Disturbing Details Found In Gus Grissom's Autopsy Report

Gus Grissom was the second astronaut from the United States to travel in space. He was born Virgil Ivan Grissom in 1926, and he was an average student in high school who didn't have particular goals in mind when it came to his career. As noted by NASA History, Grissom was excellent in math but had average marks in other subjects. His principal described him as a student who "studied just about enough to get a diploma." The onset of World War II gave the young man some perspective. He enlisted as a cadet in the Air Force but never got the chance to go on missions, as the war ended before he received his training.

After Grissom was discharged from the Air Force in 1945, he enrolled at Purdue University to study mechanical engineering. He took classes during the day and at night, he went to work at a local diner to help support himself and his wife, Betty, who he married in 1944. Grissom earned his degree in 1950 and decided to return to the Air Force to fulfill his dreams of flying. In 1951, he was sent to combat missions in the Korean War. He completed 100 missions six months later and returned to the U.S. with a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal (per Britannica). In the next few years, Grissom worked as a flight instructor and furthered his knowledge by attending the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology to study aeromechanics. He eventually became a test pilot for jet fighters, which he said made him the happiest pilot in the Air Force.

Gus Grissom the astronaut

In 1958, Gus Grissom received a completely unexpected message labeled "Top Secret" telling him to report to Washington D.C. in civilian attire. He figured it was instructions from the Air Force, but when he arrived at the specified location, he found out that he was one of the 110 test pilots invited to learn more about the space program, according to Thought Co. Grissom was interested in the experience and went through rigorous training and a battery of examinations. He didn't have high expectations but nevertheless tried his best. As time passed, the number of candidates diminished, and the list of seven astronauts chosen for NASA's Project Mercury was announced in April 1959. One of them was Grissom.

Grissom piloted the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft in 1961 in a suborbital Mercury test flight. In 1965, he became the command pilot for the Gemini mission, which made Grissom the first astronaut from NASA to travel to space twice, per Space. Thereafter, he was named part of the AS-204 mission, the three-man flight also known as Apollo 204 (later changed to Apollo 1). It was the first manned Apollo mission and the goal was to test the launch operations and facility as well as the performance of the spacecraft. The mission was scheduled to last up to two weeks, and Grissom was chosen together with Roger Chaffee and Edward White II. Unfortunately, tragedy struck during a ground test at the launch pad, and the three astronauts lost their lives in the catastrophic incident.

The Apollo 1 fire

The Apollo mission was slated to launch on February 21, 1967. On January 27, Gus Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee held a test launch at Launch Complex 34 in Cape Kennedy. Preliminary tests were done, and the astronauts — all suited up in their spacesuits — went into the Command Module. As reported by Lights in the Dark, routine inspections were performed. They encountered communication problems with a microphone and did troubleshooting. At 6:31 p.m., however, a transmission from one of the astronauts was heard saying, "Fire, I smell fire!" It was followed by other messages mentioning a "bad fire" that the crew desperately tried to put out. All communications from the men ceased several seconds after the fire ignited.

Emergency responders were quick to act, but according to Thought Co., the three astronauts most likely died in the cabin less than a minute after the fire started. The module was shut tightly with clamps, and pressure had to be released from the module before it could be fully opened. About 5 minutes had passed before rescuers were able to get to the astronauts. Their bodies were transported to a medical facility where pathologists conducted examinations and autopsies.

Gus Grissom's cause of death

According to the review board's official report, the hatches of the Command Module were opened at 6:36 p.m., and there were no signs of life. Physicians inspected the bodies at the scene and determined that resuscitation efforts would be futile, but the exact time of death couldn't be determined. Based on the autopsy and investigation of the spacecraft, it was concluded that Grissom and his two companions fell unconscious due to the gasses inside the cabin and that "death occurred rapidly." Multiple factors — carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxygen, and irritant levels — caused the rapid death. The lack of oxygen in the heart and brain resulted in the loss of consciousness and led to cardiac arrest.

The report also noted that the spacesuits of all three astronauts were burnt "to some degree" and wouldn't have protected their bodies from a fire of that magnitude. Grissom also suffered burns on 60% of his body, and soot was found in his trachea, oral cavity, and nose. His official cause of death was noted as "asphyxia due to inhalation of toxic gases due to fire."

Memorial services were held in honor of the three astronauts. Grissom is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, and NASA awarded him the Congressional Space Medal of Honor posthumously.