Category Archives: Manned Spaceflight

At EAA: ‘Gus Grissom and What’s Wrong With The Right Stuff’

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.EAA_flyer

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.)

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Brotherly Love

“Is that the only jacket you’ve got?” Gus Grissom’s youngest brother inquired as we set off for the launch pad where the astronaut and his crew were killed 50 years to the day. It was the kind of concern for others you’d expect to hear from Lowell Grissom. “It’s going to be cold out there on the pad tonight.”

I hustled up to my room at a Cocoa Beach hotel to retrieve a sweater, then told Lowell if I brought it I wouldn’t need it. That’s exactly what happened on the eerily still evening a half-century after the Apollo 1 astronauts died on Pad 34 during a countdown simulation that was considered “routine.”

Lowell had invited me to be his guest during two days of observances of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire. After years of anguish over what to do with brother Gus’s ship, he and others had succeeded in brokering a deal whereby NASA and the Kennedy Space Center at long last agreed to display pieces of the charred spacecraft: the three hatches that contributed to the crews’ sudden and shocking deaths.

The display of those damned hatches in an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center provided a measure of closure to the astronauts’ families, who were accurately described as the real “heroes” of the Space Race.

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The inner hatch of the Apollo 204 spacecraft, also known as Apollo 1. The crew fought to open the cork-like, inward-opening behemoth after a cockpit fire erupted on the pad. To the left is the ablative hatch that would have protected the spacecraft during reentry. By the time pad technicians removed all three hatches, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were dead. (George Leopold)

On our way out to Pad 34 that Friday evening—the Apollo 1 fire had also occurred on a Friday—I asked Lowell when was the last time he saw his peripatetic brother, the commander of Apollo 1 and the first human to fly twice in space.

“I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question before,” Lowell responded. It had been several years, he reckoned. Gus was always on the move—from Cape Canaveral to Houston to Downey, Calif., where the faulty Block 1 Apollo command module was being slapped together. In the mid-1960s, Lowell too was pursuing a successful managerial career at McDonnell Aircraft and other aerospace companies.

The brothers’ paths seldom crossed. There was a hint of regret in Lowell’s voice as he struggled to remember. A year, maybe two…. Perhaps a brief phone conversation with Gus in the months before his death….

Gus’s family was well aware of his profound misgivings about the first manned Apollo ship. As always, they figured he’d find a way to fix it, command the maiden voyage of a new spacecraft (as he had on Gemini 3 in March 1965). Then Gus would be in line for a moon landing mission, perhaps the first human to walk on its surface.

That was not to be, and Lowell vividly recalled that Friday evening in January 1967 when the call came from his parents back in Mitchell, Indiana: Gus and his crew were dead, killed by a fire in a deathtrap of a spacecraft during a “plugs out “test. Dennis and Cecile Grissom wanted to let Gus’s siblings know before the reporters knocked on their doors.

Lowell and I made our way to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to board busses that would take us out to Pad 34. Two were not enough to accommodate the crowd that evening. We joined a motorcade on “ICBM Row” out to the launch pad. On the way, as we passed Hanger S where Gus and the other Mercury astronauts lived and nursed along their spacecraft in the early 1960s, Lowell asked: “How fast do you think Gus drove his Corvette on these straightaways?” As close to the 180-mph maximum of his Vette as possible, we agreed.

The older brother loved fast machines; he had to master them.

A large crowd had gathered already at the crumbling launch pad as the sun began to set and the first stars appeared—Venus was up that still night, and the sweater indeed was not needed. Gus’s wife, Betty—absent from the other Apollo 1 observances—had arrived and was wheeled front row center by son Mark. (She has never missed the ceremony.) Scott Grissom was a nearby, as was Gus Grissom’s great-granddaughter, surprisingly well behaved given the solemn ceremony to follow. You could see in the child’s eyes her great-grandfather’s twinkle.

The ceremony began marking the 50th year since the awful fire. The crew was praised for their sacrifice. Bagpipes played, followed by “Taps”. The flash of cameras recorded the scene. Lowell sat quietly, taking it all in as he had on successive anniversaries. Robert Cabana, the director of the Kennedy Space Center, recalled the words of the astronaut Michael Collins: “We reached the moon because of Apollo 1, no in spite of Apollo 1.”

