Category Liberty Bell 7

A tale of two hatches

On 7 December 1961 Robert Gilruth, director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, announced plans for a spacecraft that would be piloted by two astronauts and would advance the United States to the next level of manned space flight. This new program would help to develop manned space flight rendezvous techniques in a more spacious craft capable of docking with other vehicles while in Earth orbit. This “Advanced Mercury” concept would also serve as a bridge between the Mercury and Apollo lunar landing programs. Since no project title had been officially assigned to the new program, it was simply referred to as Mercury Mark II.

A NASA bulletin reported that the agency would negotiate with the McDonnell Aircraft Corp. of St. Louis as prime contractor for the new spacecraft. Weighing about two tons – twice that of the Mercury capsule – the spacecraft was intended to be launched atop a new booster, the Air Force Titan II, constructed by the Martin-Marietta Company. The rendezvous target to be used during the program was to be an Agena stage produced by the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, and this would be launched by an Atlas rocket. Preliminary cost estimates for the program, including about a dozen spacecraft, Atlas-Agena and Titan II vehicles, was in the vicinity of $500 million. As the NASA bulletin suggested:

Two-man flights should begin in 1963-64, starting with several unmanned ballistic flights from Cape Canaveral for tests of overall booster-spacecraft compatibility and systems engineering. Several manned orbital flights will follow. Rendezvous flybys and actual docking missions will be attempted in final phases of the program.

This program provides the earliest means of experimenting with manned rendez­vous techniques. At the same time, the two-man craft will be capable of Earth­orbiting flights of a week or more, thereby providing pilot training for future, long-duration circular and lunar landing flights.

NASA’s current seven astronauts will serve as pilots for this program. Additional crew members may be phased in during later stages.1


In researching this book, I happened across an extremely well written article in the Spring 2000 (Vol.7, No.4) issue of the quarterly history of space flight magazine, Quest, penned by Connecticut-based space writer Keith Scala. Under the title, The Future of Liberty Bell 7, his article related the manner in which the spacecraft had undergone meticulous restoration at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center and the plans for its subsequent exhibition. I contacted Keith to ask if he might consider updating his article as a feature in this book, to which he happily agreed. Here then, is the post-recovery story of Liberty Bell 7.


Keith J. Scala

After Liberty Bell 7 was removed from the expedition ship Ocean Project at Port Canaveral, the capsule was transported to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas on 1 September 1999. The capsule was shipped overland in a container filled with seawater to prevent further corrosion

The Kansas Cosmosphere is the only private museum authorized by the Smithsonian Institution to restore U. S. manned spacecraft. One previous spacecraft restored there in 1997 was the Apollo 13 command module Odyssey. Several other spacecraft from the United States and Russia have also been restored at the Midwestern facility.


Liberty Bell 7 arrives at the Kansas Cosmosphere. (Photo courtesy of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)


Max Ary, the Kansas Cosmosphere’s president, explains the restoration process the spacecraft would undergo. (Photo: Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)

In the case of Liberty Bell 7, the Kansas Cosmosphere was given ownership of the spacecraft. In fact, Liberty Bell 7 is the only manned American spacecraft not owned by NASA or the Smithsonian. Since NASA and the Smithsonian had never planned to recover Liberty Bell 7, it was agreed that the Kansas Cosmosphere would retain own­ership of the ill-fated capsule. Before the successful recovery operation NASA gave ownership to the Discovery Channel. After recovery the ownership was then trans­ferred to the Kansas Cosmosphere. This was done to help reimburse the cost and time of the recovery effort.

The intention of the Kansas Cosmosphere was to clean every portion of the space­craft and remove parts that had been so badly damaged by corrosion that it would not be feasible to restore them. Max Ary, past president and CEO of the Kansas Cosmosphere, said at the time, “We will disassemble the entire spacecraft, individu­ally cleaning every single piece, from the exterior shingles to the smallest of screws. Our goal is not to make the spacecraft look brand new,” Ary added. “We simply want to clean and preserve it so that it will be available for generations to come. We will reassemble the spacecraft with only the original parts. If we need a particular part (the original part was too badly damaged), for example, a panel into which switches need to be mounted, we will create one of Plexiglas or we will create a metal skeleton that will serve the same purpose. Either way, it will be obvious to the viewer which pieces of Liberty Bell 7 did not survive the 38 years in a harsh deep-sea environment.” The Plexiglas or framework has the added benefit of allowing the viewer to see the interior of the spacecraft not normally seen. The cleaning also stabilized the capsule so no additional deterioration would occur after the restoration.27

The overall condition of Liberty Bell 7 was surprisingly good after its 38-year stay at the bottom of the Atlantic. First, 75 gallons of mostly sand and other things that live in the ocean were removed from the capsule. Many metal parts, mostly those made of aluminum, were excessively corroded while items like paper and plastic had been preserved. The superstructure of the capsule was intact. The capsule control panels had corroded away but many switches and gauges were in excellent condition. Some glass face plates on the gauges had been shattered by the water pressure.

The capsule structure has two layers; firstly, an outer skin of Rene 41 alloy shingles used to protect the capsule from reentry heat. The shingles are bolted to the inner titanium structure with aircraft-style stringers in between. This method provided for a gap between the outer and inner structures. The gap allowed ceramic fiber to be used for extra thermal insulation. The inner structure serves as a pressure vessel to retain air pressure. The outer skin shingles were removed as well as all the interior equipment. The words UNITED STATES and even the “Liberty Bell” crack painted on the outer skin remained.

A harsh but necessary method had to be used after the outer alloy shingles were removed. Since technicians could not remove the lower bulkhead of the inner struc­ture, as it was welded to the bottom of the conical inner structure, it was decided to cut the capsule into two pieces. The cut was made between the entry hatch and lower bulkhead around the diameter of the capsule.

