The Fight Over Gus Grissom’s Spacesuit

Courtesy NASA

From the archives: this article first appeared in Indianapolis Monthly in January 2007.

In August 1962, somewhere on a highway in the eastern half of the United States, astronaut Gus Grissom knelt on the side of the road to fix a flat tire. The space pioneer was moving his family from Virginia to NASA’s new home base in Texas, and the Grissoms had packed all of their belongings, including the astronaut’s Mercury flight suit, into the back of a truck. The suit was a relic from Grissom’s first trip into space, an item that would become an iconic artifact of the Space Age; but at that moment, it was just a spent piece of clothing stuffed into the back of the truck in the breakdown lane. After changing the tire, the Grissoms were on the road to Houston, where they settled into a three-bedroom house and hung the spacesuit in the back of Betty Grissom’s closet like a used wedding dress.

The suit was still there five years later, when Gus Grissom died in a horrific fire on a NASA launch pad.

In the early 1900s, Grissom’s wife, Betty, loaned the artifact to a promising new museum, the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida. But when the museum faltered, the suit never returned to Texas. Instead if became entangled in a tug-of-war that continued today: NASA stepped in, alleging that the suit was government property; Betty Grissom says her husband brought it home because NASA was about to throw it away. NASA says Gus Grissom took it for a school demonstration in 1965 and never returned it; his wife calls that assertion nonsense, citing the fact that her family moved with it to Texas in 1962. Today, the suit is still on display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, though the new owners consider it on loan not from the Grissoms, but from the Smithsonian Institution, the custodian of all retired NASA gear.

Gus Grissom died 40 years ago this month. But even now, his widow is still working to secure her Hoosier husband’s reputation as a hero of the space race, and she views the indignity of having the suit taken from her as just one of the wrongs NASA has done to her and her family. The Grissoms have picked up a few unexpected allies in their fight to retrieve it, most notably a 16-year-old Connecticut girl–a Gus Grissom admirer since early childhood–who has started an Internet petition and lobbied congressmen to return the suit. The teenager’s pursuit has done little to sway the opinions of NASA and the Smithsonian, but is has brought modern-day attention to her hero and new opportunities to set straight his legacy.

Americans may think of the early astronaut era as the gilded age of space exploration, a Technicolor time when even the failures furthered the successes. But for Betty Grissom, now 79 and still living in Texas, the spacesuit is another item in a list of things NASA took from her family–a list that starts with her husband’s reputation and legacy, and ends with his life.

Virgil Ivan Grissom was born April 3, 1926 in Mitchell, about 90 miles south of Indianapolis. His name had no known lineage, but his Russian-sounding middle name made for bad PR in then space race and was scarcely ever used. He picked up his nickname while he was a student at Purdue University, where an acquaintance at a card game read “Gris” upside down on a scorecard and mistook it for “Gus.”

Historic photo of a man standing in a silver spacesuit
Gus Grissom in his Mercury spacesuit

In a place and time where basketball ruled, Grissom stood five-foot-seven, so instead of playing ball, he led the Boy Scout honor guard in the flag ceremony at Mitchell High gams. In the closest thing he and Betty Moore had to a first date, he sought her out at a game and sat next to her at halftime. At five feet, she looked up to him.

They married in 1945, two years after his high school graduation and one year after hers. He never did propose. “He just decided that’s what we were going to do,” Betty Grissom wrote in her 1974 book, Starfall, “and I went along with it.” They spent their wedding night at the Washington Hotel in Indianapolis.

He enlisted too late to see action in World War II, and then returned to Indiana to enroll at Purdue. The campus was crowded with other GIs, and when he graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, he faced an equally crowded job market. He joined the Air Force and graduated from advanced flight training in time to fly 100 combat missions in the Korean War. He also bucked pilot tradition and named his F-86 Sabrejet not for his girl, but for his newborn son, Scotty. A second son Mark followed three years later.

