Category Liberty Bell 7


Seven American test pilots leapt to instant prominence on 9 April 1959, when NASA formally announced their names at a Washington D. C. press conference, introducing them as the space agency’s Mercury astronauts.

After several weeks of orientation lectures by members of the STG, each of the seven men had been assigned a specific area of specialization and responsibility to pursue. This came about after NASA realized that the entire scope of Project Mercury was so broad, and areas of development so numerous, that it was almost impossible for all seven astronauts to stay in contact with all the latest developments. Thus, at regular meetings, they would individually report on progress and any problems within their specific assignment. This meant that all seven astronauts were kept up to date on the latest developments without the need for them to be involved in studying or con­tributing to all areas connected with the Mercury program. These assignments were:

Scott Carpenter – Communications and navigation Gordon Cooper – Redstone booster John Glenn – Cockpit layout

Gus Grissom – Electromechanical and autopilot systems Wally Schirra – Life support systems Alan Shepard – Tracking and recovery Deke Slayton – Atlas booster

One aspect of the job in which all seven astronauts played an active part was visiting various contractor facilities in order to familiarize themselves with such things as mockups, hardware, and manufacturing processes. For instance, following his selection as a Mercury astronaut, Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn was assigned the task of working with the McDonnell engineers to help determine the layout of the capsule’s instrument panel. Now, with the basic shape of the spacecraft fully established and approved, final design and development work on the cockpit instrumentation could begin.


The seven Mercury astronauts. From left: Wally Schirra, John Glenn, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper. (Photo: NASA)

First of all, as Glenn recounted in We Seven, “McDonnell had to figure out a way to build [the capsule] so it would be as strong as possible and as light as possible at the same time. The engineers knew that every pound saved on the pad would provide an additional mile in range.”

As he explained, the wall of the capsule was made up of two layers of high-grade metal. “The outer layer consists of shingles made from a metal called Rene 41. These have been corrugated and then welded together to give them extra strength. The weld­ing technique had to be specially perfected so that the thin sheets of metal would not be torn or cracked in the process. The inner layer is made of titanium, a light, strong metal which was developed for jet engines and provides the strength of steel at about half the weight. The two layers are separated by a hollow space that provides extra insulation. It was an extremely difficult vehicle to build, and it was full of compro­mise. It was not perfect, but it was functional.”19

Gus Grissom’s prime responsibility was working on the Automatic Flight Control System and autopilot, especially for the upcoming orbital missions.

“The path that the capsule follows [after launch] can’t be altered after we come off the Atlas booster. Once we are in orbit, we can’t change that orbit. As we rotate around the Earth, the autopilot will maintain us in a position to be always looking at the Earth – which actually means that the capsule has to be turned 360 degrees each time we go around the Earth. If we want to change the position of our capsule and look in another direction, or if the autopilot should malfunction, we can then take over with the Manual Attitude Control System. To fly the Manual System we have a side arm controller; it is very similar to the control stick in an airplane – except that an airplane has rudder pedals also, while in this we have eliminated the rudder pedals and made it a function of the stick also. We have a three-axis control.”20


On 24 March, the Redstone rocket had been successfully rated for human use with the completion of the Mercury-Redstone Booster development (MR-BD) suborbital prov­ing flight, carrying a previously flown and unmanned, non-functional Mercury “boil­erplate” capsule. However, before a Redstone booster carried an astronaut on a similar flight it was deemed necessary to conduct an orbital test of the Mercury-Atlas combi­nation as a means of checking out the Mercury spacecraft in the actual orbital environ­ment. This MA-3 launch would take place on 25 April. The only subject to be carried on board Mercury spacecraft No. 8 was a mechanical astronaut, known to the NASA astronauts as an “astro-robot.”

For the MA-3 launch, Gus Grissom and fellow astronaut Gordon Cooper were assigned the grandstand spectacle of flying delta-wing F-106A jets over the Cape and keeping company with the Atlas rocket as it gathered speed after liftoff.

“I was to approach MA-3 at 5,000 feet, ignite my afterburner, and climb up in a spiral alongside to observe this early phase of its flight,” Grissom wrote in his memoir, Gemini. “Gordon Cooper would take over from his 25,000 feet level and continue observation of the big bird.”

Grissom then noted that everything seemed to go perfectly on launch day. “To allow me more observation time, it was decided I should go in at about 1,000 feet, keeping about half a mile distant from MA-3 after liftoff. No sweat.”

AN UNNERVING INCIDENTA successful liftoff for the MA-3 mission. (Photo: NASA)

Ignition and liftoff occurred right on schedule, and Grissom was having a dream flight climbing along with the ascending Atlas rocket. As he watched, he saw to his surprise the escape tower fire unexpectedly, prematurely hauling the Mercury capsule away from the Atlas. Things had begun to go seriously wrong when the Atlas failed to follow its pitch and roll programs. At 43 seconds into the flight the Range Safety Officer at the Cape decided to terminate the erratic path of the missile by transmitting the destruct command. This prompted the escape tower to react and haul the space­craft clear moments before the Atlas blew apart. A shocked Grissom later recorded the scene before him as “Kablooie! The biggest fireball I ever want to see!”

