Category Liberty Bell 7


The contract signed with McDonnell Aircraft was a cost-plus-fee type, with a cost figure of $18.3 million dollars and a fee of $1.15 million dollars. As Luge Luetjen indicated, the contract “set in motion what was to eventually become one of the largest

technical mobilizations in American history involving some 4,000 suppliers, nearly 600 direct contractors from 25 states, and over 1,500 second tier subcontractors. To manage such an effort, Mr. Mac and Dave Lewis (by then second in command) named Logan MacMillan, a former chief test pilot and head of flight test, as the Mercury Company-wide Program Manager. Under Logan was E. M. (‘Bud’) Flesh as Engineering Manager, Bill DuBusker as Manufacturing Manager and, of course, [John] Yardley as Project Engineer. After a short time, NASA felt there should be someone at vice presidential level in charge, so Mr. Mac designated Walter Burke, already a vice president in charge of the entire factory, as the Vice President and General Manager of the Mercury program.”13

Beginning in February 1959, endless tests of different small-scale spacecraft shapes began in wind tunnels across the United States. Engineers, technicians and designers then studied the resulting flow effect in photographs, looking closely at phenomena such as shock waves, wind streams, and vortices. By the end of the year some 70 design models had been tested and analyzed, with results proving a full-scale capsule could handle the tremendous aerodynamic stresses associated with launch and reentry. As well, they established that the blunt shape at the bottom of the capsule would provide sufficient drag to slow the craft down during its descent through the atmosphere. In tests, NASA engineers applied 6,000-degree jet flames onto that same blunt end to demonstrate its ability to withstand the incredibly high temperatures associated with reentry.


Testing a small-scale model of the Mercury capsule/escape tower assembly in an 18 inch by 18 inch wind tunnel. (Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center)


Scientists at the Langley Research Center operated hot jets, quartz-lamp heat radiators, furnaces and other specialized research facilities in making tests at temperatures up to 10,000°F on space vehicle structures and materials. This scale model, made of fiberglass and plastic, was exposed to a 5,000°F arc-heated air jet. (Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center)


A Mercury capsule prototype undergoes testing in the Full Scale Wind Tunnel at Langley Research Center in January 1959. (Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center)

Once all the preliminary design work was complete, McDonnell manufactured several scale models of their own for testing purposes. As Max Faget, Caldwell Johnson and others were no longer needed in the design development of the capsule, the MAC team also went to work on testing full-scale, non-functional “boilerplate” models.


The McDonnell Mercury Design Team (circa 1959). From left: Jack Crouch, Chuck Jahn, Earl Younger, Norris LaGrant, Bob Roth, John Dale, ‘Bud’ Flesh, John Yardley, Bill Mosley, George Weber, Harry Condit and ‘Luge’ Luetjen. (Photo: McDonnell Aircraft Corporation)

To bridge the gap between the signing of contracts to construct the spacecraft and their actual delivery, and to aid in astronaut training, the Langley Research Center employed full-size replica Mercury capsules constructed from steel plates. These became known as “boilerplate” mockups. Test launches of boilerplate models were carried out using Sergeant and Recruit rockets, while others were conducted at Cape Canaveral using Redstone, Atlas and Scout boosters.


An air of mystique quickly surrounded the Mercury astronauts. People eagerly sought out and consumed information about them and their families in newspapers, espe­cially through Life magazine, which was awarded sole rights to their stories under a mutually beneficial deal thrashed out between the astronauts’ tax attorney Leo D’Orsey and the magazine.

Perhaps the most enigmatic of the seven was Gus Grissom, who tried to avoid the press and public speaking whenever he could, although he abided this as part of his duties as a NASA astronaut. He was more at home in the cockpit of a fighter jet or poking around inside a space capsule than he was in revealing details of his private life. A man of few words, he was quickly given the rather unfair sobriquet of “Gruff Gus.” He didn’t care; he had a job to do, and he disliked distractions.

One of the lesser-liked duties for most of the Mercury astronauts – particularly Grissom – involved giving speeches. But on one occasion he unwittingly created a humorous, oft-repeated story that would always follow him around. It came about when all seven astronauts were on a tour of the Convair plant in San Diego to see Atlas rockets under construction. At one stage of their visit the astronauts were seated on a podium outside the plant, in front of 18,000 cheering employees. A Convair executive made a short speech, then turned and asked if an astronaut would care to respond. Grissom somehow found himself propelled forward to the microphone by his fellow astronauts, but he had been caught off-guard and was unprepared. As the tumultuous applause died down he cleared his throat and suddenly developed a dose of stage fright. He hesitated, raised his hands for quiet and blurted out, “Well.. .do good work!” He then rejoined the other grinning astronauts. Momentarily, the crowd was silent, and then they burst into wild clapping and cheering. It was as if he’d just recited the Gettysburg address, and the workers loved him. “Do good work!” – it now became their mantra and mission statement. Gus’s stammering slogan was stitched onto a huge banner, which was hung above the plant’s work bay to serve as an inspiration to all.

