Writer recalls childhood hero

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By Dave Taylor

It is difficult to believe that 40 years have elapsed since the United States first landed men on the moon, an anniversary that was observed by the national media last week.

In 1969, I was preparing to enter my senior year in high school. Today, I qualify at many restaurants for the senior citizen discount.

I was fascinated by the astronauts and the space race as a child growing up in Madison, Ind. I took special interest in the career of one astronaut in particular, after my dad told me the man was from another small Indiana town only 50 or so miles away.

Coincidentally, during the national observance of the Apollo 11 anniversary last week, the state of Indiana chose to rededicate a memorial in honor of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom at Spring Mill State Park, near Grissom’s hometown of Mitchell, Ind.

The memorial first opened in 1971, following Grissom’s accidental death in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire. New artifacts have recently been donated to the memorial by Grissom’s widow and sons. Many others are on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The memorial was expanded and now includes a number of interactive displays documenting Grissom’s career and the space program as a whole.

Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skilling of nearby Bedford, Ind., joined members of the Grissom family in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the memorial on Saturday, July 18.

One doesn’t have to travel to Washington, D.C., Cape Canaveral in Florida or the Houston Space Center in Texas to enjoy an educational space museum tour. Today, Grissom and Young’s Gemini III spacecraft is on display at the Spring Mill State Park memorial, along with numerous other artifacts from Grissom’s career. The museum offers an educational look at the space program for school field trips and anyone interested in exploration.

Photographs, accolades, flight suits and helmets – as well as a film detailing the career of this distinguished Indiana gentleman – entertain and enlighten the visitor. In the film, Grissom’s story is told by family members, fellow astronauts and friends.

As a boy, Gus often played and hiked at Spring Mill State Park. He also worked delivery routes for two newspapers. After graduating from high school, he became an employee of a local bus manufacturing company. Near the end of World War II, Gus joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. After leaving the service, he attended Purdue University with assistance from the G.I. Bill and earned an engineering degree.

Grissom re-enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and became a pilot. Following service in the Korean War, Gus became one of the nation’s top test pilots before his selection in 1959 as one of America’s original seven astronauts.

Grissom was the second American to rocket into space in 1961. Following his 15-minute suborbital flight, the hatch on the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft prematurely blew open after the parachuted craft landed in the Atlantic Ocean. Gus had to swim for his life; the spacecraft took on water and was lost. Liberty Bell 7 rested on the ocean bottom three miles below the surface until it was recovered in 1999. The craft is now on display in a Kansas space museum.

Following his participation in Project Mercury, Grissom played a leading role in the design, development and production of the two-man Gemini spacecraft. Because of his input, it was no surprise to the astronaut corps when he was chosen to command the first mission of the Gemini program.

With fellow astronaut John Young, Grissom proved the two-man vehicle to be maneuverable during a three-orbit test flight in March 1965.

Grissom’s status as one of the top veteran astronauts came to the forefront again, when he was chosen to command the first three-man Apollo mission. The spacecraft, it turned out, had numerous flaws and Grissom was quite vocal in his displeasure with its craftsmanship and engineering.

Yet, despite his misgivings with the craft, Gus was determined to correct the problems and keep the program on schedule to meet President John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade. Grissom had already been told privately by his superiors, as made public by fellow astronauts Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton in their 1994 book “Moon Shot,” that he eventually would be the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon.

But first the National Aeronautics and Space Adm

Administration had to prove the Apollo vehicle worthy of getting into space – much less the moon – and safely back to earth. After several delays, the two-week orbital mission of Apollo 1 was scheduled to fly in February 1967.

The flight never got off the ground.

Astronauts Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died on Jan. 27, 1967, when fire raged through the spacecraft during a countdown rehearsal on the launch pad. Grissom and Chaffee were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery; White was buried at the West Point Military Academy.

The accident set the moon program back while engineers studied the charred wreckage of Apollo 1 for clues to what went wrong. The capsule eventually was redesigned, with numerous safety features and a completely different environmental system.

Astronauts eventually made it to the moon and back.

Shortly before his death, Grissom wrote a book about the Gemini program, which was published by the MacMillan Company, shortly after the fatal accident. In it, Grissom tells of reading the autobiography of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who, – in typical atheistic Soviet rhetoric of the day- – wrote that he found no evidence of a Creator in space.

“You’ll just have to take my word for it that the scenery of space is magnificent,” Grissom wrote, “and while I’m not given to sermonizing, all I can say is that if Major Gagarin found no evidence of God in space, he must never have looked out his cabin window.”

Grissom and his fellow space pioneers knew the dangers associated with their jobs. “If we die, we want people to accept it,” he once said. “We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”

Jacob Hay, the MacMillan editor who worked with Grissom on the book on Gemini, wrote in the epilogue: “He died in the splendid company of two men he admired and respected, and even in death he moved this country closer to the moon with spacecraft improvements designed to prevent a repetition of the tragedy that took his life.”

While it is good to remember the achievements of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, and their history-making “giant leap” in 1969, it is important that we not forget the men on whose shoulders they stood to reach the moon: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

To get to the Grissom Memorial, take State Hwy. 56 west from Madison to Salem, Ind. One mile past Salem, turn right onto State Hwy. 37 and continue 20 miles to Spring Mill State Park. The Virgil I. Grissom Memorial is just inside the park entrance. Park admission is $5 per car. Admission to the museum is free.

Dave Taylor is a reporter for The News-Democrat.