Gus Grissom

Virgil Ivan Grissom, widely noted as Gus Grissom (April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967) was one of the original NASA Project Mercury astronauts and a United States Air Force pilot. He was the second American to fly in space and the first person to fly in space twice. Grissom was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at the Kennedy Space Center. He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Family and background

Grissom was born in Mitchell, Indiana on April 3, 1926, the second child of Dennis and Cecile King Grissom.[1] His father was a signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and his mother a homemaker. His older sister died shortly before his birth, and he was followed by three younger siblings, Wilma, Norman and Lowell.[2] As a child he attended the local Church of Christ where he remained a lifelong member and joined the Boy Scouts' Troop 46. He was enrolled in public elementary schools and went on to attend Mitchell High School. Grissom met and befriended Betty Lavonne Moore at school through their extracurricular activities.[3] He worked delivering newspapers for the Indianapolis Star and in a local meat market for his first jobs.[4]

Grissom occasionally spent time at a local airport in Bedford, Indiana where he first became interested in flying. A local attorney who owned a small plane would take him on flights for a $1 fee and taught him the basics of flying an airplane.[5] World War II broke out while Grissom was still in high school, and he was eager to enlist upon graduation. Grissom enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Forces and completed an entrance exam in November 1943. He graduated from high school in 1944 and was inducted into the army at Fort Benjamin Harrison on August 8, 1944.[6] He was sent to Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas for basic training after which he was assigned as a clerk at Brooks Field in San Antonio, Texas.[7]

As the war neared its end, Grissom sought to be discharged. He married Betty Moore on July 6, 1945 while on leave, and secured his discharge in September.[8] He took a job in carpentry at a local business and rented an apartment in Mitchell. He had trouble providing a sufficient income and was determined to attend college. He took advantage of the G.I. Bill for partial payment of his school tuition and enrolled at Purdue University in September 1946.[9] During his time in college Betty returned to live with her parents and took a job at the Indiana Bell Telephone Company while he worked part time as a cook at a local restaurant.[10] Grissom took summer classes to finish early and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1950.[11]

Korean War

Grissom re-enlisted in the newly formed United States Air Force after his graduation from Purdue. He was accepted into the air cadet basic training program at Randolph Air Force Base in Universal City, Texas. Upon completion of the program, he was assigned to Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Arizona.[12] In March 1951 Grissom received his pilot wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant.[13] Grissom's wife remained in Indiana and while he was away his first child was born, Scott. After his birth they joined Grissom at his new post in Phoenix, Arizona.[14] The family remained there only briefly and in December 1951 they moved to Presque Isle, Maine where Grissom became a member of the Seventy-Fifth Fighter Interceptor Squadron.[15]

With the ongoing Korean War, Grissom's squadron was dispatched to the war zone in February 1951. There he flew as an F-86 Sabre replacement pilot and was reassigned to the 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing stationed at Kimpo Air Base.[16] Grissom flew 100 combat missions during his time in the war, serving as a wingman protecting the lead fighters. The position was not one that put him in a position to attack the enemy and he did not shoot down any planes while he was in service. He did personally drive off Korean air raids on multiple occasions; their MIGs would often flee at the first sign of superior American aircraft.[17] On March 11, 1952, Grissom was promoted to First Lieutenant and was cited for his "superlative airmanship".[18]

Grissom requested to remain in Korea to fly another 25 flights, but his request was denied. He was given the option of which base he would like to be stationed at in the United States and he requested the Bryan AFB in Bryan, Texas. There he served as a flight instructor, and was joined by his wife and son. His second child was born in Bryan in 1953.[19] During a training exercise with a cadet, a trainee pilot caused a flap to break off the plane, causing it to spin out of control. Grissom climbed from the rear seat of the small craft to take over the controls and safely land the jet.[20]

In August 1955 Grissom was reassigned to the US Air force Institute of Technology located in Dayton, Ohio. There he earned a bachelors degree in aero mechanics after completing a year-long course.[21] In October 1956, he entered the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, California and returned to Wright-Patterson in May 1957 as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.[22][23]


As an Air Force captain in 1959 Grissom underwent a series of physical and psychological tests and was then chosen as one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts.[24]