Category Liberty Bell 7


Stated simply, in its final configuration the bell-shaped Mercury capsule was comprised of a conical pressure section topped by the cylindrical recovery system section. The beryllium heat shield was located at the base of the cone and a retro-rocket housing was held to the shield by three metallic straps.

The three retro-rockets, enclosed in a housing in the center of the heat shield, pro­vided the reverse propulsion required to slow the orbiting spacecraft by about 500 feet per second and thereby initiate the deorbit process. The expended retro-rocket pack­age would then be jettisoned.

Attached to the top of the spacecraft by explosive bolts was the escape system, made up of an escape rocket on a 14-foot tubular tower. The escape system was designed such that the Mercury capsule, in an abort contingency, was explosively disengaged from the booster as the escape rocket fired simultaneously. The rocket would pull the capsule upward and to the side as it separated at a rate exceeding 200 feet per second. Once the capsule/escape tower combination had slowed down, the tower would be jettisoned and a normal parachute sequence initiated.

The spacecraft’s instrument panel was set approximately 24 inches in front of the astro­naut. The environmental control system provided conditions for the astronaut similar to that of a military aircraft and had redundant controls, plus another one for emergencies.

The recovery system included the 6-foot FIST drogue parachute which opened at around 21,000 feet and the 63-foot ring-sail main parachute that would be deployed at about 10,000 feet, plus the reserve drogue and main chute. As tests indicated, the planned landing velocity in the water was somewhere in the optimum vicinity of 30 feet per second.


From 14-17 May, Grissom participated in Systems Engineering Department Report (SEDR) 83, a capsule pressure chamber test. This was the only chance for Grissom to familiarize himself with the operation of the environmental control system under sim­ulated flight conditions. It also provided an opportunity for physicists to gather base­line metabolic data on him. And over the following three days, 18-20 May, he participated in SEDR 61, the communications systems check that permitted him to check out all of his communications equipment.

Next, from 1-3 June, Grissom took part in SEDR 73, the capsule’s manual reaction control systems tests. This gave him the opportunity to manipulate the control stick and become familiar with the overall ‘feel’ of the control system. As his training intensified, Grissom also ran a total of 12 simulated missions on the procedures trainer from 17-23 June, followed by 24 simulated missions on the ALFA trainer on 28 June.10

While all of this advanced training was taking place at the Cape, there were also daily scheduling meetings to attend. These sessions kept everyone apprised of the flight’s progress and any problems that had cropped up. As Grissom reflected in We Seven, this was where they reviewed any work being done on the various systems.

“It was also here that the perfectionists in the crowd would sometimes try to stop the show and redesign the whole system again from scratch. I wanted a safe and effi­cient capsule as much as anyone, and I did not blame the engineers, who were proud of their work, for trying to make each part they were working on absolutely perfect. I knew that if something happened to me which could be traced to one of their deci­sions, it would hang heavy on them. But I had also noticed, during my days as a test pilot, that engineers are seldom satisfied to have something work well. They often want to go on testing and testing a system until it is almost worn out. I felt, therefore, that it was up to me to stay on top of the situation and make sure that we got a space­craft at all, and then try to reassure the engineers that if it satisfied the pilot who had to fly it, it ought to satisfy them. In order to convince them of my case, of course, I had to know the spacecraft myself, inside out.”11

The assigned Redstone rocket was slated for delivery to the Cape on 22 June, but as that date neared it became obvious that this particular booster would not be ready in time, so another was substituted. This arrived on a cargo aircraft from Huntsville on


Suit technician Joe Schmitt prepares Grissom for an SEDR test. (Photo: NASA)

the scheduled date. Grissom, in his usual meticulous way, wanted to be part of this. When he got to Patrick AFB at Cape Canaveral the crew had already unloaded the Redstone and placed it on a trailer for the slow ride to the launch pad 15 miles away. “I joined the caravan, and when we reached the pad I got out and walked alongside the Redstone as it pulled in. I guess I looked a little eager, for Paul Donnelly, the capsule test conductor, spoke up.

“‘Don’t worry, Gus,’ he said, ‘they’re not going to shoot it without you.’”12


The MR-4 Redstone rocket arrives at the Cape. (Photo: NASA)


Recovery procedures now meant that Lewis and his co-pilot Reinhard had the task of cropping off most of the spacecraft’s 4.2-meter HF whip antenna so that it would not interfere with the helicopter’s main rotor when the craft came down to hook onto the lifting loop in the recovery section of the capsule. The telescopic antenna had been automatically deployed when the spacecraft landed, and was there to provide long – range communications and emit a signal for a contingency recovery in the event of the capsule coming down well away from the planned splashdown zone.

