It took a mere six decades to finally attend the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) annual fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, twenty miles down the road from my hometown. For one week, Wittman Field in Oshkosh is the nation’s busiest airport.
There I received an enthusiastic welcome from a standing room-only audience for a presentation entitled, “Gus Grissom and What’s Wrong With The Right Stuff.” My intent was to address the misconceptions about the end of Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 flight in July 1961, describe the aftermath and demonstrate how the astronaut endured harsh criticism, eventually moving beyond what he considered the “hatch crap.”
My audience of aviation enthusiasts appreciated what Gus endured and understood the contributions and ultimately—the sacrifice—Grissom and his Apollo 1 crew made on behalf of the nation. I emphasized Gus’s engineering expertise, his passion for machines, the need to master their workings.
This is how we reached the moon by the end of the 1960s, and I stressed Gus’s view of himself as a pioneer. He cared not a whit about personal prestige, but understood that the nation that reached the moon first would reap enormous international prestige.
In this, the 50th anniversary year of the Apollo 1 fire that kill Grissom and crewmates Ed White and Roger Chaffee, EAA also paid tribute to the Apollo program along with Project Gemini and Mercury. Grissom contributed mightily to all three programs as an original Mercury Seven astronaut, the first human to fly twice in space aboard Gemini 3 and as commander of the maiden flight of Apollo. Grissom’s Gemini flight also marked the first time astronauts actually flew their spacecraft, changing its orbital path using a series of thrusters. Finally, Grissom and crewmate John Young conducted the first controlled reentry.
I focused the end of my presentation on the sacrifice of the Apollo 1 crew and the great paradox of the Space Race: The U.S. likely would not have reached the moon by the end of the 1960s had the launch pad fire not occurred. The Apollo spacecraft was completely overhauled, and eventually carried 24 humans to the moon and brought them home.
Legendary NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz described the aftermath of the fire and meeting he convened with a group of “young pup” controllers who had yet to endure a disaster comparable to the Apollo 1 fire.
Asked about the meeting during an EAA panel discussion,* Kranz recalled:
I started off talking about the fact that we ought to assume responsibility because we were behind the power curve in our work at Mission Control, the control center wasn’t ready, the training process wasn’t working: Nobody really had done their job. And I think across the board from the standpoint of program we all had to assume responsibility for [the Apollo 1 fire] and the loss of the crew. [“Tough and competent” became the watchwords). Tough, meaning accountable, and in the case of Apollo 1 what we failed to do.
“I was on the console of the shift before that accident and there are things I think I could have done….”
The no-nonsense Kranz, razor sharp as ever, was among the first at NASA to own up to his mistakes and move immediately to fix the Apollo command module. He understood viscerally that he could not let down Gus Grissom and his crew—they would not have died in vain.
I closed my presentation on Gus Grissom with this:
There was a passion – almost of love of mechanical objects in the sky. Gus had to master them. He did so, dying the process. If any flyer ever possessed that unshakeable faith in one’s own infallibility – that thing called The Right Stuff – it was Virgil I. Grissom of Mitchell, Indiana.
Thanks to EAA for inviting me to speak, and thanks especially to long-time EAA member and Gus Grissom admirer Terry Coakley for his persistence in securing a slot for me among the many speakers and authors appearing at this year’s fly-in.
I’ll share more pictures shortly from my talk and book signings in Oshkosh.
(*Editor’s note: EAA panel discussion on Apollo begins at approximately 1:46:00 on the link to the YouTube video posted above.)