On the evening of July 20, 1969, I strained to stay awake in order to watch on television as Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon and to hear him utter the now famous words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Space fever still gripped me a few years later when my family took a vacation to SpringMill State Park, which is located near Mitchell, Indiana. What impressed me on that trip was not the park’s Pioneer Village, with its restored log cabins and working gristmill, or the blind fish swimming in Donaldson’s Cave, but rather a simple, low-slung structure near the park’s entrance: the Virgil I. “Gus”Grissom Memorial.
Formally dedicated by Indiana governor Edgar D. Whitcomb in 1971, the memorial pays tribute to the Mitchell-born Grissom, one of the nation’s seven original astronauts, the second American to go into space, the first person to travel into space twice, and one of the first in NASA’s space effort—along with Apollo 1 crewmates Ed White and Roger Chaffee—to die, when a fire swept through the spacecraft during a test at Cape Kennedy early on the evening of January 27, 1967.
To a space nut like me, the Grissom memorial was heaven. My two brothers and I eagerly explored the interior of Grissom’s Gemini 3 two-man capsule, which the astronaut had named after the title character in the Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, about a woman who helped save a number of her shipmates on the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Naming the capsule after that character, Grissom reasoned, might help avert a calamity such as the one that befell him when his LibertyBell 7 Mercury capsule sank at the conclusion of his 1961 spaceflight. Also impressive to my young eyes was the memorial’s Universe Room, which included a six-foot-in-diameter illuminated globe that rotated as a tape of Grissom and his ground-control cohorts during his Gemini flight played in the background. To this Hoosier, Gus Grissom has always been a full-blooded American hero.
To some, however, Grissom is not now remembered as such. Both Tom Wolfe’s best-selling The Right Stuff, published in 1979, and the movie of the same name based on that book have implied that Grissom panicked—had, in test-pilot parlance, “screwed the pooch”—at the end of his approximately fifteen-minute Mercury spaceflight. Whether Grissom accidentally brushed against the plunger that triggered the hatch’s firing or purposefully pushed it, the book and movie blamed him for causing the hatch to blow off the capsule, which allowed the craft to take on water and sink like a stone to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Grissom’s explanation of “I was lying there, flat on my back—and it just blew,” was met, according to Wolfe, by a healthy amount of skepticism from space-agency officials and Grissom’s test-pilot brethren. “The damned things had been wrung inside out, but never, so far as anyone could recall, had a single hatch ever ‘just blown,’” Wolfe noted. Both author Wolfe and film director Philip Kaufman found their hero in Chuck Yeager, World War II fighter ace and the first man to break the sound barrier; Grissom became the goat.
Wolfe’s assertions about Grissom’s panicky behavior after the Mercury flight and the depiction of Grissom in the movie as a bit of an oaf were met with anger and dismay by Mitchell residents, who had turned out by the thousands to cheer their local hero at a special Memorial Day parade following his Gemini flight in 1965. Don Caudell, who worked for years to build the rocket-shaped memorial honoring Grissom that now stands on the site of the astronaut’s former elementary school, spoke for many residents of the town when he said he worked so hard on behalf of the project not because of Grissom’s tragic death, but rather because of his achievements. “He came from the ground up and, by his own efforts, he got to a place where people hadn’t been before,” Caudell said of the astronaut. “That’s what made him special.”
Bill Head, another Mitchell resident, sees the rise of his childhood friend to worldwide renown as a success story comparable to that of another notable southern Indiana native son: Abraham Lincoln. Living in Mitchell during the height of the Great Depression, Head noted that he and Grissom’s future seemed “damned dim. What did we have to look forward to?” The shocking thing to Head is not that both Grissom and Lincoln were raised in small-town Indiana, but that they “got out” and made something of themselves in the larger world outside of the Hoosier State. “He was in the right place at the right time with the right background,” Head said of his friend. What’s more, once Grissom became famous, said Head, he never forgot where he had come from. When early press accounts about the reaction to Grissom being named an astronaut were datelined Bedford, Grissom, Head pointed out, made sure that subsequent reports used Mitchell instead. “He put Mitchell on the map,” he said. Head’s description of his friend is in stark contrast to the portrayal in Wolfe’s book of Grissom as one in a long line from the Midwest and elsewhere who “prostrated themselves daily in thanksgiving” at having escaped “the gray little town they came from.”