As Grissom had landed in the planned pickup zone the antenna was no longer needed, and the procedure was to cut most of it off before the helicopter moved in. This was accomplished using shears similar a tree pruner, attached to the end of a long pole. The co-pilot’s job was to reach down and sever the antenna using this imple­ment. Once he had hooked onto a strong Dacron loop located at the top of Liberty Bell 7, the pilot would apply sufficient engine power to hoist the capsule around 18 inches until the base of the hatch was clear of the water. Finally, they would lower the rescue sling to a position just above the spacecraft and relay this information to Grissom. The astronaut would then disconnect his helmet (thereby ending communications), power down the spacecraft, blow the hatch, and wait for the rescue collar to appear. He would then carefully egress through the hatch and insert his arms into the loop at the foot of the sling. Apart from the use of an explosive hatch, this was the same procedure that had worked so well for Shepard.

As he awaited further instructions, Grissom suddenly heard a dull thud. Without warning, the spacecraft hatch was gone – blown off and out into the ocean. “There wasn’t any doubt in my mind as to what had happened,” he would report in his later debriefing.11 Grissom looked up in shocked disbelief, not only seeing blue sky, but the unnerving sight of salt water spilling over the bottom of the door sill and into the spacecraft.

Grissom knew from previous experiments that once water reached the lower edge of the hatch opening, a Mercury spacecraft could sink in just ten seconds. “I made just two moves,” he later remarked, “both of them instinctive. I tossed off my helmet and then grabbed the right edge of the instrument panel and hoisted myself right out through the hatch.”12 Moments later he was in the water and being thrust away from Liberty Bell 7 by the fierce rotor wash of the helicopter amid a tumult of noise and a rolling Atlantic swell.

In shock, Grissom tried to swim backwards away from his spacecraft, watching with mounting horror as seawater continued to pour in through the open hatch. Co-pilot John Reinhard was equally surprised as Grissom “swam out of the capsule and swam away.”13

Grissom then discovered he had become tangled in a dye-marker line that was wrapped around his shoulder. The line was attached to the spacecraft and he knew that if he could not free himself there was the very likely prospect of being dragged down with the spacecraft if it sank. He finally managed to disentangle himself and moved away from the line.

Somewhat comforted by the fact that he was floating well above the water line and treading water in his buoyant space suit, Grissom was more concerned with the pilot’s efforts to hook onto Liberty Bell 7, which was rapidly settling into the water. “As I got out, I saw the chopper was having trouble hooking onto the capsule. He was franti­cally fishing for the recovery loop. The recovery compartment was just out of the water at this time and I swam over to help him get his hook through the loop.”

By this time the helicopter was directly over the spacecraft, but with all three of its wheels dangerously in the water. “I thought the co-pilot was having difficulty in hook­ing onto the spacecraft and I swam the four or five feet to give him some help,” Grissom later stated. “Actually, he had cut the antenna and hooked the spacecraft in record time.” 14

Those who ever doubted the bravery and tenacity of Gus Grissom have obviously not viewed the film footage of what happened next. Battered by the ferocious force of rotor wash and whipped-up water, his immediate concern was not for himself but for his spacecraft. He was not sure whether the helicopter was fully hooked onto the


As Hunt Club 1 hovers dangerously low overhead, accompanied by a Navy support helicop­ter, Grissom checks to see that they have a solid hook onto the spacecraft’s recovery loop, which is just above the water. An enhanced view of Grissom from the same photograph shows his courageous efforts to ensure the retrieval of Liberty Bell 7. Note his helmet floating in the sea at top left. (Photos: NASA)


Taken from film footage of the recovery efforts, this still frame shows Grissom trying to hold Liberty Bell 7 upright as Hunt Club 1’s wheels dip into the ocean. (Photo from NASA footage)

spacecraft’s Dacron recovery loop, which was perilously close to being submerged. He actually reached out and checked this, and then pushed back from the spacecraft, giving John Reinhard a quick double thumbs-up to indicate that they were properly hooked up. At this time, only a few inches of the very top of the spacecraft could be seen above the water. It was an incredible act of sheer bravery and guts which could so easily have cost him his life, and demonstrated that despite the circumstances, Gus Grissom was not lacking in a test pilot’s greatest attributes – his coolness and courage under extreme peril.

