Gus Grissom and Apollo 1

Al is on vacation. This column is reprinted from the February 17, 2012 edition.

I’m a space kid. I was born just over a year after America launched her first man into space and I was named by my mother after that man, Alan Shepard. Many of my earliest memories revolve around the sight of rockets on the launch pad and astronauts in space suits. To me, this was as close as you could get to the Gods of ancient mythology. And one of those astronauts, the second American launched into space, was from right here in Indiana — Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom — from Mitchell, Indiana to be precise. Like my namesake Alan Shepard, Grissom was an original Mercury astronaut who stuck with NASA through to the Apollo program with an eye on walking on the moon someday. If Shepard was my Superman, then Grissom was certainly my Batman.
Gus was born in Mitchell on April 3, 1926. He was a lifelong Boy Scout whose first job was delivering the newspaper. Gus often hung out after school at the Bedford airport. While still in high school he began to take flying lessons from a local attorney who owned his own plane, paying a dollar a lesson. He took the Air Force entrance exam while a high school senior and was inducted into the Army on August 8, 1944 at Fort Benjamin Harrison. He saw no action in World War II and returned home to attain a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. When the Korean War broke out, Gus re-enlisted, this time in the U.S. Air Force. He flew 100 combat missions and was cited for “superlative airmanship.” He became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force base in California and later at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio.
In 1958, Grissom received an official “Top Secret” U.S. Government teletype message instructing him to report to an address in Washington D.C. The message instructed Grissom to be sure to arrive in civilian clothes and to tell no one about the “mission.” Upon arrival, Gus found that he was just one of 110 military test pilots vying for 7 spots in something called “Project Mercury.” Gus was chosen for the exclusive space program. He became the second American in space on July 21, 1961, making a 15 minute 37 second suborbital space flight in his Freedom 7 Mercury Redstone 4 space capsule. The flight was a success, the splash landing perfect, but the recovery of the capsule was a disaster. The escape hatch blew open unexpectedly and Gus had to scramble for his life as it rapidly filled with water. Grissom was blamed for the loss of the capsule, even though he barely escaped with his life.
However, Grissom’s skill as a pilot was never in question. When NASA moved away from the Mercury program and into the Gemini program, once again Astronaut Alan B. Shepard was chosen to man the first flight. In early 1964, Shepard was grounded after being diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder that can affect hearing and balance, causing vertigo — perhaps not that serious for you and me, but a very bad malady for an astronaut. So Gus Grissom stepped in to replace Shepard as command pilot for Gemini 3, the first manned Project Gemini flight, which flew on March 23, 1965. This mission would make Gus the first NASA astronaut to fly into space twice. The flight made three revolutions of the Earth and lasted 4 hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds. Although Gus, as mission commander, was chastised for co-pilot John Young’s sneaking aboard of two corned beef sandwiches to eat during the flight (Gus always complained of how bad space food was) causing the air in the capsule to fill with floating crumbs, the flight was declared a rousing success and the Mercury capsule loss bad luck seemed to be finally behind him.
February 21, 1967, was set to be Gus Grissom’s time to shine. He was set to be command pilot for the lead mission of the new Apollo manned lunar landing program as commander of Apollo 1. He would be joined by astronauts Ed White (the first American to “walk” in space) and Roger Chaffee (a fellow Purdue graduate) on a trip that was designed to be a test of the Apollo Command/Space Module as a prelude to placing an American on the moon. But there were problems from the start. During testing of the command module, engineers made 113 actual changes and made an additional 623 change orders to the spacecraft in less than 5 months of testing. Gus was so frustrated with the spacecraft that he picked a lemon from a tree in his backyard and hung it from the control panel inside the simulator.
During testing, the crew complained about the amount of the flammable material in the form of the newly created Velcro material and nylon netting that covered the inside of the capsule. The engineers explained that these materials would be handy to the crew for holding tools and equipment during the non-gravitational space flight. The crew made light of their concerns by sending the engineers a portrait of the crew with their hands clasped in prayer above a mockup of the capsule along with a note reading: “It isn’t that we don’t trust you, but this time we’ve decided we’re to go over your head.”