This allowed access to each of the 24 framed aircraft-style stringers that run verti­cally inside. The lower half and top half of the capsule could then be sandblasted free of corrosion. When the capsule was reassembled and the outer alloy shingles were attached to the inner structure the cut would not be evident.28

Many interesting items were found inside the capsule. The film inside a camera that kept a record of Grissom’s movements was not salvageable, but it was hoped that a magnetic tape with Grissom’s voice during the flight could be saved. A roll of Mercury dimes intended to be given to Grissom’s friends was discovered, several of which were revealed at the capsule’s Port Canaveral homecoming. Several silver dollar cer­tificates bearing Grissom’s signature were also found. The dollar bills had been rolled up and deliberately hidden inside plastic shrink-wrap tubing to look like part of the interior wiring. More than likely technicians would have removed these after the flight (as described earlier in this book) as mementos of the flight.

A checklist and grease pencil Grissom used during the flight was still in useable shape. A metal cap that covered the explosive hatch detonator was found, but did not shed any light as to why the hatch blew, causing the capsule to flood. Curiously enough, a bar of Dial soap was still in its paper wrapper and in good shape, even though several metal parts of the capsule had corroded away. One last item of interest is a portion of Teflon cable attached to the top of the capsule. This cable had been used by the Marine helicopter in a vain attempt to pull the capsule from the water, but had to be cut when the capsule started to pull the helicopter down.29

The restoration process took approximately seven months and cost $250,000. It involved 7,280 manned hours and 30,000 parts, while 10 miles of wiring had to be removed from the spacecraft and replaced. During the restoration process a webcam broadcast pictures of the spacecraft 24 hours a day, allowing Internet viewers to


Liberty Bell 7 after removal of the outer shingles. Note the cut made to the capsule under the hatch. (Photo courtesy of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)

follow the restoration process. Visitors to the Kansas Cosmosphere were able to view the restoration of Liberty Bell 7 from the other side of a Plexiglas wall.

After the restoration was completed, no definitive information was found on why the hatch mysteriously blew after splashdown. If the hatch itself had been found (it was never recovered) it might have given some answers. Had Liberty Bell 7 not been lost, it also could have been helpful to the official investigation into the accident in 1961.


The Mercury head dimes found inside Liberty Bell 7. (Photo: NASA/KSC, ID KSC-99PP-1035)


A number of recovered Roosevelt dimes carried by Gus Grissom eventually found their way onto the collectors’ market. (Photo: The Skyman1958 collection)


Liberty Bell 7 after restoration. (Photo courtesy of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)

When the restoration process was finished, the Discovery Channel took Liberty Bell 7 on a tour of North America. An interactive 6,000 square-foot traveling exhibit was used with Liberty Bell 7 as the centerpiece. The tour started in 2000 and lasted six years. After the tour was completed, Liberty Bell 7’s final home was the Kansas Cosmosphere. Should any future space historians wish to reopen the investigation into how the hatch blew back in 1961, Liberty Bell 7 will be waiting in Kansas to help answer the mystery.


At 9:34 a. m. (Eastern Time) on 5 May 1961, the MR-3 combination of a Redstone rocket and a Mercury capsule known as Freedom 7 lifted off its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, watched by an estimated 45 million viewers across the United States. Onboard, carrying the hopes, prayers, and adoration of a nation was NASA astronaut and Navy Cdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. He would successfully complete a suborbital space flight lasting 15 minutes and 22 seconds. In doing so he became the second person after Yuri Gagarin to fly into space, and the first American to achieve that feat.

Two months later a second American astronaut would be seated aboard another space­craft, ready to fly a similar mission to that of Shepard in order to consolidate the technical data and crucial physiological information gained from that mission. Apart from modifica­tions to this particular Mercury capsule – as recommended by Shepard following his flight – and a far less crowded flight schedule, this second proving flight would follow basically the same test pattern as that Freedom 7.

Within those two months between the flights, however, much was happening in regard to America’s human space endeavor. Shepard’s flight had truly ignited a nation’s interest in space flight, and it was now time to capitalize on the success and projected future of NASA’s space program, which one day might lead to a human presence on the Moon.

Famously, in his second State of the Union message on 25 May 1961, just 20 days after Shepard’s history-making flight, President John F. Kennedy reported to Congress regarding the space program. “With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council,” he began, “we have examined where we [the United States] are strong and where we are not… Now is the time to take longer strides – time for a great new American enterprise – time for this Nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.”

In his speech, Kennedy set forth the concept of an accelerated space program based on the long-range national goals of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth; the early development of the Rover nuclear rocket; speeding up the use of Earth satellites for worldwide communications; and providing “at the earliest possible time a satellite system for worldwide weather observation.” An additional $549 million in fund­ing was also requested for NASA over the new administration’s March budget requests.

At a crowded press conference held following the President’s call to Congress, NASA Administrator James E. Webb pointed out to media representatives that the long-range and difficult task of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade offered the United States an undeniable chance to overtake and even beat the Soviet Union to this important goal. On 7 June, during an address at George Washington University, a fired-up Webb also stated that the exploration of space was an important part of man’s “driving, relentless, insatiable search for new knowledge.”

Kennedy’s eloquent and challenging speech on 25 May had literally hinged on the suc­cess of Alan Shepard’s flight less than three weeks earlier, but now he was faced with some serious questions: would Congress embrace and not only agree to what he proposed, but supply the enormous necessary funding? The answer to both questions ultimately rested on the persuasive powers of NASA’s highly competitive administrator, who confidently felt the pursuit of funding for the agency’s programs was achievable. He had been keeping recent stock of political winds, and realized that Congress – like the rest of the nation – had been swept up in the euphoria and the opportunities offered by human space exploration, and was in what he called “a runaway mood.”

Webb’s challenge was to come up with the agency’s budget forecast figure for placing an American on the Moon by the end of the decade. According to NASA’s General Counsel Paul Dembling, the initial projections from Webb’s advisors and accountants came in at $10 billion. Dembling was there when Webb scrutinized the numbers. “He said, ‘Come on guys, you’re doing this on the basis that everything’s going to work every time, every place, no matter what you do.’ So they came back with a figure of $13 billion.”