By the time Grissom entered test-pilot training after the war, his career path and the country’s plans for space travel seemed destined to intersect. In October 1957, just five months after he was credentialed as a test pilot, the Russians launched the mechanical satellite Sputnik I. The race was on.

Fifteen months later, Grissom and 109 other men were invited to audition for spots on the Mercury Project, the first American attempt to put a man in space, named after the messenger to the gods in Roman mythology. Doctors examined everything from the contents of the candidates’ urine to the capacities of their lugs. When Grissom was found to have allergies, he argued against being disqualified, noting there would be no ragweed pollen in space.

He was selected as one of the men who would train to fly manned spacecraft and was fitted for his first space suit, complete with a bubble helmet and pressurized suit made of materials with space-age names like “aluminized nylon.” The Mercury pilots became synonymous with pride and achievement: Alan Shepard would pilot the first mission and become the first American in space; John Glenn would fly the third mission and become the first man to orbit the Earth.

Grissom’s mission came between those two groundbreaking flights. In 1961, aboard the Liberty Bell 7, he flew flawlessly in space for 15 minutes and 37 seconds, then ended with one of the most infamous landings in history. He splashed into the Atlantic Ocean as planned, and as he awaited the U.S. Navy helicopter that would retrieve him and the spacecraft, he worked down his post-flight checklist. Then, according to his account, the hatch blew. Water flooded the capsule; Grissom hoisted himself through the hatch and watched the spacecraft bob, then sink.

Meanwhile, the suit that was supposed to protect Grissom in space began working against him in the ocean, weighing him down with its bulky layers. By the time the Navy helicopter crew turned its attention from saving Liberty Bell 7 to saving Grissom, he was thrashing about, in fear that the suit and the waves would pull him under.

Betty Grissom asked Gus, just once, whether the accident was his fault. “I did not do anything wrong,” he told her. “The hatch just blew.” In the end, NASA agreed, though engineers could never duplicate the problem. Grissom was selected for other space flights, and in 1965 orbited the earth aboard the Molly Brown, a spacecraft he named, in a jovial nod to his ill-fated Liberty Bell 7, after the unsinkable Titanic survivor.

By 1967, NASA was gearing up for Apollo, the space program that would take man to the moon by the end of the decade. In her book, Betty Grissom reports that her husband had concerns about Apollo, and complained that the government contractor was more concerned with making deadlines than perfecting the design. On January 22, 1967, Grissom stopped at his Texas home on the way to more launch-pad tests in Florida. Before he left, he picked a lemon off the backyard. “I’m going to hang it on that spacecraft,” he told his wife.

Five days later, Grissom and astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee were inside the capsule on the launching pad, working through a routine checklist, when crossed wires set off a spark somewhere amid the spacecraft’s 30 miles of electrical wiring. It smoldered for 10 seconds before the men were aware of it. Then, over the radio, came a startled interjection from Grissom: “Hey!”

The spacecraft’s hatch could be opened from the inside in 90 seconds, but they died in 15.

Even after four decades, the American public still isn’t quite sure what to think of Gus Grissom. Perhaps that’s because there are so many versions to digest.

Grissom’s Project Mercury spacesuit on display at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame

There’s the Virgil I. Grissom who NASA presented to Americans in the 1950s–one of seven wholesome, married, college-educated military pilots-turned-astronauts who would lead the United States (hoping to beat the Soviet Union along the way) into space. There’s the Gus Grissom fourth-graders learn about in the Indiana History curriculum, the homegrown Purdue grad who never lost his no-nonsense grit. There’s Gus, the Mitchell boy Betty Moore married even though he never asked her to. “There’s probably a little bit of truth in all the versions of Gus,” says Steve Grissom of Mitchell, a cousin.