His pilot’s reactions instinctively came into force, and Grissom pulled over and away from the massive explosion, but spectators watching on the ground feared his aircraft had flown straight into the conflagration. A friend later told Grissom he had turned to his shocked wife on Cocoa Beach and mournfully stated, “Well, now there are only six astronauts.”

Gordon Cooper, stationed above at 15,000 feet, was horrified to see the ascending rocket erupt into a gigantic fireball right below his F-106. He later reported that the soaring escape tower and capsule missed his aircraft by what seemed to be 15 feet. Somehow, neither F-106 suffered any damage following the explosion.

Despite the scare, Grissom quickly recovered and decided to follow the released capsule as it descended on its parachute to the water. The test engineer in him had clicked in, and he knew that NASA technicians and others would welcome a report on this phase of the aborted flight. But there was another shock in store.

“I remember thinking, my gosh but these are big seagulls around here today. They were flying all around my plane. And then it hit me – these were no seagulls. They were chunks of the exploded Atlas, falling.” His luck held, as none of the tumbling chunks of rocket hit his aircraft. “It was quite a spectacle,” he noted, “but never again, thanks.”5


On the morning of the second launch attempt, as with the postponed liftoff two days earlier, a number of fixed-wing aircraft were flying at high level along the Atlantic missile range in order to assist with the location and recovery of the spacecraft as it broke through the clouds and splashed into the ocean near Grand Bahama Island.

The primary recovery chart for Grissom’s mission specifies two P2V Neptune air­planes from the Navy’s Patrol Squadron 5 (VP-5) based at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, call-signed that day Cardfile 5 and Cardfile 9. They had SARAH (Search and Rescue and Homing) equipment on board operated by either Navy or Air Force personnel as appropriate, and there was usually a NASA/STG representative. Not shown on the recovery chart was a third P2V call-signed Cardfile 23. Piloted by Navy Cdr. Lester Boutte, its assignment was to take up position in the predicted recovery zone, spot the spacecraft as it descended on its parachute and then circle high at high level to observe the recovery efforts. In addition there were two C-54 Douglas Skymasters call-signed Cardfile 21 and Cardfile 22, and a pair of SA-16 Grumman Albatrosses designated Dumbo 1 and Dumbo 2.

The three P2Vs had taken off at staged intervals beginning at 2:00 a. m. In addition to the aircraft flown by Lester Boutte, one was under the command of Lt. Cdr. Edward McCarthy, whose assignment was to fly near the Cape Canaveral launch site, ready to assist in the event of an early booster malfunction over the ocean. A third P2V was operated by Lt. Cdr. Anthony Ruoti, and was stationed downrange from the planned landing site for use in the event of an overshoot.

Cardfile 23 pilot Lester Boutte had been involved in a much-publicized rescue operation some 19 years earlier in November 1942, after a B-17D had been shot down over the Pacific. Boutte, then a radioman aboard a scouting two-man Navy OSTU Kingfisher, had spotted a life raft adrift in the ocean twenty days later, when any hope of finding survivors had all but gone. The survivors, many near death, were rescued and carried to safety – some even strapped to the small aircraft’s wings – by the Kingfisher’s pilot, Lt. William Eadie, USN, who taxied across the water to a rescue ship. One of those lucky survivors was famed World War I air ace Eddie Rickenbacker.

Also on board Cardfile 23 as an observer of the MR-4 flight was the STG’s Milton Windler. Back then he was a member of the Landing and Recovery Test Section headed by Peter Armitage, one of the Canadian AVRO engineering group that went to work for the newly established space agency NASA. In 1967 he was transferred into Flight Control and served as lead flight director for several Skylab and lunar missions, including Apollo 13 and Apollo 14.

“At the time of MR-4 our Recovery Branch was fairly small; twelve in all, headed by Robert Thompson,” Windler reflected. “My job at the time included evaluating, recommending, and testing the Mercury location aids. All of these were activated automatically and required no crew action. This included the SOFAR bombs, HF bea­con and the primary aid – the UHF SARAH. This was the same aid as used by the RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain. A very simple, clever scheme. It involved a special receiver and Yagi antennas on the P2V (and other) aircraft. The identical UHF beacon used by the RAF was installed on the Mercury spacecraft.

