Category Liberty Bell 7


This book owes much to those who so willingly assisted in its compilation. In virtually every instance, my request for information or material to quote was met with a positive response.

Sincere thanks are therefore extended to helpers and participants Mike Andrew, John Barteluce, Bob Bell, Rick Boos, Lou Chinal, Dean Conger, Kate Doolan, Lowell Grissom, Donald Harter, Thomas Henderson, Ed Hengeveld, Roger Hiemstra, Jerry Holman (Materium Brush Beryllium and Composites), Philip Kempland, Dale Kreitner, James Lewis, H. H. (Luge) Luetjen, Dr. Robert H. Moser, Lawrence (Larry) McGlynn, Earl Mullins, Otto Preske, Eddie Pugh, Earl Robb, Jerry Roberts, Scott Sacknoff (Quest maga­zine), Ross Smith, Cameron Stark, Charles Tynan, Jr., and Charlie Walker. As well, Dianne Blick, Jim Remar and Shannon Whetzel from the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center were of wonderful assistance in locating and supplying rare illustrative material. Other photographs came from two sources, both of whom have – as always – helped out by pro­viding me with clear, high-resolution images; J. L. Pickering of Retro Space Images (www. retrospaceimages. com), and Joachim Becker at Spacefacts (www. spacefacts. de). Special thanks to the man who located and salvaged the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, Curt Newport, for his interest in – and much appreciated help with – this book.

One of the greatest and long-serving resources of all has been the amazing and immensely popular website, collectSPACE (www. collectspace. com) , under the inspira­tional and erudite administration of Robert Pearlman. Robert, and the wonderfully eclec­tic, knowledgeable band of space enthusiasts who are contributors in many ways to this space website (a daily imperative) have always proved of immense and trustworthy assis­tance to me, and I am continually grateful to Robert for his dedication and 24/7 input into this website and to the ongoing saga of space exploration.

Keith Scala deserves special mention for contributing so readily to this book. In seeking information for this book I came across an article written by Keith for the quarterly space­flight magazine, Quest. Published in the spring of 2000, his article “The Future of Liberty Bell 7” was so well constructed and written that I asked him if he would be willing to update the article for inclusion in this book. Happily, he has done so, and I am grateful for his superb contribution.

There were also those who were involved in the editing and production of this book. Endless thanks once again to my esteemed editor for this and past books, David M. Harland. A gifted spaceflight author in his own right, he not only completed a monumental effort in both editing this book and weeding out some pesky errors, but went out of his way and job description to ensure that it went through the production process when problems arose. To a friend of so many decades, Francis French, continuing thanks for going through the draft manuscript as a final check of the facts and my often poor understanding of cer­tain Americanese.

My ongoing appreciation to Clive Horwood and his team from Praxis in England for their support of my past, current and future work, and to Maury Solomon, Editor of Physics and Astronomy, and Assistant Editor Nora Rawn, both at Springer in New York. I recently had the great pleasure of meeting and personally thanking Jim Wilkie, who always provides bril­liant cover artwork for my books. He is a genius at what he does.

If I have missed thanking anyone associated with this work, please forgive me, but kindly accept my sincere appreciation for helping me to put together this story of an extraordinary man on an amazing, pioneering space mission in an outstanding Mercury spacecraft he called Liberty Bell 7.


On Thursday, 29 June, NASA said there were tentative plans to launch the MR-4 mis­sion on a downrange suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral during the week of 16 July. They said the name of the chosen astronaut would be revealed on Monday, but everyone expected the pilot to be John Glenn, with Grissom on the third flight. NASA also revealed that it had originally planned to launch the second Redstone rocket and capsule just six weeks after Shepard’s flight. However it was forced to delay these plans because of changes made in the capsule in response to Shepard’s recommenda­tions. The bulletin stated that it was expected that the astronaut on this flight would have fewer tasks to perform, and have more time available for Earth observation.

On 10 July Grissom was an interested spectator at a demonstration of the explosive hatch, held at the Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex. It was identical to the one installed in Liberty Bell 7. Harry Lutz from McDonnell was the pyrotechnic engineer in charge of the test. Once everything was ready, the spectators moved off a safe dis­tance and the explosive material was detonated by means of pulling on a long lanyard attached to the T-shaped exterior initiator. The hatch blew as planned and the test was deemed a complete success. Grissom went away satisfied this system would work well on the actual flight.


Technicians prepare to test the explosive hatch system. (Photo courtesy of Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)



The hatch is ready to be tested. (Photo courtesy of Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)



McDonnell’s Ralph Gendielle (at right) examines a hatch bolt after the test. Partly obscured behind him is John Yardley. (Photo courtesy Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)

The following day NASA reported that the flight would likely be set for 18 July, but the space agency declined any further comment on the identity of the astronaut. They said they would reveal the name of the chosen astronaut on Monday, 24 hours ahead of the launch. Then, on 15 July, and to the surprise of many, Robert Gilruth finally confirmed to reporters that Grissom would be the prime pilot for the MR-4 mission, with Glenn acting as his backup. It was also announced that Grissom had chosen the call-sign Liberty Bell 7 for his spacecraft, and an engineer had stenciled the name in white paint onto the side of the capsule.

