|All images courtesy NASA|
At 5:53 a.m. the astronauts left the operations building and entered a waiting automobile for the six-mile trip to the medical trailer parked near Pad 16, where they had biomedical sensors attached to their skin, slipped on their “long john” undergarments, and donned their spacesuits for the flight.
Meanwhile, at Pad 19, the site of the launch for the three-orbit Gemini 3 mission, backups Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were busy setting switches inside the Molly Brown as the countdown for the mission continued. The backups had also prepared a couple of surprises for the prime crew. The day before, Schirra and Stafford had stopped at Wolfie’s Deli on North Atlantic Avenue in Cocoa Beach. “We were both irked by the fact that Gus and John weren’t going to have real food on their flight, so Wally had a corned beef sandwich [with pickles] made up,” said Stafford.
As Grissom and Young finished suiting up for their trip in their immaculate white pressure suits, Young had stowed the corned beef sandwich in the leg pocket of his suit. The astronauts were greeted by Schirra clad in his tattered old Mercury training suit and wearing approximately twenty assorted security badges around his neck. “If you’re not feeling up to it,” Schirra told a laughing Grissom, “I’ll be happy to take this one.”
At 7:06 a.m., the astronauts left the medical trailer in an air-conditioned van headed to Pad 19. Once there, they took the elevator for the hundred-foot ride up to the white room, and entered the Molly Brown, Young first, followed by Grissom. “There were plenty of smiles, but not much of the joking that we had on some of the Mercury flights,” said Guenter Wendt, pad leader. “Gus and John were serious about the flight and had little room for levity.”
After his team of technicians completed a test to see if the crew’s spacesuits had any leaks, Wendt removed the seven safety pins on each of the ejection seats, reported his action to the blockhouse, and closed the hatches at 7:34 a.m. Following a check of the spacecraft for any leaks from the cabin, Wendt and his team cleared the area. The countdown ran like clockwork until 8:20 a.m., when mission control called a hold to check on a possible leak in an oxidizer line in the Titan II’s first stage. Pad technicians solved the problem and the countdown proceeded smoothly until liftoff at 9:24 a.m. Grissom reported to Gordon Cooper, serving as capsule communicator at the control center, that the clock had started and the Gemini-Titan configuration had entered its roll program. “There was not a distinct feeling when lift-off occurred,” Grissom reported. “It was a gentle, smooth lift-off with no jolt or disturbance.” As the craft entered its pitch program, Cooper called out: “You’re on your way, Molly Brown.”
For the first fifty seconds of the mission, Grissom had both hands on the ring triggering the ejection seats in case of an emergency. Young also had a ring, but when Grissom glanced over at his partner he noticed his hands resting in his lap. He may have seemed casual, Young later said, but he watched Grissom carefully and if the commander had experienced any problems with his ejection ring he planned on yanking his with dispatch. “During this time we didn’t say a word to each other because there was so much to do so fast,” Young noted, “but once we got into orbit we could relax just a little.” The Titan II booster had exceeded its estimated thrust, placing the astronauts into a higher-than-expected orbit.
As they left the Canary Islands behind on their first orbit, the astronauts experienced a moment of alarm when they noticed the pressure in the oxygen system, supplying air to the cabin and to their suits, suddenly drop, and other instrument readings also registering oddly. Grissom acted quickly, snapping the visor down on his helmet. “If the oxygen pressure is really gone,” he thought to himself, “it won’t make any difference. You’ve had it already.” With the experience he had gained through hours of work in the Gemini simulator, Young, in just forty-five seconds, diagnosed the problem—the primary electrical converter system had malfunctioned—and switched to the backup system.
Another problem arose with the planned sea urchin egg experiment. For the procedure, Grissom had to turn a knob that would activate a device to fertilize the eggs, which would later be studied to see how their cells had been effected by weightlessness. “Maybe, after our oxygen scare, I had too much adrenalin pumping, but I twisted the handle so hard that I broke it,” Grissom said. (After their flight, the astronauts learned that a controller on the ground, duplicating the experiment, had also broken the handle.) Although he discovered that the clearance between the hatch and radiation experiment proved to be “much smaller than on the mission simulator,” Young managed to complete the task.
The evaluation of meals undertaken by Young for future long-duration flights on Gemini proved to be one of the high spots for Grissom during the mission. Sealed in plastic bags, the dehydrated food had to be reconstituted using a water gun. Young reconstituted packages of applesauce and grapefruit juice, and opened a package of chicken bits, which “were not very tasty and were rather difficult to get out of the package while wearing pressure-suit gloves,” he said. The brownies provided for dessert proved to be the “best-tasting thing on the flight,” according to Young.
Young also had another item, not on NASA’s official menu, to sample. As Grissom monitored Molly Brown’s performance, he was surprised to hear Young nonchalantly inquire: “You care for a corned beef sandwich, skipper?” Grissom, who noted that if he could have fallen out of his couch he would have, thanked his crewmate for the treat and took a bite. Crumbs from the rye bread, however, started floating around the cabin, and the overpowering aroma of kosher corned beef proved too much for the spacecraft’s life-support system to handle, so Grissom put the sandwich away. (According to Wendt, Young later told him Grissom had jokingly complained that the sandwich had no mustard.) For an additional taste treat, he also sampled a bit of Young’s applesauce.