As he watched, all the time being forced away from the scene by the downdraft, Grissom knew that things were not going well. “The helicopter pulled up and away from me with the spacecraft and I saw the personal sling start down: then the sling was pulled back into the helicopter and it started to move away from me.”15

Expecting as a result of previous recovery training that the astronaut should stay comfortably afloat in his space suit, and therefore was not in any immediate danger, Jim Lewis concentrated on saving the spacecraft from sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Meanwhile, Grissom suddenly realized that he too was sinking ever deeper in the water which, fortunately, was not all that cold. The neck dam was working well, so that was not the problem. It had been designed and tested by fellow astronaut Wally Schirra specifically to prevent water entering a floating astronaut’s space suit, and it probably saved Grissom’s life that day. But he realized that in his haste to evacuate from Liberty Bell 7 he had neglected to lock the midsection oxygen inlet port on his space suit. This was allowing the air in his suit to bleed out and seawater to seep in. With every second that passed he was becoming increasingly heavier and sinking ever lower in the churned-up seawater. He reached down and locked the suit inlet connec­tion to prevent further water penetration.


Hunt Club 1 manages to partially raise the spacecraft as Grissom looks on. In the lower photo the USS Randolph can be seen in the distance. (Photos: NASA)

Now struggling hard to stay afloat, Grissom also recalled some souvenir items he had stuffed into the left leg of his suit. These comprised of two rolls of fifty dimes, some miniature models of his spacecraft, and a small wad of dollar bills. “They were added weight I could have done without,” he later confessed, even though the weight was actually quite minimal.


Despite the loss of Liberty Bell 7, the MR-4 mission was considered to have been a success. Eventually, rather than delay the Mercury program, a fully mechanical hatch was designed to replace the explosive version, but it was deemed to be cumbersome to operate and far too heavy, exceeding set weight constraints. The explosive hatch would remain. What did change was the implementation of a new set of splashdown procedures. These required the astronaut to leave the removable firing safety pin in place until after the helicopter’s recovery cable had been hooked up.

The Mercury program ended after four more flights – all orbital missions – with none of the astronauts opting to blow the hatch at sea and travel to the waiting carrier aboard the recovery helicopter. John Glenn (Friendship 7), Wally Schirra (Sigma 7) and Gordon Cooper (Faith 7) all elected to remain in their capsule until it had been safely secured onboard ship, following which they would blow the hatch. The only exception was Scott Carpenter, whose MA-7 overshot the planned landing zone by 250 nautical miles, which meant it would be a considerable time before he and his spacecraft could be retrieved from the sea. Rather than remain in the unstable craft with the near-certainty of becoming seasick, or blow the side hatch and risk having Aurora 7 fill with seawater and sink, he squeezed up and out through the alternative recovery compartment exit at the top of the spacecraft.

The fact that his spacecraft had been lost at sea remained a source of irritation and torment for Gus Grissom.

“We had worked so hard and had overcome so much to get Liberty Bell launched that it just seemed tragic that a glitch robbed us of the capsule and its instruments at the very last minute. It was especially hard for me, as a professional pilot. In all my years of flying – including combat in Korea – this was the first time that my aircraft and I had not come back together. In my entire career as a pilot, Liberty Bell was the first thing I had ever lost. We tried for weeks afterwards to find out what happened, and how it happened. I even crawled into capsules and tried to duplicate all of my movements in order to see if I could make it happen again. But it was impossible. The plunger that detonates the bolts is so far out of the way that I would’ve had to reach for it on purpose to hit it – and this I did not do. Even when I thrashed about with my elbows, I couldn’t bump against it accidentally. It remained a mystery how that hatch blew. And I am afraid it always will. It was just one of those things.”27


Four days after the MR-4 mission, a McDonnell engineer occupies a test capsule showing an astronaut’s position in relation to the explosive hatch detonator, seen above his head. (Photo courtesy the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Museum)


As of 15 July 1962, Grissom was promoted to the rank of major. Four days later he proudly received the Gen. Thomas D. White Trophy as the “Air Force member who has made the most outstanding contribution to the nation’s progress in aerospace.” Also in 1962, NASA finally moved its manned space flight operations from Langley to the newly built Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston. The Grissoms were now able to build their first real home, a three-bedroom house in the Timber Cove development near Seabrook.