“One of the less vital problems I had was figuring out a name and an insignia for the capsule,” Grissom later revealed. “As the pilot, I had the prerogative of thinking up a name. I decided on Liberty Bell, because the capsule does resemble a bell. John Glenn felt that the symbolic number ‘seven’ should appear on all our capsules – in honor of the team – so this was added. Then one of the engineers got the bright idea


The hatch, still attached as planned to the door sill, rests on the ground. (Photo courtesy Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center)


Grissom inspects the results of the hatch test. (Still from Spacecraft Films Project Mercury film set)

A girdle around the world 85

that we ought to dress Liberty Bell up by painting a crack on it just like the crack on the real one. No one seemed quite sure what the crack looked like, so we copied it from the ‘tails’ side of a fifty-cent piece.”16

Interestingly, Jerry Ter Horst of the North American Newspaper Alliance later claimed that the choice of Grissom as prime pilot for the MR-4 mission over John Glenn was the result of what he called “the Air Force factor.” As Ter Horst stated, this hint of inter-service rivalry for space flight honors came to him “unofficially and pri­vately” from NASA sources.

“According to the sources, Capt. Grissom was destined to be chosen over Marine Lt. Col. Glenn of Arlington, Virginia, because of the Air Force’s primary interest in space and because the Navy already has an astronaut in Cdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., who made the May 5 flight.

“‘Gus’ Grissom, 35, is one of three astronauts from the Air Force. Col. Glenn, 40, is the only Marine astronaut. The Marine Corps, however, is actually a part of the Navy. Three of the astronauts, including Cdr. Shepard, are Navy pilots. None of the seven is an Army man.

“‘All things being equal in their personal readiness and training for this shot, the choice of Grissom over Glenn was indicated because of the Air Force factor,’ one source said privately. ‘Imagine how the Air Force would feel if it missed out on the first two flights,’ said another.

“There has been no hint of inter-service rivalry among the astronauts, who have lived and worked together as an inseparable team for two years. Officially, NASA has played down their basic membership in the armed forces because of the civilian nature of this country’s space program. Col. Glenn had been presumed in line for the first trip, but the nod went to Cdr. Shepard. Col. Glenn became his ‘backup’ man. Col. Glenn then became the seeded choice for the second manned flight into space. Capt. Grissom, from Mitchell, Indiana, apparently has been the secret NASA choice for several weeks – with full knowledge of the other astronauts.

“Sources also said that astronaut No. 3 will not necessarily be Col. Glenn. The ‘top three’ selection was only for the first two flights, it was said, and all seven astronauts will be in the running for subsequent flights – including Cdr. Shepard and Capt. Grissom.”17

On the Friday evening before flight week, Grissom attended a meeting on the pre­paredness of the Redstone and discussed some minor problems in loading liquid oxygen into the rocket. At the end of the meeting he admonished everyone to leave well enough alone by saying, “Don’t anybody fiddle with it over the weekend.” He then flew home to spend a few final hours with his family before returning to the Cape on Sunday.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


While at Mitchell High School, Grissom completed a year of pre-cadet training in the U. S. Army Air Corps, which he found most enjoyable. By this time his interest in aviation had taken a deeper hold, and he took on summer casual work in order to pay for brief flights in barnstorming airplanes at nearby Bedford airport, Indiana. A local attorney who owned a small aircraft would often take him on flights for a one dollar fee and taught him the basics of flying.

Grissom picked up the nickname ‘Gus’ during a card game when someone saw the abbreviated name on an upside-down score card and mistakenly translated it to “Gus.” Before long, Grissom’s friends also began calling him Gus, and it stuck. But he will always be known as Virgil to the people in his hometown in Mitchell.

World War II broke out while Grissom was still in high school, and he was eager to enlist upon graduation. On 8 August 1944 – Betty’s seventeenth birthday – he was inducted into the Army Air Forces at Fort Benjamin Harrison, with the expressed desire of becoming a pilot. He was subsequently ordered to Sheppard Air Force Base (AFB) in Wichita Falls, Texas, for five weeks of basic training. Then he was assigned to Brooks Field in San Antonio, where, to his extreme disappointment, he spent his days behind a desk as a lowly clerk.

Grissom took some short leave and on 6 July 1945, while still in his teens, he and Betty were married in the First Baptist Church in Mitchell. He then returned to the Air Force while Betty remained in Mitchell, working at the Reliance Manufacturing Company making shirts for the Navy. Soon after, Japan capitulated and the Second


Newlyweds Gus and Betty Grissom. (Photo: World Book Science Service)

World War came to an end. Dispirited with the lack of flight training within the Air Force, Grissom left the service in November 1945 with the rank of corporal and took up a job fitting out school buses in Mitchell’s Carpenter Body Works, but it was the kind of mundane and repetitive work he hated. Deciding to become a mechanical engineering student, he enrolled at Purdue University, Indiana under the G. I. Bill in September 1946. He and Betty took a small apartment near the campus, and while Betty worked as a long-distance telephone operator to help pay the bills, he found some after-class work as a short-order cook “frying hamburgers for 30 hours a week.”6 Fortunately he found his studies absorbing and to his liking, and he graduated with his bachelor of science degree in February 1950.

