Virgil I. Gus Grissom Memorial Museum
Anyone who's read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff or seen the 1983 movie knows the story of Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, America's hard luck astronaut hero. He was always in the wrong place at the wrong time: as one of the original Mercury 7, his mission was after Alan "First American in Space" Shepard Jr. but before John "First American in Orbit" Glenn; Grissom was the only astronaut whose capsule sank; he was the man who commanded the forgettable first Gemini mission, and who was going to command the first Apollo mission -- until a horrible fire broke out in the capsule during prelaunch tests in 1967, killing him and his crew.
Gus Grissom's home town of Mitchell, Indiana, honors its most famous son in ways suited to a guy who seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
In Spring Mill State Park stands the Virgil I. Grissom Memorial Museum. The museum was dedicated in July 1971, ten years after Gus's first flight, and four years after his death.
Almost everything here is from the Molly Brown, Grissom's Gemini mission capsule. This is understandable, as the Liberty Bell, his Mercury capsule, was at the bottom of the Atlantic until 1999 (now exhibited at the Kansas Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, Kansas). The Molly Brown itself is on display, behind a plexiglass shield, suspended above the ground floor gallery. Gus's Mercury spacesuit -- a big draw -- was out to Washington DC for a cleaning when we visited, but we were still able to ponder the helmet worn by Gus during his Mercury flight, its foam rubber pads disintegrating into a pile of yellow dust on the bottom of its glass box.
The displays make no mention of the moment dramatized in The Right Stuff, when Gus may have panicked, blowing the hatch on his Mercury capsule, and sinking it. It is, however, addressed briefly in a video showing in the mini-theater. "The mishap," says the narrator, "taught NASA much regarding recovery techniques." After the capsule was finally fished out of the Pacific, the narrator says, "most experts agree that Gus Grissom did not blow the hatch" -- but of course that was much too late for Gus to see his version of the incident confirmed.
Of all the early astronauts, Grissom was known for his sense of humor. He wryly named his Gemini capsule "Molly Brown" -- after a passenger who didn't sink when the Titanic went down. The video narrator notes "NASA was not amused" and from then on forbade mission commanders from naming their capsules.
Many artist's renderings are displayed on the walls of this small museum, showing what it will look like after a major expansion -- some day. A wood box sits outside the entrance for donations (and we hope they amass the money), but unless every visitor stuffs that box with a hundred dollar bill, the museum's plans will remain beyond the financially sound barrier.
In downtown Mitchell stands the Gus Grissom Monument, a scaled-down limestone carving of Gus's Gemini rocket. Limestone is plentiful in this part of the world, as the nearby abandoned Great Pyramid in Needmore and Joe Palooka statue in Oolitic attest. But limestone isn't as pretty as marble or as permanent as granite, and rain and snow have stained the rocket a dull gray. It was erected on the spot once occupied by Gus's elementary school (its bricks were used to make the surrounding wall). A sign in front, honoring Gus, is titled, "One of Ours" -- erected by the local Masons.
Down the street, on the outer brick wall of the Three Hearts Flowers And Gifts shop, is an ambitious mural that also honors Gus Grissom. We were told it was painted by a local high school student. On a backdrop of a rippling American flag are a paddlewheel steamboat, a school bus, empty railroad tracks, and the Gus Grissom limestone rocket memorial. Not a portrait of Gus, or the rocket blasting off into space, but of the limestone carving of the rocket -- which is within sight, only three blocks away.
Which, of course, makes it perfect. If Gus was still around, we think he'd have a chuckle at that.