Another side of Gus Grissom was recalled by Frank Moncrief from Virginia Beach, Virginia, who shared a particularly vivid memory of the astronaut during a training session.


A poster inspired by Gus Grissom’s three words to the Convair employees. (Photo: NASA)

“The original seven astronauts were sent to Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base so the Navy frogmen could give them scuba lessons. It was believed that weightlessness in water was similar to weightlessness in space. I was honored to be one of the frog­men picked to be an instructor.

“These guys were the sharpest of the sharp. John Glenn asked me how the Aqua­Lung valve worked, and I explained in detail the valve’s functions. That did not satisfy him. I had to take the valve apart, explaining every screw, every spring and every diaphragm. They were that thorough. For graduation, the astronauts entered the pool with a full tank of air and were told to swim around without coming up for any­thing. We instructors began harassing them, pulling off a face mask or fins, pulling out mouthpieces, turning off their air. Then we brought them to the surface and congratu­lated them. I was proud to have been a part of that. But it wasn’t over.

“A couple of weeks later, we got word that the astronauts were inviting the instruc­tors to ride in a jet. When we arrived at Langley, the astronauts greeted us like old bud­dies. I was given Deke Slayton’s helmet and Walter Schirra’s flight suit to wear. My pilot was Gus Grissom, and we boarded a T-33 jet trainer. He told me to put my left hand on my left knee and my right hand on my right knee and not to touch anything. I did as I was told.

“Gus started to describe everything: ‘I am going to start my rollout; when the aircraft gets to 180 knots I will lift this tub off the ground.’ (These guys were used to flying high – performance aircraft, so flying a T-33 was demeaning.) He threw the plane into a steep left-hand bank – WOW! The g’s! My helmet felt like it weighed a ton. Then Gus straightened out the plane and said there was a hole in the clouds. WOW, again! We went from 3,000 to 10,000 feet in seconds. The clouds looked like lava-lamp spirals. Gus began to fly around these spirals, up and down. He asked me how I was doing, then said, ‘Frank, don’t you dare throw up in my plane.’ I answered, ‘Gus, just before I die, I am going to throw up in this plane.’ (I was close.) Then we leveled off, to my relief.

“Gus said, ‘There’s Richmond down there.’ I said, ‘How can you tell from up here?’ He said, ‘Let’s go take a look.’ We went straight down. WOW – more g’s and g’s. Then, thank God, he leveled off again.

“When we landed back at Langley, we got out of the plane, and Gus put an arm across my shoulders, pointed up and said, ‘Frank, that’s my pool.’

“I answered: ‘Touche, Gus.’”10

All of the Mercury astronauts were highly competitive individuals, even amongst themselves. The late Cece Bibby was an exceptionally gifted artist who found fame as the person who painted insignias on the sides of the orbital Mercury spacecraft, and she recalled that “each of them wanted to have the first flight. It didn’t matter that the first couple of flights would be suborbital; first was first and that was part of the attraction.

“These guys had really fought to be named the first astronauts, although some people referred to them as astronaut candidates. Wally Schirra once said that they were actually only ‘half-astronauts’ until a space flight was made. So, after the first seven were picked they then fought to make the first flight. This led to a lot of good-natured competition and jockeying for position and it involved every aspect of their flights.

“When Al made his flight there was a stencil cut for the name Freedom 7 and the name was sprayed onto the capsule. The same was true for Gus’s Liberty Bell 7. I don’t know who sprayed the names on the capsules. I do know that when John Glenn decided he wanted his Friendship 7 hand painted on his capsule there was a good bit of ‘joshing’ that went on about it. Al and Gus made comments that a stencil wasn’t good enough for John; that he had to have his name hand painted by an artist.

“Gus told me later that he wished he’d have had an artist do his Liberty Bell. He said it really bugged him that someone else thought of it and he hadn’t. Competitiveness.”11

That same competitiveness also involved fast cars and the pulling of pranks – or “gotchas” – on each other. Grissom’s brother Lowell recalled one hilarious incident.

“It was late evening, and [as] Gus exited the Cape’s gates, he drove his Corvette at its usual speed of 100 miles per hour. He got on the first highway, and one cop picked him up and started chasing him. A little further away, a second police car joined the chase. And by the time Gus reached Cocoa Beach, three police cars were following him.

“Gus was far ahead of them, and when he reached the motel where he was staying he parked his Corvette in front of Alan Shepard’s room, then walked into his own. The cops came and saw the Corvette sitting there and felt the hood and said, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ And they banged on Shepard’s door. Shepard comes to the door, half-asleep, and they pull him out, throw him on the ground and cuff him. Meanwhile, Gus had changed into paja­mas and was watching from his room.


Cece Bibby painting the Friendship 7 logo onto the side of John Glenn’s spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)

“As the police officers handcuffed Shepard, Gus yelled at them out the window. ‘Hey, guys, can you hold it down out there? Some of us have to go to work in the morning!’”12

Whatever his faults, or the perception others might have of him, no one could deny the application, thoroughness, and expertise that Gus Grissom brought to his work and training. He gained everyone’s respect, and two years after the selection of the Mercury astronauts his dedication to the task was rewarded by the assignment to his first flight into space.


