60 years ago Lt. Col. Virgil Grissom makes history

  • Published
  • By Maj. Neil Samson
  • 434 ARW Public Affairs
Sixty years ago today, Air Force Lt. Col. Virgil “Gus” Grissom flew into space aboard a Redstone rocket, to become the second American in space.

On July 21, 1961 Grissom piloted 15 minutes, 37 seconds of this suborbital flight, two months after fellow NASA astronaut Navy Lt. Cmdr. Alan Shepard Jr. made his suborbital spaceflight to become the first American astronaut.

“The challenges faced and overcome by the pioneers of early spaceflight were immense achievements.” said Brian Knowles, 434th Air Refueling Wing historian. “For them, sending a human into the unknown environment of space was extremely risky in every aspect of the attempt, from launch to recovery was an experimental and dangerous process.”

Grissom and Shepard would lead the first two of six NASA Mercury program flights, and this program proved astronauts could function in space.
While Grissom’s 15 minutes in space was brief, in following years, he would set the precedent for future missions to the moon.

In 1964, Grissom was designated as the first mission commander of the NASA Gemini program, which unlike previous NASA Mercury program spaceflights, would launch humans into space with a two-astronaut crew.

Grissom and Navy Cmdr. John Young would pilot Gemini 3 on March 23, 1965 aboard a more powerful Titan II rocket, with the critical mission task of testing all of Gemini 3 spacecraft’s operating systems in order to ensure steering the spacecraft in Earth’s orbit was possible. This flight was a significant milestone for Grissom, who would be the first American to travel to space twice.

The ability to change orbit and flight path was critical to the success of future Gemini spaceflights and Apollo missions to the moon, which would execute rendezvous and docking procedures with another spacecraft in orbit.

After three orbits of the earth, the Gemini 3 successfully met all mission objectives, which meant a step closer to reaching the moon. Gemini 3 would be followed by nine Gemini manned missions in the following four years.

Riding on the success of the NASA Gemini program, Grissom was named the first commander of the NASA Apollo Program, which narrowed their sites on the moon.

Unfortunately, on January 27, 1967, Grissom, along with fellow Apollo 1 crewmates Air Force Lt. Col. Ed White II and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Roger Chaffee, died in a fire that engulfed their capsule while on a Cape Kennedy Launchpad performing their routine, “plugs-out” test.

From the tragedy crucial lessons were learned, but that helped NASA successfully propel the first humans to the moon on July 20, 1969.

“On May 12, 1968, Bunker Hill AFB was renamed in his honor, later designated a Reserve installation in 1994, the name was officially changed to Grissom Air Reserve Base,” said Knowles.

On this day, we not only remember Grissom’s first space flight, but for all the countless contributions and the ultimate sacrifice he made so that humans could set foot on the moon.