Once again Webb studied the numbers long and hard before making his way up to Capitol Hill bearing that figure. But when he spoke to the politicians he brazenly stated that the program could cost upwards of $20 billion, and that’s what he was requesting. He had applied the old maxim of asking for too much – in this case a whopping $7 billion above the figure his analysts had arrived at – knowing that the enthusiasm of Congress for the space program might soon begin to wane. Webb was right; his ploy worked. He got approval for the money, which would ultimately prove to be very close to the mark by the time the first humans landed on the Moon.

On 22 June, NASA’s Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden sent a letter to Robert S. Kerr, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, dealing with the broad scientific and technological gains to be achieved in landing a man on the Moon and returning him to the Earth. Dr. Dryden pointed out that this difficult goal “has the highly important role of accelerating the development of space science and technology, motivating the scientists and engineers who are engaged in this effort to move forward with urgency, and integrating their efforts in a way that cannot be accomplished by a disconnected series of research investigations in several fields. It is important to realize, however, that the real val­ues and purposes are not in the mere accomplishment of man setting foot on the Moon but rather in the great cooperative national effort in the development of science and technology which is stimulated by this goal.”

Furthermore, Dryden pointed out that “the billions of dollars required in this effort are not spent on the Moon; they are spent in the factories, workshops, and laboratories of our people for salaries, for new materials, and supplies, which in turn represent income for others… The national enterprise involved in the goal of manned lunar landing and return within this decade is an activity of critical impact on the future of this Nation as an indus­trial and military power, and as a leader of a free world.”

Two days after Dr. Dryden’s letter to Robert Kerr, President Kennedy assigned Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson the task of unifying the nation’s communications satellite programs, stressing urgency and the “highest priority” for the public interest.

A further two days along, on 26 June, James Webb spoke for NASA in an interview in the U. S. News and World Report, stating that “the kind of overall space effort that President Kennedy has recommended… will put us there [on the Moon] first.” This achievement, he said, costing “probably toward the $20 billion level… will be most valuable in other parts of our economy.”

The first salvos in the Space Race to the Moon had been fired. The commitment was there; the money to carry out the activities promised by the President had been made avail­able, and the ambitious plans and goals for American space missions had the overwhelm­ing support of the American people. Certainly the Soviet Union had shot a man into orbit, but the flight of Freedom 7 with Alan Shepard onboard had enthralled and galvanized a nation. Even though many doubted that the President’s stated goal of a man on the Moon could be achieved by the end of the decade, the will to do so was there, while the scientific and technological know-how was in place. The push to the Moon would continue.

To paraphrase the words of Alan Shepard, the first ‘baby step’ of his brief suborbital flight had amply demonstrated what was required of NASA and the nation’s astronauts, and now it was time for America to step up to the plate. There was incredible appeal and an outstanding challenge attached to the task that lay before them.

And so, on 21 July 1961, another of the nation’s finest test pilots lined up for his chance at becoming one of NASA’s renowned “star voyagers.” Strapped snugly into his contour couch aboard a spacecraft he had patriotically named Liberty Bell 7, U. S. Air Force Capt. Virgil Ivan (‘Gus’) Grissom was fully trained and ready to follow in Shepard’s pioneering footsteps in order to help to set America on a steady course to the Moon.



By July of 1960 there were close to a hundred McDonnell people employed at the Cape, and things were moving ahead rapidly as the first full-configuration Mercury spacecraft was to be delivered there on 24 July. In order to keep all the spacecraft free from dust or other intruding contamination, the vehicles were all delivered to the Cape in clear plastic sheathing and transported to another clean room within Hangar S. This particular capsule was Spacecraft No. 2, destined to fly on the unmanned MR-1 test flight of the Redstone/capsule combination. Prior to this, Spacecraft No. 4, which had been delivered to the Cape on 23 May, was due to ride an Atlas rocket for the MA-1 proving flight.

The MA-1 spacecraft shell had been loaded with around 200 pounds of sensing instrumentation, installed by NASA Langley. As with the earlier Big Joe launch, there


Langley engineers practice water egress techniques using replica capsules that are surrounded by inflated air bags. (Photos: NASA/Langley Research Center)

was no escape tower attached to the capsule, much to the dismay of the Atlas rocket people who had wanted a complete configuration in order to determine the structural bending modes of the Atlas. However, Max Faget was strongly against installing an escape tower, deeming it unnecessary, and he won out. In the end, the Mercury-Atlas launch turned out to be a disaster, as recorded by Luge Luetjen.

“With the hangar tests completed and the flight instrumentation, parachutes, and pyrotechnics installed, Spacecraft No. 4 (MA-1) was moved to the Atlas complex on July 24, the same day that Spacecraft No. 2 arrived at [Hangar S]. Rainy weather made it difficult to complete preflight checks at the pad and caused delays and much con­sternation for the NASA officials there for the launch.

“The day before the scheduled date for the launch, a group of us, several in rain gear, visited the Atlas pad. The next day, early on the morning of July 29, heavy rain


Boilerplate capsule SC-5 floats in the Gulf of Mexico off the U. S. Navy School of Aviation Medicine, Pensacola, Florida. Assisted by Navy frogmen, Gus Grissom is photographed prac­ticing egress techniques through the top of the mockup capsule. (Photo: NASA)

enveloped the Cape but the cloud ceiling soon rose high enough to be considered acceptable for launch. [John] Yardley and I were invited to be blockhouse observers. Finally, at 9:13 a. m., [NASA Operations Director] Walt Williams gave the OK to launch and the Atlas rose slowly from the launch pad. It pierced the cloud cover in seconds and the initial phases of the launch appeared normal. Then everything went wrong. Speculation had it that the Atlas either exploded or suffered a catastrophic structural failure. Whichever it was, it occurred at about 32,000 feet and a velocity of about 1,400 feet per second. It was indeed a sad day for Mercury!”32

After a thorough examination of all the available evidence and telemetry it was concluded that the Atlas booster had failed in the thin-skin area below the adaptor which joined the spacecraft to the booster. As a result, a stainless steel reinforcing “bellyband” was developed that wrapped around the boosters until later Atlas rockets could be manufactured with a thicker skin incorporated into this critical area.


