Warbirds and Airshows
By David D Jackson

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Indiana Museums - Aviation, Military, Automotive and Fire

Virgil I. Grissom Memorial
Spring Mill State Park
Mitchell, IN

Date Visited:  1-28-2017

Maligned by the press, not supported by NASA management, portrayed after his death by a near criminally incorrect account in Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" and movie by the same name, Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom has been delegated by these organizations and individuals to the dust bin of history.

The Virgil I. Grissom Memorial at Spring Mill Park in south central Indiana does not directly confront or address these issues.  But does give an excellent view into who Gus Grissom really was in a positive manner and the visitor comes away from the Memorial/Museum with a new and different view of Grissom than portrayed by the incorrect "The Right Stuff."

And until 2016, there was no documentation of who and what happened in Gus Grissom's life until the publication of "Calculated Risk - The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" by George Leopold, and published by the Purdue University Press.  This biography of Gus Grissom was for sale at the gift shop in the memorial and I purchased one on the way out.  I am glad I did, as I have learned a lot about not only the real Gus Grissom, but many of the happenings behind the scenes at NASA that influenced his life and lead to to his tragic and unnecessary death in 1967.

With what I learned in the "Calculated Risk", this report on my trip to the Memorial/Museum has expanded to address some of the incorrect portrayals of Gus Grissom in the media, and has taken me to a second Indiana museum and Purdue University.

Mis-portrayal of Gus Grissom Number 1:  In the movie "The Right Stuff" Gus Grissom is portrayed spending his time drinking beer with Gordon Cooper at Poncho's Bar outside of what is now Edwards AFB in California when the search for the original Mercury Astronauts began.  This is false.  In 1958 Grissom was an all weather flight test pilot at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH where he racked up most of his 2,500 hours of jet time.  What is true, is while at test pilot school at in 1956 at Edwards AFB Gus and Gordon Cooper did spend time in the evenings at Juanita's Bar and Grill.  Pancho.s Happy Bottom Riding Club burned down in 1953 and was not rebuilt.

 Gus Grissom was summoned to Washington, DC from his position at Wright-Patterson along with 109 other test pilots.  While the move The Right Stuff portrays Grissom as somewhat of a dim witted test pilot, while at Wright-Patterson he earned a Master's degree in Aero-Mechanics from the US Air Force Institute of Technology.  This is a normally a two year program that Grissom did in one year.  Grissom is listed by the Institute as one of its distinguished graduates.  So is General Jimmy Doolittle.  This was not the first time Grissom graduated from an engineering program early. 

This is more than just a visit to the Gus Grissom Memorial at Spring Mill Park in south central Indiana.  It is compilation of four locations related to the life, and death of Gus Grissom.  


Gus Grissom's boyhood home in Mitchell, IN.  This is very much like the house I grew up in.


Three miles to the east of the boyhood home in Spring Mill State Park is the Memorial.


Inside the entrance to the Memorial.  For Gus Grissom the American Dream was being the first person on the moon.  One of the many risks was an Apollo spacecraft with a pure oxygen environment and a haphazardly build and wired Apollo spacecraft.  Grissom was afraid if he complained about the obvious fire hazard, NASA would fire him, and he would not be the first on the moon. This was his "Calculated Risk."  


Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom graduated from Mitchell High School in 1945, and immediately joined the Army Air Force as an enlisted person.  With the end of the war he was released, returned home, got married, and went work in the local school bus factory.  Deciding building school buses for the rest of his life was not in his long term plans, he quit his job and enrolled at Purdue University. 

  Note the date on the diploma.  He graduated a semester early from Purdue Engineering School.  He did this through shear will power and determination.  Once he decided what he wanted to do, he was relentless in pursuing his goal.  His goal was to graduate, join the US Air Force, and become a pilot.

A word on the photography.  The memorial is not well lighted, and I had to use flash.  Most of the displays are behind glass or Plexiglas, so in many of the photos there is glare and reflections of the flash.  The photos are many times offset to keep the reflections to the side of the photo.