The flight was going well, and to plan. All too soon the spacecraft’s automatic stabili­zation and control system (ASCS) initiated the turnaround maneuver, placing the blunt end of the capsule forward in preparation for assuming retro-fire attitude. Momentarily, Grissom thought he was tumbling out of control until he realized this was the automatic turnaround procedure, just as he had experienced it on the trainer. As Liberty Bell 7 swung around, a brilliant shaft of sunlight moved rapidly across his body.

The pitch and yaw axes stabilized with only a moderate amount of overshoot as pro­jected, and was off by approximately 15 degrees when he switched from autopilot to the manual proportional control system. The switchover had occurred ten seconds later than planned in order to allow more time for the ASCS to stabilize the capsule. Having taken over manual control of the spacecraft, Grissom encountered a little dif­ficulty with the attitude controls. They seemed to him to be somewhat sticky and slug­gish, and the capsule did not always respond as well as he thought it should.

“I tried to hurry the pitch-up maneuver,” was his later observation. “I controlled the roll attitude back within limits, but the view out the window had distracted me, result­ing in an overshoot in pitch. This put me behind in my schedule even more. I hit the planned yaw rate but overshot in yaw attitude again. I realized that my time for control maneuvers was up and so I decided at this point to skip the planned roll maneuver, since the roll axis had been exercised during the two previous maneuvers, and [I would] go immediately to the next task.”11

Grissom wanted to fire the retro-rockets manually whilst simultaneously using the manual controls to maintain the proper attitude. But this was not a critical operation on the suborbital flight, as he was on ballistic trajectory to begin with, and the firing of the retro-rockets was simply an exercise to test their performance. He would later stress that even though he encountered some control problems, and improvements would have to be made, he was confident that he would have been able to handle the situation if he had been in orbit. “That was the main reason I was up there, of course – to find the bugs in the system before we went all the way.”12

Although slightly behind schedule, Grissom worked hard to get the spacecraft into a good retro-fire attitude. The flight had now reached a much-anticipated point. He had been allocated a full minute for Earth observation. Not long after, the retro – sequence began automatically and Shepard, in the Mercury Control Center, began intoning the countdown to retro-fire. Grissom was still looking out of the window

when the count reached zero and, on command, he fired the retro-rockets manually. The thrust buildup was rapid and smooth, but as he continued to gaze out of the win­dow Grissom noticed a definite yaw to the right had begun. He had planned to control the capsule’s attitude during retro-fire by using the horizon as a reference, but once the right yaw began he switched his reference to the flight instruments. Once he had scanned these he turned his attention back to the panorama from his window.

“Immediately after retro-fire, Cape Canaveral came into view. It was quite easy to identify. The Banana and Indian Rivers were easy to distinguish and the white beach all along the coast was quite prominent. The colors that were the most prominent were the blue of the ocean, the brownish-green of the interior, and the white in between, which was obviously the beach and surf. I could see the building area on Cape Canaveral. I do not recall being able to distinguish individual buildings, but it was obvious that it was an area where buildings and structures had been erected.”13 After retro-fire, the retro-jettison switch was placed into the armed position and the maneuvering mode was switched to the rate command control system. Grissom made a rapid check to confirm that the system was working in all axes, and then he switched from the UHF transmitter to the HF transmitter.

“It was a strange sensation when the retros fired,” Grissom later recorded for the book, We Seven. “Just before they went, I had the distinct feeling that I was moving backwards – which I was. But when they went off, and slowed me down, I definitely felt that I was going the other way. It was an illusion, of course. I had only changed speed, not direction.

“Despite my problems with the controls, I was able to hold the spacecraft steady during the 22 seconds that it took for the three retros to finish their job. Then, right after the retro-pack jettisoned at T plus 6 minutes 7 seconds, and the dead rockets fell away, I looked through the periscope and saw something floating around outside that looked just like a retro-motor. Bits and pieces of the retro-package floated past me a couple of times. It had come loose, just as it was supposed to, and had left the heat shield clean and uncluttered for reentry.”14

Although Grissom knew the reentry could prove to be tricky, it was nevertheless uneventful. He did report observing what he described as shock waves coming off the capsule. “It looked like smoke or contrail really, but I’m pretty certain it was shocks.”15 As Liberty Bell 7 hurtled back through the atmosphere, the g-forces were rapidly building up on Grissom, making his speech and breathing a little more labored. He would report the maximum force he endured was 11.2, but as he had taken as many as 16 G in the centrifuge this was easy to take by comparison. He could also hear a roar­ing noise, which he presumed was the sound of the capsule’s blunt nose forcing its way through the atmosphere.

At T plus 9 minutes 41 seconds the drogue chute came out at the intended altitude of 21,000 feet, right on schedule. Viewing through the centerline window, Grissom saw the canister fall away and the drogue deploy. Next out was the main parachute, 23 seconds later, as planned at 12,300 feet. “I could see the complete chute when it was in the reefed condition,” he said in his later report, “and after it opened I could see, out the window, 75 percent of the chute.”16

One thing he did report at this time was seeing what appeared to be a six-inch triangular-shaped tear in one of the main chute panels. He kept a close watch on this, but it did not seem to grow any larger.