Following his MR-4 flight, Grissom acted as CapCom for later Mercury flights, but spent a lot of his time in St. Louis assisting McDonnell in the development and con­struction of the Gemini spacecraft. In October 1962 Deke Slayton also assigned Grissom to supervise the nine Group 2 astronauts in the lead-up to Project Gemini. A practical man, Grissom had understood early on that a second Mercury mission was not on the cards for him, as the remaining astronauts would each be assigned flights that would complete the program. “By then Gemini was in the works,” he wrote in his memoir, “and I realized that if I were going to fly in space again, this was my oppor­tunity, so I sort of drifted unobtrusively into taking more and more part in Gemini.”28

Grissom then turned his efforts to the Gemini spacecraft and specifically the layout of the cockpit controls and instrumentation. He was instrumental in having everything laid out as a pilot would like; so much so that the spacecraft soon became known as the


Gus Grissom is congratulated by Air Force Secretary Eugene M. Zuckert on being presented with the Thomas D. White trophy. (Photo: UPI)


Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom autograph an improvised space helmet made by a New York Boy Scout. (Photo: NASA)

“Gusmobile.” However, later in the program taller astronauts such as Ed White and Tom Stafford complained that although the arrangement might have been ideal for Grissom’s compact five-foot seven-inch frame, it was something of a tight squeeze for them.

As recalled by Betty Grissom, “Gus was living with the Gemini spacecraft, putting the flier’s touch on the vehicle in which men might live and maneuver in space for days or weeks. At the McDonnell plant in St. Louis he sat in the mockup for hours, day after day, testing each switch and control knob, applying the aviator’s instinct which would guide engineers and technicians in making the machine more flyable and habitable. Although his advice usually was quiet and brief, the engineers never doubted that he meant business, and never forgot that the inanimate mass of metal, wiring and black boxes was a flying machine to carry men from Earth and back again. In fact, they were laying bets that Gus would be the first to fly it.”29

Then, in April 1964 Grissom’s diligent work was rewarded when he received his second mission assignment as commander of the first Gemini two-man mission. The official announcement came on 13 April, five days after the successful launch of the unmanned Gemini 1 capsule. He was the first astronaut to be officially assigned to a second space flight.


Among many other honors, Grissom received a presentation trophy from the U. S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as “one of the ten outstanding young men of 1961.” (Photo: NASA)

Wally Schirra, selected as the Gemini-Titan 3 (GT-3) backup commander along with co-pilot Stafford, was delighted that his Mercury colleague and friend had been given the first flight assignment, saying that he felt Grissom now had something to prove. “He was angry about being blamed for his spacecraft having sunk, and he was fighting to come back out of the pack. Gus was a tiger. He wanted the first Gemini flight, and by God he got it.”30


Grissom shows his trophy to NASA Operations Director Walt Williams. (Photo: NASA)


Following the spacecraft recovery, Newport and the Kansas Cosmosphere’s Max Ary began their documentation and post-recovery work. After taking photographs, Newport used a bilge pump to remove pooled water from the bottom of the capsule while Ary reached through the hatch to see what he could find. To their amazement he felt something unusual and upon withdrawing his hand from the muck revealed sev­eral shiny Mercury dimes.

To prevent further degradation and corrosion following the capsule’s exposure to the air, Liberty Bell 7 was placed into a specially designed container filled with sea water for shipment to the mainland – to a place not far from where it had ascended into the sky atop a Redstone rocket 38 years before. “Putting that capsule into the con­tainer at night, and at sea, was a harrowing experience. We had it in a cargo net and against my explicit instructions the crane operator slewed the capsule around over the sea off the port side with the ship rolling like crazy. I literally put my body between the capsule and the ship’s side to keep them from colliding and Liberty Bell 7 was dunked several times in the water to stabilize things. But we got it done and no one lost any fingers while installing the heavy container top.”23

As the Ocean Project neared Port Canaveral, Curt Newport called the recovery crew together and thanked them for their involvement in the incredibly successful mission – the deepest commercial salvage operation in history.

“I popped the cork on a magnum bottle of Moёt champagne and we celebrated as much as our one bottle allowed.”24


Once on board the Ocean Project, Liberty Bell 7 was placed in a special water tank to keep the spacecraft moist in the hot sun. (NASA-KSC, Photo ID KSC-99PP-1033)

Liberty Bell 7

Where to begin? There has been a tremendous amount of material generated regarding my brother Gus, from the early days of the space program through the Apollo 1 tragedy, but I will always talk to anyone who wants to talk about him. I can tell people who he was.

What I remember most of all about Gus was the thoroughness with which he approached everything he did, and this carried over into many things – even those not related to flying. But to know about Gus, it is important to also know about our parents, Dennis and Cecile. Dad worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for 47 years, as a signal maintainer. He was one of the fortunate few who had a job during the Depression. Our parents were very giving and generous people. Although they had modest means they were always very will­ing to share what they had with others in need. It seemed that when I was growing up there was always a relative living with us.

I was one of four children (Gus was the oldest) and we were blessed with parents who exhibited emotional stability and a sense of security. We were all born and raised in Mitchell, Indiana, and lived in the same house until we left home. That house at 715 West Grissom Avenue – it was Baker Street until it was named after Gus – is now in the process of restoration to become a museum.