“We conducted many operational tests and, since I had a lot of experience with these tests, I went out to the primary landing area with the commander of the recovery loca­tion aircraft. This was usually (probably always) the senior pilot or aircraft commander for the array. I was there to represent NASA, answer questions and offer advice in the location process, and to provide post mission observations. The aircrews were well


Milton Windier, a later lead flight director with NASA. (Photo: NASA)


This map, personally annotated by McDonnell engineer Guenter Wendt, shows the position of all the MR-4 recovery force participants. (Photo: Rick Boos)

trained and motivated and really needed little help from me however, except to translate some of the countdown events. NASA had recovery branch personnel with most of the ships as well, especially the [carrier] designated to be the primary recovery ship.”2 Apart from the USS Randolph, the prime recovery carrier, other ships involved in the recovery operation were the destroyers USS Conway (DD-507), USS Cony (DD- 508), USS Lowry (DD-770) and USS Stormes (DD-780); the oceanic minesweepers USS Alacrity (MSO-520) and USS Exploit (MSO-440); the tracking ships USNS Coastal Sentry (AGM-15) and USNS Rose Knot (AGM-14); and the salvage and res­cue ship with the appropriately name of USS Recovery (ARS-43).


Two months before the MR-4 flight, Capt. Wayne Koons was the prime recovery heli­copter pilot along with Lt. George Cox for the retrieval of Alan Shepard and his Freedom 7 spacecraft after the MR-3 mission. At the time of the Grissom flight he was assigned to the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral along with recovery man­ager, Robert F. (‘Bob’) Thompson, who needed to know what had gone wrong and caused the loss of Liberty Bell 7.


Robert F. Thompson (center), NASA’s Recovery Coordinator with Rear Adm. W. C. Abhau (left) and Flight Director Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. (Photo: NASA)

Once Grissom was safely back on the USS Randolph, Robert Gilruth and Walt Williams came over to talk with Thompson, wanting to know what had gone wrong. “I don’t know,” Thompson admitted. “I’m not sure, but I’ll go and find out and let you know.” He asked Koons to accompany him on the one-hour flight out to Grand Bahama Island on a Navy administration S-2F Tracker that was kept on a skid strip at the Cape. On the way to GBI, Thompson contacted the Randolph and asked that helicopter pilots Lewis and Reinhard also be brought to the island for debriefing. Thompson and Koons arrived there about the same time as Grissom and the two Marine pilots.18

“We got down there, and they had just brought Gus in from the ship and taken him to the little Air Force medical facility,” Koons would later say of that day. “He was pretty tired and uncomfortable. As I recall, he was set up to debrief on mission phases, and after the mission he was supposed to use cue cards to talk into a tape recorder and talk through pre-launch and then talk through launch, and then… through descent and landing. Bob said, ‘Gus, help us out here. Would you mind doing your last card first?’”19

Thompson says he then asked Gus to go into a small, private room in the front of the barracks building. He discussed the events of that day with the two helicopter pilots, “got their briefing pretty quickly, and then went in and sat down and talked to Gus, just the two of us in the room. He sat on one bed and I sat on the other. So I talked to Gus about what went on. Well, after about five minutes of talking to Gus and the little bit of conversation I had with the helicopter pilots, I was pretty sure what the problem was. As far as I’m concerned, the problem was Gus got out of sequence. We had two safety devices on the door-activating mechanism. Now, this is something that we never did make a big to-do over after it was all over with, and I’m just telling you factually what went on. To open the door of the capsule after it landed, the two safety devices, you had to take a cap off. that covered the plunger that fired the door.

You had to take that cap off, turn it ninety degrees and take that off. Then you had reach up and put your finger in a ring and pull a pin out of the shaft on the plunger that fired the door, and then push a little fifty-cent-size plunger in. Once that plunger went in about an inch, it lined up with a hole that the firing pin came through that fired the door.

“So the picture here is, you’ve got a door-opening mechanism with two safety devices on it. The procedures were, he was supposed to stay there and not activate either one of these safety devices until the helicopter told him he had 1,800 rpm, which raised him above the water. Then he was supposed to take his helmet off, put his neck dam on, take his ECLS loose, close this, take the cap off, pull the pin, slide the plunger in, blow the door, sit on the sill and go out.

“Well, he wanted to do such a good job, that while he was waiting for Hunt Club to get everything ready, he says, ‘I’ll just take the cap off, and I’ll pull the pin, but I won’t push the plunger.’ But now he’s in a bobbing capsule with all kinds of stuff in there. Did he push the plunger? Of course not, you know, but it’s kind of like you had a gun with two safeties on it. You took the two safeties off and you put it up and you pointed it at somebody, but you didn’t pull the trigger, right? So he merely got out of sequence, trying to do such a good job.

“It’s pretty clear to me what happened, but I agree with Gus. No, he didn’t push the plunger. Did he get out of sequence? Yes. He told people that he got all ready, and he just shouldn’t have done it until he was told to do it. It’s just that simple. But there was no point in making a federal case, and we went on about our business. So I went to the Cape that night, found Bob Gilruth, went out in the parking lot, told him what had happened, and we went on with the program.”20


In 1987, following further ROV recovery operations, Newport took on a position with Oceaneering Space Systems, which involved working on the Space Station Freedom program. By this time he had established a fairly good grasp on where Liberty Bell 7 might be located, after poring over countless documents and charts. Then he had a major breakthrough.

