Thrawn Rickle 95

Amanda vs. the Feds – Round One

© 2005 Williscroft



Courtesy NASA
Gus Grissom with Liberty Bell 7 just prior to launch

He was born Virgil Ivan Grissom, but everybody called him “Gus.”

Grissom was America’s second astronaut, following Alan Shepard's historic sub-orbital flight with his own 15-minute flight aboard Liberty Bell 7 two months later on July 21, 1961.

Liberty Bell 7 differed from Shepard’s Freedom 7 in that it had a large window instead of a small porthole – a picture-window through which Grissom was able to observe the Universe; and the hatch was equipped with explosive bolts designed to throw the hatch clear after splashdown.

At the end of Grissom’s historic flight, something went wrong, and the hatch blew prematurely, causing Liberty Bell 7 to sink to the bottom. Grissom escaped with his life by the slimmest of margins. For years he was haunted by stories that he had panicked and blown the hatch himself – something he vehemently denied, and that has subsequently been entirely disproved.

Grissom went on to Project Gemini, playing a major role in the design of the Gemini space craft. Following the medical grounding of Alan Shepard, Grissom became the Mission Commander for Gemini 3 – which he named the [Unsinkable] Molly Brown over the strenuous objections of NASA management. Grissom became the first human to fly in Space twice.

As one of the original Mercury Astronauts, Grissom was tentatively selected by NASA to be the first man to walk on the Moon. Tragically, he perished in the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967, two and a half years before that honor fell to Neil Armstrong.

In 1965, Grissom signed out his Mercury spacesuit for a presentation at a school. Following the presentation, he brought it home because he heard NASA was about to discard it, and hung it in his closet. Following his tragic death in 1967, nobody at NASA claimed the spacesuit, and so Grissom’s family kept it hanging in their coat closet, showing it to occasional visitors.

Then in the late 1980s, the Grissom’s lent the spacesuit to the privately owned Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Fla., along with several other of the fallen astronaut’s personal items such as his log book and a Stetson given to him by President Lynden B. Johnson.

Unfortunately, in 2002, the museum fell on financial hard times, and was taken over by NASA. The Grissom family requested the return of the items it had loaned to the museum, but while NASA returned the other items, it refused to return the spacesuit, claiming it was government property. Shortly thereafter, NASA turned the historic spacesuit over to the Smithsonian.

Meanwhile, in 2000 a Madison, Conn., ten-year old girl named Amanda Meyer received an assignment from her fourth grade teacher to write a short biography about an astronaut. Amanda didn’t want to write about John Glen or Neil Armstrong like the other kids, so she asked her mother for advice. Mom suggested Gus Grissom; Amanda investigated and agreed, and this became the unifying theme of her young life.

In 2001 Amanda and her parents visited a Shuttle launch, and from then on, all her essays and papers were about the Space Program and her hero, Gus Grissom.



Thomas McDonald/NY Times
Amanda Meyers with a poster of her hero

In the Spring of 2004 Amanda’s eighth grade English teacher, Martha Curran, suggested that her class share the biographical papers they had written with their subjects. When Amanda noted that her subject was no longer living, Ms Curran suggested she share it with his surviving family.

Amanda tried unsuccessfully to contact the astronaut’s widow, Betty Grissom, through NASA. Then in May 2004, Amanda and her mother traveled to the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, for an induction ceremony, where Amanda hoped to meet with Betty Grissom. Mrs. Grissom did not attend, but Amanda got her first glimpse of Grissom’s silvery spacesuit behind its glass enclosure.

The following February, Amanda’s mother contacted the astronaut’s son, Scott Grissom over the Internet, and mailed him a copy of Amanda’s essay. He called Amanda from Texas to chat, and informed her of the family’s dispute with NASA and the Smithsonian about the ownership of his father’s historic spacesuit, which Amanda had seen the previous May.

Amanda deeply admired Gus Grissom for his courage, his perseverance, and for his heroism. From her point of view, by not returning the spacesuit to the Grissom family, NASA and the Smithsonian were committing a terrible injustice to the memory of this great American space age hero.

Amanda vowed to get the spacesuit back to the Grissom family. She took to her mission with the passion that only a fifteen-year old can generate. Following Scott Grissom’s counsel that the government would never give over the ownership of the historical artifact to a private family, no matter how worthy, Amanda collected over 5,000 signatures on a petition for the return of the spacesuit to the Virgil I. Grissom Memorial Museum in the astronaut’s hometown of Mitchell, Ind.

Amanda contacted the Connecticut governor’s office, the entire Connecticut Congressional Delegation, and other politicians whom she thought might help. Conn. Senator Christopher Dodd actually made inquires of NASA on her behalf. She bombarded Lawrence M. Small, who runs the Smithsonian, with hundreds of emails from various friends, trying to influence him to release the spacesuit.

Amanda’s story has been picked up by several major news organizations across the country, and is gaining momentum even as you read this.

Amanda has created a website where she details her efforts, and recounts the unfolding events: (http://www.freewebs.com/mercury7savethesuit). The Smithsonian General Counsel has gotten into the act, with an official letter detailing the things he sees wrong with the website, and with Amanda’s campaign. The General Counsel may have a valid legal argument, but this misguided soul has missed the entire point.

One slip of a girl, on her own initiative, using only her own meager resources, has moved the immovable federal bureaucracy – if only a little bit. She has made history while studying history, and has learned an invaluable civics lesson in the process.