Betty Grissom, who successfully sued a NASA contractor after her husband, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and two other astronauts died in the 1967 Apollo launchpad fire, died Oct. 7 at her home in Houston. She was 91.
Her son Mark Grissom confirmed the death to the Associated Press but did not give a precise cause.
Betty Moore and Gus Grissom met in high school in the southern Indiana city of Mitchell and married in 1945. She worked as a late-night phone operator to help pay for his schooling at Purdue University, and he went on to become one of the seven original Mercury astronauts.
In July 1961, he became the second American in space. But after his successful 15-minute suborbital flight, he nearly drowned when his capsule landed in the Atlantic Ocean and sank after the hatch blew off prematurely.
Gus Grissom was 40 when he died Jan. 27, 1967, along with fellow astronauts Roger Chaffee and Ed White, when an electrical fire broke out inside the Apollo 1 command module during testing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
During his days as a test pilot, Grissom would tell his wife, “If I die, have a party.” The party was never held. She told her friends that she had “already died 100,000 deaths” living with a test pilot and astronaut.
Left widowed with two sons, she filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Apollo program’s prime contractor, North American Rockwell, and inspired the other widows to do the same. She won a $350,000 settlement in 1972 that would be worth nearly $3 million today if adjusted for inflation, said Ronald D. Krist, the Houston lawyer who handled the case.
Survivors include her sons, Mark Grissom and Scott Grissom, and two grandchildren.
Despite criticism from some within NASA over the lawsuit, Krist said, Ms. Grissom was determined to proceed with her quest for compensation for her husband’s death.
“What she did wasn’t the most popular thing that a NASA widow could do, but she nevertheless felt that her husband’s life was taken needlessly,” Krist told the Associated Press. “She got nasty notes from some of the executives at NASA, but she kept steadfast in her beliefs and showed a lot of courage and grit. She never wavered.”
For more than 25 years, Ms. Grissom attended annual memorial services at the launch site where her husband died. “I don’t want any of this forgotten,” she told the New York Times last year, at what she said was probably her last visit to the site. Her husband, she noted, had made it possible for subsequent Apollo astronauts to reach the moon. “I’m pretty sure he got to the moon before they did,” she said. “Of course, he didn’t make it, but in spirit I think he was already there.”