2020 Road Trip Photos #8: The Hometown Astronaut

Gemini III space suit!

Gus Grissom’s space suit from the Gemini III mission.

On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend 1984, give or take four years, my family decided to take a two-hour Sunday drive and visit a museum that I might think was cool. The only thing I remember about that day is my petty bitterness at missing out on my friends’ annual tradition of listening to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio in our backyards. Of course it was a year that our favorite driver Rick Mears won again. At the time I resented the imposition and refused to enjoy myself.

Thirty-six years later I tried again, but in a much better mood.


Virgil I. Grissom Museum!

Not many of Indiana’s state parks contain museums. This is the largest of them that we’ve seen.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Then came 2020 A.D.

Even in an ordinary average year, sometimes you really need to get away from it all. In a year like this, escape is more important than ever if you can find yourself one — no matter how short it lasts, no matter how limited your boundaries are. Anne and I had two choices: either skip our tradition for 2020 and resign ourselves to a week-long staycation that looks and feels exactly like our typical weekend quarantines; or see how much we could accomplish within my prescribed limitations. We decided to expand on that and check out points of interest in multiple Indiana towns in assorted directions. We’d visited many towns over the years, but not all of them yet.

In addition to our usual personal rules, we had two simple additions in light of All This: don’t get killed, and don’t get others killed…

As of this writing a dozen astronauts who’ve been in space hailed from Indiana. One gets name-checked more than any other: Virgil “Gus” Grissom. You might remember him from such films as The Right Stuff, where he was played by Fred Ward; First Man, played by Shea Whigham; and the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (which I haven’t seen yet), played by Mark Rolston from Aliens. If you blinked, you missed his bit part in That Thing You Do! as played by a then-unknown Bryan Cranston…who had also been in From the Earth to the Moon, but as Buzz Aldrin. The most recent of those projects, First Man, featured a horrifying reenactment of his tragic death, along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee, in a 1967 accident during testing for the Apollo 1 mission.

Grissom was born and raised in a town called Mitchell, where I’ve driven through several times on family trips but rarely made time to stop. After serving in World War II he attended and graduated from Purdue University, left our state to reenlist in the all-new United States Air Force, and served in the Korean War. He eventually worked his way through the ranks until he was deemed worthy to join the handful of elite in the American space program. Grissom was part of the crews who officially flew into space for the Mercury-Redstone 4 and Gemini 3 missions, and had earned multiple medals before his death.

In 1971 the Virgil I. Grissom Museum was dedicated inside Spring Mill State Park, right next to the main entrance on the south end. Entrance is free with park admission, a more than fair price for a pretty nice selection of exhibits honoring the man and his achievements.

Spring Mill!

A small mill in front of the admission booth. This way to nature trails and space memories.

If you happen to attend on a Monday morning during a pandemic, you can nearly have the entire building to yourself. Upon our arrival the only other visitor in sight exited the gift shop and left. One employee was on duty, too distracted to offer greetings as they were busy having a conversation with someone else out of sight. Beyond the gift shop, the place was all ours.

Gift Shop Rules...

Some of the new signage in the Age of Coronavirus.

Choices and Risks to Reach the American Dream.

Old signs + new signs = cosmic irony.

smashed penny machine.

Anne’s heart breaks every time our road trips lead us to a smashed penny machine with an OUT OF ORDER sign.

No Interactive Displays.

Any educational exhibits with interactive elements — i.e., those that normally invited touching — were shut down for safety reasons. We’re a bit old for those anyway.

Grissom quote!

The best sign in the place.

Purdue ID!

Grissom’s Purdue ID, and a ticket stub from some undoubtedly classic IU/Purdue clash.

Purdue diploma.

Grissom’s Purdue diploma for his mechanical engineering degree.

Gemini III capsule!

The museum’s centerpiece: the actual Gemini III capsule, which Grissom nicknamed the “Molly Brown” as a dark-humored reference to how he nearly drowned when the Mercury mission’s ocean landing went afoul.

Gemini III helmet!

Grissom’s helmet that complemented his Gemini III suit in our lead photo.

Saturn rocket model!

A Saturn rocket model taller than me, part of the aeronautics educational items on hand.

Korean War dog tags!

His Korean War dog tags.

survival knife.

His handy survival knife.

Stetson hat!

This Stetson hat was a gift from President Lyndon B. Johnson

corned beef sandwich!

A corned beef sandwich encased in resin. A nod to how fellow astronaut John Young snuck one aboard the Gemini III and offered Grissom a bite.

photo collage!

A photo collage runs from floor to ceiling.

funeral flag.

The flag given to the family at his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

Congressional Space Medal of Honor!

The Congressional Space Medal of Honor, bestowed posthumously in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter.

To be continued.

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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