The Unsinkable Gusmobile

On March 23, 1965, Gus Grissom and John Young launched on the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3. First planned as a followup to Mercury known as Mercury Mark II, development of the Gemini spacecraft took nearly six years. The finished product was an expression of what Grissom wanted in a spacecraft, from the cockpit layout to the placement of each switch and instruments. It was, in many ways, his baby. Grissom’s close hand in its design prompted many of his fellow astronauts to call NASA’s second-generation spacecraft the Gusmobile.  (Left, the Gemini 3 crew, Gus Grissom and John Young in 1965.)

After his suborbital Mercury flight on July 21, 1961, Grissom found himself at the end of the line for another flight rotation. Even that early in the program, he knew it was unlikely he’d go up again with Mercury. President Kennedy promised American the Moon two months before, and everything that now moving in support of the Apollo program. So, rather than wait around to not fly again with Mercury, went up to St. Louis where McDonnell Aircraft was building the Gemini spacecraft. (Right, the Gemini spacecraft in orbit. In this case, Gemini 6 is seen from Gemini 7 during the first orbital rendezvous of two manned spacecraft in December 1965.)

The Gemini program had some lofty goals in support of Apollo including the tricky orbital rendezvous manoeuvre, which meant the spacecraft had to be more pilot-friendly. While Mercury took overqualified astronauts along for the ride, they would have to fly the Gemini spacecraft throughout the mission. In short, it would have to be a real pilot’s spacecraft, not a computerized capsule. Grissom’s purpose in St. Louis was to make sure that the new spacecraft reflected the astronauts’ needs and didn’t repeat the limitations of the Mercury capsule, that they were integral to the system and not backups.

Grissom sat in mockups for hours as engineers put the capsule together, telling them what he liked and vetoing things he didn’t, from the control stick placement to window shape. Since the astronauts were going to manually pilot the spacecraft through rendezvous, they needed to be able to see where they were going. To test whether Gemini’s half moon windows would do the trick, Grissom had an aircraft’s cockpit window painted black save a small space in the exact shape, size, and placement of Gemini’s window. He took the aircraft up, flew it around, and landed it. Then he okayed the design. (Left, Young and Grissom leave Pad 19 after a day of prelaunch training. 1965.)

When the other astronauts started trickling over to St. Louis to check out Gemini, it was clear that the new spacecraft was designed around Grissom. Quite literally. It was built was so closely around his five-foot-six-inch frame that in 1963 NASA discovered 14 of its 16 astronauts couldn’t sit inside and close the hatch. Unable to change the spacecraft’s dimensions or seat configuration, engineers opened the spacecraft to the larger astronauts by shrinking the safety kit and reshaping the inside of the hatch by the astronauts’ heads.

The finished product was the first real pilot’s spacecraft. Pete Conrad said flying Gemini was all manual control, including the burns for the rendezvous. Wally Schirra called Gemini was his favourite spacecraft to fly, but added that once in the water it was a lousy boat. It may have been lousy in the water, but it did float, much to Grissom’s pleasure. (Right, Young and Grissom train for their Gemini mission.)

Grissom’s Mercury flight is notorious for its events post-splashdown. The hatch opened prematurely, the capsule flooded, and Grissom fought to keep his head above water in the Atlantic for five minute while the recovery capsule tried and failed to recover the capsule. The capsule was named Liberty Bell 7 and had a crack painted on its side to mirror the real thing. After the incident, Grissom vowed to never again pick a cracked object as a spacecraft’s namesake ever again.

For Gemini 3, Grissom gave his spacecraft a more buoyant name: Molly Brown. Brown, known as Margaret or Maggie in life, was a first class passenger aboard the Titanic who gained fame for helping others get off the ship before she agreed to leave herself. Watching the ship sink as her lifeboat rowed away, she urged the stewards to return to and look for survivors. She’s been lauded for her efforts, and historians have dubbed her the unsinkable Molly Brown. (Left, Molly Brown presents the trophy cup award to Capt. Arthur Henry Rostron for his service in the rescue of the Titanic. May 29, 1912. )

NASA, however, wasn’t thrilled with the name. Molly Brown was the last Gemini spacecraft to have a name — the rest were designated by mission number starting with Gemini 4. (Right, Gemini 3’s mission patch.)

Suggested Reading:

Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom. Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space. The Macmillan Company. 1969.

9 thoughts on “The Unsinkable Gusmobile

  1. I love your stories. You should weave them together and write a book, if you haven’t already. I’d be first in line to buy a copy!!

  2. Amy,
    As always, I learned a lot from this installment. Previously I had read that Gemini was called the “Gusmobile” because Grissom was the only astronaut who was comfortable in it; I had no idea that Gus had such a role in its design.
    Thanks for enlightening us, yet again!
    -Stu Young

  3. Amy,
    As always, I learned a lot from this installment. Previously, all I had read about the use of “Gusmobile” in referring to Gemini was that Grissom was the only astronaut who was comfortable in it. I had no idea that he had such a major role in its design.
    Once again, thanks for enlightening us!
    -Stu Young

  4. Amy, I really enjoy your blog. You always choose topics that I “resonate with”.
    For clarification, that is not the Gemini 3 patch, pictured in your blog. It is an AB Emblems Co. souvenir patch, designed and marketed years after the flight to capitalize on the patch craze. Actually, Gemini 3 (like the Mercury flights before it, and the Vostok, Voskhod and early Soyuz flights) did not have a crew-worn patch.Gemini 5 (Cooper and Conrad) was the first with a recognizable crew patch, and it took Cooper and his friends some significant effort to convince NASA Administrator Jim Webb that it was okay. Once the crew patches took off, John Young designed one for Gemini 3 retroactively (, and it is a different one than pictured. But don’t feel bad: even NASA public affairs in Houston has published a poster with crew patches and included those souvenir designs in the mistaken belief that they were official.
    John Charles
    Houston, Texas

  5. Random fun fact: Gus had come up with the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” nickname, and NASA brass weren’t pleased about that at all, to put it mildly. As they were rejecting it, he made it clear that in that case he’d insist on naming the capsule “Titanic” – after which they reluctantly accepted the semi-official “Molly Brown” name.

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