As the spacecraft was slowly swinging and rotating beneath the main parachute, Grissom was able to sense the deployment of the landing bag, intended to soften the spacecraft’s impact with the ocean and help stabilize it in the water.

Finally, at T plus 15 minutes 37 seconds, Liberty Bell 7 splashed into the Atlantic at a rate of 28 feet per second with what Grissom later described as “a good bump.” The flight part of the MR-4 mission was at an end.

In the usual competitive spirit of the Mercury astronauts, Gus Grissom would later grin broadly when he discovered his flight had reached an apogee of 102.76 nautical miles, as opposed to 101.24 nautical miles for Shepard’s MR-3 mission in May, and it had also lasted 15 seconds longer.

However, unlike the end of Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission, deep and unexpected trouble was about to befall astronaut Gus Grissom and his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft.


On his arrival at Grand Bahama Island, some 4 hours and 18 minutes after the MR-4 liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Gus Grissom jumped from the S-2F, shaking the hand of and receiving a warm welcome from NASA Administrator James Webb, there to meet him.

“Congratulations on a wonderful job,” Webb remarked. Noting that Grissom had flown as co-pilot on the S-2F, he added with a smile, “I see you’re not tired of flying.”

“Not a bit,” Grissom responded.


With NASA Administrator James Webb (left) looking on, Grissom is greeted by his fellow astronauts Wally Schirra and John Glenn. (Photo: NASA)


With all the greetings completed, Grissom is escorted to the base commander’s car for the drive over to the medical facility. (Photo: NASA)

After thanking Webb for being there, Grissom then shook hands and joked for several moments with fellow astronauts John Glenn and Wally Schirra. “You’re looking good,” Schirra told Grissom. The astronaut was then ushered into a waiting car belong­ing to Capt. Hugh May, the Air Force commander of the missile tracking station, and driven about a mile away to a specially built medical facility. The clinic had been erected amid a collection of barracks and buildings that were surrounded in turn by scrub pines and palmettos.

It was originally planned that Grissom would remain on the island for two days before returning to Cape Canaveral for a full-on press conference. While there he would be virtually isolated from newsmen and photographers, who were not permit­ted direct contact with him because the doctors, engineers and psychologists wanted to question the astronaut without having any ideas planted into his head by outside influences. In addition to further debriefings on the flight, more extensive medical checks would be conducted by Dr. William Douglas and a team of four specialists.

Soon after Grissom’s arrival it was time for his first physical checkup, some X-rays, and an hour of freely dictating what he recalled of his flight. He interrupted all this at one stage to call his wife Betty in Newport News to let her know he was safe and well. She was relieved to hear from her husband and jokingly told him that she had been told he “got a little bit wet.” On a more serious note she asked if he was okay.

“Sure, I’m fine,” he replied. “The water was warm and you know I like to swim.” In fact, Grissom was a poor swimmer.

Betty also asked with a little trepidation in her voice how the hatch had blown and if he had anything to do with it. He told her “the hatch just blew.” After a little more desultory chat about his flight, he ended the conversation on a lighter note


Escorted by Public Affairs Officer Lt. Col. ‘Shorty’ Powers (with folder), Grissom arrives at the medical facility with a wave to news reporters. (Photo: NASA)

by asking Betty to bring some extra slacks and shirts for him when she met up with him in Florida.7

As the astronauts’ aerospace nurse, Dee O’Hara was there to assist Dr. Douglas in evaluating the health of the astronaut.

“Gus arrived at GBI to start his debriefing along with Jim Lewis, the recovery heli­copter pilot (and all around great guy) relatively soon after his scary recovery,” she reflected. “We didn’t have a clue as to what he had just experienced, or at least I didn’t. He was quite fatigued, as one would imagine. As soon as he arrived, Bill Douglas gave him his post-flight physical exam. There was a lot of activity going on and Gus was anxious to get on with the debriefing. He did slip out for a moment to call Betty and say he was okay. The plan was for Gus to stay for 48 hours, but Dr. Douglas decided he was recovered sufficiently to return to the Cape. NASA officials were anxious to get started on the briefing and learn exactly what happened to cause Liberty Bell 7 to sink.”8

That evening, Grissom watched television reports of his flight. He then spent a quiet, relaxing night, briefly attending a celebration held in his honor by the 263 men – mostly civilians – at the island’s auxiliary Air Force base, the first tracking station southeast of Cape Canaveral. He finally retired to his hospital bed around 9:00 p. m.

Meanwhile, news reporters on Grand Bahama Island were eagerly hunting out sto­ries concerning the flight and the capsule mishap to fill their newspaper columns. In order to mollify them a little, a press conference was set up for the next morning with the four Marine helicopter pilots available for questions. Grissom would not be attending.

Once it began, Col. Powers told the gathered crush of reporters that the astronaut looked much less fatigued than the day before. Grissom was in “excellent condition, bright and sharp, and anxious to get home.” Asked if the astronaut had ever been in any real danger following his flight, Powers lightly responded, “You’re in danger if you’re in the middle of the ocean in a pressure suit.”