Others in the southern Indiana area were so inspired by Grissom’s example that they too went on to careers in the American space program. Bedford, Indiana, native Charles D. Walker, a Purdue University graduate, NASA’s first industrial payload specialist, and a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions, noted that he did not believe he could have accomplished what he has done in his life if it were not for Grissom. “He was my hero,” said Walker. “He was somebody from home.” Although born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Kenneth D. Bowersox graduated from Bedford High School in 1974 and considers the Lawrence County community to be his hometown. Growing up in the area with the memory of Grissom still fresh in the mind of many helped reinforce the veteran of four Space Shuttle flights belief that he could accomplish whatever he wanted to do in his life.
Grissom also had his defenders among his fellow astronauts and NASA engineers, who claimed that the Korean War pilot, veteran of one hundred combat missions, had nothing to do with the hatch mishap. Wolfe’s insinuations of panic on Grissom’s part were way off base according to Gordon Cooper, one of the country’s original seven astronauts, who died recently. “He [Grissom] did not screw up and lose his spacecraft,” Cooper said. “Later tests showed the hatch could malfunction, just as Gus said it did.” Sam Beddingfield, a NASA engineer responsible for the pyrotechnics and recovery system on the Mercury capsule and a friend of Grissom’s who believed in the astronaut’s courage and poise, thoroughly investigated the incident and discovered ways in which the hatch could have blown in the manner described by Grissom.
The lead recovery helicopter pilot for the Liberty Bell 7 flight, Jim Lewis, said years after the capsule’s sinking that in his mind Grissom remained a great pilot. “When people say that Grissom panicked and blew the hatch,” said Lewis, “I say he was a smart man. He was a test pilot. Nobody is going to look outside and see water at their eyeballs and open the door.” Even the actor who played the unlucky astronaut in the movie The Right Stuff, Fred Ward, expressed doubt about Grissom blowing the hatch on purpose. Ward learned that all the astronauts who did blow their hatches suffered a bruised hand, and Grissom’s hand remained unmarked after his flight. “I think NASA sort of pointed the finger at him to take the blame off themselves for losing the capsule,” the actor said. “I don’t think he was responsible at all.”
Although the hatch incident still haunts Grissom’s reputation today, it failed to harm his career with NASA. While the Mercury program continued to send men into space, Grissom moved on to work on the space agency’s next project: Gemini. His influence on the design of the two-man spacecraft was so strong that his fellow astronauts dubbed it the Gusmobile. Fellow astronauts might have complained about the cramped crew compartment (modeled after Grissom’s short height), but many shared Pete Conrad’s sentiment when he compared Gemini’s flight characteristics to that of “a high-performance fighter.”
NASA officials must have been pleased with Grissom’s work on Gemini as he was selected as commander of the first Apollo flight, which became the ill-fated Apollo 1. If all had gone well with that assignment, the Mitchell-born flier was in line for another milestone—becoming the first man to walk on the moon. Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, one of the original seven astronauts who later picked crews as head of the astronaut office, said he and Robert Gilruth, director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, had agreed before the Apollo 1 tragedy that if possible a Mercury astronaut would have first crack at walking on the moon. “And at that time Gus was the one guy from the original seven who had the experience to press on through to the [moon] landing,” said Slayton. If Grissom had lived he, and not Armstrong, might have been the one remembered in
history books for being the first human to stand on
Even without the historic distinction that would have come with being the first to plant a footprint on the moon’s surface, Grissom and his life (particularly the continuing mystery of Liberty Bell 7’s hatch) have inspired the imagination of dreamers, deep-sea explorers, actor-scientists, and others. The film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984, featured an Oberth class Starfleet science vessel named in honor of the lost astronaut, the USS Grissom. In May 1999, Curt Newport, a veteran deep-sea explorer, found Grissom’s spacecraft lying three miles down on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean about three hundred miles southeast from where it was launched. Unable to raise the capsule due to the loss of the submersible craft Magellan, Newport returned to the site in July and successfully hoisted the Liberty Bell 7 (minus its hatch) off the ocean floor, thirty-eight years after it became the only American manned spacecraft to be lost following a successful mission. The operation ended nearly fifteen years of research and planning by Newport, whose expedition was financed and filmed by the Discovery Channel. Although the Kansas Cosmosphereand Space Center restored the capsule and sent it on a nationwide tour, it failed to find a definitive answer to the blown-hatch mystery.
