The redemption of Gus Grissom

| July 26, 2021

Gus Grissom

Lieutenant Colonel Virgil “Gus” Grissom, USAF was many things in life. He died at the all-too-young age of 40 in the disastrous Apollo 1 capsule fire in 1967 along side Lieutenant Colonel Ed White, USAF (the first American to walk in space) and Lieutenant Commander Roger Chaffee, USN. Before that, Gus had been an aviation cadet with the US Army Air Forces during World War II (though he entered the war too late to earn his wings or see combat), a graduate of Purdue University, an officer in the US Air Force (from 1950), a fighter pilot, Korean War veteran (where he flew 100 combat missions and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross), test pilot, and finally an Astronaut.

Selected as one of the “Mercury 7”, Grissom made his first flight into space as the second American and third human to leave the comforts of our atmosphere and venture into space (behind Soviet Yuri Gagarin and American Alan Shepard). He’d later fly on Gemini 3 (the first manned Gemini mission) as the mission commander before his fateful assignment to Apollo 1.

It was on that first launch though that Grissom would earn a negative reputation, largely due to the book and later movie The Right Stuff. Grissom’s capsule, Liberty Bell 7, had the emergency explosive hatch prematurely open after touchdown, just seconds after the US Navy rescue helicopter had arrived on station to bring Grissom aboard. While Grissom was saved, Liberty Bell 7 was lost, but it would be found and raised in 1999.

The book and movie paint this episode as a deliberate action on Grissom’s part, possibly due to a panic. Grissom denied these claims (a combat-tested test pilot would not be prone to panic, that’s the sort of thing they specifically were testing to weed out) and the historical record from NASA does not fault Grissom. The narrative from the book and the movie apparently carry more weight in the court of public opinion and so the question has continued to dog the reputation of Grissom. A new look into the circumstances was recently published that might put this to rest.

NPR reports;

Static electricity may have been to blame

George Leopold, who wrote a biography of Grissom, and Andy Saunders, a space photo expert and author, write in Astronomy magazine that they believe the mystery can be put to rest once and for all.

The researchers say that before his 2020 death, U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant John Reinhard, who was co-pilot of the recovery helicopter sent to retrieve Grissom and the Mercury capsule, said he remembers seeing something unusual just before a pole was extended to cut an antenna on the spacecraft as part of the procedure to latch onto the capsule.

“When I touched the antenna there was an arc,” Reinhard said. “At the same time, the hatch came off. It could be that some static charge set [the hatch] off.”

Static electricity is a known issue for spacecraft following reentry. The authors note that salvage expert Curt Newport, who recovered Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 capsule from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1999, has said that the hatch mechanism on the capsule likely contained mercury fulminate, a compound that can be detonated by a static charge. A NASA manual “makes several references to static electricity as a safety concern,” Leopold and Saunders write. “The manual also urges designers to ‘prevent inadvertent initiation’ of spacecraft pyrotechnics by ‘electrostatic discharge.'”

Francis French and Colin Burgess, write in their book Into That Silent Sea that “the astronaut had to activate a switch in order to arm the mechanism. … a recovery loop on top on the capsule became the trigger. When the recovery helicopter’s hoisting cable was hooked onto the loop, the pressure created by lifting the capsule fired the mechanism and blew the hatch off.”

Leopold and Saunders say their analysis of enhanced footage corroborates Reinhard’s sequence of events — that the hatch activated before the helicopter hooked onto the capsule (shown by the grainy footage below, they say).

They conclude that the arc Reinhold observed was an electrical discharge that caused the hatch firing mechanism to malfunction.

The sinking may have sealed Grissom’s fate years later

Years after his Mercury mission, Grissom — a test pilot who had flown 100 combat missions during the Korean War before joining NASA — was chosen to command the first two-person flight of the Gemini program. He was slated to do the same for Apollo 1 when he and two other astronauts were killed in a fire that swept through their capsule during a ground test.

With Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 flight in mind, engineers designing the Apollo spacecraft opted to omit an explosive hatch on it and instead install a manual hatch which could only be opened by ground crew. Tragically, some speculate that may have prevented Grissom and his crewmates, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, from getting out of their Apollo 1 spacecraft during the sudden pad fire that killed them in 1967.

 

Category: Air Force, Historical, NASA, Science and Technology

Comments (18)

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  1. USAFRetired says:

    The amount of static electricity generated in helicopters is startling to say the least. One of the things drilled into our heads in AF survival school was to make sure that the forest penetrator/sling, whatever attached to the hoist grounded on the water or earth before touching it so as to permit safe discharge. Otherwise we would get a rude awakening potentially nap.

    I saw this on Discovery/History channel or similar a while back and it eliminated any doubts (if they existed) about this incident.

    • MustangCryppie says:

      Reading my mind. They pounded this very thing into our heads in Naval Aircrewman Candidate School.

      Do NOT touch the line until it touches the water. They never mentioned anything about it being an issue on land. At least I don’t remember that.

    • Mike B USAF Retired says:

      That they did……During Water Surivial at Homestead AFB, they pounded that tidbit into our heads over and over, prior to the big exercise and our helicopter pickup out of Biscayne Bay.

      I still remember that to this day, and briefed that everytime I gave survival training to our aircrews.