Responding to another question concerning whether Grissom had expressed any dissatisfaction with his own performance, Powers said, “He feels like he has done a good job. From everything I’ve heard, he indicates he is satisfied with the operation.”

“We learned some new lessons from this flight,” chipped in James Webb. “The evaluation of them has not yet been made.”9

As Marine pilot John Reinhard later told space flight historian Rick Boos, the ques­tions from the press that day about the helicopter activities started to get quite pointed, and it all began to get a little out of hand. This is, until a cheesed-off Wally Schirra stepped in.

“Wally Schirra was always my favorite astronaut,” Reinhard recalled. “I watched him peel the ass off a bunch of reporters on GBI after the flight. They were asking crap ass questions of us after we lost Liberty Bell. You know, we weren’t press conscious or anything; we were just a bunch of dumb Marines and [Schirra] stepped forward, and boy, he started in about them giving us a red ass about something that we so val­iantly tried to do, and ordered them to stop asking such stupid questions.

“God, I thought Wally was going to kill a couple of those reporters! I could just hear the cameras and microphones being shut off. I guess this is over, I thought.”10


Along with his crewmate Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom was given a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia on 31 January 1967 in a service which was broadcast nationwide on television. That same day, Ed White was buried with full military honors in West Point’s Old Cemetery in Orange County, New York.

Their names are engraved on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At the request of the deceased astronauts’ families, the mission that never flew was named Apollo 1, and when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in July 1969 they took with them an Apollo 1 mission patch which they left there.

Just days before he died, Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space. In it, he once again emphasized, “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”

Immediately after the disaster, an Apollo 204 Review Board was established by NASA and this published its findings in April 1967. The fire was attributed to an elec­trical fault within the cockpit. Exacerbating factors were the extensive use of flam­mable materials in the construction of the cockpit and in the astronauts’ space suits, plus the high-pressure pure oxygen atmosphere within the cabin. In response, NASA vastly reduced the amount of flammable materials and changed to a nitrogen-oxygen mixture in the cabin for ground testing through to launch. The agency also moved to a Block II command module design, the hatch of which could be opened far more eas­ily and rapidly in the event of an emergency.

I asked former Mercury recovery helicopter pilot Jim Lewis where he was on the day of the Apollo pad fire, and for his reaction to the loss of Gus and the other two astronauts. “As I mentioned earlier, I was support team leader for Apollo 9, and we were conducting a closed hatch test on the Apollo 9 command module at the North American facility in Downey, California. The test was stopped, the hatch opened, and Jim McDivitt, the mission commander, was called away to the phone. He returned and told us what had happened. My reaction, and I think that of us all, was stunned, misty­eyed disbelief. Gus was one of the best and it just didn’t seem possible at the time that any such thing could have happened. I was subsequently assigned to the hatch re­design team led by Frank Borman. As I recall, that took about six months and most of it was spent at the Downey facility. Those were good days also because all of us went about that task with a vengeance to insure that kind of thing would be precluded in the future.”13

It took more than a year and a half before NASA was once again prepared to send astronauts into space, by which time the Apollo spacecraft had undergone extensive improvement. On 11 October 1968, Apollo 7, commanded by Gus Grissom’s friend Wally Schirra, completed 163 orbits of the Earth during an eleven-day mission in the redesigned command module.

Deke Slayton always argued that the first person on the Moon should have been one of the original Mercury astronauts, and that man he had determined was Virgil Ivan (‘Gus’) Grissom. In his autobiography Slayton wrote, “One thing that would probably have been different if Gus had lived: the first guy to walk on the Moon would have been Gus Grissom, not Neil Armstrong.”14

Norman Grissom is one who believes that his brother, had he lived, might have been selected as the first person to walk on the Moon. As he observed in 2000, “I think history has shown he was one of our outstanding people. He made a great contribution to the space race. Without him, I don’t think the space program would be where it’s at now.”15


The crew of Apollo 7: Donn Eisele, Wally Schirra and Walt Cunningham. (Photo: NASA)


NASA astronaut Virgil (‘Gus’) Grissom. (Photo: NASA)


“Those were the days of the most intensive and dedicated work of a group of people that I have ever experienced,” Gilruth once wrote in a conference paper. “None of us will ever forget it. We were making tests of escape rockets over on the beach at Wallops

Island, testing parachutes in full-scale drops from helicopters, and measuring water impact loads on capsule configurations at Langley Field.”14

Meanwhile, impact studies were also being carried out at the McDonnell plant, with test capsules dropped into water, onto sand beds, and onto solid concrete slabs. In one series of tests, live pigs were loaded into a Mercury capsule, strapped into a specially built contour couch similar to those being individually developed for the astronauts. The capsule was then dropped down a long shaft blunt end first to verify that a human passenger could survive a particularly hard landing, as described in the official NASA Project Mercury history.