We all attended Mitchell High School. Surprisingly, Gus was not an outstanding stu­dent in high school. In fact, he probably would have been classified as an underachiever. The high school principal did not endorse his application to enter Purdue University. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression… he did excel in math and sciences. I guess he just didn’t see the importance of those other classes.

When Gus entered high school he was 5 feet 4 inches and weighed about 100 pounds, not quite what the high school coaches were interested in for the athletic teams, but he was well coordinated and one of the most competitive people that I have ever known, and he tried harder.

Right after high school he went into the Air Force. Shortly after World War II ended he entered Purdue University where he earned a degree in engineering. He then returned to the Air Force and went on to fly 100 combat missions in Korea, became a test pilot, and joined the space program. NASA chose Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Gus as the three astronauts who would be candidates for the first American space flight, ultimately selecting Shepard for the first flight and Gus for the second suborbital flight.

There was a tremendous amount of anxiety in the Grissom house that morning of July 21, 1961, as we all waited for the liftoff of Liberty Bell 7. It was quite a relief when we heard that the spacecraft had gone through reentry and had successfully landed. Of course, we later learned that the most dangerous part of the mission occurred in the water, when the hatch unexplainably blew, and Gus almost drowned. The fact that NASA selected Gus as the Command Pilot for the first Gemini flight clearly indicated that they knew that he was not responsible for the hatch prematurely opening.

As a mild extrovert, Gus could surprise you with his wit and humor, and it appeared when you least expected it. He was also a man of few words. He was once asked to speak to the workforce at Convair, a space contractor in Southern California. After a lengthy introduction, Gus got up in front of a couple of thousand workers and gave his famous, three-word speech: “Do good work.”

The recovery of Liberty Bell 7 from the ocean in 1999 exemplifies the pioneering spirit, the dedication and the resourcefulness of Gus. Standing on the dock in that hot July sun, 38 years to the day from liftoff, waiting for Liberty Bell 7 to be hoisted from the recovery ship, I wondered what Gus would be thinking and feeling as that tiny craft came swinging over onto the dock. I know I had many emotions that were aroused, from deep sadness that Gus wasn’t there to see it, to immense pride in knowing that the only craft that he had flown and lost had now come home. Just like it had been said that man could not fly in space, it had also been said that Liberty Bell 7 was so deep it could never be recovered. Gus was always up for a challenge and I think he would have been very pleased that those who said, “It can’t be done,” had, again, been proven wrong.

Liberty Bell 7

Lowell Grissom, brother of NASA astronaut ‘Gus’ Grissom, photographed at Grissom Air Force Reserve Base, Indiana. (Photo: U. S. Air Force, taken by Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner, 434th ARW Public Affairs.)

After his Gemini flight, Gus was again selected to be the Command Pilot for the first Apollo flight, leading America to the Moon. Unfortunately, a fire on the launch pad took the life of Gus, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. However, there is a general consensus that America would not have made it to the Moon in the decade of the sixties without the knowl­edge that was learned, and the corrections that were made as a result of that fire. There is no doubt that Gus would have stepped on the Moon had he lived.

We can honor him only if we follow in his footsteps and peacefully continue to explore space. Our future work in space is bound to include some failures. Yet Apollo 1 has taught us that we can never really fail as long as we persist in our efforts. The greatest lesson we can learn from Gus Grissom is that failure is impossible for those who refuse to abandon their goals. The most fitting tribute to Gus and his Apollo 1 crew is for us to continue doing that for which they gave their lives and to renew our dedication to their quest.. ..REACHING FOR THE STARS!

Lowell Grissom Mitchell, Indiana March, 2013


In a McDonnell inter-office memo dated 25 August 1959, Bud Flesh announced that a Project Mercury Operations Group would be established at Cape Canaveral, with the office to become active by 3 September. Flesh stated that the group would be led by Luge Luetjen, Assistant Manager of the Operations Group and Engineer in charge of Technical Integration. His responsibilities included establishing the MAC office, liaising with NASA and other space flight and military authorities, and representing the company on committees set up to oversee Mercury Operations. He would also coordinate Redstone Capsule Launch Procedures with the Missile Firing Laboratory (MFL) and NASA.

Among other responsibilities outlined in the memo, Guenter Wendt was assigned to carry forward all arrangements with the Redstone MFL that were necessary for a coordi­nated program. In particular, he was to assist Luetjen in the launch procedures coordina­tion and in Redstone missile committees. Wendt had been employed by Luetjen because he needed someone who was “a combination of pseudo-engineer and non-union techni­cian to help in some of the technical areas and still do ‘grunt’ work when required.”28

Writing later on the man who would become affectionately known to all at the Cape as the “pad fuehrer,’ Luetjen remarked that Wendt had “allegedly” been an air crew member in the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and had worked as a mechanic for Ozark Air Lines before joining McDonnell.