Completed Mercury spacecraft with protective covering at McDonnell’s St. Louis plant. (Photo: McDonnell Aircraft Corporation)


Human space flight was in its infancy in mid-1961, and whilst many things had been taken into consideration for the comfort and safety of the astronauts, many unusual and unexpected issues would tend to crop up that needed a little additional thought and initiative. One such problem occurred during the flight of Alan Shepard, and it fell to the astronauts’ nurse Dee O’Hara to make a secret shopping trip prior to the flight of Gus Grissom.

When O’Hara first met the Mercury astronauts at the Cape after taking up her duties in Hangar S as the astronauts’ nurse, she understandably felt quite intimidated by the seven pilots and the aura surrounding them, even before the first space shot. But as she got to know the men she not only grew comfortable with them, and vice-versa, she also formed a lasting bond with them and their families. It was a bond based on friendship and mutual trust. She got on well with all of them, but admitted it took quite some time to connect with one of the seven, Gus Grissom.

“The only one I didn’t get to know right away or feel really close to was Gus, for some reason. But Gus was very quiet. I mean, it took time with Gus. The others were… it was almost, I don’t know what to say… just that it didn’t take very long till we reached the stage where we were comfortable. They knew me and, you know, it just evolved. But Gus, you had to kind of work at that one.”

O’Hara was asked if this was a trust thing on the part of Grissom, as she was in the medical profession, which all pilots shunned as much as possible.

“I don’t know, it very well may have been,” she ventured, “because back then there were no women in the [space] business. There was no one in that hangar, except there was an occasional. there were one or two secretaries, and I was not wanted at all by the management of NASA. It was [as if] they didn’t want me out there. It was a total, total male world. You know it was all engineers, and they flat out did not want any nurse up there – let alone a female. I didn’t know a lot of this had gone on; I didn’t know I was not wanted at that point – I had no idea… so I was pretty ignorant of the facts.

“But with Gus, he was just comfortable with other men and other pilots, and maybe it was the medical thing. I have no idea. I guess I never figured that out… but it took a long time, and so many months for him to look me in the eye or ask me for some­thing, whereas the others it was, well it just came very natural. But not with Gus, and I don’t know why.”

Shortly before Grissom’s flight, O’Hara was asked to help resolve a very delicate matter, based on a pre-launch problem involving Alan Shepard. In retrospect, no one seems to have considered the fact that a lengthy delay might have an adverse effect on an astronaut’s bladder, and, as a result, Shepard finally had to urinate in his space suit.

“Well, there were so many delays,” O’Hara recalled of that day. “It hadn’t been a problem until there was a launch delay after delay after delay. Finally poor Alan had been out there for what, four, six hours, and in the end they just said, ‘Hey, go ahead and urinate in your suit.’ And Alan always laughed and said he was the first wetback in space. But then… he had no other choice, and so then they tried to come up with a solution for Gus. That’s when I got sent on a mission for a girdle!”

It was not exactly a top-secret task, but Dee O’Hara was asked if she would make her way into Cocoa Beach and quietly locate an item of women’s apparel that would soon make its way into space.

“At that time they had these god-awful latex girdles, panty girdles, and I had to go in [a shop] and find one that would fit Gus. And I did.” Once there, an unknowing store assistant asked if she could help, and O’Hara said, ‘Well, I need a girdle for a friend.’


Dee O’Hara with Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra. (Photo: NASA)

“The store assistant asked ‘Well, what size is she?’ And I said, ‘Well gee, I don’t know.’ She said, ‘Well they come in all sizes – you have to have some idea some idea what size she wears.’ So I picked out something that I thought might – Boy, if they only knew. So I picked out something I thought that might fit, and fortunately I think it did. Anyway, they used that, fitted out with a condom in order to… in case he needed it.”18


Jim Lewis nursed his helicopter back to the Randolph, later acknowledging he was less concerned about the losing the spacecraft than he was in getting his aircraft and crew back safely to the carrier. After landing, his attention was more focused on the wellbeing of Gus Grissom. Like everyone else, Lewis and Reinhard could only wait anxiously for Upschulte’s helicopter to arrive.

As Don Harter told the author, although the Navy helicopter and its crew had not been needed in the rescue of Gus Grissom, the astronaut still had to be transported over to the safety of the waiting aircraft carrier. “After George Cox had raised Gus into their helicopter we escorted them to the carrier, as their cargo was top priority. By this time Lewis had already landed on the carrier.”25

The second Marine helicopter landed gently on the carrier’s deck at 8:01 a. m., just 41 minutes after Grissom’s Redstone booster had thundered into the Florida skies. Having removed the lifejacket, but still clutching his gloves, a sodden and bewildered Grissom clambered out of the helicopter as soon as it had shut off its engine. The Associated Press reported his first words as, “Give me something to blow my nose. My head is full of water.”

There to greet Grissom and hustle him off to his post-flight debriefing were two military doctors – Navy Cdr. Robert Laning and Army Capt. Jerome Strong. They had both performed the same duty after the recovery of Alan Shepard two months earlier.

Laning and Strong would not only conduct a preliminary medical examination and evaluation of the astronaut, but also guide him in the process of “debriefing,” speaking into a tape recorder and giving his immediate recollections of the flight. The debriefing


As Grissom is helped from the helicopter by George Cox, Drs. Laning and Strong are ready to assist him onto the Randolph’s flight deck. (Photo: NASA)


Still drenched in sea water, Grissom appears to pump his fist at being safely onboard the recovery carrier. (Photo: NASA)

would take place in a quiet, air-conditioned and oak-paneled cabin normally occupied by the Randolph’s skipper, Harry Cook. The cabin included a sitting room, a bedroom, a bath, and a small galley.

Before he had a chance to towel off and change out of his water-soaked space suit, Grissom, still dripping water, received a congratulatory telephone call from a relieved President Kennedy.