“While working at Oceaneering Space Systems, I learned that they were planning to do some deep water sea trials using the Gemini ROV we’d used on the Challenger salvage. It had been updated and now had a 15,000 foot depth capability, so I made the suggestion: Why not add a side-scan sonar to the trial and use the opportunity to look for Liberty Bell 7? After considerable back and forth with several Oceaneering vice presidents, they decided to give it a try using Steadfast Oceaneering’s Deep Ocean Search System (DOSS).”9

The trial eventually went ahead, and the search was conducted in the area where Newport reasoned that the capsule might reside. There was excitement when two objects – one large and one small – were located, but in a curious twist of fate they later turned out to be pieces of wreckage from a downed aircraft. After several years spent scouring NASA charts and photographs and interviewing those present when Liberty Bell 7 went down, Newport remained undiscouraged. A thorough check of weather and sea conditions on the splashdown day in 1961, as well as currents in that section of the Atlantic, led him to the conclusion that Liberty Bell 7 did not drift far before sinking. He also believed that despite the massive pressure at that depth, the capsule would have remained basically intact. The only real uncertainty he harbored was whether it had moved horizontally during its nearly hour-long fall to the ocean floor. Nevertheless he was convinced he could locate the spacecraft, and mounted two further ROV expeditions in 1992 and 1993. But these were ancillary ventures attached to other seaborne operations, and were conducted in haste.

As he commented to the author, “Actually I was discouraged much of the time and gave up on the project during certain periods. You should see all the rejection letters I have. I was very concerned about the SOFAR [Sound Fixing and Radar] bomb carried in the spacecraft, even though there was no evidence it detonated – but it should have.”10 The SOFAR device was designed to go off at a depth of 3,000 feet if the spacecraft sank, allowing recovery vessels to pinpoint its location.

Newport continued to work with ROVs on various salvage projects, including the recovery of wreckage from yet another downed airliner. On 17 July 1996 the 747 on flight TWA 800 had mysteriously exploded and crashed into the Atlantic near East Moriches, New York. This time the probable cause was an explosion in a fuel tank sparked by a short circuit. In the first two weeks on the TWA operation, Newport’s team recovered the bodies of over 50 passengers using the Navy’s MR-1 ROV.

Over the years, Newport had participated in the development and use of ROVs and knew they were now far more reliable and easier to mobilize. “Overall, by 1998, things were looking up for me,” he recalled. Then he heard that Oceaneering might be conducting some dives on the RMS Titanic for the Discovery Channel, and he became part of the team, this time in charge of remote-piloting an ROV known as Magellan. “I actually got MSNBC and Discovery the ‘promo’ which they used to advertise the [Titanic] program by flying the Magellan straight up the edge of the bow, very close and very fast – so close that I knocked off rusticles [formations of rust similar in appearance to stalactites] from the towing shackle with the priceless WHOI [Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution] high-resolution camera. A little too close I guess, but that’s what they wanted.”11

Prior to this expedition, he had written to the Discovery Channel in regard to his own near-quixotic quest to locate Liberty Bell 7. To his surprise, he was aboard the ship Ocean Discovery one day when he got a life-changing call from the Discovery Channel’s Tom Caliandro. After discussing the project it was agreed that a meeting would take place once he returned from his work on the Titanic.

“Discovery had actually already turned me down in the early 1990s regarding Liberty Bell 7. The only reason I wrote them again was at the urging of a friend of a man doing renovation work on our house; he wanted to break into documentary film making. I never expected anything to come of it. Then the next thing I knew, I was getting phone calls in Boston while mobilizing the Magellan 725.

“What happened, is that after the Titanic operation I came back home from Newfoundland because I was scheduled to do classified work for the Navy in England within a week or so. During my three days home before flying out, I met with Discovery in Bethesda, Maryland, and wrote a business plan which was delivered to Discovery while I was on my way to England. I think they gave final approval to the project early in 1999.”12


“We are building and designing the capsules at the same time,” Edward (‘Bud’) Flesh commented at the time. Flesh was the McDonnell engineer in charge of the project. “The design is not complete until we turn out a capsule, and each capsule will be slightly different from the one before, depending on whether it will be a test model or will carry an animal or an astronaut.”21

The capsules were assembled in rooms that could have rivaled hospital wards for clean­liness. Technicians and engineers wore white clothing made of dust-free nylon, and shoes of white nylon. The rooms, also white, were air-filtered and temperature-controlled.


McDonnell technicians working on a Mercury capsule, 1960. (Photo: NASA)

Psychologists, physiologists and engineers were all taking part in the design process, according to Fred Willis, one of the project engineers. “It would be silly, for example, to put a red warning light more than 50 degrees to the left or right of the man’s line of sight. Only the cones of our eyes see color, and the cones are not there for peripheral vision. A red light at the edge of our vision would not be recognized instantly as a danger signal. Maybe it seems a small point, but attention to detail like this makes the space ship as safe as a living room.”