The MAC contingent arrived at Cocoa Beach on 2 September and settled into rooms at the Satellite Motel located north on Highway A1A – the main street of Cocoa Beach – linking the beach area to Merritt Island and the City of Cocoa. The next morning they proceeded to the south gate of the Cape where they were met by an administrative officer from NASA who handed them their official badges and escorted them to Hangar S, where they would occupy the south balcony in an area recently vacated by the Martin Company people involved in the Vanguard project.

Jerry Roberts was one of those assigned to work at the Cape, and he recalls times when he and his McDonnell co-workers had to work long hours, seven days a week,


Guenter Wendt with Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)


Hangar S at Cape Canaveral. (Photo: NASA)

often putting in as many as 100 hours per week. “When we first were transferred from St. Louis to the Cape in 1960 it was supposed to be for nine months, and we were going to launch these things initially and then train the NASA people how to launch them, and then we were to come back home. That was pretty evidently not going to happen – NASA had no such capability to even learn from us. They didn’t have the people with the background to take over either part of the program – the missile or the spacecraft – so instead of being down there nine months, some of our people were there till the end of the Gemini program [in 1966].”29

At the time, Operations Director Walt Williams from the STG spoke admiringly of the spirit prevailing at the Cape. “When you have people so well motivated, which they are, you find them working terribly hard and doing really good work. Of course, there should be physical limits. Our people at Cape Canaveral were working 80 to 90 hours a week, which was just too much for them. So we put an arbitrary 60-hour limit on them. Then I found out they were working anyway – just not getting paid for it. This is the kind of dedication we have all through the program”30


Atlas 10D on Launch Pad 14 with the Big Joe boilerplate Mercury capsule. (Photo: NASA)


The Big Joe Mercury-style capsule is shown aboard the USS Strong (DD-467) after being recovered from the Atlantic Ocean on 7 September 1959 several hundred miles northwest of the island of Antigua. The top of the capsule held the recovery system during the flight, and was opened to deploy the drogue parachute which slowed the descent of the capsule after reentry and the large main parachute that lowered the capsule to the water. Also visible in the exposed top are the high-intensity marker light and the antenna (folded down) of the search and recovery beacon radios. The small vertical light areas on the side of the capsule are the flush-mounted telemetry transmitter antennas. (Photo: NASA)

A week after their arrival, on 9 September, the MAC team witnessed the vitally important test launch of Big Joe 1 (Atlas 10D) that sent a 2,555-pound, unmanned boilerplate Mercury capsule on a ballistic arc a distance of 1,424 miles with a peak altitude of 90 miles. This particular capsule was not equipped with a launch escape system. The principal objective of the Big Joe program was to test the Mercury space­craft’s ablating heat shield, which would be used on the later orbital manned missions. It was also the first Project Mercury flight to employ an Atlas booster. However the booster failed to stage correctly, and separation from the Mercury boilerplate occurred far too late. The capsule was eventually located and retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean and subsequently studied for the effects of reentry heat and any other flight stresses resulting from the 13-minute flight. Despite the booster malfunction, the heat shield had survived the reentry phase and was found to be in marginally good condition. More work needed to be done.

As Luge Luetjen commented, “The telemetry had functioned properly until [the radio] blackout, and as the morning wore on and the spacecraft was recovered and the data reduced, it became obvious that there was sufficient heat pulse to prove the abla­tion design if the physical examination results were positive. Upon arrival at the Cape, eager eyes focused on the heat shield and marveled at its superb condition. As a result, all plans to use the heavier heat-sink design were scrapped for the rest of the [Mercury – Redstone] program.”31

Indeed, data gathered from the Big Joe 1 flight was enough to satisfy NASA that they could cancel a second launch – Big Joe 2 (Atlas 20D) – that had been planned for the fall of 1959. The launch vehicle manifested for this flight was then shifted to another program.

McDonnell would only miss their optimistic 10-month delivery forecast by two months. Mercury Spacecraft No. 4, planned for the MA-1 test flight, was delivered to NASA on 25 January 1960.


Shown here in July 1959 are Mercury-style capsules specially manufactured by Langley tech­nicians for the Little Joe series of proving flights from Wallops Island, Virginia. While these separate designs were not intended to carry astronauts, they would fly monkeys to test many facets of launch and recovery, including center of gravity requirements and aerodynamic loads. (Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center)


A technician checks a wind-tunnel model of the Little Joe/Mercury capsule combination, circa 1959. (Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center)


In time Grissom basically became a living, integral part of Spacecraft No. 11, as the component that no mechanism could replace. His confidence had grown to the point that he knew his vehicle as well as, or better than, any high-performance aircraft he had flown in the past.