“Although we were still in the air at the time, we learned the sailors aboard the Randolph were deeply sad over the loss of the Liberty Bell,” Don Harter recalled. “Especially when they saw the helicopters come back without the capsule. However we were proud to be a part of it – a part of history – and the sailors on board cheered as Grissom exited the recovery helicopter, knowing he was safe as he walked across the flight deck while he was being escorted to the debrief.”26

Despite the passage of more than 50 years, Roger Hiemstra has many memories of the day they welcomed America’s second astronaut onboard, although he admits some things have been forgotten with the passage of time. “I remember quite well, though, that very hot and sunny day. We had been primed for the recovery and were kept up to date over the loud speakers. I recall that the flight deck was full of sailors awaiting the recovery. As I knew it could be a long wait and I wanted to get a good location, I had brought a book with me and was sitting on the deck among everyone waiting it out. I do remember a Look or Life photographer was on board and he came over and took a picture of me reading and asked a couple of questions about what I was doing.


Flanked by Drs. Strong (left) and Laning, Grissom is escorted to the Captain’s quarters for a dry change of clothes and a post-flight debriefing. (Photo: NASA)



The scene from the bridge as Grissom is escorted across to the doorway leading to the quarters of the ship’s Captain. (Photo courtesy of Otto Preske)

“I had brought along my old 8-mm camera to take some film, but a chief petty officer soon saw me with it and made me put it away. We clearly saw the parachute when it came into view (we were prompted over the loud speakers on the progress and where to look) and watched the splashdown even though it was perhaps a half mile or more from the ship. Even I, as an E3 Yeoman, could soon tell something was wrong. We could see that the helicopter [pilot] had clipped onto the capsule and was strug­gling to pull it up – at least it certainly looked like a struggle. As we now know water was pouring in. Then there was what appeared to be a cutaway or breakaway and that helicopter struggled to make it back to the carrier. We were told later that the engine had been just about ruined.

“Then there was action around the second helicopter, which was them pulling in Gus. That chopper made it back to the ship just fine and I can clearly see in my mind Gus walking away from the chopper and into the bowels of the ship through a hatch. He passed by within 20-30 feet of where I was sitting. We (the lower enlisted men) never saw him again and I was so saddened to hear later of his death in the [Apollo 1] fire.”27

Airman Robert (‘Bob’) Bell was also amongst the crowd of spectators gathered on the flight deck of the Randolph for the arrival of astronaut Gus Grissom. “If my mem­ory is correct, I was aft of the number two elevator,” he recalled. “So my view wasn’t all that great. Everyone was kept back from the landing area for both safety reasons and to shield Grissom. He stepped from the recovery helicopter and nearly ran straight to the hatch leading into the island.” Apart from being disappointed at the rapid disap­pearance of the nation’s newest astronaut, Bell believes Grissom was not in a very good mood and still recalls him as being “not at all enlisted-friendly” to the scores of sailors who had gathered on the deck to witness this historic moment. “He may have been upset over the capsule sinking, but he snubbed the sailors on the flight deck and went straight to the officers’ area. Nothing like the pickup of John Glenn a few months later,” Bell added. “Glenn was a great guy. I still have a slip of paper he signed and dated.”28

Another excited onlooker was radarman/seaman apprentice Mike Andrew, who was up early in the morning at his station on the Randolph’s bridge along with Capt. Cook. After several postponements of the Mercury shot, he was not alone in hoping it would all come together that day.

“At the time, I was a seaman apprentice and the CIC radar representative for Capt. Cook,” he explained. “This was my normal station and we were on our fourth mission attempt to retrieve Gus Grissom and his capsule. Lots of volunteers for my station that morning, but no way was I going to miss this – I didn’t know I had that many friends!

“Spirits remained high and the ‘RAND DO – CAN DO’ attitude was in high gear throughout the bridge crew, especially since we had the best seats in the house. The clouds seemed less intrusive than the past days and there was a feeling on the ship’s island that this was the day after three cancelations. For me, at 20 years old, this was a dream of a lifetime, as space flight was the wave of the future and on the carrier’s island I had the best seat in the house.” There was only one disappointment for Mike Andrew. “I forgot my camera!”

The air of expectancy onboard grew when the sailors learned of the successful launch from the Cape. “Not knowing what was going to happen, all we could do was look towards the heavens and keep an eye on the choppers,” Mike Andrew continued. “Each one of us was eager to be the first to sight the capsule. Finally the capsule appears and settles onto a kinda rough Atlantic Ocean. A while later we see a chopper struggling with the capsule. Soon it returns without the capsule which we learned had sunk, but a second chopper had Gus aboard. Our event ended quickly, as once on deck Gus disappeared. I will, however, always remember the smiles and laughter on the bridge that day. High fives hadn’t been invented yet. Then, back to work for all. We had a ship to sail.”29

In watching footage of Grissom’s arrival on the Randolph, one can understand why he did not think to wave at the surrounding hordes of sailors, or even have time to do so. As he stepped down from the helicopter he was immediately book-ended by Laning and Strong, who quickly ushered the chilled astronaut in his sodden suit across to a nearby hatchway at the foot of the bridge island, asking him questions along the way. Unlike Shepard, who had to traverse a considerable distance of the Lake Champlain’s flight deck, and even turn back to retrieve his helmet from inside his spacecraft, a


These two photographs show the recovered parachute canister on the deck of the Randolph. (Photo: NASA)

soaked and miserable Grissom was closely escorted just a few feet to the open hatch­way and disappeared within seconds of planting his feet on deck. Understandably, despite what he had just accomplished, he was not in the best of moods.