      Thanks for that memory USAFRetired

  2. FuzeVT says:

    Wally Schirra also vindicated his fellow astronaut at the end of his Mercury mission.
    From https://space.nss.org/space-myths-busted-gus-grissom-didnt-blow-the-hatch-on-liberty-bell-7/

    “[A]ccording to [Colin] Burgess’ book, Schirra blew Sigma 7’s hatch when he was ready to exit. The book underscored, “He had to hit the plunger with five or six pounds of fist force; so hard that he injured his hand. He was not slow to show the tell-tale impact bruising and cut on his hand at his medical briefing.” Schirra stated further in his own book, Schirra’s Space, that the brute force of hitting the plunger had cut through one of his metal-reinforced gloves. Slayton, Beddingfield, and Schirra all confirmed that Grissom had suffered no bruising of any type after his mission, thus nixing the theory that he somehow blew the hatch.

  3. Green Thumb says:

    Wow.

    Good post.

  4. Ex-PH2 says:

    It’s about damn time.

  5. KoB says:

    A true, ballsy hero in every sense of the word, was LTC Gus Grissom, along with his fellow astronauts. Another example of the Hollywood crowd getting the real story wrong and giving their opinion as the facts.

    Thanks Mason.

  6. 26Limabeans says:

    Over my long career as an electrical engineer I have ruined a lot of stuff
    just by failing to discharge myself before handling things.
    Many of my jobs required wearing a static wristband and one job had me dragging
    a ground strap attached to my shoe.
    To this day I still ground myself when getting up from sitting in a chair.
    And on those cold, dry winter days I can make some pretty strong arcs.

    Grissom was most likely innocent of the claims and it was surely the prop
    wash that created the ignition spark. Glad to see this re-visited.

  7. A Proud Infidel®™ says:

    I remember once being the Static Probe man doing an Air Assault mission and even though I was wearing gloves that static electricity still kicked my ass as soon as I made contact with the Chinook doing the lifting!

    • SFC D says:

      Been on the other side of that. Probe man missed the aircraft and PFC D was a little exuberant in the hookup. Knocked me off the shelter and cared the bejeezus out of me. Felt like a muscle cramp except it was every. damn. muscle.

  8. Hatchet says:

    Vindication!! I am really happy to read this… Many many years ago, a classmate and I damn near beat daylights out of one another over whether Grissom had ‘blown the hatch accidentally’ or ‘blown the hatch, accidentally on-purpose’. My classmate said Grissom had probably panicked and had somehow accidentally brushed or pushed the firing button. My gut feeling at the time(as this article seems to support) was that an experienced combat pilot simply would not panic and the reason for the capsule’s hatch blowing off was much more likely caused by a mechanical malfunction rather than any kind of human-imbued mistake. Hell with my classmate – he was always a loud-mouthed knucklehead. Glad the Powers-that-be have finally taken restorative measures to Lt. Col. Grissom’s reputation and his rightful place in Space history.
    Thank you for posting this, Mason

  9. Atlanticcoast63 says:

    ….Grissom’s reputation among the astronaut corps was never in jeopardy- had it been, he wouldn’t have been chosen to fly the first Gemini mission or the Apollo 1. Had Apollo 1 flown successfully (an iffy proposition for a lot of reasons) the chances are excellent that we’d remember Virgil I. Grissom as the first man on the moon, and not Neil Armstrong.

  10. Veritas Omnia Vincit says:

    That was always something that bothered me as a kid…these guys were the best of the best and it seemed off to me to suggest that one of them panicked on landing after doing everything right after splashdown…then the book and movie and it smelled off even more after my service and having met the kind of men who pilot aircraft…they don’t seem the type prone to panic.

    Glad this article is out there now, and thank you for posting.

    One my treasured possessions to this day is a package of materials I received from NASA as a kid who wrote to them that I was working on a project in the fourth grade…they wrote a great letter back to me and included books on space flight and the program all at no cost to me…I was shocked at the quality stuff they sent…to some dumb kid in North West Connecticut…

    • SFC D says:

      Concur 100%, VOV. I first heard of Grissom and the hatch when I read “The Right Stuff”. It just didn’t make sense in my 16 year-old mind that a man with his level of training could “blow the hatch” on purpose or accidentally. I’m glad to see some vindication here.

  11. Messkit says:

    I watched the recovery of Liberty Bell, and the crew made it #1 priority to check the hatch power switch on the panel…

    …it was still in off mode.

    • Mike B USAF Retired says:

      That’s right, I thought I remembered something that proved he was innocent. Thanks for proving I wasn’t imagining things.

  12. Prior Service says:

    That’s Hollywood. Why show the truth when you can artificially boost the drama and tension by taking creative license to impugn people for the sake of a more exciting story?

  13. Franklin says:

    Speaking of Grissom,NASA cut up the outer part of the Apollo 1,which was essentially the whole outer skin and heat shield,behind the 8 foot tunnel at Nasa Langley about 25 years ago.They told the families they would never cut up the capsule,but never notified them that they cut up the outer part of it.I don’t know if the rest of the capsule still exists,but the outer hull is long gone.Many of the engineers and techicians took pictures,some of which were sent to Sen. John Glenn at the time.He never mentioned it publically.