One sticking point in the development of the first Mercury capsules was the subject of fitting viewing windows. Bud Flesh said it was a design problem that they had over­come. “As pilots, the astronauts are used to having a windshield,” he pointed out, “and even though it is probably more a psychological than a physical matter, we of course gave it to them.”22

Max Faget agreed on the subject of a viewing window – it was one of the design changes that had been unanimously demanded by the astronauts. “Oh, there was a big beef about that,” Faget told interviewer Jim Slade. “We had two little portholes about that big around; six-inch round quartz windows, one down here and one over here, and it wasn’t very good. And another thing we had is, in order to navigate, we had essentially – it was like a periscope, only actually it was optics to show them a virtual image here of the ground passing underneath them. We thought that was very important, that they see the ground so they could line it up with a reticule in there to make sure the vehicle wasn’t yawed. If they could see a piece of ground going right down along the center line, well they knew that they were headed right so when they fired the retro[rocket] off, they would be properly aligned. Actually, the [attitude] could be misaligned some fifteen or twenty degrees and it wouldn’t make that much difference. It would move the landing point further down range, but that’s about all. We had more than enough capacity [to retrieve the capsule]”.23


Astronaut John Glenn shows his wife Annie a replica of the Mercury spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)


The U. S. Navy human centrifuge at Johnsville, Pennsylvania. The radius of the arm is 50 feet and the gimbal at the end of the arm changes positions as the centrifuge arm turns, by com­puter or by manual pilot control in the gondola at the end of the arm. The gondola and astro­naut may be pressurized or depressurized for altitude as the accelerations are provided. (Photo: U. S. Navy)

All seven astronauts visited the McDonnell plant in May 1959, where each man was assigned an appropriate systems engineer to provide individual presentations on the status of the different systems – their own particular part in them – and acquaint them with the people at McDonnell and the plant’s layout. After that they visited the Cape Canaveral launch site and trained at a number of military and medical facilities in accordance with the training program prepared for them by the STG. That August, for example, they were involved in human centrifuge tests at the Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, Pennsylvania, learning to cope with excessive g-forces and the accelerations associated with their flights into space and back. They were unanimous that the centrifuge, which they referred to as “The Wheel,” was the hardest part of their training to that time.

As Alan Shepard explained, “This thing – the centrifuge – puts you in what pilots call the ‘eyeballs-out’ position. It is like an oversize cream separator that flings you around the room, that sort of thing. If you fight it, it’s murder. You can easily black out and remain unconscious. When I come off that monster at Johnsville, every bone in my body aches.”

Scott Carpenter agreed with Shepard. “It’s important to master these g-forces because we fully expect to be operating the capsule controls during part of the flight. So far, we have all shown this capability under 9 Gs. But that’s assuming everything goes according to plan. If it doesn’t… well, let’s not talk about that.”

“Just say it is a real personal challenge,” added Shepard.24

In September the Mercury astronauts returned to the McDonnell plant to check on progress with the spacecraft that they hoped they would soon fly. As Luge Luetjen recalls, “During this and subsequent visits, we developed lasting first-name friend­ships and a mutual respect for each other’s role in the ‘great adventure.’ Their sugges­tions and recommendations throughout the program were timely, well thought out, and were of great help in the design, construction, and testing of the machine.”25


On 4 April, Glenn, Grissom and Shepard left for Pennsylvania to undertake refresher tests at the Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, just outside of Philadelphia. The center had once served as an aircraft production factory but was later converted to U. S. Navy research laboratories that were studying pilotless aircraft, electronics and weapons. It was also home to a vast human centrifuge building, which assisted in researching the limits of a pilot’s tolerance to a rapid buildup of gravitational or g-forces.

Here the future astronauts were strapped into a 10-foot by 6-foot steel gondola situated at the end of a 50-foot arm, and secured in various positions relative to the applied g-force. As well, the gondola could be rotated by controllers while the high – performance centrifuge was in action. At the far working end of the centrifuge’s arm was a 4,000 horsepower electric engine to hurl the gondola and its hapless occupant around the circular chamber at high speed.


Grissom prepares for a dizzying ride in the Johnsville centrifuge. (Photo: NASA)


John Glenn at work in the flight procedures trainer. (Photo: NASA)

John Glenn would later refer to the Johnsville centrifuge as a “dreaded” and “dia­bolical” part of astronaut training. In his book, John Glenn: A Memoir, he said, “Whirling around at the end of that long arm, I was acting as a guinea pig for what a human being might encounter [whilst] being launched into space or reentering the atmosphere. You were straining every muscle of your body to the maximum… if you even thought of easing up, your vision would narrow like a set of blinders, and you’d start to black out.”6

On that occasion Grissom made two simulated Mercury acceleration profiles, which proved to be his last preflight experience on the dreaded centrifuge.