The astronaut is also still revered in the Hoosier State. To commemorate the end of the twentieth century, the Indianapolis Star in December 1999 announced an effort to name the ten greatest Hoosiers of the past century. Approximately 6,000 readers cast their opinion in what the Star called “one of the largest reader participation projects in the newspaper’s
history.” When all
the ballots were counted, Grissom, the son of a railroad worker, ranked fifth
in the voting, placing behind such legendary figures as businessman Eli Lilly,
poet James Whitcomb Riley, war correspondent Ernie Pyle, and composer Cole
Porter, and ahead of such great names as songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, comedian
Red Skelton, businesswoman Madam C. J. Walker, basketball star Larry Bird, and
former Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman.
The wildly differing viewpoints of Grissom as a man and as a pilot over the years can be seen in part as a reflection of the times. Upon his selection as an astronaut in 1959, the United States was engaged in a seemingly desperate struggle for survival with the Soviet Union—a country that had beaten America into space two years before with its Sputnik (a “traveling companion” or “fellow traveler”) satellite. The Russian success, followed shortly by launching a dog into orbit, shocked the American public, which, as historian William Manchester noted, seemed to believe that this country held a monopoly on technological advances. But the launch of Sputnik meant that the Soviet Union had developed an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten American cities with nuclear annihilation.
President Dwight Eisenhower's administration attempted to downplay the Russian achievement, but both the public—and the Democratic opposition in Congress—clamored for action. “Control of space means control of the world, far more totally than any control that has ever or could ever be achieved by weapons, or troops of occupation,” warned then–U.S. Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson. “Whoever gains that ultimate position gains control, total control, over the earth, for the purposes of tyranny or for the service of freedom.”
When the United States attempted to match the Communists’ achievements, it floundered badly. In July 1955 the White House had announced plans to launch a small Earth-orbiting satellite in observation of the International Geophysical Year (established by the International Council of Scientific Unions as July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, a time of high solar activity). For the mission, the Defense Department selected the Naval Research Laboratory’s as yet undeveloped Project Vanguard, which won out over Wernher von Braun’s team of German engineers at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal. On December 6, 1957, before a host of reporters and a live television audience, an American Viking rocket rose only a few feet off its launching pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, before disaster struck. The rocket never got off the ground, breaking apart and striking the ground with a roar that could be felt by scientists safe behind a blockhouse’s two-foot-thick concrete wall and six inches of bulletproof glass.
Not everything went wrong with Project Vanguard. The grapefruit-size satellite survived the explosion, landed in some nearby scrub grass, and its transmitters began to faithfully broadcast its radio signals. The sight and sound of the forlorn American scientific apparatus prompted columnist Dorothy Kilgallen to ask, “Why doesn’t someone go out there, find it, and kill it?” Newspaper headlines across the country heaped scorn upon the effort, with the Chicago Sun-Times’s cleverly reading, “Oh, What a Flopnik,” and the San Francisco News calling the fiasco a “Cold War Pearl Harbor.” Time magazine suggested that the satellite program be renamed “Project Rearguard.” America’s humiliation became complete at the United Nations when the Soviet delegation offered the United States financial aid as part of a Russian program to aid less-developed nations.
Although the United States finally managed to place an object in space with Explorer 1 onboard a Juno rocket on January 31, 1958, the American public still itched to overtake its Soviet foes in the space race. When the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration presented the country’s original astronauts—Grissom, Slayton, and Cooper from the U.S. Air Force; Malcom
Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra Jr., and Alan B.
Shepard from the U.S. Navy; and John H. Glenn Jr. from the U.S. Marines—at a 2:00
p.m. press conference on April 9,
1959, in Washington, D.C., the assembled members of the media actually
applauded and cheered—an ovation that stunned the astronauts. “I’ve never seen
anything like it, before or since,” said Slayton, a veteran flyer from World
War II. Loudon Wainwright, a reporter for Life
magazine, which had signed the astronauts and their wives to an exclusive
contract for their personal stories, described the seven men in a 1961 book as
“perhaps the most adventurous, the most thoroughly courageous, the best-rounded
group of explorers ever assembled anywhere at any time.”