But then there’s the other image, the one that still torments his wife. That’s Grissom as the also-ran astronaut, the hick who mumbled through public appearances and clumsily shuffled through the astronaut program. Grissom has been blamed in loud whispers, though never officially, for a nervous mistake that cost NASA a spacecraft at the bottom of the Atlantic. “Nobody was about to accuse Gus of anything,” Tom Wolfe wrote 18 years later in The Right Stuff,” but the engineers kept rolling their eyes at each other.” The 1983 Academy Award–winning movie of the same name depicted Grissom as the goat of the Mercury astronauts. “His public incantations consisted mainly of Hoosier gus gruffisms,” Wolfe wrote. “The only time Gus felt like talking was when he was with other pilots, particularly at beer call.”

In 1999, when the lost spacecraft Liberty Bell 7 was pulled from the depths of the ocean, space buffs hoped they would, at last, learn whether Grissom had prematurely blown the capsule’s hatch. Some evidence pointed to Grissom’s exoneration, but nothing conclusive was found. The hatch itself still rests on the ocean bottom.

For Betty Grissom, the never-ending regurgitations of her husband’s legacy as exasperating. She declined an interview for this story, saying all the questions have been asked, there’s nothing new to say. Indeed, her feelings toward NASA are well-documented: When the Challenger exploded in 1986, Betty immediately urged the families to sue. (She had sued the Apollo designer, North American Rockwell, five years after her husband’s death, and settled out of court for $350,000.) When the space shuttle Columbia fell apart upon reentry into the atmosphere in 2003, Betty Grissom’s public well-wishers for the surviving family members were for NASA to treat them better than it had treated her.

She has been angered by NASA’s decision to store the Apollo I module in which her husband died rather than display it as a public memorial. And when the titanium-and-aluminum Liberty Bell 7 was recovered from the Atlantic eight years ago, she was frustrated that NASA had no plans to investigate what went wrong with the hatch. “I want every little scratch on there,” she told the Associate Press, “and I want if reported.”

Amanda Meyer is a Connecticut teenager who carries herself with the poise of a 40-year-old. This month, she is recharging her campaign to get back her hero’s suit, asking all 5,000 people who signed her petition to call the Smithsonian on January 27, the 40th anniversary of Grissom’s death. She is also enlisting support from all the American public schools named after him. (By Amada’s count, there are nine.)

How did an East Coast girl with no particular connection to Gus Grissom become so involved in his family’s squabble with NASA? She’s been drawn to the astronaut since third grade, when a teacher directed her class to study and write about an astronaut of their choice. Most kids picked the obvious ones: Neil Armstrong. Alan Shepard. A couple of girls picked Sally Ride. Amanda chose Gus Grissom. “Every opportunity I had–hero essays, science projects, reading someone’s biography to see how it made them who they are–I picked Gus,” Amanda says. In 2004, she visited the Astronaut Hall of Fame and was moved at the site of his spacesuit, mounted behind Plexiglas.

She tried to share one of her essays with Betty Grissom and her sons, but was unable to contact them until her mother located an email address for Scott Grissom. When he called days later–a call Amanda was pulled out of study hall to take–conversation soon turned to the spacesuit. She said she wanted to help the Grissoms get it back, a pledge that has given the 16-year-old an education in the laboring, deliberate process of government. “I don’t see how the spacesuit jumped hands,” Amanda says, “from the Grissoms to the Smithsonian.”

The Astronaut Hall of Fame’s loan agreement with the Smithsonian expires at the end of this year, though the government sounds optimistic about renewing the agreement. “There’s a lot involved in moving an artifact,” says Peter Golkin, a spokesman for the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, who notes that if not for the need for the public to view such pieces, the best place for Gus Grissom’s spacesuit would be in dark, climate-controlled storage. “Everybody thinks these suits are sort of indestructible, but they’ve not aged well.”

And even the idea of “getting back the suit” means something different to Amanda than it does to Betty Grissom. The teen has proposed a compromise that would allow the Smithsonian Institution to loan the suit to the Grissom Memorial at Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell. But Betty Grissom would like to reclaim the suit and have is displayed where a large number of people can see it–perhaps at Disney World. “Amanda wants to see it come to Mitchell,” says Steve Grissom, the family cousin, “and Betty just wants to see it out of the hands of NASA.”