Another particularly vital training aid frequently used by the astronauts was the flight procedures trainer. A complex device, it comprised a mockup version of the Mercury capsule with all of its systems connected to exterior control panels and com­puters. The trainer allowed the astronauts to test their proficiency by flying simulated missions and learning how to control possible contingencies such as emergency situations.

Another valuable training device was the Air-Lubricated Free Attitude (ALFA) trainer at NASA Langley. In using the ALFA, the astronaut first strapped himself into a couch that was then finely balanced on a cushion of compressed air in order to remove any feeling of friction. Then, moving very freely on all three axes, it provided the astronaut with important practice in lightly maintaining their spacecraft at the cor­rect orbital attitude. “This trainer provided the only training in visual control of the spacecraft,” Gus Grissom would later recall.7


Wally Schirra takes his turn on the ALFA training device. (Photo: NASA)


When asked how it was communicated to him onboard the Randolph that the MR-4 launch had taken place, Jim Lewis vividly recalled the facts.

“My log book shows that we flew two missions that day,” he stated, “the first being a checkout flight of just over a half hour. As I recall, our plan was to lift off the carrier at the same time the booster lifted off from Cape Canaveral. We were waiting in the cockpit with engines running and received word that the launch occurred via ship-to – aircraft radio. All that remained was to engage rotors and take off once clearance was granted from flight control.

“Once MR-4 had lifted off, we had about fifteen minutes to get there and begin recovery operations, and I believe the carrier was standing about five miles off the impact area. We flew at about ninety knots, so getting into the primary recovery area quickly was no problem.

“I was initially occupied with observing the sky above, searching for the Liberty Bell 7 parachute. Beyond that, I was intent on executing the mission procedures and plan. I finally saw the spacecraft on its chutes. I couldn’t say what altitude, but it wasn’t very high.” 3

With Liberty Bell 7 now heading towards an ocean splashdown, gently swinging and slowly rotating beneath its main parachute, Grissom heard from the crew of the radio relay airplane call-signed Card File 23.

“We are heading directly toward you,” the pilot announced, as he observed the bell­shaped spacecraft floating downwards past 3,000 feet. At this time, Jim Lewis aboard rescue helicopter Hunt Club 1 also established radio communications with Grissom, letting him know that he was positioned about two miles southwest of the projected splashdown site.

As Grissom prepared for splashdown, the protective heat shield at the base of the capsule detached on schedule with an audible “clunk” and dropped about three feet below the spacecraft. This action in the landing sequence also revealed the attached perforated landing bag, which would absorb much of the shock of impact when the spacecraft smacked down on the water. Following splashdown, the bag’s next job was to help stabilize the craft by filling up with seawater. It would then act like a sea anchor, to keep the spacecraft upright until it could be hauled out of the water by the recovery helicopter. Salt water would then drain out through air holes in the skirt of the bag.

In the Mercury Control Center, Flight Director Chris Kraft was wary of proclaim­ing the space flight a success, but as he later wrote he was entirely pleased with the way the MR-4 mission had gone. “Grissom was good,” he observed. “He handled the maneuvers to perfection, using the three systems of automatic, manual, and rate com­mand, a combination of the two.

“His Earth observations were cogent, and his call-outs during reentry were on time and worry-free. Then he splashed down.

“The radio link between the low-flying aircraft, the helicopters, and mission con­trol was touchy. We only heard part of it. Gus was down and safe… Then next we heard excited voices, too garbled to understand clearly.”4


Samuel T. (‘Sam’) Beddingfield was an aeronautical engineer who was involved in testing airplanes for the U. S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB before linking up with NASA at Langley Field, Virginia. At first he wanted to become involved in air­plane testing once again, but the NASA interviewer suggested he might instead find better work with the rocket people, who were in need of experienced engineers. Beddingfield drove around to that area of the field and the first person he bumped into was Gus Grissom, with whom he had tested airplanes at Wright-Patterson, and the recently selected astronaut convinced him to join the rocket team. As he told inter­viewer Lori Walters in 2001. “I was at Langley Field, Virginia two weeks and they told me they needed me to go on a temporary trip. And so they sent me down here to Cape Canaveral to help get Project Mercury started down here and that was very early October 1959 and I’ve been here ever since.”

Beddingfield helped establish NASA’s engineering facilities at the Cape as well as administering the setting-up of Hangar S as a work area and crew quarters for the astronauts. He then became involved as a mechanical engineer in the early Redstone launches of unmanned production Mercury spacecraft, and the 5 May 1961 launch of Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7.


Gus Grissom at the launch facility with spacecraft test conductor Paul Donnelly and Sam Beddingfield (right). (Photo: NASA)

Asked if he had talked over the loss of Liberty Bell 7 with Grissom, Beddingfield said they had discussed it at length. “Yes, I talked to him quite a bit after the flight because a lot of people thought he must have fired the explosive that blew the hatch off. I knew if he had done that he’d tell me. We had tested airplanes enough together in the Air Force that when anything went wrong we knew we had to tell each other about it. And they put me on a team to go interview Gus as to what happened. And he told me he did not fire that hatch.”

