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A revised and expanded paperback edition of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Time of Gus Grissom by George Leopold will be released on September 15th. In preparation for the release, the press interviewed Leopold to find out more behind his inspiration in writing the book, some thoughts on the book’s subject, and more.


 

Q: What inspired you to write a book? How did you come across Gus Grissom as a subject?

Leopold: The standard narrative of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union is divided into two parts: before and after what came to be known simply as The Fire, the catastrophe that killed Gus Grissom and his Apollo 1 crew. After NASA recovered, the contributions of Gus Grissom were mostly forgotten—misremembered, really, when Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff. Wolfe’s depiction of Grissom in his book and especially in the film version is a cartoon character. Wolfe got it wrong.

This struck me and many others as unjust. I determined to correct the record by writing a biography of Gus Grissom that places his life and career in the context of history of manned spaceflight.

I resolved to write his biography while standing before Gus Grissom’s grave in a lonely section of Arlington National Cemetery.

It only me took seven years.

Q: You have mentioned in previous interviews that you feel Grissom is underappreciated. Given his importance to early space exploration, how do you feel this happened?

Leopold: Part of its was Grissom’s unwillingness to toot his own horn. Gus always said the pre-flight press conferences were harder than the actual space missions. Another factor was the serendipitous nature of the early Project Mercury crew assignments. Most remember Alan Shepard’s first flight and John Glenn’s orbital flight. Grissom was remembered mostly for losing his first spacecraft.

And there was little reward or notoriety outside of his own peer group for the long hours at the factory doing the tedious testing required to get the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft into orbit. Grissom was engineering test pilot by training. All he really wanted to do was to go faster and higher—all the way to the moon and back. He cared not a whit about personal prestige, but he worked tirelessly to ensure the United States was first on the moon. Without Grissom’s contributions, I’m convinced we would not have made it by the end of the 1960s as we so declared.

Q: What do you imagine the space program would look like today if the Apollo 1 mission had been a success?

Leopold: It’s hard to say. Space exploration is a deadly business. If the Apollo 1 fire had not occurred on the launch pad, an accident in space would have been worse because investigators would know next to nothing about the precise cause(s). One of the cruel ironies, the central paradox of the Space Race, was that a launch pad fire actually saved the Apollo program. The reason was the evidence of what had been overlooked in Grissom’s ship—the faulty wiring, the leaking coolant, the lack of flame-retardant materials in the spacecraft, the clumsy inward opening hatch and, most important of all, NASA’s misguided engineering decision to use pure oxygen under pressure on the launch pad—all of it was there for the investigators to sift through.

To its credit, NASA rose from the ashes and built a great machine that took 24 humans to the moon.

Q: What are some things you believe the average person would be most surprised to know about the early age of space exploration?

Leopold: What a risky enterprise this was and the price the astronauts’ families paid. That, and the fact that Grissom and the early astronauts were test pilots who did not fly by the seat of their pants. They accepted risks, but they always sought to minimize them and come back alive. Gus Grissom is widely quoted as saying the rewards outweighed the risks (I never did track down the precise origin of Grissom’s iconic “worth the risk” quote, but he did say something close to this.) Hence, my thesis is that Grissom calculated those risks, dangers that every astronaut had to accept, and determined to proceed.

That decision cost him and his Apollo crew their lives, and shattered their families.

Q: What were some of the changes made for the new edition of the book? What makes it worthwhile for the person who has already read the original?

Leopold: For starters, the new Afterword describes how NASA finally provided a measure of closure for the Grissom, White, and Chaffee families. It’s an account of the 50th anniversary observance of the Apollo 1 fire. Gus Grissom’s brother Lowell did me the honor of an invitation to attend the ceremonies at Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA at long last did right by the crew, mounting a permanent Apollo 1 exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center that includes the scorched hatches. The NASA exhibit also includes photos of Gus Grissom first published in Calculated Risk.

I and others have long argued that some part of the spacecraft should be displayed in a dignified way to remind future generations of the sacrifices of the early astronauts. NASA did just that. The exhibit was long overdue.

Further, we believe the updated version is more readable, and benefited from the kind of crowdsourcing that occurs when a book on an important subject is published. A scholarly peer review process, enabled by social media, identified a few areas for improvement. The result, we firmly believe, is the authoritative account of Gus Grissom’s life and career.

The revised and expanded edition of “Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom” is available September 15 in paperback and e-book formats.

Q: You have spent countless hours researching and interviewing for this book. What is your favorite story that didn’t make it in?

Leopold: Not left out, merely overlooked until recently. When the Apollo 1 crew assignment was announced during a press conference in Houston in March 1966, a reporter asked about the protocol for deciding which two astronauts on each three-man crew would land and walk on the lunar surface during later Apollo missions. A NASA manager started in with a long technical answer.

Grissom listened for a moment, smiled and jumped in—getting right to the point: “If it was this crew, it would be me and somebody else!”

Q: Do you think that Grissom’s reputation has improved? Are there steps you would like to see taken to ensure his place in space history?

Leopold: I’d venture to say Gus Grissom is beloved, especially by those who knew him and understood his competence, dedication, and willingness to work and sacrifice. Those contributions to manned space exploration are certainly more appreciated now than, say, the late 1970s and early 1980s when The Right Stuff narrative held sway. The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, for which the release of this biography was timed, also contributed to greater appreciation of Grissom’s central role.

My subject would undoubtedly be amused by all the fuss….

I am currently working with a group seeking to place a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the Apollo 1 crew. Gus Grissom and his crew mate and fellow Purdue alumnus Roger Chaffee are buried at Arlington. Surprisingly, there is no monument there commemorating the crew’s sacrifice—as there are for the astronauts lost in the two Space Shuttle accidents. The Apollo 1 memorial at Arlington National Cemetery was authorized by Congress, and we hope to have one in place during a future NASA Day of Remembrance for the Apollo 1 and shuttle crews.

Q: If you could ask Gus Grissom himself one question, what would it be?

Leopold: I would ask about his state of mind in the last weeks of his life, which must have been hell. He knew he had a faulty spacecraft on his hands, but he and the others figured they could fix it as they had done before. In that respect, Gus Grissom was a fatalist.

 


 

George Leopold is a veteran technology journalist and science writer who has covered the nexus between technology and policy for over thirty years. Leopold has written extensively about U.S. manned spaceflight, including the Apollo and space shuttle programs. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Scientist, and a variety of other science and technology publications. He resides in Reston, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter!

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