The following month the new program had been given a name. On 3 January 1962 NASA announced the two-man spacecraft would be called Gemini, the Latin word for “twins.” This followed a suggestion by Alex P. Nagy from NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight at the agency’s Washington Headquarters, who not only had the distinc­tion of naming the nation’s new space program but also of receiving the associated prize of a bottle of scotch whiskey. Appropriately enough, Gemini was the name given to the third constellation of the zodiac (the sign in astrology that is controlled by Mercury) and comprised of two stars called Castor and Pollux. The Gemini spacecraft


Dr. Robert Gilruth of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. (Photo: NASA)


In preparation for future Apollo lunar missions, all eligible astronauts including Gus Grissom underwent geology training, and he is shown here in the Grand Canyon in 1964. (Photo: NASA)


Part of the fun of astronaut geology training in the Grand Canyon was riding out on mules. (Photo: NASA)

was the same high-drag shape as the Mercury capsule, but with around 50 percent greater interior room.

The first test flight (GLV-1) of a Gemini spacecraft atop a Titan II took place on 8 April 1964, using Launch Complex 19 at Cape Canaveral, and it was a complete suc­cess. The second stage of the Titan II and the attached, uninhabited spacecraft orbited the Earth 64 times, although the official part of the mission ended after only three orbits. As there were no plans to retrieve the spacecraft, the entire assembly of the spacecraft and the upper stage of the booster reentered the atmosphere four days later and burned up over the South Atlantic. All the major mission objectives had been met, principally that of testing the structural integrity of the spacecraft and the modified Titan II booster and proving that the spacecraft was capable of carrying a crew.


Liftoff of the first Gemini-Titan II flight (GLV-1) on 8 April 1964. (Photo: NASA)

As history records, Alan Shepard was actually the original choice to command the first Gemini orbital test flight with co-pilot Tom Stafford, but to his consternation he fell victim to a debilitating inner ear ailment (later diagnosed as Meniere’s disease) which caused him to be medically disqualified from flying in October 1963.

Early in 1964 Missiles and Rockets magazine made a surprise claim. “There are unconfirmed reports that the first Gemini astronaut team will be made up of Virgil (‘Gus’) Grissom and Neal [sic] Armstrong. Grissom is the member of the original Mercury astronaut team who has worked most closely with McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in design and development of the spacecraft. Armstrong has chalked up many flight hours during the X-15 program. Official announcement of the first pilot team is expected around May 1.”2

Grissom had been penciled in to command the fourth manned Gemini flight and the grounding of Shepard caused Deke Slayton (who had himself been grounded before he could make a Mercury flight and, as the newly named deputy director of Flight Crew Operations, was in charge of crew assignments) to promote Gus to the first manned mission, the three-orbit test flight designated Gemini 3. Now a suitable co­pilot was needed to partner him, and Slayton wanted to give flight experience to the nine newly selected astronauts. He subsequently paired them in the first Gemini flights with an experienced astronaut from the Mercury program.

At first the Gemini 3 mission was scheduled for launch in December 1964. Air Force Capt. Frank Borman had recently finished his astronaut training and, like the other eight pilots of the second astronaut group, was wondering when he might be assigned to a Gemini mission and which one it would be. Everyone knew that the Mercury astronauts who would fly as mission commanders on Gemini would have the power to veto any decision that Slayton might make regarding their co-pilot in order to avoid any potential clashes of personality.

It came as an unexpected but welcome surprise when Borman received a phone call one day from Grissom, who told him (although it was yet to be made official) that he, Grissom, had been named by Slayton to command the first manned Gemini mission and Borman had been tentatively assigned as his co-pilot. Grissom wanted to talk over the mission and its requirements before the final crewing decision was made. The two men arranged to meet at his house, and Borman could not get there soon enough. They spent an hour or so deep in conversation and not long after that Borman was informed of a change of crewing that meant Grissom would fly with another member of the Group 2 astronauts.

“I haven’t the slightest idea what went wrong,” Borman later pointed out in his autobiography, “but he apparently wasn’t too impressed with me. The next thing I knew, I had been replaced by John Young, who didn’t try very hard to conceal his delight, for which I couldn’t blame him.”3

To soften Borman’s disappointment at the news, Slayton told him that he would instead be assigned as backup commander of the second mission, with co-pilot Jim Lovell.


USAF Capt. Frank Borman, Group 2 astronaut. (Photo: NASA)

Pilot Virgil I. Grissom’s post-flight Mercury-Redstone (MR-4) report

(References to the accompanying slide presentation deleted)


The second Mercury manned flight was made on July 21, 1961. The flight plan pro­vided a ballistic trajectory having a maximum altitude of 103 nautical miles, a range of 263 nautical miles, and a five-minute period of weightlessness.

The following is a chronological report on the pilot’s activities prior to, during, and after the flight.


The pre-flight period is composed of two distinct areas. The first is the training that has been in progress for the past 2.5 years and which is still in progress. The second area, and the one that assumes the most importance as launch day approaches, is the participation in the day-to-day engineering and testing that applies directly to the spacecraft that is to be flown.

Over the past two years, a great deal of information has been published about the astro­naut training program and the program has been previously described in Reference 1. In the present paper, I intend to comment on only three trainers which I feel have been of the greatest value in preparing me for this flight.

The first trainer that has proven most valuable is the Mercury procedures trainer which is a fixed-base computer-operated flight simulator. There are two of these trainers, one at the NASA-Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and one at the Mercury Control Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. These procedures trainers have been used continuously throughout the program to learn the system operations, to learn emergency operating techniques during system malfunctions, to learn control techniques, and to develop operational procedures between pilot and ground personnel.

During the period preceding the launch, the trainers were used to finalize the flight plan and to gain a high degree of proficiency in flying the mission profile. First, the systems to be checked specifically by the pilot were determined. These were to be the manual propor­tional control system; the rate command control system; attitude control with instruments as a reference; attitude control with the Earth-sky horizon as a reference; the UHF, HF, and emergency voice communications systems; and the manual retro-fire override. The proce­dures trainer was then used to establish an orderly sequence of accomplishing these tasks. The pilot functions were tried and modified a great number of times before a satisfactory sequence was determined. After the flight plan was established, it was practiced until each phase and time was memorized. During this phase of training, there was a tendency to add more tasks to the mission flight plan as proficiency was gained. Even though the MR-4 flight plan contained less pilot functions than the MR-3 flight plan, I found that the view out the window, which cannot be simulated, distracted me from the less important tasks and often caused me to fall behind the planned program. The only time this distraction concerned me was prior to retro-fire; at other times, I felt that looking out the window was of greater importance than some of the planned menial tasks. In spite of this pleasant dis­traction, all tasks were accomplished with the exception of visual control of retro-fire.