Beddingfield stated that during Mercury tests of the explosive hatch, and on the subsequent Mercury manned flights, the blowing of the hatch caused noticeable deep bone bruising on the back of the hand of the astronauts involved. Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton agreed. “No one should have the idea that Gus was going around being defensive about this hatch thing,” Slayton remarked. “But he told me, sure, there was a possibility he had banged the thing by mistake…. All I know is that when Wally Schirra blew the hatch on his [MA-8] flight, he wound up with a big bruise on his hand. Gus never had one.”21

Schirra had ridden inside his Sigma 7 spacecraft as the recovery helicopter lifted it out of the ocean and flew it to the deck of the USS Kearsarge (CV-33). He blew the hatch only when he was ready to exit the capsule. He had to hit the plunger with five or six pounds of fist force; so hard that he injured his hand. He was not slow to show the tell-tale impact bruising and cut on his hand at his medical debriefing.


After deliberately blowing the explosive hatch of his Sigma 7 spacecraft aboard the USS Kearsarge, Wally Schirra is assisted in his egress. (Photo: NASA)

As Schirra wrote in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space, which was co-written with Richard Billings, “I blew the hatch on purpose, and the recoil of the plunger injured my hand – it actually caused a cut through a glove that was reinforced by metal. Gus was one of those who flew out to the ship and I showed him my hand. ‘How did you cut it?’ he asked. ‘I blew the hatch,’ I replied. Gus smiled, vindicated. It proved he hadn’t blown the hatch with a hand, foot, knee or whatever, for he hadn’t suffered even a minor bruise.”22

Beddingfield concurs. “Gus did not have [a bruise] in his hand. And when we got the spacecraft back we found out that the hatch could have done something that we don’t even understand. But Gus did not fire it. We were fairly comfortable in that.” Sam Beddingfield worked hard trying to determine the cause of the blown hatch. Grissom assisted by participating in extensive tests where he intentionally bumped against the plunger, but failed at all times to blow the hatch. The design engineers tried everything, but could not replicate whatever malfunction had caused the hatch to blow. According to a Project Mercury Status Report for the period ending 31 October 1961:

During a period between August 5, 1961 and October 12, 1961 a series of envi­ronmental tests were conducted on the explosive hatch. Individual pieces of the mild detonation fuse (MDF) cord, detonator caps, and RDX lead cups were subjected to simulated altitudes of 118 miles and 135 miles and subjected to 2,000-volt +1.2 to 2.0 milliampere static discharges. No inadvertent ignition occurred.

The units were then assembled into igniter assemblies and fired by pulling the lanyard. Full-order ignition occurred. Additional MDF cord was subjected to varying exposure in hydrogen peroxide. One condition resulted in a low-order detonation without igniting the full length of 12 inches. Two repeats of the same condition failed to induce any detonation. The MDF was reduced to puddles of lead in all of these tests.

Three inert igniter assemblies were subjected to push tests with the shear pin removed, with and without vacuum, and with and without the ‘O’ ring. The mini­mum push force was 2.63 pounds. The assembly with the minimum push force was subjected to vibrations of 0.03 to 10 G at frequencies from 5 to 2,000 cycles per second with no displacement of the plunger noted. A loaded hatch assembly which was subjected to a saline solution soak, with vacuum, electrostatic shock and vibration was degraded to the point of “no fire” due to salt concentration degrading the detonator caps. This hatch assembly was then disassembled, reloaded and subjected to a simulated launch, three orbits, and reentry tempera­ture test conditions. The pressure altitude during the test was 240,000 feet.

Upon removal from the test chamber, the hatch was subjected to a saline solu­tion soak and repeated electrostatic discharges. No detonation occurred. The hatch was then fired by lanyard pull and normal operation occurred.23

In 1965 Dr. Robert Voas, who was serving as the astronauts’ training officer at the time of MR-4, remained convinced that Grissom did not blow the hatch, either inten­tionally or accidentally. “When John Glenn completed his [MA-6] flight, he egressed from the capsule by actuating the explosive mechanism that exploded off the hatch. When he was later examined a bruise was found on his hand, caused by a pin that jumps back. On the next flight, Scott Carpenter climbed out of the top of the capsule and didn’t use the hatch. Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper both exploded the hatch and both suffered bruises on their hands. Everyone who has actuated that explosive hatch has gained a bruise. The fact that Gus did not have a bruise is final demonstra­tion that he did not inadvertently actuate the mechanism. Although it has never been explained what did cause the accident, he has been completely absolved of the responsibility.”24


Curt Newport’s team set sail on a two-week voyage on Monday, 19 April 1999. This time the Discovery Channel was paying for the entire expedition as well as filming the venture for a documentary to be broadcast in the fall. Everyone was hoping for a suc­cessful conclusion. The ship, the MV Needham Tide, was equipped with the very lat­est in side-scan sonar unit, although in reality the ship was barely suitable for a sonar search because of its propulsion system; it didn’t even have variable pitch propellers. The only way they could operate it sufficiently slowly to tow at 1.5 knots was to put one screw ahead and one astern, which they did for a whole week.

