan III spacecraft, “Molly-Brown”. The first two Gemini flights had been unmanned tests.
Five years before Grissom and Young’s flight, NASA had announced its Apollo program, a program to land men on the moon for scientific exploration. By the beginning of 1967, NASA was convinced that the three-man Apollo spacecraft was ready to be launched into earth orbit and scheduled the first flight for February 21.
On January 27, 1967, astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee, and Grissom climbed aboard the Apollo-I spacecraft command module at Cape Kennedy for a routine “plugs out” test. In this procedure, the sealed aircraft would be disconnected from ground power for a crucial launch simulation.
All three astronauts died in a fire that broke out in the cabin of the spacecraft during the testing. Grissom, White and Chaffee became the first casualties of the U.S. space program.
The irony of the fatal accident was that the astronauts, who had been so highly trained to cope with dangers they might encounter in space, died in a simulation exercise without leaving the surface of the earth.
Astronaut Walter Cunningham, who was one of the backup members of Grissom’s Apollo crew, later wrote, “Gus had once said, ‘The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.’ ”