Gus Grissom


Gus Grissom : biography

April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967

Grissom was one of the smaller astronauts, and he worked very closely with the engineers and technicians from McDonnell Aircraft who built the Gemini spacecraft. The first three spacecraft were built around him and the design was humorously referred to as "the Gusmobile". However by July 1963 NASA discovered 14 out of the 16 astronauts could not fit themselves into the cabin and later cockpits were modified. During this time Grissom invented the multi-axis translation thruster controller used to push the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft in linear directions for rendezvous and docking.

Naming of the Molly Brown

In a joking nod to the sinking of his Mercury craft Grissom named the first Gemini spacecraft Molly Brown after the popular Broadway show The Unsinkable Molly Brown; NASA publicity officials were unhappy with this name. When Grissom and his pilot John Young were ordered to come up with a new one, they offered Titanic. Aghast, NASA executives gave in and allowed the name Molly Brown, but did not use it in any official references. Subsequently and much to the agency’s chagrin, on launch CAPCOM Gordon Cooper gave Gemini 3 its sendoff by telling Grissom and Young, "You’re on your way, Molly Brown!" and ground controllers used this name throughout the flight.Shayler, David (2001), Gemini: Steps to the Moon. Chichester, UK: Praxis Publishing. ISBN 1-85233-405-3, p. 186

After the safe return of Gemini 3, NASA announced new spacecraft would not be named. Hence Gemini 4 was not named American Eagle as its crew had planned. The naming of spacecraft resumed in 1967 after managers found the Apollo flights needed a name for each of two flight elements, the Command Module and Lunar Module. Lobbying by the astronauts and senior NASA administrators also had an effect. Apollo 9 had the callsigns Gumdrop for the Command Module and Spider for the Lunar Module. However, Wally Schirra had been prevented from naming his Apollo 7 spacecraft Phoenix in honor of Grissom’s Apollo 1 crew since it was believed the average taxpayer would not take a "fire" metaphor as intended.


Grissom was backup command pilot for Gemini 6A when he shifted to the Apollo program and was assigned as Command Pilot of the first manned mission AS-204, with Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee. The three men were granted permission to refer to their flight as Apollo 1 on their mission insigniapatch. Before its planned February 21, 1967 launch, the Command Module interior caught fire and burned on January 27, 1967 during a pre-launch test on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy, killing all three men. The fire’s ignition source was never determined, but their deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal hazards in the early Apollo Command Module design and conditions of the test, including a pressurized 100% oxygen pre-launch atmosphere, many wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials used in the cockpit and the astronauts’ flight suits, and an inward-opening hatch which could not be opened quickly in an emergency, and could not be opened at all with full internal pressure. After the tragedy, NASA adopted a new flight numbering system for Apollo, and honored the crew by making Apollo 1 official. The spacecraft problems were fixed, and the Apollo program carried on successfully to reach its objective of landing men on the Moon.

Grissom had attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel at the time of his death, and had logged a total of 4,600 hours flying time, including 3,500 hours in jet airplanes. Chief astronaut Deke Slayton wrote that he wanted one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to be the first on the Moon and, "Had Gus been alive, as a Mercury astronaut he would have taken the step … My first choice would have been Gus, which both Chris Kraft and Bob Gilruth seconded."

Gus Grissom is buried in Section 3 of the Arlington National Cemetery, near Roger Chaffee. Ed White is buried at the West Point Cemetery, West Point, New York.