On January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 gathered at launch pad 34 on Cape Canaveral for one final dress rehearsal just over 3 weeks away. This last practice run was called a “plugs out” test and would simulate everything except the final lighting of the candle. The test was considered non-hazardous because neither the launch vehicle nor the spacecraft was loaded with fuel or cryogenics, and all pyrotechnic systems were disabled. At 1:00 p.m. EST, the trio entered the capsule, strapped themselves into their seats and connected the air hoses of their pressurized space suits into the interior oxygen system. Almost immediately, Grissom noticed a sickly sweet smell that he described as “sour buttermilk” which delayed the test for 20 minutes while air samples were taken.
The hatch of the capsule was still open and as no source for the odor could be determined, the test was resumed. When the air system was activated and pure oxygen began to flow, the smell went away and the odor was discounted. The countdown was resumed and at 2:42 p.m. the hatch closure procedure was resumed. The hatch consisted of three heavy parts whose installation was a ponderous process. Although it was an impregnable shield designed to keep space out, no one dreamed that it would be a deterrent as an emergency exit for the astronaut occupants. As the hatches were secured, the air inside the capsule was vented and replaced by pure oxygen.
The next problem was communication between the astronauts and the NASA Capcom flight controllers located just a short distance away. The communications problems led a surly Grissom to remark, “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?”  Perturbed, yet undaunted, the crew remained professional and used the time to run through their checklists again.
At 6:30 and 54 seconds, a voltage transient (or energy spike) was recorded. Ten seconds later at 6:31 and 4 seconds, Astronaut Chaffee calmly reported, “Hey, Fire, I smell Fire.” accompanied by scuffling sounds inside the capsule. Two seconds later, Astronaut White’s voice was more insistent: “Fire in the cockpit.” At 6:31 and 7 seconds, Gus Grissom’s unmistakable deep voice then reported, “I’ve got a fire in the cockpit.” At 6:31 and 9 seconds, Astronaut Ed White then yelled, “Fire!” as medical technicians watch his pulse rate jump off the chart on their monitors back at Capcom. The last words of Apollo 1 have been reported variously as being: “They’re fighting a bad fire — let’s get out. Open ‘er up” or, “We’ve got a bad fire — let’s get out. We’re burning up” or, “I’m reporting a bad fire. I’m getting out,”  and attributed to no one in particular. The transmission between the crew and mission control ended abruptly at 6:31 and 21 seconds with an obvious cry of pain from an unidentified crew member followed by an ominous hiss as the cabin ruptured and outside air rushed into the cabin.
The earth’s atmosphere rushing in effectively caused the capsule to burst into flames and the resulting intense heat, dense smoke and toxic fumes hampered the ground crew’s attempts to rescue the crew. It took five minutes to open all three hatch layers. By this time the fire inside the capsule, robbed of its pure oxygen environment, had gone out. The smoke cleared, the bodies were found, the crew’s fate was discovered.
The fire had partly melted Grissom’s and White’s nylon space suits and the hoses connecting them to the life support system. Grissom had freed himself from his restraints and his body was found lying on the floor of the spacecraft. White’s restraints were burned through, and he was found lying on his side below the hatch. It was later determined that he died trying to open the hatch per the emergency procedure, but was unable to budge it against the internal pressure. Chaffee was found strapped into his right-hand seat, as procedure called for him to maintain communication until White opened the hatch. Official NASA emergency escape procedures required a minimum of 90 seconds, but, in practice, the crew had never accomplished the feat in the minimum time. It was later confirmed the crew had died of smoke inhalation with burns contributing. Truth is, Grissom, White and Chaffee never had a chance.
The cause of the fire was attributed to a frayed wire at the feet of Gus Grissom on the left side of the capsule, which would explain how Chaffee, seated in the middle, was the first to report it. It has been estimated that the fire most likely burned for 5 to 6 seconds before anyone noticed it.
Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee are interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Ed White is interred at the United States Military Academy cemetery in West Point, New York. Locally, 65 miles north of Indianapolis between Kokomo and Peru, Bunker Hill Air Force base was renamed Grissom Air Force Base on May 12, 1968. Today it is known as Grissom Air Reserve Base. An Apollo 1 mission patch was left on the Moon’s surface after the first manned lunar landing by Apollo 11 crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
And that “Sour Buttermilk” smell that was seen as the precursor to disaster first reported by Gus Grissom? The accident investigation determined that this odor was not related to the fire in any way. But for those among you who believe in superstition, one survives today that might declare Gus’s sensory premonition an omen of portent. In ancient Irish tradition, the spilling of milk means bad luck, whether it was spilt by someone by design or accident. Bad luck and controversy certainly seemed to follow Gus Grissom around. As for me, he’ll always be a Hoosier hero.

Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis”  and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest book is “Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View.” Contact Al directly at or become a friend on Facebook.