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Grissom Spacesuit in Tug of War

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Can a 15-year-old end an enduring dispute between the government and the family of an astronaut who met a tragic fate?

Amanda Meyer of Madison, Conn., is about to find out.

Through letters, phone calls and an Internet petition, the high school sophomore is waging a campaign to get federal officials to relinquish control of a spacesuit worn by astronaut Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom during a 15-minute suborbital flight in the Liberty Bell 7 capsule in 1961. Grissom, picked to be one of NASA's original seven Mercury astronauts in 1959, died in a fire aboard Apollo 1 during a launchpad test on Jan. 27, 1967. His family wants to keep his suit from the earlier mission.

"I'm going to keep working until the suit is handed over," said Amanda, who began the effort in February after learning about Grissom while researching a school essay on heroism. She said federal officials "should do the honorable thing and help this fallen hero's family."

Her goal is simple. Achieving it is not.

The suit, which is on display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, has been the focus of a long tug of war between Grissom's family and the national space agency.

Family members say Grissom rescued the suit from the scrap heap in 1961 and brought it home, where it hung in a closet with his wife's clothing for nearly 30 years. In 1990, they lent it and other artifacts to the Hall of Fame, then a privately run museum in Titusville, Fla.

After the museum was taken over by a NASA contractor in 2002, the Grissoms wanted their part of the collection back. The family was able to retrieve Grissom's watch, a cowboy hat, a patch and an American flag, but NASA refused to hand over the spacesuit.

"They are just a bunch of thieves," Betty Grissom, 78, the astronaut's widow, said in an interview from her home in Houston. "I've been disgusted and dismayed. You think the government is proper people, and they're not. "

U.S. officials have a different view.

NASA records indicate that Grissom signed the suit out in 1965 to take it to a show-and-tell event for his children and never brought it back, said Roger D. Launius, chairman of the space history division at the National Air and Space Museum here. (The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, which acquired the suit from NASA in 2003.)

"Nobody ever really went back to try to get it," Launius said. "Our position would be that it is, and always has been, government property. . . . We're not going to give it to anybody."

About 1,300 people have signed Amanda's petition asking that the suit be returned to the family, the teenager said.

On her Web site ( http://www.freewebs.com/mercury7savethesuit/index.htm ), she asks supporters to target the Smithsonian, NASA and Delaware North Parks Services, the NASA contractor for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, with salvos of telephone calls and e-mails today. She has dubbed the effort "Freedom Day for the Liberty Bell 7 Suit."

"Gus Grissom is no longer around," said Amanda, who hopes to attend Purdue University -- Grissom's alma mater -- and become a lawyer. "He can't stand up for himself, and his family is not being given the benefit of the doubt. NASA is not giving them a chance . . . to do what they think would preserve his memory best."

Amanda acknowledges that her devotion to a man who died more than two decades before she was born is unusual. She admires Grissom because he was serving his country, and she believes that if he had lived he might have been the first man to walk on the moon.

The family has not met Amanda, although Scott Grissom, one of Grissom's sons, has spoken to her by telephone. The Grissoms said they are touched by her efforts but skeptical of her chances. "She's probably getting a lesson in U.S. government the hard way," Betty Grissom said. "I admire her for even trying. . . . She's had no encouragement from me."

Scott Grissom, 55, a pilot at Federal Express, said Amanda's campaign was "eye-watering" and probably a thorn in NASA's side. "It puts a lot of pressure on them because they don't like bad press," he said. "So, however they can shove it aside is what they are going to do. They are not going to return a spacesuit back to my mom."

Launius said he has not heard from the family. He has spoken with Amanda by telephone and invited her to meet with him the next time she is in Washington. He said he admires her passion but believes her Web site contains inaccuracies, including a line saying that NASA (rather than the Smithsonian) controls the suit, and her repetition of the family's assertion that NASA was about to throw it out in the 1960s.

The family agrees that Amanda has one detail wrong. Her site says the family would like to display the suit at a small museum that honors Grissom in his boyhood home town of Mitchell, Ind. Betty Grissom said she would rather see it at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando, about 50 miles east of where it's now displayed.

The suit will remain at the space center museum at least until the end of the year, when the current loan expires, Launius said. Conceivably it could be moved to the Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, the Air and Space Museum downtown, or some other museum, if it does not stay where it is, he said.

"We'll see how this plays out," Launius said. "If somebody had a good rational reason to move the suit, we'd certainly consider that."

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