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Girl fights NASA over Gus Grissom's suit

A 15-year-old girl with a Web site, a summer of free time and an astronaut for a hero is trying to solve a 3-year-old dispute over one of NASA's earliest space suits.
Amanda Meyer, 15, has spent her summer attempting to have the space suit of astronaut Virgil I "Gus" Grissom moved from the Astronaut Hall of Fame to the Gus Grissom Memorial Museum.Michelle Mcloughlin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A 15-year-old girl with a Web site, a summer of free time and an astronaut for a hero is trying to solve a 3-year-old dispute over one of NASA's earliest space suits.

The family of pioneering astronaut Gus Grissom has been trying to get NASA to give them his 1961 Mercury space suit. NASA says the suit is government property and an artifact that should be kept at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida.

Enter Amanda Meyer, space enthusiast and co-captain of her school's debate team. She believes she has a compromise and, after launching an Internet petition drive, has spent the summer writing and calling NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, Congress and anyone else she can think of.

Meyer says the government doesn't have to give up its claim to the suit but should loan it to the Gus Grissom Memorial, a museum in his hometown of Mitchell, Ind.

"It just seems fair," Meyer said. "It should be in his museum because that's where he would want it."

She is to meet this week with a representative of the government contractor that operates the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Relations between Grissom's wife, Betty, and NASA have been uneasy since he and two other Apollo 1 astronauts died in a 1967 command module fire during a training exercise. The space agency, she feels, ignored her family after the tragedy, even as it honored the crews of Challenger and Columbia.

Grissom wore the suit during his Mercury mission, in which his spacecraft landed in the ocean but sank after a hatch prematurely blew. Grissom escaped and said the hatch malfunctioned. But some, including author Tom Wolfe in his book "The Right Stuff," suggested he panicked and blew the hatch early.

After the mission, Grissom took the suit home and never returned it, NASA said. Family members have said he rescued it from the trash, a contention NASA denies. In 1989, Betty Grissom lent the suit to the privately run Astronaut Hall of Fame. But in 2003, after the government took over the museum, she and her son, Scott, tried to get it back.

NASA agreed to return 15 items, including a flight log and his commemorative medals, but not the suit, saying it was government property belonging in the Smithsonian.

Meyer heard about the dispute in February, after she sent Scott Grissom a copy of a school essay she wrote about his father. When Scott Grissom phoned, Amanda's mother was so excited she pulled Amanda out of school to return the call. Since that call, Meyer has worked to get the space suit moved.

"Gus Grissom is my hero," Meyer said. "I'd like to see his memory commemorated the way it should be."

As the school year waned, she pledged to spend summer on the issue. Through her Web site and petition drives outside a grocery store, she says she has collected about 2,000 signatures.

"She's persistent," said NASA spokesman George H. Diller.

It's not the first time Amanda has thrown herself at an issue, said her mother, Carolyn Meyer. She raised money for a local no-kill animal shelter, worked on a state representative's campaign and, after growing out her hair to the point where she could sit on it, abruptly cut it off and donated it to make wigs for cancer patients.

Her Grissom petition has become fodder for space-related Web logs and message boards. Some admire her drive; others say she's being used in the Grissoms' dispute with NASA.

Delaware North Companies, the government contractor that operates the Astronaut Hall of Fame, has said only the Smithsonian can transfer such artifacts.

"Amanda Meyer is a nice young lady, and as well meaning as she is, she's a third party in this," said Roger Launius, chairman of space history at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

The space suit's fate will be reconsidered at the end of the year, NASA said. The agency plans to ask the Smithsonian to keep it in Florida.

Launius said Meyer is ignoring a key issue: The Grissom Memorial hasn't asked for the suit, a necessary first step before starting a transfer.

The Grissom Memorial's Brandt Baughman said it's premature to talk about filing a request.

Meyer says she spent most of the summer on this project and had hoped to have something to show for her work by the time she returns to Daniel Hand High School in Madison next week. But she said she won't give up and plans to keep sending letters and collecting signatures.