Friday, March 11, 2016

Gus Grissom and Liberty Bell 7

GusVirgil I. "Gus" Grissom was in Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961.

Everybody liked Gus because he was a straight-forward guy who said what he thought even though not everyone understood what he thought.

I am not even certain that he understood what he thought half the time, but what the hell do I know?

I think of him as the Yogi Berra of the US Space project - Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo - through the 1960s.

He was the second US astronaut aloft after Alan Shephard in the "popgun shot" of Freedom 7 which was designed simply to put a human being beyond the world's atmosphere and bring him home alive.

Gus died along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee in Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.

I can tell you from first-hand experience that NASA has never really gotten over it.

This is why the Johnson Space Center, just outside of Houston, Texas, is the safest place on the friggin' planet. The speed limit on that campus is something like 15 miles per hour, or thereabouts.

No one is taking any chances, I can tell you, at least when I was there in the summer of 2000.

Grissom is considered a hero and he damn-well should be considered one.

If the heinous schmucks in Cologne, last New Years, represent the worst of humanity, Gus  - along with the other steely-eyed missile men - represents the best of us.

I believe that in my soul because I was there doing a little research for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project and spoke with astronauts, men and women, and other NASA personnel.

I even got to meet former Flight Director Gene Kranz simply because he was doing a book tour for Failure is Not an Option, that they turned into the movie Apollo 13 with Ed Harris as Kranz along with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, and Gary Sinise.

Gus Grissom 010I want Grissom to be remembered forever because he, as much as anyone, represents a tremendous turning point in human history... as does Kranz, actually.

This is not just about American History.

This is about a moment in human history that will be remembered long after the US Civil War is forgotten.

I always think that this sounds hokey, but I honestly believe it to be true.

We are the eyes and ears of our planet. We are the means by which Earth is coming to know itself and its relationship with everything around us.

I am sure that all of you have heard of the Hubble Space Telescope.

I bet, however, that a lot of you folk are not familiar with the plans for the James Webb Scope that they are hoping to launch in 2018. Hubble is important, but it resides a mere 300 plus miles from the surface of the Earth. The Web Scope, named after former NASA administrator James Webb, is intended to be launched almost a million miles beyond the surface of our planet.

This instrument, if it functions correctly, will allow humanity to look back to the origins of the universe. Optics is about looking back in time and that is precisely what this thing will do. It will allow us to see the very birth of the universe.

This means it damn-well better work because when we shoot it up there, if it malfunctions like Hubble did, there will be no way to get up there and fix it.

Or so I have read.


Gus actually had kind-of a bad day, that day, and Betty never got to meet Jackie.

"The hatch just blew! Why won't anyone believe me!"

Poor guy.


  1. You met Gene Krantz. That is so cool.
    If the new telescope is going to be 1 million miles from earth, then, yeah, no one is going to go and fix it. I might have mentioned it before, but Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies.
    How is it going with your own telescope? I look at the stars every night, weather permitting. If memory serves, at this time of year you should be able to see the night time sky on a regular basis - no marine layer.

    1. My personal scope has issues because I am just learning how to use telescopes and this Meade Cassegrain, which I picked up used, is not working properly. I really should have just bought a new 6 inch Dobsonian because there are no electronic parts and the design could hardly be simpler.

      It's still Isaac Newtown in 1668.

      My problem with the Meade is that the horizontal lock is not working properly which means it's not possible to use the electronic device that actually moves the scope.

      I'm not real worried about it, tho.

      I have access to the big scopes on top of the hill and it's not as if I am going to make any sort of contribution to astronomical science.

      I just like talking to those guys because they are fucking smart as hell and they are doing work is which is going to change everything.

      In fact, I spoke with one of the main guys at Chabot who told me to bring my Cassegrain up when the Telescope Makers' Workshop is in session on a Friday evening and he'd be happy to take a look. This guy has built his own scopes, so if there anyone who can give me advise on how to fix it, it would be him and his buddies.

