Toughest. Hoosier. Ever.

Boy or girl, living or dead, right or wrong, who would be considered the toughest Hoosier that ever walked the cornfields of Indiana? That’s a good question. So…I thought about it and thought about it and got sick of thinking about it and thought about it some more until I decided. 

Gus Grissom.

For those that don’t know, Gus Grissom holds a revered place in national history as one of the original astronauts recruited by NASA in 1959, only a year after the agency itself was born.

Gus Grissom hailed from Mitchell, Indiana, a small(ish) town in south central Indiana. As a boy, he’d sneak away between delivering Indianapolis Star newspapers or participating in the Boy Scouts to watch the planes come and go at a small airport in nearby Bedford, Indiana, (the Limestone Capital of the World).

A VERY YOUNG GRISSOM, 1944

He volunteered for service during World War II and became a trained aviator, although the war ended before he saw combat. Instead, he got married and took advantage of the GI Bill, attending Purdue University and earning a degree in mechanical engineering in three-and-a-half years.

After graduation, he re-enlisted and served during the Korean War, his one hundred combat missions earning him a Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal…and the hope to fly some more. But the Air Force decided Grissom would better serve as an instructor than a combat pilot. He taught for a short period of time, then requested a transfer to a post in Dayton, Ohio, where he served as a test pilot for experimental fighter planes. 

And completely unaware that the forefathers of America’s space program were looking in that exact profession for the first batch of astronauts. 

In 1959, after almost being rejected for his allergies, Grissom became one of seven astronauts selected for Project Mercury, aptly named the ‘Mercury 7’.  And that is the exact reason why he earned my vote for the toughest Hoosier ever.

Not convinced? I understand. I might not be either. But we are sitting in relative comfort, casually scanning a posted article on a mobile device that contains more computing power than a thousand Apollo missions. Well, you are anyway. I’m working on writing this thing.

We cannot conceive of the iron guts it took to climb into those Mercury capsules, which were nothing more than steel cans packed with instruments, perched atop a tower boiling with thousands of gallons of ethyl alcohol. A tower that had originally served as a nuclear missile, by the way, and didn’t have the best record in the early testing stages

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Like the other astronauts, Grissom sat and waited for the rocket to be ignited—for someone to literally put a match to a tower of alcohol and oxygen—and fling him up sixty miles into suborbital space with force equivalent to having two locomotives strapped to his back. Pilots only in the loosest sense, the Mercury 7 were at the mercy of engineers, scientists and bureaucrats. One misplaced decimal would mean a fierce and fiery end, but not necessarily quick.

Astronauts were and are tough with a capital GUTS. Ever read about the time Buzz Aldrin decked a conspiracy theorist? At the age of 72.

All the astronauts involved in NASA’s early projects, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, knew how dangerous the profession was, and how futile their skills might be in the vacuum of space. Even in that rarefied circle, Grissom stands out as the only one of the Mercury 7 to serve in all three projects.

RESCUE COPTER FIGHTING TO SAVE CAPSULE

His career in space almost came to an abrupt end right after he earned a place in history as the third human in space. The Liberty Bell 7, his Mercury space capsule, touched down in the Atlantic Ocean and as the rescue helicopter hooked onto the spacecraft, its emergency hatch blew out.  Ocean water began filling the vessel and Grissom himself dived into the ocean, still wearing his spacesuit. The rescue copter saved Grissom and desperately tried to save the capsule, which contained a variety of valuable scientific experiments, but the water weight proved too much.The helicopter unhooked and the capsule fell into the abyss. 

Grissom’s reputation was tarnished by the incident, although neither NASA nor his fellow astronauts blamed him, at least publicly. The one unforgivable sin in the world of test pilots and astronauts is to rattle under pressure, and a few suspected Grissom had panicked during the rescue and blew the hatch himself.  The official NASA investigation laid the capsule’s loss at the feet of mechanical error…but rumors and whispers floated around. 

LIBERTY BELL 7 ON THE OCEAN FLOOR

It would take almost forty years, long after Grissom’s death, before the Liberty Bell 7 would be lifted from the ocean floor and his reputation completely redeemed. Grissom would later be honored as the commander of the first Gemini flight and then as the commander of Apollo 1, NASA’s first steps toward the moon

As Grissom and his two-man crew, Ed White and Roger Chafee, sat in the Apollo 1 capsule for a series of tests, helping engineers work out problems in the buggy spacecraft.  The space was cramped, wires hung in loose bundles around the spacecraft’s interior and the atmosphere was pure oxygen, a fatal mistake.

Later on, after the fire had died and the charred bodies of Grissom, White and Chaffee were pulled out of the capsule, investigators would blame their deaths on a combination of factors: exposed wiring, the 100% oxygen atmosphere and the poorly-designed escape hatch, which was impossible for a person to open manually under a pressurized atmosphere. The loss of the three astronauts devastated the agency, stalling the Apollo project for months.

Grissom’s time as an astronaut was short-lived, but in that short time he gained the respect of every engineer, pilot and fellow astronaut that knew him, despite the rumors swirling around the Liberty Bell 7 incident.  Deke Slayton, NASA chief wrangler and decision-maker for the astronauts, said Grissom was his first choice to be the first man to walk on the Moon. The tragedy of Apollo 1 cut that dream short.

There you go. Toughest. Hoosier. Ever. You may not agree with me, or may have other suggestions. If so, I’d love to hear them. But I stick with the decision. The kind of guts it took to sit in that liquid-filled Roman candle, a hundred feet in the air, and pray that some pencil-pusher didn’t misplace a zero or that one of five thousand bolts wasn’t loose…

I can’t even fathom.