In the late 1950s the Soviet Union shocked the world by placing a small satellite—Sputnik—in orbit around the earth. Treated as a technological Pearl Harbor in the United States, the Russian achievement prompted the federal government to create a civilian organization, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to manage the American space program. By April 1959, NASA had selected seven military test pilots to serve as the country’s first astronauts in the race with the Soviets to see who could put the first human in space. One of the seven Americans picked for this ambitious effort came from the small southern Indiana community of Mitchell. Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom would go on to become the first man to fly in space twice and to give his life in NASA’s attempt to meet President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely home by the end of the 1960s. In this second volume in the Indiana Historical Society Press’s Indiana Biography Series, Hoosier historian and writer Ray E. Boomhower explores Grissom’s life, from his days as a child playing in the forests of nearby Spring Mill State Park to his service as a combat pilot flying missions against Communist opponents in the skies over Korea. He also delves into the process by which NASA selected its original seven Mercury astronauts, the jostling for position to be the first American in space, and Grissom’s near-fatal Liberty Bell 7 flight that haunted his subsequent space career. After almost drowning when the hatch malfunctioned on his Mercury flight, Grissom resurrected his reputation through determination and his careful work with the space agency’s Gemini program. The Hoosier astronaut made such a mark on the program that fellow astronauts nicknamed the Gemini spacecraft the Gusmobile. Grissom continued to be the astronaut NASA turned to when testing new spacecraft for the Apollo moon program. On January 27, 1967, Grissom, along with crew members Ed White and Roger Chaffee, died when a fire swept through their Apollo command module during a supposedly safe test on the ground at Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex 34. The astronaut’s story continues after his death, however, most recently with the discovery and raising of the Liberty Bell 7 from its resting place on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
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