The second trainer that was of great value and one that I wish had been more readily available prior to launch was the air-lubricated free-attitude (ALFA) trainer at the NASA – Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. This trainer provided the only training in visual control of the spacecraft. I had intended to use the Earth-sky horizon as my primary means of attitude control and had spent a number of hours on the ALFA trainer practicing retro-fire using the horizon as a reference. Because of the rush of events at Cape Canaveral during the two weeks prior to launch, I was unable to use this trainer. I felt this probably had some bearing on my instinctive switch to instruments for retro-fire during the flight, instead of using the horizon as a reference.

The third training device that was of great value was the Johnsville human centrifuge. With this device, we learned to control the spacecraft during the accelerations imposed by launch and reentry and learned muscle control to aid blood circulation and respiration in the acceleration environment. The acceleration buildup during the flight was considerably smoother than that experienced on the centrifuge and probably for this reason and for obvious psychological reasons, the g-forces were much easier to withstand during the flight than during the training missions.

One other phenomenon that was experienced on the centrifuge proved to be of great value during the flight. Quite often, as the centrifuge changed rapidly from a g-level, a false tumbling sensation was encountered. This became a common and expected sensation and when the same thing occurred at launch vehicle cutoff, it was in no way disturbing. A quick glance at my instruments convinced me that I, indeed, was not tumbling.

The pilot’s confidence comes from all the foregoing training methods and many other areas, but the real confidence comes from participation in the day-to-day engineering deci­sions and testing that occur during the pre-flight check-out at Cape Canaveral. It was dur­ing this time that I learned the particular idiosyncrasies of the spacecraft I was to fly. A great deal of time had already been spent in learning both normal and emergency system operations. But during the testing at the pre-flight complex and at the launching pad, I learned all the differences between this spacecraft and the simulator that had been used for training. I learned the various noises and vibrations that are connected with the operation of the systems. This was the time that I really began to feel at home in this cockpit. This training was very beneficial on launch day because I felt that I knew this spacecraft and what it would do, and having spent so much time in the cockpit I felt it was normal to be there.

As a group, we astronauts feel that after the spacecraft arrives at the Cape, our time is best spent in participating in spacecraft activities. This causes some conflict in training, since predicting the time test runs of the pre-flight checkouts will start or end is a mystic art that is understood by few and is unreliable at its best. Quite frequently this causes train­ing sessions to be cancelled or delayed, but it should be of no great concern since most of the training has been accomplished prior to this time. The use of the trainers during this period is primarily to keep performance at a peak and the time required will vary from pilot to pilot.

At the time the spacecraft is moved from the pre-flight complex to the launching pad, practically all training stops. From this time on, I was at the pad full time participating in or observing every test that was made on the spacecraft – launch-vehicle combination. Here, I became familiar with the launch procedure and grew to know and respect the launch crew. I gained confidence in their professional approach to and execution of the pre-launch tests.

Creating a Mercury capsule

On Sunday, 16 July 1939, noted scientist Albert Einstein famously sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to explore nuclear weaponry and, as a result, established the United States on the road to the creation of the first atomic weapons ever used to devastating effect in a military conflict.

That very same day an industrial giant was also created when the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was founded by James Smith McDonnell. Based in St. Louis, Missouri with a startup work force of just thirteen, including McDonnell, it eventually became a leading American aerospace company best known for developing and build­ing some of the finest and most potent fighter jets ever to take to the skies, including the legendary and long-serving F4 Phantom. To those early workers, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation became more simply known to them by the acronym MAC, and its founder – understandably, and fondly – as Mr. Mac.

Many years later, when McDonnell Douglas merged with the Boeing Company, a new advertising motto was adopted: “Forever New Frontiers.” Those three words not only envisaged an exciting future in aviation, but reflected back most appropriately to the glory days of the McDonnell organization.


Meanwhile, following completion of the Capsule Systems Test (CST) at St. Louis, Spacecraft No. 2 was shipped to Huntsville, Alabama where it was test-mated with the booster allocated to the MR-1 mission to ensure complete compatibility between the two. After these checks the spacecraft was airlifted to the Cape, being delivered to Hangar S on 24 July. Here it would be installed within a room-sized, protective air – filtered plastic tent. This temporary facility was nowhere near the standard of the McDonnell ‘clean room,’ but it went a long way towards keeping the dust and other unwanted elements at bay.

As McDonnell design engineer Jerry Roberts explains, there was essentially unlim­ited access to the spacecraft at this stage, which allowed a little surreptitious activity for those seeking space-flown souvenirs.

“We had access to the spacecraft all the time in Hangar S. On nights when we worked the night shift we would take advantage of this access to curl up and fold dollar bills that everyone including some astronauts had signed into the spacecraft’s


With the seven Mercury astronauts watching from a bunker, an Atlas D launched into rain-soaked skies carrying the first production model of the Mercury capsule for the planned suborbital MA-1 flight. However, the Atlas exploded and disintegrated 58 seconds after liftoff. The jettisoned capsule hit the sea and was recovered, albeit extensively damaged. (Photo: NASA)

cabling, and then we’d lace the cabling back up and tape it all up out of sight. It was a pretty big deal to put something in the spacecraft and have it flown in space. The idea was for the bills to fly in space and then we would recover them when we checked out the spacecraft after the flight. Sometimes this happened, but other times we didn’t get access to the spacecraft after the flight, and so to my knowledge those bills are prob­ably still in those spacecraft wherever they are located today.”33

Early September 1960 would prove to be a time for greater optimism in the Mercury program. The testing of Spacecraft No. 2 in the Cape’s Hangar S was progressing well, and Spacecraft No. 6 had been delivered. It would be flown in February the fol­lowing year on the first “bellyband” Atlas (67D) flight, as another unmanned test launch and recovery operation designated MA-2.


