Joe Schmitt was getting a haircut in Pasadena, Texas, during the summer of 1999 when he glanced up and saw a television news report. Astronaut Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft had just been recovered after thirty-eight years on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Hmmph,” Schmitt said to no one in particular. “I put Gus in that capsule.”
The shop fell silent, except for the steady voice of the TV anchor. A man sitting across the room lowered his newspaper a few inches so that his eyes could study the person who had made such a bizarre claim. A customer one chair over stared hard at him. And Schmitt no longer heard scissors snipping away at his gray hair; the barber was stunned too.
Schmitt was never one to volunteer information about his twenty-four years with NASA as a suit technician. He didn't talk about helping men dress before they left for the moon, or being the last to shake their hands before liftoff, or that his face was on two Norman Rockwell paintings. He figured it might come across as bragging, and he never cared much for arrogant people.
His words that day at the barbershop just slipped out. He was thrilled they had rescued Gus' capsule, which sank when a hatch accidentally blew open following his fifteen-minute suborbital flight in July 1961. He knew how happy Grissom—who died in the Apollo 1 pad fire in 1967— would have been to see his old ship back home and on its way to being restored, the object of thousands of admiring eyes. And so he had spoken without thinking.