Those words needed to be said.

A moment of silence at 6:31:04 p.m. eastern time, the exact moment of the first spacecraft call of “Fire!” Then the crowd began to disperse. Astronaut colleagues of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee lingered to reminisce with Cabana. Just then, the International Space Station appeared overhead. Some of us complimented Cabana on NASA’s exquisite timing. He marveled at the coincidence that the space station should fly directly over Pad 34 as the Apollo 1 observances closed.

The former shuttle commander reminded us that he had hauled up the first two components of the space station. He wasn’t boasting, for Cabana understood he stood on the shoulders of giants like Grissom, White and Chaffee.

Lowell and I retired to the Radisson Cocoa Beach where the families were encamped to drink a toast to the Apollo 1 crew. Masato Maruyama, who again made the pilgrimage from Japan to Cape Canaveral, brought a large bottle of sake, and we all drink a toast to the crew.

As Gus said, “If I die, throw a party!” We honored his wish in the Radisson bar.

Lowell was tired. It had been a long week for him and the other families. They have never adjusted to all the attention. Lowell and I parted in the hotel elevator. It occurred to me as I stepped out and the door closed that Gus Grissom couldn’t have asked for a better brother.

(Photo caption: Lowell Grissom and Carly Sparks, Gus Grissom’s granddaughter, with Bonnie White Baer and Cheryl Chaffee during the 50th Anniversary Remembrance of the Apollo 1 fire at the Kennedy Space Center.)

Display the Apollo 1 Spacecraft

The U.S. House of Representative recently approved plans to mint coins commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaching in July 2019. This is a worthy gesture.

There is, of course, another waypoint in the history of human spaceflight approaching in a few days: The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom and his crewmates Edward White and Roger Chaffee. Lawmakers have so far failed to act on a proposal for an Apollo 1 memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, where Grissom and Chaffee are interred. (It is hard to believe that after all these years no proper monument has been erected at Arlington.)

An Apollo 1 exhibit is said to be in the works at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but NASA has otherwise been silent about any plans to honor the memory of Grissom and his crew as January 27 approaches. This is unfortunate.

I and others have long advocated the dignified public display of the Apollo 1 command module as a symbol of the crews’ sacrifice and as a reminder that spaceflight is risky, that the United States conducts space exploration in front of the entire world—the triumphs as well as the tragedies. Others have correctly noted that NASA has offered largely empty gestures in honoring the Apollo 1 crew.

The NASA veteran James Oberg argued a decade ago that these “make believe” remembrances represent nothing less than a “cultural failure.” This needed to be said.

The space agency must now do what it should have done long ago: Honor the Apollo 1 crew with an appropriate display of the spacecraft that is accessible to all.

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Following the Apollo 204 (Apollo 1) fire investigation, the command module and heat shield (background) are prepared for shipment from the Kennedy Space Center to the NASA facility at Langley, Va., where it remains to this day. (Source: NASA)

 

The USS Arizona still entombs the remains of its crew, but has been displayed with dignity at Pearl Harbor for decades. It is among the top historical sites in the nation. One can attend a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. We need to accord the same honor to the Apollo 1 crew, and remind all who work to send humans into space that they must always be mindful of the what the early NASA pioneer Robert Gilruth called our “precious human cargo.”

Indeed, the display of another Grissom spacecraft—his recovered Liberty Bell 7—is inspiring a new generation of space enthusiasts. I recently viewed Grissom’s Mercury spacecraft at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where it is on loan. Salvaged in 1999, Grissom’s Mercury spacecraft was beautifully restored by the Kansas Cosmosphere after thirty-eight years at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

One museum visitor I met marveled how Gus Grissom ever managed to thrust himself out a small hatch opening as his ship filled with water when his hatch blew unexpectedly. Seeing Liberty Bell 7 for them selves made a profound impression on those who likely were just learning the story of Gus Grissom’s historic flight.

A similar display of the Apollo 1 command module would also teach valuable lessons about Grissom’s courage and selflessness—character traits in short supply these days.

Here’s hoping at long last that NASA does right by the memory of Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and his Apollo crewmates on the fiftieth anniversary of their ultimate sacrifice.

–George Leopold is the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Time of Gus Grissom from Purdue University Press.