Astronaut’s widow who sued in husband’s death dies at 91
Betty Grissom, the widow of astronaut Virgil Grissom, whose death in a launchpad fire in 1967 led her to sue a NASA contractor, died last Saturday at her home in Houston. She was 91.
Her son Mark confirmed the death. He said neighbors had noticed that Grissom had picked up her morning newspaper but not her afternoon mail and went to check on her. The cause of death was not known.
Virgil Grissom, known as Gus, one of the seven original Mercury astronauts immortalized by Tom Wolfe in his book “The Right Stuff,” was the second American in space. He was also the command pilot of Apollo 1, which was intended to test the Apollo capsule for flights to the moon.
But during a routine test at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an electrical fire swept through the command module, killing all three astronauts aboard — Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee.
It was the first fatal accident in the history of the U.S. space program. Grissom was 40.
Multiple investigations followed. While they never pinpointed the source of the fire, they concluded that several design flaws had exacerbated it.
NASA subsequently undertook major modifications in design, materials and procedures, including making nonflammable spacesuits. Combustible materials in the cabin were replaced with self-extinguishing versions.
Nearly four years after the fire, Grissom’s widow filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful death suit against the Apollo program’s primary contractor, North American Rockwell. (The government itself cannot be sued.)
The statute of limitations for wrongful death for survivors was two years and had expired, said Ronald Krist, the Houston lawyer who represented Grissom. But the general negligence statute was four years and had not expired, allowing her to sue for Grissom’s pain and suffering. She settled for $350,000, or about $2.2 million in today’s dollars.
Her action brought Grissom considerable grief, with strangers accusing her of being unpatriotic and the close-knit space community shunning her.
The experience embittered the family, said Mark Grissom, who was 13 when his father died.
In addition to her son Mark, Grissom is survived by another son, Scott; two grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Betty Grissom, widow of astronaut Virgil Grissom, died at her home in Houston last weekend.