“Actually, during the final weeks and days before the launching of MR-4 „.I felt really good,” Grissom recalled in We Seven. “We kept spotting problems, as we knew we would. But there were very few of them, considering the state of the art, and the simulations we went through for practice went very well. If anything was building up inside me, it was that I was anxious. I kept wanting to go tomorrow, and I guess I got slightly impatient whenever some technician came up with a new modification in the system that might have caused a long delay if we had accepted it. The only thing I was afraid of was that something might happen to prevent me from making the flight.”13

On Friday, 23 June, Redstone launch vehicle MRLV-8 was installed on Launch Pad 5 for a mission expected in mid-July. Technicians began conducting extensive check­outs of the 69-foot rocket before mating it with the one-ton Mercury capsule, checking and rechecking to ensure the booster was ready for the upcoming flight. Once the launch pad crews had completed their final inspections and systems tests, Liberty Bell 7 would be moved from Hangar S to the launch pad and mated with the Redstone. Three Redstone rockets, including the one on the launch pad, remained for the planned Mercury suborbital flights. If the NASA schedule held, the last two launchings would take place in August and September.


Grissom conducts systems checks inside Liberty Bell 7. (Photo: NASA)


The MR-4 Redstone being raised to vertical at Launch Complex 5. (Photo: NASA)


Preparing to mate Liberty Bell 7 with the Redstone booster. (Photo: NASA)

As Grissom recalled, it was a happy day for him when the booster and spacecraft were finally being spliced together. Incredibly, however, he was almost barred from being on the pad to observe the process. “I had locked my hard hat in the office and forgotten the key, and no one is allowed near an active gantry without a special hard hat to protect his head. Someone finally loaned me one, and I made it just in time.”14 Over the next three days, further compatibility tests involving thousands of parts would take place in order to ensure that all systems involving the spacecraft and booster worked together. George Baldwin served as a manufacturing foreman with McDonnell, overseeing the launch pad crew. He spent his days at the Cape in preparing for the Mercury launches. He still recalls that time with great fondness, as he said in 2011. “My experience with it was wonderful because of the camaraderie and willingness of the workers and engineers [and] because everyone had one goal in mind. It was a time when we had Sputnik going over top of our heads, and [President Kennedy] setting the goal of going to the Moon within the decade. It was an absolutely exciting time.”15 As final preflight operations proceeded on schedule at the Cape, NASA personnel began manning stations on Bermuda and Grand Bahama Island in readiness to track


Mating the Mercury spacecraft with the Redstone booster. (Photo courtesy Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)

the MR-4 flight. At sea, ships and aircraft of the Mercury recovery force were either on station or moving into position, ready to pluck Grissom and his capsule from the sea.


Unaware that Grissom was struggling to stay afloat in the ocean swells of three to six feet amplitude, Jim Lewis called upon all his flying skills and the performance of his helicopter to attempt to salvage the sinking spacecraft. He and co-pilot Reinhard had seen the hatch blow off prematurely, and as Lewis watched in alarm “it hit the water, skipped once and sank when it hit the second time.” He then related what happened next.

“I was not worried about Gus being in the water because we had trained on these procedures at Langley AFB and the Space Task Group and we knew the astronauts floated very well in their suits – they were sealed and had a neck dam at the top to prevent any water ingress. At that point we no longer had communication, so there was no way for any of us to know there was an open port in his suit.

“My last call to Gus before the hatch blew was that I was ‘turning base’. That meant I was downwind and had to do a 180-degree turn into the wind and complete the approach over a distance of one hundred feet or more to get there. We saw the hatch blow, which means that we had completed the turn but still hadn’t closed the distance.”

“My plan at that point was to have my co-pilot cut the HF antenna … and try and snag the capsule before it sank. There was probably a minute or less from the time the hatch blew until the capsule disappeared below the surface.

“I could see Gus in the water, trying to help in the recovery process. He later said he wanted to help my co-pilot make the connection between the aircraft and capsule if he could, so he was close by. It turned out he didn’t need to help [and] he did not look like he was in distress during the time I could see him, and he looked intent on doing what had to be done – but never did he look angry. Anger is a wasted emotion at such times, and pilots are trained to be resourceful, efficient, skilled, and to get the job done, whatever it is.

