Published November 2, 2017
Of the “Original Seven” Mercury astronauts, Gus Grissom, the runt of the litter, has also gotten the shortest shrift in the public mind. Regarded at the time of his death in the January 1967 Apollo 1 fire as a prime candidate to be the first man to walk on the Moon, Grissom was posthumously eviscerated by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, as Wolfe created a foil for his heroic portrait of all-star test-pilot Chuck Yeager. There, and in the movie made from Wolfe’s bestseller, Grissom was transformed in the public mind into “Little Gus” or “Gruff Gus,” the plodding, Hoosier-dull, slightly incompetent antithesis of superhero Yeager.
Wolfe’s caricature did both history and the memory of Gus Grissom a terrible disservice. Thus the best thing to be said about George Leopold’s book Calculated Risk is that it corrects Wolfe’s numerous historical errors and, in doing so, restores Grissom to where he belongs: in the first rank of the pantheon of heroes of manned space exploration.