ANDERSON, Ind. — Indiana author and historian Ray E. Boomhower believes Virgil “Gus” Grissom, one of the original American astronauts, has been lost in time and unfairly characterized over the years in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” and in the 1983 movie adaptation.
So Boomhower’s set out to correct the perception of Grissom as the astronaut who “screwed the pooch,” according to Wolfe, for blowing too soon the hatch off his suborbital Mercury spacecraft, Liberty Bell 7, causing water to flood and sink it.
Boomhower said that’s the purpose of his latest book, “Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut.”
“Unfortunately, Gus, although remembered fondly by people in Mitchell (Indiana, his hometown) and throughout the rest of the state, has the unfortunate legacy of being remembered by many as responsible for allowing his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after the conclusion of his July 21, 1961, mission,” said Boomhower.
“Both Tom Wolfe’s book ‘The Right Stuff,’ and the movie of the same name, treat Grissom as the goat and infer that he panicked and purposely blew the hatch. That depiction is inaccurate — Grissom did not panic. The best indication of Grissom not being to blame is the fact that NASA cleared him of any wrongdoing and went ahead and selected him to command the first missions on both the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft.”
Grissom, the second American to fly in space, was 40 years old when he died, along with astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee, in a fire aboard Apollo 1 during a pre-launch test 46 years ago. Grissom was the command pilot of the spacecraft, scheduled to be the first manned mission of the lunar landing program.
Boomhower’s book has been published as part of the Indiana Historical Society Press’ Indiana Biography Series. The Anderson Herald Bulletin posed a few questions to the author:
Q: Where did your interest start with learning about Grissom?
A: I wanted to be an astronaut, a star voyager. As did many who grew up during the hectic 1960s, I became captivated by the adventures of the American space program. Dreaming of traveling among the stars, listening to an album containing the sounds of National Aeronautics and Space Administration missions, and even constructed models of the gigantic Saturn V rocket for my school’s science fair. I remain disappointed to this day at capturing only an honorable mention award for my display.
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 Spring Mill State Park, which is located near Mitchell, Ind. What impressed me was not the 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.”
Q: What did Gus Grissom mean to Indiana?
A: Grissom is still revered in Indiana. To commemorate the end of the 20th century, The Indianapolis Star in December 1999 announced an effort to name the 10 greatest Hoosiers of the past century. 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.
Q: What should he be remembered for?
A: Throughout his career, 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, than I’m glad I can participate,” he told a reporter from Life magazine. Grissom knew the dangers he faced.
Shortly before the tragedy that took his life in the Apollo 1 fire, he told a reporter: “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.”
Scott L. Miley is a writer for the Anderson, Ind., Herald Bulletin.