“I had to put the wheels in the water – the aircraft wasn’t designed for this – after my co-pilot cut the antenna so he could reach the recovery bale on top of the capsule. By the time he had made the connection between the helicopter recovery line and the capsule recovery loop, the top of Liberty Bell 7 had actually disappeared below the surface. Once the hookup was made I could no longer see the capsule because it was directly below the aircraft. I began attempting to lift it out of the water at that point, although I knew that the combined weight of the capsule and water was more than the [helicopter’s] lifting capacity.”16

According to rehearsed procedures, Reinhard’s next action was to lower a horse – collar hoist for Gus to climb into, so that they could pull him up into the helicopter. Lewis, meanwhile, was hoping that he might be able to raise the capsule sufficiently to allow much of the water to drain out of it and from the landing bag. It might, he rea­soned, give him a fighting chance of hauling Liberty Bell 7 across to the waiting carrier.

“The landing bag was draining fine when we lifted the capsule out of the water,” Lewis said. “We even managed to get the capsule out of the water several times.” This usually occurred when the capsule was in the trough of a swell, but as the next swell

rolled in, which could be up to six feet high, the spacecraft would once again begin to disappear beneath the surface as water gushed into the open hatch, thereby dragging the helicopter back down again. At these times it weighed 1,000 pounds more than the helicopter could normally lift. As Lewis recalls, this was a tense and potentially calamitous situation.

“I was using maximum power at this point, some 2,800 rpm and 56.5 inches of manifold pressure. Shortly after I began this process, I saw the chip detector warning light on the helicopter instrument panel illuminate. This light indicated there were metal filings in the oil system. Our standard operating procedure for this event said that the engine would probably last about five minutes with metal being distributed throughout the engine before it failed. Because of this, I ordered the co-pilot to cease lowering the hoist for Gus and to bring it back up because we had a sick bird, and I didn’t want to lose the aircraft with Gus aboard it. Water egress from a helicopter down in the water with rotors turning overhead is neither a risk free nor an easy task.

“I called the backup helicopter, told him I had a chip detector light, and to come in and pick up Gus, and I also said that I’d drag the capsule clear of Gus so he could come in and make the pickup. Dragging it away was not that easy, but we managed to get it clear in a couple of minutes.”17

The pilot of the backup helicopter was Capt. Phillip Upschulte from Quincy in Illinois. As the engines of Lewis’s aircraft strained against the ponderous weight of the submerged capsule while dragging it through the water, Upschulte maneuvered in behind Lewis’s craft. Co-pilot Lt. George Cox then lowered a rescue sling for the wav­ing astronaut, who was now some 70 feet away from his sunken spacecraft.


Gus Grissom admired dedication in most people, but there was one particular profes­sion that caused him to be wary in their presence. Normally outspoken and gregarious people, NASA’s astronauts would readily discuss most things in order to get the answers they sought – except when it came to the space agency’s medical staff. They knew from their days of flying high-performance aircraft that any hint of a complaint relating to their wellbeing could attract the unwanted attention of the doctors.

Prior to his unexpected but ultimately lengthy assignment as a NASA flight sur­geon in 1960, Robert H. Moser was an Army major taking a fellowship in hematology at the Utah Medical School in Salt Lake City. As he recalls, little was known at that


In October 1963, Grissom was the proud recipient of an award from the Air Force Communications Service in recognition of becoming the first Air Force officer to receive astro­naut wings for his flight into space and communicating with ground stations. (Photo: NASA)

time about a human being’s psychological and physiological capability to endure and function in space. He and his fellow Army officers would get to know the Mercury astronauts quite well over the years, but there was always something of an unspoken chasm between an astronaut and any medical practitioner.

In September 1962 Dr Moser was stationed on the island of Kauai in preparation for the six-orbit Mercury flight of Wally Schirra the following month. Occasionally, he and Gus Grissom would spend time kicking back together in a local bar.

“We had become chums during the seemingly endless simulated missions that always preceded orbital flights,” Moser once reflected for The Pharos magazine. “This was a rare downtime. Gus was our CapCom and I was the medical flight controller. I asked him why flyers hated doctors. He straightened himself on the bar stool, and peered into the bottom of his glass. ‘I’ll tell you, doc. When you walk into the flight surgeon’s office, you have your ticket. When you walk out, you might not.’’’

Moser pressed further. “I asked him, ‘Gus, if you were sitting on top of that big firecracker and the countdown got to about minus seven, and suddenly you felt the worst sort of pain imaginable pressing down on your mid-chest and radiating down the inside of your left arm, what would you do? Would you let us know?’

“Gus took a long moment to gaze at the bay. ‘Only if I thought I was going to die.’”31


Gus Grissom with an early model of the Gemini spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)