27 January 1967: During a “plugs out” test of the Apollo 1 Command Module, two weeks ahead of the scheduled launch of the Apollo/Saturn 1B AS-204—the first manned Apollo Program space flight—a fire broke out in the pressurized pure oxygen environment of the capsule and rapidly involved the entire interior.
The pressure rapidly built to 29 pounds per square inch (200 kPa) and 17 seconds later, at 23:31:19.4 UTC, the capsule ruptured.
The three astronauts, Lieutenant Colonel Virgil I. Grissom, United States Air Force, Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. White II, United States Air Force, and Lieutenant Commander Roger B. Chaffee, United States Navy, were killed.
AD ASTRA PER ASPERA
NASA has a detailed summary of the accident and investigation at:
21 July 1961: At 7:20:36 a.m. Eastern Time (12:20:36 UTC), NASA Astronaut, Captain Virgil Ivan (“Gus”) Grissom, United States Air Force, was launched from Launch Complex 5, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, aboard Mercury-Redstone 4.
This was the second manned flight of Project Mercury. Grissom’s Mercury space craft was named Liberty Bell 7. The Mercury space craft was a one-man capsule built by McDonnell Aircraft. The Redstone launch vehicle was a highly-modified version of a liquid-fueled U.S. Army ballistic missile.
The Redstone rocket accelerated to Mach 6.97 (5,168 miles per hour, 8,317 kilometers per hour). Grissom experienced a maximum 6.3 gs of acceleration on climbout.When the booster engine shut down, the Mercury capsule was released and continued upward on a ballistic trajectory. The peak altitude reached by Liberty Bell 7 was 102.8 nautical miles (118.3 statute miles, or 190.4 kilometers). The maximum velocity, relative to Earth, was 6,618 feet per second (2,017 meters per second). Grissom was “weightless” for 5.00 minutes. The capsule traveled downrange and landed in the Atlantic Ocean 262.5 nautical (302.1 statute miles, or 486.2 kilometers) from Cape Canaveral. During the reentry phase, the maximum deceleration of Liberty Bell 7 reached 11.1 gs. Total duration of the flight was 15 minutes, 37 seconds.
Several minutes after landing in the ocean, the hatch of the spacecraft was jettisoned by explosive bolts¹ and the craft began to fill with water. Though one of the recovery helicopters, a Sikorsky HUS-1 Seahorse, Bu. No. 148755 ² (Call sign “Hunt Club 1”), piloted by Lieutenants James L. Lewis and John Reinhard, tried to recover Liberty Bell 7, it was too heavy and had to be released. The capsule sank to the ocean floor, 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) below. (The Mercury capsule was recovered from the sea 38 years later, 21 July 1999.) Grissom was picked up by the second helicopter, HUS-1 Bu. No. 148754, “Hunt Club 3.”
Virgil Ivan Grissom was born at Mitchell, Indiana, the second of five children. Upon graduation from high school during World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After the war, he went to Purdue University and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in engineering, then joined the U.S. Air Force and was trained as a fighter pilot. He flew 100 combat missions in the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre during the Korean War. He attended a one year program at the Air Force Institute of Technology and earned a second Bachelor’s degree in aircraft engineering. Next he went to the test pilot school at Edwards AFB. After completion, he was assigned as a fighter test pilot at Wright-Patterson AFB.
One of 508 pilots who were considered by NASA for Project Mercury, Gus Grissom was in the group of 110 that were asked to attend secret meetings for further evaluation. From that group, 32 went on with the selection process and finally 18 were recommended for the program. Grissom was one of the seven selected.
Captain Grissom was the second American to “ride the rocket.” He named his space capsule Liberty Bell 7. Next he orbited Earth as commander of Gemini III along with fellow astronaut John Young. He was back-up commander for Gemini VI-A, then went on to the Apollo Program.
As commander of AS-204 (Apollo I), LCOL Virgil I. Grissom, USAF was killed along with Ed White and Roger Chafee in a disastrous launch pad fire, 27 January 1967.
Gus Grissom was an Air Force Command Pilot with over 4,600 hours flight time. He was the first American astronaut to fly into space twice.
