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Monday, June 16, 2008  

M. and Gus

Okay, imagine you've got a three-year-old who has already determined that he's going to be an astronaut, and to that end has already initiated his own self-training program in which he learns all about the history of the space program from the Redstone rocket to the Phoenix Lander, and masters the general technical aspects of each component of lunar and Space Shuttle missions. He can name about half a dozen non-cartoon celebrities unprompted, the majority of whom were Mercury astronauts (the fifth and sixth being Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong). So how do you explain to this kid about Gus Grissom?

I know where his fascination with the second American in space comes from, at least in part; I'm sure I get kind of cagey and evasive whenever the subject comes up.

"Did Gus Gristom go to the moon?" he asks.

"Ahh, no," I'll say.

"Why not?"

"Well, he was on the first Apollo mission, but he had kind of an accident and he couldn't go."


"Yeah, it was sad for him."

And then he dropped it, and I was glad. Telling him that Turtle and Strat got too sick to live with us any more and had to go to Cat Heaven and can never come back was one thing. Telling him about a guy who was an astronaut -- just like M. Small wants to be -- who one day got welded inside a giant Dutch oven atop a thirty-story bomb and suddenly found himself incinerated alive before even leaving the launch pad just isn't something I think he's ready for. If my son decides not to be an astronaut, I don't want it to be because of some horrible nightmare story I told him when he was three-and-a-half. I want it to be when he's a twenty-three-year-old Navy test pilot and suddenly realizes that most astronauts are actually kind of geeky.

Not that he isn't trying to get the whole story out of me. On the 45-minute car ride home from my parents' house yesterday, he totally ambushed me: "Dad? What was the problem Gus Gristom had?"

Fortunately for me, Grissom is famous for two problems, the first being the premature opening of the hatch on his Mercury capsule after splashdown, an event which resulted in both the loss of the ship and considerable damage to Grissom's reputation (certainly more than I might have just caused with my careless comment to a recently potty-trained toddler about Grissom's "accident"). I was able to go on about that controversy at some length, which allowed me to stall for time and figure out how I was going to address that whole "trapped inside an exploding oxygen tank" thing. I was also half hoping to put him to sleep, but no such luck.

In the end, I lacked Grissom's bravery. I told my son, "Grissom's rocket broke, and he and the other astronauts with him got hurt, and he couldn't be an astronaut any more." M. Small let that go with a sad "Oh," but now I'm dreading the no doubt imminent day when I have to explain that Gus Grissom is in fact up in Cat And Astronaut Heaven with Turtle and Strat, even though if I had to pick him out of a lineup I would just be forced to go with the guy who looks the most like Fred Ward.

And if you think that'll bum him out, just wait until a few years from now when he finally realizes that you can't talk about Apollo spacecraft or the Space Shuttle in present tense any more, let alone a future tense in which he's at the controls of one or both of them. That'll be a sad, sad day.

posted by M. Giant 8:15 PM 12 comments


Just show him this picture

By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 16, 2008 at 8:59 PM  

I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid and was told (by my mother!) that because I was not American and I was a girl and needed to be good at maths that I wouldn't be able to do it. I of course believed her and I never ever came up with another idea for "what I wanted to be when I grew up". I still don't know and I'm 33. Nothing else ever inspired me. I wish I'd been encouraged to believe that I could. Don't crush his dreams. You just never know what the future may hold. Jim Lovell was interested in rockets way before he thought he would be able to fly in one.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 17, 2008 at 4:24 AM  

My 6yo is an aspiring astronaut, so I feel your pain/exhilaration.

This book (Neil, Buzz, and Mike Go to the Moon) should be required reading:

It does discuss the Grissom incident, but no gruesome details. The author will be signing copies at the Udvar Hazy Smithsonian Air and Space this weekend, but that might be a bit of a trek for you (we are there pretty much weekly - sigh).

By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 17, 2008 at 6:24 AM  

Have you been Tivo-ing the new Discovery Channel mini-series about the American space program for him?

By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 17, 2008 at 11:06 AM  

Yeah, you definitely need to Tivo the Discovery series- When We Left Earth.

Also, Gus is the one on the left:


What I don't get about the whole terrible thing is how you have all these uber smart people at NASA and not one of them thinks, 'nylon seats + nylon jumpsuits + 100% oxygen = bad freaking idea'. The poor guys.

By Blogger Auburn Tiger, at June 17, 2008 at 12:15 PM  

For laxdude -- it didn't turn out much better for women who *were* encouraged to be astronauts in the beginning. Check out a book called The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight if you haven't already.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 18, 2008 at 12:36 AM  

Plain and simple. Liked your post.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 18, 2008 at 5:49 AM  

For some reason, Gus Grissom has always had a special place in my heart, so I think it is neat to see you post about him. I also love that M is such a cool kid, I could totally hang out and talk NASA with him.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 18, 2008 at 6:57 AM  

I've been watching the new Discovery series, in bits and pieces (bless the DVR and all who reside in her memory). It turns out Gus was put in charge of the recovery procedures. The details are still kind of fuzzy, but mostly he was pissed because the ship was lost -- the other stuff was icing on the cake. The first helo pilot didn't realize Gus' suit had an open valve and thus was doing the opposite of keeping him afloat. Gus didn't realize that same pilot fought valiantly to save the ship -- but in the process of trying to haul it full of water, busted a gasket and worried about having fuel enough to make it back to the fleet. He left Gus because he didn't want to be the guy who had to ditch with a just-returned astronaut in his helicopter. The Navy has a word for that kind of situation...

By Blogger Febrifuge, at June 18, 2008 at 6:55 PM  

Has he seen SpaceCamp? Because when I was his age, I watched SpaceCamp EVERY WEEKEND. And now I'm studying to be a PhD astrophysicist.

OK, so my parents encouraged me in lots of different ways, but I do think SpaceCamp deserves the lion's share of the credit.

By Blogger Ann, at June 20, 2008 at 9:36 AM  

Um, I was coming in to flog the Mercury 13 ladies, but I see somebody beat me to it. Remind the Kid there are girls in space, too, though and they tend to be very good at what they do (Barbara Morgan FTW!)

By Blogger Unknown, at June 22, 2008 at 10:43 AM  

But by 2014 when the Shuttle replacement is realized, he'll have a whole new "rocket" to dream about :-)


By Blogger Teslagrl, at June 23, 2008 at 8:11 AM  

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