The press’s enthusiasm merely reflected the public’s high regard for the brave pilots ready to risk their lives aboard America’s finicky rockets, which showed an alarming tendency to blow up on the launching pad. Becoming the country’s newest heroes, noted Slayton, happened “without us doing a damned thing” except appear at a news conference, a situation the air force veteran termed as “crazy.” The esteem in which the astronauts were held was highlighted by the reaction of one audience to a speech given by Grissom, not known among the astronaut corps for his loquaciousness. Speaking before approximately eighteen thousand workers at General Dynamics in San Diego, where the Convair Division was building the Atlas rocket, Grissom uttered just three words: “Do good work.” The Hoosier’s remarks, perhaps the shortest pep talk in
prompted the crowd to scream its approval so loudly that Grissom and other
dignitaries were almost knocked off the stage.
Grissom’s taciturn nature was no secret to the other members of the astronaut corps. On weekends he and Slayton would often climb aboard a jet and fly around the country. John Glenn noted that when the two men flew on these coast-to-coast excursions they probably “made the least talkative flights ever made by two people anywhere.” Even Grissom and Slayton joked about the silence, dubbing their flights as being “East Coast to West Coast in ten words or less.” Grissom always seemed uncomfortable with the public attention, particularly from the press, that came from being an astronaut.
The negative publicity following his Liberty Bell 7 flight only hardened his media shyness and led him to do whatever he could to blend into the woodwork. “As far as I know,” said CBS television anchorman Walter Cronkite, “he was the only astronaut ever to don [a] disguise to duck the waiting press.” Cronkite also remembered that Grissom faced the media responsibilities associated with a spaceflight with much more apprehension than the flight itself, and his answers to the press’s questions were “cryptic and laconic.” On one occasion when Grissom was set to board a commercial flight in Orlando, Florida, to visit an air force installation in Texas, he donned a disguise that included a floppy straw hat and sunglasses. When Grissom asked Slayton for his opinion about his outfit, the astronaut deadpanned: “You look just like Gus Grissom in dark glasses and a hat.” In spite of his friend’s skeptical assessment, Grissom managed to slip by the reporters and photographers who were lying in wait for him at the Orlando airport, a small victory that pleased the astronaut no end.
For the most part, however, the astronauts faced a friendly response from the press. With the benefit of hindsight, Wainwright later reflected that he and the other staff members from Life came to their assignment with a different mindset than usual when reporting a story. “We had virtually abdicated skepticism,” he said. “Possibly our attitudes had to do with the general innocence of the period or with a more ordinary need for heroes. Yet, from top to bottom, the Life group stood in some real awe of the Mercury pilots and were pretty wide-eyed about their mission.” Also, because the magazine had bought the astronaut’s stories, it and its staff were not looking to cause any problems with the space program. The Life team of reporters, editors, and photographers took upon themselves “the responsibility of telling the story in a positive way, one that would reflect credit on the men and the space program,” said Wainwright. They believed it was their duty to protect what had become an extremely valuable national asset. He added that NASA was all too willing to aid in that effort as a way to win public acceptance, and increased government funding, for its program. All of these factors helped turn the reporters from observers to cheerleaders, Wainwright noted, and the interests of “patriotism and successful publishing seemed somehow to meld together . . . in a warm, red-white-and-blue glow.”
The public, too, was more than ready to embrace the astronauts, perhaps to counteract the swelling panic that gripped the nation following the Soviet Union’s space triumphs. Faced with a public looking for heroes and a media unwilling to report on any negative personal qualities, there soon developed the “myth of the super-hero astronaut,” noted Apollo 7 veteran Walter Cunningham, who along with Donn Eisele and Schirra served as the backup crew to Grissom’s Apollo 1 flight. Most of the astronauts found the attention both flattering and easy to get along with, said Cunningham, but few could actually live up to the image projected by the media and NASA. “We weren’t all simon-pure nor all hell-raisers,” Cunningham noted in his book about the astronauts, aptly titled The All-American Boys. The great deeds accomplished by the American space program were “fulfilled by men who were all too human in their weaknesses as well as their strengths,” he wrote.