Liberty Bell 7 (Mercury spacecraft number 11) differed from Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule with the addition of a large viewing window and a side hatch equipped with explosive bolts. There were also differences in the capsule’s instrument panel, as well as other improvements. The MR-4 capsule was delivered to Cape Canaveral on 7 March 1961. The space capsule was truncated cone with sides angled 20° from the longitudinal axis. It was 6 feet, 10 inches (2.083 meters) long and had a maximum diameter of 6 feet, 2.50 inches (1.892 meters). The total height of the spacecraft, from the tip of the aero spike to the booster adapter, was 26 feet, 1.26 inches (7.957 meters). At launch, Mercury 11 weighed approximately 2,835 pounds (1,286 kilograms), empty.
During flight outside the atmosphere, the Mercury spacecraft could be controlled in its pitch, roll and yaw axes by hydrogen peroxide-fueled reaction control thrusters. Both manual and automatic attitude control were available. It could not accelerate or decelerate (except for reentry) so it could not change its orbit.
The spacecraft cabin was pressurized to 5.5 psi with 100% oxygen. The pilot wore a B.F. Goodrich Mark IV Model 3 Type I full-pressure suit and flight helmet for protection in the event that cabin pressure was lost.
The Redstone MRLV rocket was a redesigned, “man rated” version of the Chrysler-built, United States Army M8 medium-range nuclear-armed ballistic missile. It was lengthened to provide greater fuel capacity, a pressurized instrumentation section was added, the control systems were simplified for greater reliability, and an inflight abort sensing system was installed. The rocket fuel was changed from hydrazine to ethyl alcohol. The cylindrical booster was 59.00 feet (17.983 meters) long and 5 feet, 10 inches (1.778 meters) in diameter. The rocket had four guidance fins with rudders mounted at the tail section. (Interestingly, the Redstone stood freely on the launch pad. No hold-downs were used. The guidance fins supported the entire weight of the vehicle.)
The Redstone MRLV was powered by a single NAA 75-110-A7 liquid-fueled engine built by the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation, Inc., at Canoga Park, California. The A7 produced 78,000 pounds of thrust (346.96 kilonewtons) at Sea Level, and 89,000 pounds (395.89 kilonewtons) in vacuum, burning ethyl alcohol with liquid oxygen.
The total vehicle height of Mercury-Redstone 4, including the booster, adapter, capsule and escape tower, was 83.38 feet (25.414 meters). The total vehicle launch weight was approximately 66,000 pounds (29,937 kilograms).
¹ “The mystery of Grissom’s hatch was never solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Among the favorite hypotheses were that the exterior lanyard might have become entangled with the landing bag straps; that the ring seal might have been omitted on the detonation plunger, reducing the pressure necessary to actuate it; or that static electricity generated by the helicopter had fired the hatch cover. But with the spacecraft and its onboard evidence lying 15,000 feet down on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, it was impossible to determine the true cause.  The only solution was to draft a procedure that would preclude a recurrence: henceforth the astronaut would not touch the plunger pin until the helicopter hooked on and the line was taut. As it turned out, Liberty Bell 7 was the last manned flight in Project Mercury in which helicopter retrieval of the spacecraft was planned. In addition, Grissom would be the only astronaut who used the hatch without receiving a slight hand injury. As he later reminded Glenn, Schirra, and Cooper, this helped prove he had not touched his hatch plunger.” —This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, by Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander. NASA Special Publication SP-4201, 1989
² After retiring from military service, Sikorsky HUS-1 Seahorse Bu. No. 147755 (redesignated UH-34D in 1962) was sold to the civil market, and was registered N4216H, 10 March 1981. It was owned by Orlando Helicopter Airways, Inc., Orlando, Florida. The FAA registration was cancelled in 2013. The status of the helicopter is not known.
