Tag Archives: astronaut

Pay It Back: From Charlie to John to Gus

Charlie Bolden was already there when I climbed the hill to Section 3 at Arlington National Cemetery. We gathered there along with astronaut families and NASA brass to mark another anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire. (NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance also observes the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters.)

Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Charles Bolden Jr. seldom missed a wreath-laying ceremony while serving for eight years as NASA administrator. Bolden didn’t have to make the trip up the George Washington Parkway to Arlington on this finger-freezing late January day. He came anyway for the same reason we all did: To honor the sacrifices of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Edward White (buried at West Point) and the doomed shuttle crews.

Bolden and his wife Alexis (Jackie) arrived ahead of two busloads of dignitaries who had stopped first to lay wreaths at the memorials to the shuttle astronauts. A NASA photographer introduced us, and I mentioned to Bolden I had written a biography of Gus Grissom.

Retired from public service, the former astronaut also is thinking about writing books. He has a story to tell: Along with running the space agency during a transition from the space shuttle to a nascent commercial space industry, Bolden commanded two shuttle missions and flew four times in space, logging more than 680 hours in orbit. Among his many accomplishments was deploying the Hubble Space Telescope.

Like Gus Grissom during the Korean War, Bolden flew 100 combat missions over Vietnam.

As we waited near the head stones of Grissom and Chaffee, we talked about books and publishing. He asked whether I had interviewed the recently departed John Young, the only astronaut to fly in space with Grissom. (I didn’t, but relied heavily on Young’s 2013 memoir, Forever Young, written with James Hansen, the biographer of Neil Armstrong.)

The Apollo ceremony was delayed. The wind continued to howl across the rise that is Section 3. Bolden warmed to the subject of the intrepid yet inscrutable John Young, the astronaut’s astronaut (a sobriquet often used to describe Young’s mentor, Gus Grissom).

Young, who went on to head the Astronaut Office, was remembered for often looking at his shoes when he spoke. On one memorable occasion, he lifted his gaze and looked Bolden square in the eye, a day the astronaut in training never forgot.

Bolden was flying Deke’s Slayton’s T-38 from Patrick Air Force Base near Cape Canaveral to Ellington Air Force Base outside Houston. It was a straight shot over Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. The trainer is known to be a gas hog at low altitude, and Bolden recalled controllers at Patrick hesitating to allow him to climb to cruising altitude.

The fuel gauge moved rapidly to the left.

Bolden thought about diverting, then convinced him self he could make it. As he approached Ellington, the pilot realized it would be close, very close. He declared an emergency and hightailed it to the east-west runway at Ellington. There was about a gallon of fuel in the tank when he rolled to a stop.

Gas consumption was closely monitored at Ellington. Bolden was told to report to John Young’s office. This day, the normally taciturn Young raised his steely eyes while dressing down the future astronaut. Glaring at the rookie, the astronaut boss warned in so many words, If you do that again your ass will be out of here!

Charlie Bolden got the message. He forged a distinguished career as an aviator and astronaut, and then guided the space agency through a rocky transition toward what many hope will be a new era of solar exploration.

As the dapper Bolden recalled Young’s anger—or was it a “teachable moment?”—I couldn’t help thinking how much Gus Grissom, the hot refueling champion at the Apollo astronauts’ El Paso “turnaround” filling station,[1] would have relished this war story.

Bolden, like the rest of us, showed up on a windswept winter’s day to again honor his astronaut comrades. He did so because those who have survived to share stories of the Space Age understand they could not have done it without the pioneers buried at our feet.



[1] Walter Cunningham, (The All-American Boys, New York, iBooks), 2004), 87.


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.)

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.

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.

Wall Street Journal review of “Calculated Risk”

Link to Wall Street Journal review:


In the coming weeks, I’ll be speaking with veteran newscaster Bill Kurtis about the history of Apollo and signing books at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Udvar-Hazy Annex at Dulles International Airport.