“We have a pretty good idea where to look for it,” Newport said prior to sailing. “To say I’m cautiously optimistic is probably the right term … this is a full-fledged, dedi­cated mission to go out and locate and recover this thing. We have a lot more time, we have a better sonar, we can examine a much larger area of the ocean at one time. Consequently, our chances are better. Outside of Challenger, this is the only one we haven’t gotten back. It’s the right thing to do. It’s patriotic. It was one of ours.”13


The Ocean Explorer 6000 side-scan sonar which was dragged over the bottom of the Atlantic in the target area and identified 88 sonar contacts. (Photo courtesy of Curt Newport)


Curt Newport (left) reviews the 88 target sheets generated by the sonar search for likely contacts. (Photo: Discovery Channel, courtesy of Curt Newport)

Misfortunate quickly set in when the side-scan sonar broke down, but once fixed it identified 88 possible targets scattered across the 24 square mile area that Newport had pinpointed based on 14 years of studying NASA charts and interviewing people who were there when Liberty Bell 7 went down, such as helicopter pilot Jim Lewis.


Launching the Magellan 725 ROV. (Photo courtesy of Curt Newport)

On Saturday evening, 1 May, on Day 14 of the expedition, something bizarre hap­pened. At 7:20 p. m., on the very first attempt and to everyone’s amazement, a vaguely familiar shape – a veritable ghostly apparition – emerged from the murky terrain as they stared at the video screen. Newport would not allow himself to get carried away; his first reaction was that it might be more large pieces of aircraft wreckage. After all, Target #71 was the very first object the Magellan Rover had closed in on. But as it drew nearer there was no mistaking the bell-shaped object with its rough exterior; it was the Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7. Everyone, and especially Newport, was stunned at hitting the target first time.

“Everyone said that we simply got lucky. But it was not luck that we were looking in that area. Target 71 was one of a cluster of five hard contacts centered near my wind-corrected GBI FPS-16 radar location. That target was the first we looked at because it made sense from the operational standpoint, that is, from the positioning and navigational standpoints. In reality, the first target we found was a trail of LB7’s decomposed heat shield, which was scattered down a small rise from the capsule. We had no idea what we were looking at. I thought that it was aircraft debris. The next thing I knew, we were seeing this tall thing in the darkness up the hill.”14

From what they could see, the spacecraft appeared to be intact and the words Liberty Bell 7 could be clearly discerned on the side of the craft. And so could the false, painted crack. As Newport later pointed out, the spacecraft could easily have been obscured from the sonar and they might not have seen it in the gloom. Good fortune was certainly riding with them that day since it was a very small object in a massive area of ocean floor. “What we did find was something in water half a mile deeper than the Titanic and it’s smaller than one of the Titanic’s boilers.”15

Sadly, the team’s elation would not last long. At four minutes to midnight the cable to the remotely operated Magellan 725 ROV snapped in the rough seas and the rover


After five hours probing the depths, the Magellan ROV located some mysterious glistening chunks of white material Newport described as “space age bread crumbs” which led the team to Liberty Bell 7. (Discovery Channel image courtesy of Curt Newport)


The first ghostly images of Liberty Bell 7 captured in Magellan’s powerful lights. (Discovery Channel image courtesy of Curt Newport)

was lost, sinking to the sea floor 15,800 feet below the Needham Tide. It meant the team would have to abandon the operation and return to Port Canaveral to replace the rover, which would set them back a few weeks. But now they knew precisely where the capsule was. Despite the loss of an expensive ROV, Newport maintained a sense of optimism in a call he made from the ship. “It looks to be in beautiful condition,” he reported of the spacecraft, “and certainly capable of being recovered.”

The lost ROV would not remain on the ocean floor for long. “The Magellan 725 was later recovered about a week after we returned to the Cape with the capsule. I personally believe that Oceaneering would’ve left it there except for the expensive camera we had leased from WHOI. Woods Hole wanted that camera back, which was the same one we’d used to image the Titanic the previous year. They left the depressor and several thousand feet of armored optical fiber cable on the bottom simply by cut­ting the soft tether and lifting the ROV.”16

It would take Oceaneering International five weeks to construct another ROV, this time named Ocean Discovery. The expedition team sailed again on 4 July on a differ­ent ship, the Ocean Project. They stopped briefly at Fort Lauderdale to pick up a few people, including Jim Lewis, the helicopter pilot who had unsuccessfully attempted to rescue the sinking capsule in 1961, and Guenter Wendt, McDonnell’s former launch pad leader. Two bomb experts from UXB International were also on board to deacti­vate the explosive SOFAR navigation device which had apparently failed to detonate when the spacecraft sank.