      I think that next year I will invest in a 6 inch Dob anyway, because Dobs are the coolest. I would go with an 8 inch Dob, but its really more scope than I can reasonably use.

      Anyways, yeah, I don't want to get all braggy but I spent one summer at the Johnson Space Center and, as you can imagine, it was very interesting... and very friggin' hot! Unless I was an actual astronaut, Houston is definitely not a town that I would want to live in.

      The thing is, I am not a scientist.

      They brought me in soley because I was a grad student in history and I know to write and do research and make proper notions according to standard academic style. But science is something that I fear and respect in a certain kind of way. I am definitely not one of those people in the Humanities who think of science as, I don't know, some white, male, Anglo, endeavor that ultimately works against the interests of "marginalized communities" or whatever crap the sophmores and their profs are telling one another today.

      And, in fact - and this is the braggy part - I was with a group of 6 or 7 researchers and the NASA folks showed us the original Mission Control room where Kranz, and those guys, did what they do back in the day. When they brought us into the room, which at that time was no longer in operation, I had enough piss-and-vinegar in my heart to go straight up the Flight Control seat, the very seat that Kranz occupied during Apollo 13, and sat down immediately as people found their own seats so that we could listen to our introduction to the Oral History Project.

      Our jobs were pretty simple. We were each assigned the names of three guys that we were tasked with researching a writing a relatively short (10 to 12 pages or so) biography of the guy so that interviewers would have some reference material.

      One of my guys, for example, was Ed Pavelka who was FIDO on Apollo 13 and interviewed about a year later by Carol Butler.

      It still gets my heart racing when I think about this kind of stuff.

      But one of the most important things that I have learned in recent months is that the space program is not just about NASA or other national endeavors. The private sector is picking up the slack and for that I am grateful.

      It is a terrible shame in my opinion that financing the American space program was so thoroughly grounded in the Cold War. That was short-sighted, foolish, and has prevented us from getting to Mars by now.

      We should already be up there, Jeff.

      And I know, for sure, that Kranz would agree with that idea.

      He was actually disgusted with NASA leadership by the time that I met him because he believed that they lacked vision and will.

    2. That's a great story. Thanks. We should already be there, and I thought we would be, but it all got derailed somehow. Many thought that by now orbiting the earth would be something accessible to the public.
      It was the Cold War that first drove us into space, but it seemed for while all the success and discoveries would act as an impetus to keep it going.
      I'm not a scientist either, but love science and admire scientists infinitely more than politicians. I'm sure you can imagine why. :0)
      I tend more toward art, but science has always fascinated me, especially astronomy and physics. I always had a good feel for this stuff but I didn't have the math.

    3. I don't have the math, either.

      I like mathematics, tho, because it is elegant.

      Mathematics, of course, is the foundation of science, but philosophy is the foundation of mathematics.

      Which is to say the humanists come first!


  2. Gus Grissom was no doubt a hero. Anybody getting in a spacecraft and blasting off has a lot more courage than me. But history is replete with real heroes. I'm not a fan of George H. W. Bush, but anybody who got into an fighter plane in World War 2 had more guts than me. That goes for everyone from the Tuskegee airmen to Bush. And for real courage, read about the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry at the battle of Gettysburg.

  3. "Failure is not an option" is actually pretty UN-Engineering-like. Engineering is pretty much founded on "Failure is often an option" thinking. In fact any of you slaves chained to "Agile Development" today are working from the premise not only that failure is pretty common and acceptable, it's a big part of the final product. I believe the difference back then was they endlessly debugged and tweaked until the failures were infinitesimal but if a few things snuck in the design was resilient enough to handle a 'hard' fix. This is the old conflict between tight-coupling and normal accidents. My preference is to always design for normal accidents because tight-coupling will eventually fail beyond its tolerance, or worse will fail in a way you're not aware of. But if you accept normal accidents then you can plan FOR failure.