As the movie "Right Stuff" portrayed, Lyndon Johnson provided Stetson hats for the Mercury astronauts.  This is Grissom's Stetson.


Gus Grissom flew 100 F-86 missions in Korea where he was the wing man for the squadron commander.  While he never shot down a Mig, his squadron commander was never shot down.  He had 4,600 total flight hours and 3,500 hours in jet powered aircraft.


 Gus Grissom earned a B.S. in Aero-Mechanics while a test pilot and completed the two year program in one year.


The original Mercury 7 Astronauts.


"The Molly Brown", the Gemini III spacecraft that took Mission Commander Gus Grissom and pilot John Young on three orbits around the earth.  While the "Right Stuff" made much ado about the blowing of the hatch of Grissom's Mercury landing, NASA would not have kept him on and let him command another mission, if it thought he was the screw-up as portrayed in the movie.  Neither would he have been commander of the ill fated Apollo 1.


McDonnell-Douglas was the contractor for the Gemini spacecraft.  Grissom was the point person for NASA at McDonnell-Douglas for the project and he made sure that the spacecraft had the features needed.  His determination of what was needed overcame resistance on the part of the contractor to make needed changes to its original design.  Gus Grissom determination won out.  NASA knew who they could send to get the job done properly.


The heat shield was cored out in several areas.  One has to assume this was to test the how well the heat shield performed during re-entry.


At Grissom's insistence the Gemini capsules had ejection seats, and modular electronic boxes that could be pulled out and replaced without rewiring the capsule.


There is also a short video at the end of the tour.  It is very good and helps complete the story of Gus Grissom.

Two hours and 96 miles to the north of the Grissom Memorial is the Indianapolis Children's Museum in Indianapolis.  On current display through November 2018 in its space exhibit is Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7, which sank to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean on July 21, 1961.  One can see both of Grissom's spacecraft in one day if they plan accordingly.


My wife and I spend visit the Children's Museum about twice a month with our grandchildren.  My three year old grandson one day went through a door into a room we did not realize had a display in it.  There was Liberty Bell 7, which I thought was still on the bottom of the ocean.  Leave to it to a three year old to enlighten me as to my mistaken assumption!   Liberty Bell 7 was recovered on July 20,1999.


After 38 years on the ocean floor, the spacecraft has been restored to original condition. 


There is an excellent twenty minute film shown several times day on Grissom's space shot in this spacecraft.  It is well worth the visit.  Once of the claims made by the NASA management after the sinking of the capsule, was that Gus Grissom was near hysterical in the capsule and was trying to get out.  This is crap!  During the presentations at the Indy Children's Museum one listens to the audio tape of the launch, time in space and landing.  Gus Grissom was Mr. Cool during all phases of his Mercury space trip.  He was the consummate test pilot/astronaut!

Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN - March 2, 2017


After returning from a short time in the enlisted ranks of the Army Air Force at the end of WWII, Gus Grissom returned home and built school buses for a while.  Realizing he didn't want to do that for the rest of his life, he enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering program at Purdue University.  In the background is the Purdue Union, which would play an important part in his life.


Gus Grissom graduated one term early from the Purdue Engineering school, while at the end working three jobs to cover tuition and living expenses for he and his wife.  Graduating a term early from the Purdue Engineering school, or any engineering school for that matter, is not easy.  Gus Grissom was diffinately not the doofus he was made out to be in "The Right Stuff."  One morning his last term he and a friend were walking by the steps of the Purdue Union where an Air Force recruiter was standing.  This is when and where Gus Grissom started his flying and astronaut career.


After Gus Grissom's death in 1967 this building was renamed in his honor by Purdue University.


Inside the door is this small display.

Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida - July 18, 2012
Launch Complex 34


The plaque placed on the site where three astronauts perished covers up the fact that they died because of bad management and engineering by NASA and North American Aviation, the prime contractor of the Apollo Space Capsule.  All three astronauts were very concerned about the sad state of the Apollo capsule.  They did expect and accident, but thought it would be during a space flight, and not on the ground.  They all thought they would die in space.

 

 

 


 
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