The myth of the super-hero astronaut endured for many years, egged on by continuing progress with the Mercury and Gemini programs and the promise of fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade with the mighty Apollo project. The deaths of Grissom, Chaffee, and White, however, came just before one of the most tumultuous times in the country’s
history. The year 1968 saw
the North Vietnamese launch their Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and its
American allies, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and RobertKennedy, large-scale riots by African Americans in a number of large cities,
and police and protesters clashing at the Democratic National Convention in
Chicago. With the escalating involvement of American troops in Vietnam, NASA
had to endure severe cuts in its budget. Following Apollo 11’s achievement of a moon landing in 1969, the space agency
found it harder and harder to find support in Congress for its programs, with
the planned missions of Apollo 18, Apollo 19, and Apollo 20 eliminated.
As NASA suffered budget limitations—why spend more money on space when the United States had already beaten the Russians to the moon?—America’s space heroes had their own problems. Fueled by the legacy of Vietnam and Watergate, the American media refused as it once did to turn a blind eye to the peccadilloes of those in the public eye, politicians and astronauts alike. Wolfe’s critically acclaimed The Right Stuff not only penetrated the closed world of the test-pilot, fighter-jock fraternity, but it also laid bare the astronaut’s extracurricular activities of “Drinking & Driving & the rest,” complete with “juicy little girls” bragging about their sexual liaisons with the original seven astronauts by “going around saying, ‘Well, four down, three to go!’” But even before Wolfe’s book, some astronauts had admitted their failings to the public. In his book Cunningham told about the “astronaut groupies” who worked hard to add as many space travelers to their scorecard as possible. Still, as a group the astronauts, Cunningham estimated, were no better or worse than the national average when it came to infidelity. “It is even possible, under the circumstances,” he noted, “that our behavior was better than the gossip and suspicion implied.” After all, astronauts had far more temptations facing them than the average businessman did.
The deconstruction of the astronaut hero continued when Wolfe’s book was made into a 1983 movie, which was written and directed by Kaufman. Originally, veteran Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote screenplays for such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, had been selected by United Artists producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler to pen the film’s script. At the time Goldman became involved with the project (November 1979), radical Iranian students had seized as hostages diplomats and other employees of the American embassy in Iran. For the first time in his career, Goldman wrote in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, he wanted to write a film that had a message. “I wanted to ‘say’ something positive about America,” said Goldman. “Not patriotic in the John Wayne sense, but patriotic none the less.” By telling the story of the astronauts, the screenwriter hoped to impart to viewers that “America was still a great place, and not just to visit.”
That effort came to naught when Kaufman, who had directed the critically acclaimed Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), was brought on board as director. The two men’s ideas about the film clashed at once. When Goldman told Kaufman about his plans for producing a patriotic movie, the director blanched. Kaufman, according to Goldman, had been won over by Wolfe’s depiction of Yeager as the country’s greatest pilot, an iconic figure head and shoulders above all other flyers. “Phil’s heart was with Yeager. And not only that,” said Goldman, “he [Kaufman] felt the astronauts, rather than being heroic, were really minor leaguers, mechanical men of no particular quality, not great pilots at all, simply the product of hype.” What Kaufman wanted to say, Goldman noted, was that America might have been a great country at one time, but those days were long gone. According to Kaufman, the story of Yeager was “the essence of what Tom Wolfe’s book was about. It’s about searching for the origin of that special quality. Whatever you may want to call it—grace under pressure—a kind of secret quality that was passed on from one generation of test pilots to the next.” Goldman did not share the director’s vision for the film and left the project.
Kaufman’s view of Yeager as being superior in ability to the men who eventually became astronauts permeates the film. One scene that typifies Kaufman’s viewpoint comes when two hapless governmental representatives, played with comic aplomb by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, arrive at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert to recruit test pilots for the new American space program. Walking into a local bar where the pilots congregate—Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club—the men and the program they represent are greeted with disdain by such top test pilots as Yeager and
Scott Crossfield. “What you need,” says Yeager,
played by Sam Shepard, “is a little lab rabbit to curl up inside your damn
capsule with his heart going pitter-patter and a wire up the kazoo. I don’t
hold with it.” Of course, the government does not want the “best” test pilots;
Yeager is ineligible for the astronaut program because he did not attend
college and Crossfield, as a civilian, failed to have the proper security
clearance. Instead of the top pilots, the government had to, according to
Kaufman, take such second-rate flyers as Grissom and Cooper. Cooper, played by
Dennis Quaid, even acknowledges the disparity of talent between the two groups,
noting to his friend Grissom, “Well, there sure is a long line of shit-hot
rocket aces around here. A long line.” Why not attempt to jump ahead in line by
volunteering for a project that had the potential for becoming a high priority
with the nation’s leaders?