“The selection procedures for Project Mercury were directed by a NASA selection committee, consisting of Charles Donlan, a senior management engineer; Warren North, a test pilot engineer; Stanley White and William Argerson, flight surgeons; Allen Gamble and Robert Voas psychologists; and George Ruff and Edwin Levy, psychiatrists. The committee recognized that the unusual conditions associated with spaceflight are similar to those experienced by military test pilots. In January 1959, the committee received and screened 508 service records of a group of talented test pilots, from which 110 candidates were assembled. Less than one month later, through a variety of interviews and a battery of written tests, the NASA selection committee pared down this group to 32 candidates.
“Each candidate endured even more stringent physical, psychological, and mental examinations, including total body x-rays, pressure suit tests, cognitive exercises, and a series of unnerving interviews. Of the 32 candidates, 18 were recommended for Project Mercury without medical reservations. On April 1, 1959, Robert Gilruth, the head of the Space Task Group, and Donlan, North, and White selected the first American astronauts. The “Mercury Seven” were Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton.”
—40th Anniversary of the Selection of the Mercury Seven http://history.nasa.gov/40thmerc7/intro.htm
23 March 1965: At 14:24:00 UTC, Gemini III was launched aboard a Titan II GLV rocket from Launch Complex 19 at the Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Major Virgil I. (“Gus”) Grissom, United States Air Force, a Project Mercury veteran, was the Spacecraft Commander, and Lieutenant Commander John W. Young, United States Navy, was the pilot.
The purpose of the mission was to test spacecraft orbital maneuvering capabilities that would be necessary in later flights of the Gemini and Apollo programs. Gemini III made three orbits of the Earth, and splashed down after 4 hours, 52 minutes, 31 seconds. Miscalculations of the Gemini capsule’s aerodynamics caused the spacecraft to miss the intended splash down point by 50 miles (80 kilometers). Gemini III splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, north east of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The recovery ship was USS Intrepid (CV-11).
Gus Grissom would later command the flight crew of Apollo 1. He was killed with his crew during the tragic fire during a pre-launch test, 27 January 1967.
John Young served as Spacecraft Commander for Gemini 10, Command Module Pilot on Apollo 10, back-up commander for Apollo 13, commander Apollo 16, and back-up commander for Apollo 17. Later, he was commander of the maiden flight of the space shuttle Columbia STS-1 and again for STS-9 and was in line to command STS-61J.
The two-man Gemini spacecraft was built by the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis, the same company that built the earlier Mercury space capsule. The spacecraft consisted of a reentry module and an adapter section. It had an overall length of 19 feet (5.791 meters) and a diameter of 10 feet (3.048 meters) at the base of the adapter section. The reentry module was 11 feet (3.353 meters) long with a diameter of 7.5 feet (2.347 meters). The weight of the Gemini varied from ship to ship but was approximately 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms)
The Titan II GLV was a “man-rated” variant of the Martin SM-68B intercontinental ballistic missile. It was assembled at Martin’s Middle River, Maryland plant so as not to interfere with the production of the ICBM at Denver, Colorado. Twelve GLVs were ordered by the Air Force for the Gemini Program.
The Titan II GLV was a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket. The first stage was 63 feet (19.202 meters) long with a diameter of 10 feet (3.048 meters). The second stage was 27 feet (8.230 meters) long, with the same diameter. The 1st stage was powered by an Aerojet Engineering Corporation LR-87-7 engine which combined two combustion chambers and exhaust nozzles with a single turbopump unit. The engine was fueled by a hypergolic combination of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. Ignition occurred spontaneously as the two components were combined in the combustion chambers. The LR-87-7 produced 430,000 pounds of thrust. It was not throttled and could not be shut down and restarted. The 2nd stage used an Aerojet LR-91 engine which produced 100,000 pounds of thrust.
The Gemini/Titan II GLV combination had a total height of 109 feet (33.223 meters) and weighed approximately 340,000 pounds (154,220 kilograms) when fueled.
The Gemini III spacecraft is displayed at the Grissom Memorial Museum, Spring Mill State Park, Mitchell, Indiana.
21 February 1961: Final training begins for Mercury 7 astronauts. Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn are selected for the initial flights. Left-to-Right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.
The aircraft in the photograph is a Convair F-106B-75-CO Delta Dart, 59-0158, a two-place supersonic interceptor trainer.