Hope to see you there.


The Many Friends of Gus Grissom

Writing a book is simultaneously hard work and a labor of love. Among the pleasures are the folks encountered along the way. There were many such instances during the seven or so years it took me to write a biography of the astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom.

I received a call the other day from Joe Dreyer, a buddy of Gus’s during their Air Force flight training in the early 1950s. Several of Joe’s photos of Grissom are published—I believe for the first time—in Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom.

Joe informed me he had seen the book listed on Amazon, and was curious to know whether I had used his photos, which he had mailed to me last winter.

Indeed, we did, I informed Joe. He seemed very pleased.

Joe’s kindness in entrusting his precious photos of Gus Grissom to a complete stranger illustrates the high regard for my subject held among his peers and colleagues. There in a photo album in Connecticut was a small part of Gus Grissom’s story, and Joe Dreyer wanted to be sure that anyone interested in the early days of spaceflight saw these images of two young men in their flight suits learning to control a flying machine.

Some of Joe’s photos are posted below.

Flight cadets Joe Dreyer and Gus Grissom at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, in 1950. Dreyer added the prophetic caption. (Courtesy of Albert Joe Dreyer)


Air Cadet Gus Grissom at the controls of his T-6 trainer, a demanding aircraft. (Courtesy of Alfred Joe Dreyer)

A few weeks back, I was invited to participate in the Gus Grissom Classic, an annual golf tournament sponsored by a Purdue University alumni group in Jasper, Indiana. (Purdue University Press published my biography of Grissom, who graduated from Purdue with an engineering degree in 1950.) There, I met four McDonnell Douglas engineers who worked closely with Grissom and the other Mercury and Gemini astronauts during the heyday of the Space Race in the early 1960s.

The foursome—Dean Purdy, Earl Robb, Jerry Roberts and Bob Schepp—represent much of the institutional memory of the early days of manned spaceflight. They figured out ways to make those magnificent early machines fly in space and bring back their precious human cargoes in one piece. These engineers did things that had never been done before, like sending the original space computer into orbit on Gus Grissom’s Gemini 3 flight, the first space voyage in which astronauts actually steered their spacecraft.

At some point, perhaps in an expanded edition of Calculated Risk, I will include some of the amazing, funny, harrowing stories these four men were kind enough to share. Several of the McDonnell engineers’ wives also attended the event in Indiana. They too had stories to tell about frenzied lives at Cape Canaveral and St. Louis in the 1960s when husbands did not come home until a test was completed. Twenty-four hour shifts were common in those days, and the wives assumed nearly all the parental duties.

Still, they understood the magnitude of what their engineer husbands were attempting. Unlike many of the astronauts, the McDonnell engineers remain married to the same woman.

Theirs is a great generation, and I am indebted to them for sharing their stories about Gus Grissom and the dawn of human space exploration.

Click here for more on the careers of Purdy, Robb, Roberts, Schepp and the rest of “The Mercury 6.”

Apollo 1: The Crew of a New Machine

Fifty years ago on this date the crew of the first manned American Apollo mission was announced. Gus Grissom was named commander of the three-man crew that included Ed White, the nation’s first spacewalker, and rookie Roger Chaffee. Grissom and Chaffee were both Purdue University engineering graduates.

For Grissom, the first human to fly twice in space, the prized assignment meant he was on schedule to become the first to fly a third mission. As the Apollo program gained momentum, Grissom also was positioned to be among the first—perhaps the first, some thought—to walk on the moon.

Robert Gilruth, right, director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, introduces the crew of the first manned Apollo flight on March 21, 1966. From left, Roger Chaffee, Ed White and commander Gus Grissom. (NASA)

Walt Cunningham, a member of the Apollo 1 backup crew, noted in his insider account of Project Apollo, The All-American Boys: “Among the milestones of a test pilot’s career are those rare first flights of a brand-new aircraft design (or spacecraft), and now Gus would be logging two in a little over two years.”[1]

Grissom and his crew soon discovered the heightened risks that accompanied the prestige of making the first flight of a new machine. The early version of the Apollo crew cabin was a mess. From March 1966 to January 1967, Grissom and his crew along with backup commander Wally Schirra struggled mightily to make the ship flightworthy. Schirra told Grissom the day before a fatal test to “get out” of the spacecraft if he sensed any problems. Grissom noted Schirra’s warning but chose to press on.