Experiments with sea urchin eggs and a chance to eat the first corned beef sandwich in space paled in comparison with the opportunity the astronauts had to investigate the worthiness of America’s new space vehicle. One hour and thirty-three minutes after liftoff, Grissom achieved a space first when he fired the Orbital Attitude and Manuevering System to slow the spacecraft’s speed to fifty feet per second, changing its path into nearly a circular orbit. Over the Indian Ocean on Molly Brown’s second orbit, the commander tested the ship’s translational movement, using the forward and aft thrusters to change its orbital path by one-fiftieth of a degree, paving the way for future Gemini rendezvous and docking missions. Finally, four hours and twenty-one minutes into the flight, Grissom again activated the OAMS in a preretrofire maneuver to ensure reentry in case of a problem with the retro-rockets. “Gus felt so good about all this that he even let me fly the Molly Brown for a few minutes,” said Young. “I thought I’d have to break his arm to take over even for that long.”
The final maneuver proved to be unnecessary as the spacecraft’s retro-rockets fired on schedule and the astronauts were pushed back into their couches by the g forces caused by reentry. Both astronauts reported that the view they had of reentry matched the simulations they had gone through during training, including the color pictures taken from the unmanned Gemini 2 mission. Molly Brown’s onboard computer indicated to the astronauts they would land short of the expected splashdown point near the recovery carrier, the USS Intrepid. Grissom performed two banking maneuvers to correct the error, but discovered that the lift predicted in wind-tunnel tests did not match real-world results. The crew experienced another surprise when the spacecraft’s main parachute deployed. The parachute’s harness was designed to change from a vertical position to a forty-five degree landing attitude. “John and I were both thrown against our windows, and I banged into a knob that punctured my face plate,” Grissom noted. “John’s face plate was scratched.”
At 2:17 p.m., four hours and fifty-three minutes after liftoff, Molly Brown splashed down near Grand Truk Island in the Bahamas about nine-and-a-half miles from the Coast Guard cutter Diligence, stationed fifty miles up range from the Intrepid.
Grissom’s first thought when the spacecraft hit the water flashed back to his experience in Mercury: “Oh my God, here we go again!” Gemini had been designed so that the left window, the one Grissom looked out of, would be above the water after landing. Instead of looking at blue sky, however, the astronaut saw nothing but seawater. Grissom soon realized he had not yet cut loose the main parachute that had been catching the twenty-knot wind, dragging the spacecraft “underneath like a submarine.”
With the memory of his LibertyBell 7 mission still fresh in his mind, Grissom mustered his nerve, reached out, and triggered the parachute-release switch. “But with the parachute gone,” he said, “we bobbed to the surface like a cork in the position we were supposed to take.” As Grissom and Young breathed easier, an Air Rescue Service C-54 aircraft dropped a pararescue team near the spacecraft to render assistance if needed. Five minutes later, a navy helicopter dropped another team that secured a flotation collar around the spacecraft.
An early communication to the astronauts had indicated the Intrepid only five miles away from the spacecraft, prompting Grissom and Young to remain in Molly Brown until the carrier’s arrival. Twenty minutes later, however, they learned of the carrier’s true position, approximately fifty-five miles away, and that the ship would take almost two hours to reach their position. “We were getting extremely uncomfortable in our suits; so we elected to take the suits off, egress, and be picked up by helicopter,” said Grissom, who kept the hatches closed so as to not repeat his Mercury misadventure. (The astronaut said if the Gemini spacecraft had sunk, he would have “jumped right off that carrier.”)
The hot temperatures in the closed cabin, combined with five-foot swells, caused both astronauts to become seasick. Navy veteran Young barely held onto his meal, but Grissom vomited into a plastic bag stowed for just such an emergency. “It’s a wonderful spacecraft, but it’s not much of a boat,” said Young. Navy frogmen assisted Grissom in opening his three-hundred-pound hatch and exiting the capsule. “That’s the first time I ever heard of a skipper leaving the ship first,” Young said. Grissom responded by joking that he made his partner captain when he left the spacecraft. With his new title, Young renamed the spacecraft the USS Molly Brown.
Safe aboard the recovery helicopter, Grissom and Young donned regulation navy bathrobes to cover their space long johns. The outfits gave the duo the “appearance of a couple of guys waking up after a big night at a convention,” Grissom noted as they landed on the carrier and underwent a postflight medical examination and debriefing. The Intrepid hoisted the Gemini capsule onto its deck at 5:01 p.m. The astronauts received a congratulatory ship-to-shore telephone call from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had watched the mission on a television in his office. After expressing his and the nation’s pride in their accomplishment, Johnson told Grissom, first on the phone, that “apparently the Molly Brown was as unsinkable as her namesake and we are all mighty happy about it.” The only problem with the flight was that it did not last long enough, Young told the president, who responded by telling the astronaut he’d try to work something out in the days ahead. Johnson also invited both men to visit him at the White House—quite an honor for two men whose pay for the day, according to Associated Press figures, totaled just seventy dollars ($37.25 for Grissom and $32.75 for Young).
