The Hoosier who would’ve been the first man on the moon: How tragedy changed history

MITCHELL, Ind. – Before Neil Armstrong’s one small step and one giant leap, and long before the Apollo 11, there was Gus Grissom. The astronaut from Mitchell, Indiana, was one of the Mercury 7 – NASA’s very first team of spacemen.

Grissom was also a key member of Project Gemini, a precursor to the Apollo program. He was the country’s most experienced astronaut, the commander of Apollo 1 and seemingly first in line to become the first man on the moon.

"It was just natural with that level of experience, you would want that level of experience going up on that first flight to the moon," said Mark Young, Director of the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell.

The museum contains an amazing amount of memorabilia and artifacts from the Hoosier astronaut, including one of his spacesuits and one of his space capsules. Less is shown about the tragic accident that ended Grissom’s career and his life. Grissom died along with astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967 when fire erupted in their capsule while on the launch pad during a flight test. It was NASA’s first fatal accident and it forced a total reexamination of the entire Apollo program.

"We've heard from the astronauts and the consensus was he probably would have been on this first flight to the moon if the fire hadn't occurred," said Young.

Grissom’s surviving family agrees.

"They wanted, they knew they wanted someone associated with the Mercury program to be the first on the moon," said Steve Grissom.

Steve Grissom still lives in Mitchell. He says Neil Armstrong himself told him before his death that NASA wanted his cousin to become the first man on the moon.

"Even Neil Armstrong has stated he was the victim of circumstance, even Neil himself knew if Gus had been around, it would have been Gus Grissom on that first flight to the moon."

The Grissom family knows life would have been much different if Gus Grissom had become the first man on the moon. The whole town of Mitchell would have been different.

“But at the same time, I think the community can take a lot of pride in the advancements that he was part of in the program, and ultimately the sacrifice he made," said Young.

For his part, Steve Grissom admits the anniversary of the moon landing comes with a bittersweet feeling of pride, a feeling of what could have been for Indiana’s Gus Grissom.

"Play the what if game. What if he would have survived and been that first man on the moon. What would have been his words. I don't know. I can't answer that.”

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