The crew of Apollo 1 never got off the ground, dying tragically and unnecessarily in a launch pad fire on the evening of January 27. 1967, during what was considered a “routine” test. Design decisions made in the early 1960s such as using a 100-percent cabin atmosphere had doomed the first Apollo crew.

Today it seems counterintuitive, but at the time nearly everyone at NASA realized the United States would never have reached the moon by the end of the 1960s if not for the Apollo 1 disaster. The early American space program was divided between everything that occurred before and after what came to be known simply as “The Fire.” The truth was no one really knew how to reach the moon. The bitter lessons of the fire and the crew’s sacrifice shook the space agency to its core; NASA somehow righted itself, ensuring that Grissom and his crew did not die in vain. Twelve humans walked on the moon between 1969 and 1971.

Gus Grissom’s inestimable role in Apollo, Gemini and Project Mercury is central to understanding the Space Race and the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Grissom was an astronaut and a Cold Warrior. We tell his story in the forthcoming biography, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom.

Unlike today’s media creations, Gus Grissom was an authentic hero, a man judged not by his words alone but by his deeds. He shunned the limelight and labored mostly behind the scenes to help America reach another world.


[1] Walter Cunningham, The All-American Boys, updated iBooks paperback edition, 2004, pp. 64-65.

‘Fire! We’ve Got a Fire in the Cockpit!’

On this date in 1967, a few ticks past 6:31 p.m. EST, a blowtorch fire erupted in the crew cabin of the Apollo 1 spacecraft during a launch pad test at Cape Canaveral, Florida, The spacecraft was pressurized with pure oxygen, the cockpit filled with flammable materials. All it took was a spark, almost certainly originating in faulty, exposed wiring.

The astronauts never had a chance.

Commander Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and crew members Edward H. White, Jr., and Roger B. Chaffee were asphyxiated despite struggling to the last to remove a heavy cork-like inner hatch. A fire was the last thing anyone expected during what was considered a “routine” test. It was anything but. Years of poor engineering decisions came home to roost on that fateful Friday evening.

The Apollo 1 tragedy would prove to be a critical turning point in the Space Race, forcing NASA to take a long, hard look at itself and the way it operated. A series of miscalculations beginning in the early 1960s had doomed the crew of the maiden Apollo flight.

Paradoxically, a preventable tragedy also ensured that the United States would reach the moon by the end of the decade as it had publicly proclaimed. The United States would not have reached the moon without the sacrifice of Grissom, White and Chaffee. The Apollo spaceship was completely overhauled, carrying 24 humans to the moon.

Commander Gus Grissom leads his crew across a catwalk connecting the Pad 34 service tower to his Apollo 1 spacecraft on the morning of a fateful “plugs-out” test on January 27, 1967. (Source: NASA)

A central tenet of the early days of manned spaceflight was the assumption of risk while at the same time doing everything possible to limit it. This is how test pilots worked, and Gus Grissom was among the best military test pilots and aeronautical engineers before becoming one of the original Mercury astronauts. Grissom was among those who decided the rewards of spaceflight were worth the risk.

That calculated risk is the central theme of my forthcoming biography of Gus Grissom, the first human to fly twice in space. The stories of Glenn, Armstrong and the other heroes deemed to possess “The Right Stuff” are well known. Less well known are the lasting contributions and ultimate sacrifice made by Gus Grissom to reach another world. As the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire approaches, we seek to tell the full story of the life and career of a determined astronaut who shunned the limelight while laying the foundation for visiting another world.