Upon their return to Cape Kennedy from the Intrepid via a navy S2 aircraft, Grissom and Young were greeted by their family members and an air force band playing the theme song from the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown before being whisked away to undergo additional physical examinations. After the medical probing, the astronauts were upbeat and talkative during a press conference about their mission. Evert Clark, covering the event for the New York Times, noted that the reticent spacemen “turned out to be two of the funniest on the ground,” joking and feeding each other “straight lines like two comedians.”
Asked about the change in their demeanor, Young explained: “I think Zero-G flight could make an extrovert out of anybody.” He became particularly verbose when talking about the tremendous view from space, drawing applause from the gathered reporters and space officials, prompting Grissom to reply dryly, “Well, to carry on with the flight—.” Grissom made sure to praise the Martin Company, the manufacturer of the Titan II rocket, and had nothing but high marks for the McDonnell Aircraft–produced Gemini.
On March 26, Grissom, Young, and their families journeyed to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony with President Johnson in the East Room of the White House (cloudy weather had forced the proceedings inside from the Rose Garden). Calling the duo “two brave, patriotic, gallant, exceptional young Americans,” Johnson presented each with NASA’s Exceptional Service Award, with Grissom receiving another citation for becoming the first person to fly in space twice. The astronaut accepted the honors as “tokens of affection of this nation” for the entire space effort. Young became so wrapped up in the proceedings that he forgot to shake the president’s hand until prompted to by the crowd. “I didn’t have this kind of heart beat before the launch,” joked Young.
The honors continued in the next few days as Grissom and Young were treated to ticker-tape parades in New York City and Chicago. Grissom attributed the outpouring of goodwill the astronauts received to the public’s relief at having America “back in the manned-space-flight business with probably the most sophisticated spacecraft in the world, or out of it.”
Despite the tributes paid to the astronauts, controversy soon developed after the flight concerning the corned beef sandwich briefly enjoyed by Grissom on Molly Brown. At first, the astronauts had no inkling that the nonregulation food might cause any fuss, as they joked about it while discussing the flight in Life magazine just a week after the mission’s conclusion. Some members of Congress, however, failed to see any humor in the situation, with NASA administrator James Webb being peppered with complaints at an appropriations subcommittee hearing that the space agency “had lost control of its astronauts.” Flight Controller Christopher Kraft noted that some congressmen and doctors had the mistaken idea the astronauts had compromised medical tests by ingesting the sandwich, which they had not. The complaints eventually made their way to Slayton, who had given Young permission to take the sandwich on the flight. Slayton officially informed the astronauts they could not take “unauthorized items, especially food, aboard the spacecraft. I even had to give poor John a formal reprimand . . . not that it affected his career.”
In addition to the textbook flight of Molly Brown, the year 1965 saw NASA launch four more Gemini missions, achieving several triumphs in the process, including Ed White’s space walk on Gemini 4 and the first true rendezvous in space with Gemini 6, crewed by Stafford and Schirra, meeting up and flying with Gemini 7’s crew of Frank Boorman and Jim Lovell.
As the Gemini program continued, Slayton turned his attention to the future Apollo missions, scheduled for earth orbital flights before the end of 1966. With Shepard still out of commission due to his medical condition, Slayton again turned to Grissom to take command of the new space program’s first mission. Because the flight would take place without a lunar module, the remainder of Grissom’s crew included astronauts with little experience, including rookies Donn Eisele and Roger Chaffee. Eisele injured his shoulder in a zero-g flight in a KC-135 aircraft and had to be replaced. “He was going to be behind the training curve right from the start, so I simply swapped him with Ed White, who I’d originally had down as senior pilot of the next crew, Apollo 2,” said Slayton, who called Grissom, Chaffee, and White into his office to inform them privately of their selection for the mission.
Gaining the plum Apollo assignment caused Grissom to begin thinking about the dream of every astronaut—becoming the first man to walk on the moon. Jim Rathmann, the racecar driver and Grissom friend, remembered sharing many flights in his airplane with Grissom where the astronaut often talked about the possibility. “We’d all talk about it quite a bit,” said Rathmann, who along with Grissom and Cooper twice sponsored a car at the Indianapolis 500. “He wanted to be the first man on the moon and I thought he was the logical guy because of his attitude, his motivation and everything.”
In the backs of everyone’s minds, however, lurked the dangers involved with space travel, especially the approximately 239,000-mile trip to the moon. Rathmann and Grissom were returning home one day from Milwaukee aboard Rathmann’s aircraft when the astronaut realized they were not far from Mitchell. “You know,” said Grissom, “they’re going to name that airfield down there after me. Man, I don’t like that. They just name those airports after dead people.” Grissom even confided to his wife that if NASA ever had a serious accident, it would likely involve him because of his long service with America’s space program.
Grissom was proved tragically right—as he and his fellow crewmates lost their lives on January 27, 1967, in the tragic Apollo 1 fire. Grissom had known the risks involved with spaceflight, telling reporters: "If we die, we want people to accept it, and hope it will not delay the space program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of human life."