The badly damaged MA-1 capsule. (Photo: NASA)

The Hangar S work schedule included the installation of parachutes and pyrotech­nics, following which the fully equipped Spacecraft No. 2 was transported to the pad on 26 September. The Redstone booster had arrived earlier, been erected, and was now enclosed in the gantry (or service structure) which – as for all of the Redstone launch complexes – was basically a converted oil well rig. From the time of mating with the booster through to the scheduled launch date of 7 November, everything seemed to progress smoothly and few problems were encountered.

That month, the general training of the seven astronauts also narrowed and became far more concentrated on flying the first Mercury-Redstone missions.


A cutaway diagram of the Mercury spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)


The MR-4 instrument panel. (Photo: NASA)

The MR-1 launch did not proceed on 7 November as planned, because the helium pressure in the spacecraft’s control system dropped below the acceptable level. “A leak in the system, unfortunately under the heat shield, was obvious, and as a result the launch was scrubbed,” Luetjen explained. “The spacecraft was removed from the booster and the heat shield dropped to expose the culprit, a leaky relief valve.”34 The faulty valve was replaced, along with a hydrogen peroxide tank, and a minor wiring change was also made in response to an earlier test at Wallops Island. The fol­lowing day, as the spacecraft was undergoing repairs, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected as the 35th President of the United States.

The MR-1 launch was rescheduled for 21 November and the countdown went well, apart from a short hold in order to fix a small leak in the hydrogen peroxide system. Ignition occurred at 9:00 a. m. and a mighty roar ripped across the Cape – but only momentarily. It was replaced by a sudden and unexpected silence. From behind his console in the blockhouse, Luetjen could only wonder what had gone wrong.

“Watching from the windows of the blockhouse, John Glenn and the Mercury dig­nitaries saw the booster wobble slightly on its pedestal and settle back on its fins after an inch or so rise. The booster engine shut down and the escape tower zipped up nearly a mile high and landed some 400 yards from the launch site. Three seconds after the escape rocket blew, the drogue package shot upward, followed in succession by the main and reserve parachutes, all of which fluttered down alongside the booster.

“After John Glenn witnessed the tower take off, he came running back to my con­sole and said, ‘My God, Luge, the tower went!’ I had no appropriate answer, nor was John really expecting one. He was simply frustrated, as we all were.”35

Two days later Robert Gilruth issued a memorandum addressed to all Mercury personnel.

“Today I received the following TWX [teletype writer exchange] from the NASA Administrator: ‘As disappointed as I am in the results of yesterday’s shot, I know how discouraging these troubles are to you and your fine staff. Please try to close your ears to the press comments and know that there is no lack of faith in your ability to succeed in this effort. Now is the time for real driving leadership so grit your teeth and dig in. We are solidly behind you and your outfit. Signed, T. Keith Glennan, Administrator.’ “I should like to express to the NASA and MAC staff my wholehearted agreement with the above sentiment, and my pleasure at the very fine and unstinting effort I have observed in the work here. I have every confidence that the program is sound. The recent occurrence in the MR launch attempt merely emphasizes the importance of the early flight test program in uncovering these problems which can be identified only by bringing together all the various elements of the flight system in a real exercise. [Signed] Robert R. Gilruth, Director of Project Mercury.”36

The rocket was defueled and the remaining pyrotechnics carefully disarmed, but the fins had been damaged during the launch fiasco and the entire Redstone had to be replaced by another. Engineers tracked down the cause of the problem; they found a ‘sneak circuit’ in the booster ground cabling that caused an erroneous cutoff signal. Fortunately Spacecraft No. 2 was found to have come through the incident relatively undamaged and could be easily recycled. Within a week, plans were well under way for a replacement MR-1A mission using a substituted Redstone booster (MRLV-3), originally slated for the MR-3 mission. The spacecraft was fitted with the escape tower from Spacecraft No. 8 and the antenna fairing from Spacecraft No. 10.

Once the MR-1A spacecraft had been worked over at Hangar S and three verifica­tion tests completed, it was mated with the Redstone booster at Pad 5 on 9 December, with the launch set for ten days later. On the morning of 19 December, with all seven Mercury astronauts anxiously looking on, there was a 40-minute delay in the count­down caused by strong winds. And then a hydrogen peroxide solenoid valve had to be replaced, necessitating a 1-hour recycle of the countdown. Finally, at 11:15 a. m., lift­off occurred.

“This time there were no glitches,” Luetjen recalled. The 83-foot Mercury-Redstone assembly was cheered on… as it lifted off and burned brightly for 143 seconds before normal cutoff.”37

The mission was totally successful, with the Mercury spacecraft reaching an alti­tude of 130 miles and a range of 235 miles. The Redstone reached a slightly higher velocity than expected of 4,909 miles per hour, but this had no great impact on the overall mission. Spacecraft No. 2 was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean by recovery helicopters. “The spacecraft performed perfectly and the mission was a complete suc­cess,” Luetjen said in summing up the flight. “Exuberance reigned supreme!”38

The MR-1A test flight had now verified the operation of the Mercury system in the space environment. At a news conference held early in 1961, Robert Gilruth praised the efforts that had gone into the creation of the Mercury spacecraft.

“In October of 1958 the Mercury vehicle was only a concept,” he reported. “In two years this concept has been translated into facilities, trained teams, and flight hard­ware, and it is now, in two-plus years, in the initial phases of production test flights.

“This was an unusual and complex task. It required an integration of missile tech­nology with the manned flight requirements. It involved an unprecedented cooperative effort between the military and civilians, and with foreign countries.

“It involved the building of a new technical know-how; that is, manned vehicle design and flight test methods, aeronautical unknowns, worldwide tracking and communications, and the development of industrial production and operational capability.”39

Most importantly of all, it had involved the tremendous work and dedication of Robert Gilruth.