“Through April and May (1959), McDonnell engineers fitted a series of four Yorkshire pigs into contour couches for impact landing tests of the crushable alumi­num honeycomb energy-absorption system. These supine swine sustained accelera­tion peaks from 38 to 58 g before minor internal injuries were noted. The ‘pig drop’ tests were quite impressive, both to McDonnell employees who left their desks and lathes to watch them and to STG engineers who studied the documentary movies. But, still more significant, seeing the pigs get up and walk away from their forced fall and stunning impact vastly increased the confidence of the newly chosen astronauts that they could do the same. The McDonnell report on these experiments concluded, ‘Since neither the acceleration rates nor shock pulse amplitudes applied to the speci­mens resulted in permanent or disabling damage, the honeycomb energy absorption system of these experiments is considered suitable for controlling the landing shock applied to the Mercury capsule pilot.’”15

Jerry Roberts was a Guidance and Control System Engineer working at the Cape with McDonnell, and he still remembers conducting those drop tests using live animals.

“When we were designing the spacecraft we knew nothing about the effects of weightlessness on the astronaut – on the human body. We also knew very little about what would actually happen during the launch and recovery process. We knew it would be pretty rugged, so one of the things we had to do was design a seat for the astronauts to give them the maximum protection possible in this confined space. And believe me it was confined; the men could just barely fit into the Mercury spacecraft.

“The small MAC group that I was with came up with a couch for the astronauts to sit in, molded around the astronauts’ bodies. It was constructed out of a honeycomb material. We did this individually for each astronaut.” The couches, backed by an energy-absorbing, crushable aluminum honeycomb, consisted of a fiberglass shell with protective rubber padding, and were located in the pressurized section of the capsule.

“Then we needed to test it to see how much protection it actually provided, and since most of the astronauts weighed about 160-180 pounds, someone came up with the idea of using pigs that were in that weight range.

“We had a test facility constructed inside one of our lab buildings and it was fixed so that we could take these hogs up to varying heights. They were sedated of course, and we dropped them down a chute into a bed of wet, packed sand. We recorded the Gs that each one was subjected to, but I know we started out at about eight feet and then went [up] in four foot intervals. I think the last pig was dropped at 20 feet, or


This illustration demonstrates how the pigs were strapped into a couch for the drop tests. (Photo: NASA)


maybe even higher. As it turned out the seat did provide significant protection and so the test was successful.

“Immediately after each pig was subjected to the drop test the animal was butch­ered; the local butcher did all the slaughtering right there in the facility and the pig’s internal organs were examined in great detail to see what damage resulted from the fall. The meat was frozen and I think was later donated to [some charity] the equiva­lent of a soup kitchen. It was not thrown out or wasted.”16

Preparing for launch

On Tuesday, 21 February 1961, NASA finally released the names of John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard as having been selected as the prime candidates to enter the special training required for the final stages of preparedness for the first suborbital Mercury mission.

At the same time that the three names were announced, Gus Grissom was on duty at the NASA tracking station in southernmost Bermuda, where he was sitting at a control console during the unmanned Mercury-Atlas (MA-2) suborbital space shot, the main purpose of which was a particularly rugged reentry test of the capsule’s heat shield. The tracking station was on Cooper’s Island, a 77-acre rock-and-coral shelf in the Atlantic, some 600 miles from the United States.

The MA-2 flight was launched that day from Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral and flew a suborbital mission lasting 17 minutes and 56 seconds. Atlas rocket 67D carried Spacecraft No. 6 to an altitude of 114 statute miles at a speed of 13,227 miles an hour. All the test objectives of the flight were achieved, and the capsule was recovered 1,432 miles downrange.

An astronaut in peril

James D. (‘Jim’) Lewis, Ph. D., is a former U. S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot, and during his memorable last tour of duty in that service was appointed Mercury Project Officer and became prime recovery pilot for the MR-4 mission.

Lewis continued to serve in the Marine Reserves during his lengthy tenure with NASA, eventually retiring from reserve service in 1983 with the rank of major. His work with NASA and government service would only end in 1999, at which time he was Chief of the Space Human Factors Branch of the space agency.


Meanwhile Grissom had risen at around 6:30 a. m. and eaten a large hot breakfast ahead of a peaceful, relaxing morning out of sight of the press before flying back to Patrick AFB at the Cape aboard a C-54 Skymaster transport plane, together with Deke Slayton and other passengers. Once there, he would address a formal press conference on the results and different aspects of the MR-4 mission.

That afternoon the C-54 landed at the air base where hordes of news reporters and officials were waiting to greet the astronaut. Standing in front of an official NASA limousine were the excited wives of the other six astronauts, holding up a huge banner saying “We’re Proud of You All.” Sadly for Grissom, however, he also landed in the midst of a gathering pall of public blame and suspected human failure which was about to descend upon the nation’s newest spaceman.

Everything seemed to be fine to Gus Grissom as he stepped from the plane into a typi­cally hot Florida summer’s day, waving and smiling. At the foot of the stairs he hugged and kissed Betty and their two boys before being ushered off to shake hands with a throng of officials and well-wishers. He was then led into a small annex of a huge tent that had been specially erected for the occasion. Here the family enjoyed a few private moments alone before they were driven to the Starlight Motel in Cocoa Beach where Grissom was to change his clothes and prepare himself for the formal press conference.