Neglected in Kaufman’s version of events are the many accomplishments of the pilots selected as astronauts, and the fact that while they were at Edwards both Grissom and Cooper were not in direct competition with Yeager, but students at the air force’s test-pilot school there. After graduation, Grissom left Edwards for an assignment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. He was flying jets there when President Eisenhower decided in 1958 to draw upon the ranks of approximately five hundred military test pilots for the new astronaut corps. NASA’s Space Task Group was pleased to have such qualified men to pick from, believing as it did that the eventual success of a mission could well depend on a pilot’s actions in space. As Slayton notes in his autobiography, some of the astronauts certainly did not have the same professional achievements to compare with test pilots such as Yeager and Crossfield. Others in the program, however, had solid test-flight credentials: both Schirra and himself had done frontline test flying, Shepard had been one of the first navy flyers to land on an angled-deck carrier, and Grissom had been involved with all-weather testing at the Wright Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Whatever the opinion on the piloting skills of the original astronauts, they achieved their mission in spite of a run of bad luck that would have daunted lesser men. Grounded during the Mercury program due to an irregular heartbeat, Slayton stayed the course, eventually becoming chief of flight-crew operations for NASA and finally making it into space as part of the crew for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975. Shepard, the first American in space aboard Freedom 7, earned his nickname as the “Icy Commander” several times over after Ménière’s syndrome, an inner-ear disorder, kept him from flying more missions and he took over for Slayton as head of the astronaut office. Given new life by a radical medical procedure that cured his inner-ear imbalance, Shepard, too, made it back into space, walking on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission.
None of the original astronauts, however, endured Grissom’s string of calamities and bad luck. In addition to the brouhaha and finger pointing over Liberty Bell 7’s blown hatch, he also suffered the embarrassment of being reprimanded by NASA officials and Congress for accepting and taking a few bites from a corned-beef sandwich smuggled aboard Gemini 3 by crewmate John Young (thoughtfully provided by prankster Schirra from a Cocoa Beach delicatessen). Years later, with the hatch controversy still dogging his career, Grissom became a forceful voice against using an explosive hatch on Apollo 1—a device that might have saved the crew from the toxic gases that killed them. Given Grissom’s rotten luck as an astronaut, it seemed almost inevitable that someone would try to blame him for causing, at that time, NASA’s worst disaster. One North American Aviation engineer hypothesized that Grissom had accidentally scuffed the insulation of a wire while moving about the spacecraft, which lead to a spark and the subsequent fire. This hypothesis was immediately rejected by the NASA review board and a congressional committee investigating the Apollo tragedy.
Throughout his career, however, Grissom never let his misfortunes stand in the way of his stated purpose for accepting such dangerous assignments—patriotism. “If my country has decided that I’m one of the better qualified people for the mission, then I’m glad I can participate,” he told a reporter from Life magazine. For a short time, Grissom even considered leaving NASA to join other air force pilots in flying missions in the Vietnam War (a pilot friend warned him that Vietnam was nothing like Korea). Instead of returning to air combat, Grissom continued to strive to put America on the moon, giving his life in the process and earning a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, with the service broadcast nationwide on television. Neighbors from Mitchell joined President Lyndon B. Johnson, members of Congress, and fellow astronauts at the funeral.
It took NASA more than a year after the Apollo 1 accident, during which time the spacecraft was extensively reworked, to launch another manned mission. Apollo 7, commanded by Grissom’s friend Schirra, made 163 orbits during its eleven-day mission in the redesigned command module; America was back on its way to the moon. Years later, after six successful landings on the moon, Betty Grissom, reflecting on her husband, said: “I hate it that Gus is gone, but I guess the program was worth it. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.”