Tag Archives: George Leopold

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.”

Interview with author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom

In advance of the release of Calculated Risk, the news web site Reston Now published an interview. See the full story here.

My biography of Gus Grissom will be released next week by Purdue University Press, and I’ll be signing copies on May 13 in Chicago during Book Expo America. Hope to see you there.

Update on New Gus Grissom Bio Coming in June 2016

CR_coverAfter more than six years of researching, interviewing, drafting and rewriting, I am nearing completion of my biography of astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom. I and my publisher, Purdue University Press, remain on track for a June 2016 release.

The good folks in West Lafayette have also set up a Calculated Risk web page describing our Grissom project. It also includes the cover image for the hard back edition (also shown at right) and–most important of all–a button to pre-order the hard cover or e-book editions of Calculated Risk.

We invite you to take a look.

Among the many things I have discovered about Gus Grissom nearly 50 years after he perished is the wellspring of affection that remains for this pioneering astronaut and what he represented. Grissom was hands-on. He did not talk about doing things in space; he worked, prepared, tested, suited up and flew. Those who made it to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s stand on the shoulders of pioneers like Gus Grissom.

The release of Calculated Risk is timed to coincided with next year’s Indiana bicentennial celebration and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, the January 1967 tragedy that claimed the lives of Grissom and his crew.

We fervently hope to do justice to the extraordinary life, career and sacrifice of Gus Grissom.

Thanks to all who have assisted and encouraged me in this once-in-a-lifetime project.

New Gus Grissom bio coming in June 2016

My biography of the American astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom, will be released by Purdue University Press in June 2016.

Apollo 1 Commander Gus Grissom shortly before his death in a launch pad fire.

My thesis challenges the prevailing view of Gus Grissom as a “hard luck” astronaut or the “lost astronaut.” He was neither, and knew at every step in his flying career where he was going and how he would get there. The meticulous engineering test pilot calculated the risks and attempted on each of his space flights to minimize them.

The odds–statistical probability in a “crash program” to reach the moon before the Soviets–eventually caught up with Gus Grissom. He nevertheless believed that the rewards were worth the risk.

As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire approaches, a tragedy that claimed the lives of Grissom and his crew, it is time to reassess the pioneering astronaut’s life and career and the enduring contributions he made to the history of human space exploration.

As my publisher and I prepare for the release of Calculated Risk, I’ll provide periodic updates here, including an image of the book’s cover.

America is in need of heroes. Gus Grissom was an authentic risk taker and a hero who helped humanity reach another world.

George Leopold