June 28, 2021

Kevin’s Gus Grissom Artwork Takes Flight

Not long ago, I did a drawing of astronaut Gus Grissom in the style of Ed Roth's wild 1960's Hot Rod art. Just recently I've been told it will be included in the test flight of Neptune One, the near space, high altitude balloon being built by Space Perspective.

This is a big deal to me because I grew up a space nerd. My mom, a former teacher, let me skip school for just about every Apollo launch, moonwalk, and splashdown. She said I'd learn more from watching them than anything they were teaching in school. I have vague memories of Life magazine photos after the Apollo 1 fire of 1967. Gus Grissom, with crewmates Ed White and Roger Chaffee, were tragic martyrs to me. I felt especially bad for Gus, because he suffered an earlier accident in 1961, in the Mercury program. After splashdown, his capsule sank in the Atlantic ocean, almost taking him with it. 

But between the Mercury program and the tragedy of Apollo 1, he was a driving force of Project Gemini. I've always had a special love for Gemini. Part of that love is based purely on design and appearance. That capsule looked like a two seater sports car with two-tone paint and a convertible top. It was a hot rod that set altitude records, made the first space rendezvous, and allowed America's first spacewalkers to learn how it's done. Gus Grissom was a mechanical engineer as well as a pilot. He worked with McDonnell Aircraft engineers inventing controls that truly made Gemini a pilot's spacecraft. Astronauts needed to waltz their craft into finessed dances and dockings to prove humans could be more than just passengers in space. Fellow astronauts nicknamed it 'The Gusmobile' because of his impact. 

I love the 'Can Do!', 'Let's pop the hood and get this thing running' aspect of the Gusmobile story. One day I imagined the scene at the McDonnell plant like a garage full of mechanics building a hot rod... That made me think of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Roth has a great story of his own, but suffice it to say he represents the point where gear heads with perpetual black grease under their nails meet Art. He built preposterous, comedic, insanely muscled street vehicles, just for the laugh of it. He was also a cartoonist, famous for google eyed monsters driving fire belching, rubber burning, chromed speed machines.  He and Gus worked during the same period, during the Golden Age of the Space Program.

Like Roth, I'm a cartoonist. Actually, I've been a professional storyboard artist for over 30 years. I draw all day, sometimes long days, for other people's projects. There are weekends when I don't want to lift a pen to sign my name let alone to draw. However, suddenly it just seemed like a good idea to draw a joyful Gus Grissom riding his hot rod Gemini 3 into orbit. I  glued myself to my chair for a few weeks, finding time when I could, to get it right. I wanted to finish a drawing that would have given Gus a laugh if I'd had a chance to present it to him. I wanted to capture the "Can Do!", "Let's build this!" spirit I sense from all my reading about the early American space program. Wonderfully, I'm sensing that spirit again, for the first time in years! I'm hoping we're beginning a Second Golden Age of America in space, this time driven by private industry, something I've been hoping for my entire adult life. 

Oh, one more thing. There's a corned beef sandwich flying out of the Gemini 3 capsule. That's a bit of a story, but well worth reading about. Look up Gemini 3, aka The Molly Brown, launched on March 23, 1965.

About the author

I’m from New Jersey and New York, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the modern animation boom began. I’ve got a lovely wife and two daughters and I've worked as a Storyboard artist for 30+ years.

Kevin O'Brien

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