Once they had arrived at the motel, Betty and the boys were shown to their seats while Gus – filled with apprehension and unease – stood on a platform facing the reporters and photographers as he prepared to answer their questions. He knew one of the main topics would be the loss of Liberty Bell 7, and he simply didn’t have any satisfactory answers to offer them at that time. He could only explain what he had done and offer strenuous denials that he was somehow at fault.


Grissom’s family was there to greet him on his arrival at Patrick AFB. (Photo: UPI)


As NASA Administrator James Webb looks on, Grissom and his family pose for the hordes of photographs at Patrick AFB prior to his press conference. (Photos: NASA)

To resounding applause, NASA Administrator James Webb introduced Grissom by saying, “I could present Capt. Grissom as an aeronaut, a test pilot, a graduate of that school of experimental flying through which over the 58 years since the Wright Brothers flew, a handful of brave men have taken the personal risks necessary to prove in flight the new aircraft ideas and designs which now benefit so many millions through air transport and add so much to our national security. I could present him as one of the seven astronauts. These seven men have devoted almost three years of their lives to providing the pilot element in the Mercury system, utilizing our most advanced science and technology for the purpose of producing machines capable of aiding man in exploring and extending his knowledge of the universe… for the benefit of all mankind.” Webb then presented the press-nervous Grissom with the space agency’s Distinguished Service Medal for his “outstanding contribution to space technology.”


The Grissom family at the Starlight Motel press conference. Astronauts Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton are seated behind Betty Grissom. (Photo: NASA)


NASA Administrator pins the space agency’s Distinguished Service Medal on Grissom’s lapel as his family looks on. (Photo: Associated Press)

For his part, Grissom said he was anxious to return to work on the space program and would be back on the job Monday. He repeatedly used the word “fascinating” in describing his first space flight, and said he kept peeking out of his window at the view. He described seeing a band around the Earth that went from light blue to dark blue and then to black, while the horizon appeared to be from 600 to 800 miles from him at the height of his flight.

“Looking out the window – it looked more like a keyhole to me – I could first see blue sky after I went through one little layer of cloud that was floating over the Cape,” he said of his ascent into space. “Suddenly the sky went from blue to pitch black. As I looked through my picture window I could see one brilliant star in the middle of the windshield.” This “star” would later be determined to be the planet Venus.


Gus Grissom reflects on his flight for the news media. (Photo: NASA)

Grissom said Liberty Bell 7 experienced much less vibration than Shepard’s space­craft due to some design changes. As the capsule tilted into its “turnaround” position, he said he got his first view of the horizon. “It was really fascinating,” he reflected. “The Earth was very bright and very round.” He also reported that there was “stuff floating around” inside the capsule during the period of weightlessness, and that “there was in the cockpit some debris – a washer, dirt – the normal debris that you’ll find floating around any airplane.”11

As Betty Grissom and her co-author Henry Still later wrote in Starfall: “The report­ers skipped quickly over the successful aspects of the flight (they already knew that) and probed around the question of whether Grissom had contributed to the loss of the Liberty Bell by accidentally bumping the plunger which blew the hatch. Controlling his temper, Gus patiently explained how he had been ‘lying there minding my own business’ when the hatch unaccountably blew off.”

There was, the authors recalled, a good deal of innuendo going around that NASA officials might be somehow trying to cover up a case of pilot error.

“Barroom psychologists whispered the possibility that Gus Grissom was accident – prone. This was typical human perversity, looking for the clay feet of heroes, but it was ironic to those who knew Gus as an outstanding pilot and engineer, a man who devoted endless hours to methodical planning of ways to work around emergency situations.”12

To a question about whether he ever felt his life was in danger, Grissom answered in his usual honest and considered way, “Well, I was scared a good portion of the time. I guess this is a pretty good indication.”

“You were what?” called out one reporter.

“Scared. Okay?” Grissom answered. It was a mistake. His renowned frankness and honesty did not serve him well on this occasion, as the next day’s newspapers brought such unjust and sensational headlines such as “Astronaut Admits he was Scared,” and “I Was Scared: Grissom.” No mention was made of his superhuman struggles against the elements in desperately trying to assist in the retrieval of his sinking spacecraft, an act of incredible bravery which could so easily have cost him his life.


An evidently exhausted Grissom during the press conference, wearing his Project Mercury lapel pin and the Distinguished Service Medal. (Photo: NASA)

James Webb had substituted for the President of the United States in presenting Grissom with the Distinguished Service Medal at the start of the press conference. The reason given was that John Kennedy was dealing with the political aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion some three months earlier – although this hadn’t precluded a gala White House medal presentation for Alan Shepard the previous month. There would be no White House celebration, no meeting with First Lady Jackie Kennedy for Betty Grissom, no ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York. There was just muted praise and passing recognition, which the astronaut and his wife simply could not comprehend. The guy was a hero; surely they were not blaming him for losing his spacecraft?

