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second American in space; first person to go into space twice
Virgil Ivan Grissom was born in Mitchell, Indiana, on April 3, 1926, the eldest of Dennis and Cecile Grissom's four children, which included two brothers, Norman and Lowell, and one sister, Wilma. He graduated from Mitchell High School in 1944. Although he excelled in math, he only pulled average grades in his other subjects.
Grissom enlisted as an aviation cadet as a high school senior, and reported for duty following graduation. He took a short leave in July 1945 to marry high school sweetheart Betty Moore (with whom he would have two children) and returned to the base with high hopes of receiving flight instructions and flying combat missions, but the war ended before he could receive his training. After assignment to a series of routine desk jobs, he was discharged in November 1945.
After leaving the Air Force, Grissom initially returned to Mitchell, where he worked at Carpenter's Bus Body Works. Not satisfied with that kind of employment, however, he decided to further his education at Purdue University. While he attended classes during the day, his wife worked as a long distance operator. After class, he worked flipping burgers at a local diner. He received his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1950.
Still hoping to become a pilot, Grissom re-enlisted in the Air Force, finished air cadet training, and, in March 1951, won his wings. In 1952 he was shipped out to Korea, where he flew one hundred combat missions as a fighter pilot in six months. After his request to fly another twenty-five missions was denied, he was sent back to the states, having earned both the Air Medal with cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross during his tour of duty. He spent the next several years in a variety of assignments, including as a a flight instructor for new cadets. In addition to his duties as an instructor, Grissom spent as much time as he could racking up extra flight hours and honing his flying skills. After receiving additional instruction at the Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, Grissom attended test pilot school at Edwards AFB. He received his test pilot credentials in 1957 and was transferred back to Wright-Patterson, where he specialized in testing new jet fighters.
On April 13, 1959, Grissom was named as one of the first seven Mercury astronauts. On July 21, 1961, he became the second American to go into space, as pilot of the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft. This flight lasted 15 minutes and 37 seconds, attained an altitude of 118 statute miles, and traveled 302 miles downrange from the launch pad at Cape Kennedy. The flight itself went well, but almost ended in complete disaster. While waiting for the recovery team to make contact, the hatch on the capsule suddenly blew open and the capsule began taking on water. Grissom was able to get out of the capsule, but then had to endure rough sea conditions while waiting for the recovery helicopter to pick him up. Grissom was finally safely plucked out of the water, but the Liberty Bell 7 ended up sinking. Why the hatch blew open prematurely remained a mystery until after the capsule was recovered from the seabed in 1999; close examination of the hatch area showed that it suffered damage during re-entry and that that damage likely caused the hatch to blow prematurely.
In 1964, Alan Shepard was grounded after being diagnosed with an inner ear disorder and Grissom was named to replace him as command pilot on Gemini III, the first manned Project Gemini flight. When that mission lifted off on March 23, 1965, Grissom became the first person to fly in space twice. The 3-orbit flight lasted for 4 hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds, during which time Grissom and John Young carried out a few scientific experiments and accomplished the first orbital trajectory modifications.
After Gemini III, Grissom served as backup command pilot for Gemini VI, and was subsequently named to serve as command pilot of AS-204, the first 3-man Apollo flight. Lieutenant Colonel Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White died on January 27, 1967, during a launch pad test at Kennedy Space Center.
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This page was last updated on 10/16/2017.