Things became even more evident after the press conference when the family was bundled into a car and driven across to Patrick AFB and dropped off at a guesthouse in the base’s VIP quarters. They were told that this would ensure a little privacy and security away from the prying eyes of reporters. Meanwhile the other astronauts and their wives were given comfortable accommodation at the Holiday Motel some ten miles north in Cocoa Beach, where they would enjoy post-flight celebration parties. Incredibly, Gus Grissom would have to leave early in the morning; he had been told to report back to work the next day.

“The guesthouse setup didn’t suit Betty,” Henry Still wrote in Starfall. “She did not know how many days they would be there. It was across a busy highway from the Atlantic Ocean beach. Betty’s controlled resentment at being left alone to fend for herself and the family boiled over when she checked the refrigerator and found it stuffed with bacon and eggs and other food.”

“‘What do these people think I am going to do?’ she demanded. ‘I am not going to cook!’”

There was no television set for the kids to watch, no car, and if they wanted to go to the beach they’d have to cross over the highway with its fast-moving traffic. After she had complained to her husband about the unfairness of the situation he got on the phone and booked them into the Holiday Motel along with the rest of the astronauts and their families. They repacked their bags and called a cab.

“I really don’t know what they expected me to do with my time there at Patrick,” Betty later wrote. “I think I’d have been ready to commit suicide if I’d have stayed in that place all day waiting for him to come back home. I’d have been a complete wreck, especially with two little kids. What was I supposed to do with them? No one knew where I was. I might have gotten on the phone and said: ‘Somebody come get me.’ But it all just struck me wrong. I told Gus: ‘This is one time I am not writing a thank-you note.’ And I didn’t, although I’m sure their intentions were good.”13

Epilogue: From the depths of the ocean

Curt Newport cannot recall when the idea first occurred to him to consider the possibility of raising Liberty Bell 7 from the ocean floor. “It might have been when I read The Right Stuff, or it could be just something I thought of,” the salvage operator ventured during an interview back in 1986, a full quarter of a century after the loss of Gus Grissom’s spacecraft. All he knew back then was that it had sunk in very deep water and that any recovery effort would be an incredibly difficult task.1


He was born in Oakland, California, where his father flew as an Army aviator out of Chrissy Field. Growing up with a childhood passion for space flight and undersea exploration, Curt Newport was only 10 years old and living in St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was stationed temporarily, when Liberty Bell 7 was lost on 21 July 1961, settling into the mud of the Florida Trench off the Bahamas, some three miles below the surface of the Atlantic. “I think Grissom’s capsule was probably built less than ten miles from our home,” he reflected in 2013.2

As he related in his book, Lost Spacecraft: The Search for Liberty Bell 7, the Mercury astronauts were huge heroes back then. “While Shepard and Glenn were certainly the most famous to me, I remember being taken by Grissom for no special reason. Maybe it was the way he looked or that he didn’t appear to seek out the lime­light. However, he was a central figure to me.”3

In 1974, aged 24, Newport entered into the subsea business building ship fenders in Washington, D. C. He later graduated into building deep diving systems such as div­ing bells and deck decompression chambers. After leaving a Los Angeles-based com­mercial diving school in 1977 he began working with submersible robots known as Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV). Although his expertise grew over time, he found much of the freelance work in which he was engaged, such as inspecting rusty pipelines and routine maintenance on AT&T telephone cables, to be rather less than satisfying. He began to look at people involved in ocean exploration such as Jacques Cousteau for some way to creatively inspire and challenge him. “I was interested in doing something that I felt was worthwhile with the underwater vehicles that I had worked with for so many years. I wanted to have some fun with ROVs.”

Newport says he had very little money back then, but a lot of ideas. “I started think­ing about things that had been lost in the ocean. Targets. Sunken objects that would be interesting to find and explore and I came up with two possibilities – the Titanic and Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft.”4 In an article which he wrote before Titanic was located, he actually predicted the likely location of the ocean liner to within a couple of miles.

In 1985 he was contracted to remotely pilot the SCARAB 2 ROV, equipped with television cameras, sonar, and mechanical arms to help salvage the wreckage of an Air India 747 airliner off the coast of Ireland. A total of 329 people, including 268 Canadians, died en route from Montreal to New Delhi when the aircraft was ripped apart 31,000 feet above the Irish Sea by a bomb which was planted on board by the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa. It remains the deadliest aviation disaster ever to occur over a body of water.

“AI 182 was actually found by a Navy search team using a towed pinger locator and side-scan sonar before I arrived in Ireland in July of 1985,” noted Newport. “By the time I got there onboard the CCGS John Cabot, Cable and Wireless had already recovered the FDR [flight data recorder] and CVR [cockpit voice recorder] using SCARAB I. What I did was survey the crash site, a three-by-five nautical mile area, and recover wreckage using SCARAB II in conjunction with a German ship which had all the heavy lift gear. The data recorders proved nothing. But evidence of an explosion was on the wreckage we raised. We broke lots of records on those dives, one lasting 143 hours.” Altogether, the exhausting salvage operation continued for six months, ending in November 1985.5