He had contemplated entering private industry at this stage of his life, but when the Korean war broke out Grissom decided to re-enlist in the Air Force and was assigned to Randolph AFB, Texas as an aviation cadet. On 16 May 1950, he and Betty wel­comed their son Scott into the world. In September Grissom graduated from basic flight training and was sent to Williams AFB in Phoenix, Arizona for more advanced training. He received his wings and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in March 1951. In December of that year he was shipped off to the conflict in Korea to fly North American F-86 Sabre jets with the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.


2nd Lieutenant Grissom after receiving his wings in March 1951. (Photo: Carl L. Chappell)

Six months after his arrival in South Korea Grissom had reached the 100-mission mark and was promoted to 1st lieutenant. He was eager to fly another 25 missions, but his request for an extension was refused and he returned home having earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with cluster. After a period in Flight Instructor School he was designated as a flight instructor at Bryan AFB, Texas. On 30 December 1954 he and Betty completed their family with the birth of second son, Mark. The following year Grissom was assigned a place at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, to study aeronautical engineering. He then won an assignment to the prestigious and highly prized Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California, checking out advanced-design fighter airplanes.


Also facing a barrage of questions from reporters that day was the youngest sibling of the Grissom family, 27-year-old Lowell from St. Louis, Missouri, who worked as a systems analyst for the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, the firm which had made the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft. He had watched his brother’s successful shot from their St. Louis living room with his wife Bobette, and said that they had finally been able to relax for the first time in fifteen days. “We’re greatly relieved,” he stated. “One more postponement was about all we would have needed.”

Lowell disclosed that his brother had told him by phone fifteen days earlier that he would be the pilot for the next mission, well before the public announcement of Gus’s selection. “I couldn’t tell anyone that Gus would be the pilot,” he said. He also revealed that some top McDonnell officials knew his brother had been named, “but they weren’t talking about it.”

Lowell and Bobette said they only slept “on and off” during the night and were up around 5:00 a. m., “long before the alarm went off.” He said that once the Redstone rose from the launch pad safely he was confident everything would go well. His wife said, “I was really shaken up when they said they had lost voice contact for a time. I suppose Lowell was too, but we weren’t doing much talking during the shot.”

Lowell declined firmly, but politely, to permit newsmen and photographers into their suburban apartment during the space shot, but admitted them once his brother was in the recovery area and ready to be hoisted aboard the helicopter. They were obviously worn down by the two postponements.

“If Gus can stand it, so can we,” Bobette said.3

In Newport News, Virginia, a proud but relieved Betty Moore Grissom said she was “happy” her husband’s flight was a success. “But I’m so sorry the capsule was lost,” she remarked.

In her memoir Starfall, it was revealed that even though Betty knew Gus’s craft had been lost she had no idea how close she had come to losing him. “I didn’t have time to worry if he was safe,” she explained. “The first thing that went through my head was: I hope he didn’t do anything wrong. It was going through my mind, that probably was how the news people would write it. I knew if he had made a mistake he would never forgive himself. My second worry was now I had to go out and meet the press.”

“I’ve always known it would be a success,” she told a dozen newsmen several min­utes later on the lawn of her home, perched on the bank of a small lake, perhaps with more confidence than she felt at that moment. Together with their two sons, Scott, 11, and Mark, 7, and with the wives of her husband’s fellow astronauts Deke Slayton, Scott Carpenter and Walter Schirra there to support her, Betty had watched as the dramas unfolded on their television set. She had emerged from her home with Scott


Lowell and Bobette Grissom. Lowell was an engineer at the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation where Liberty Bell 7 was constructed. (Photo: Associated Press)

and Mark shortly after her husband was safely aboard the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. Wearing a light blue dress and a blue and white striped jacket, she was smiling and animated throughout the interview. “We achieved a first today – the boys and I talked by telephone to Gus as he lay flat on his back in the capsule before it was launched. He said if we stopped talking he could go to sleep,” she laughed.

How did the boys feel about their father’s achievement that day?

“Scott clapped his hands when the rocket went up,” Betty said.

“And I whistled too,” Scott remarked, then added he would have liked to have been with his father on the flight.

Responding to one question, Betty said that “the last two seconds before liftoff” were the most concerning moments for her. Asked if she prayed during the flight, she said, “certainly.” She was also asked if she would like for her husband to be the first astronaut to make an orbital flight. “I think I would, because he would,” she dutifully replied.


Betty Grissom at their Newport News home with sons Scott (left) and Mark. (Photo: Associated Press)

When asked about the last time she had seen her husband, Betty replied that she last saw him two weeks before the flight, but had talked to him by telephone daily during that time. “I hope he calls me when he reaches Grand Bahama Island,” she added.

Did she wish her husband was in a less strenuous occupation?

“I’ve always left it up to him to decide what to do,” was her considered response. Space flights were important she observed, but said she “will leave them to Gus and the boys.”

Did her sons wish to follow in their father’s footsteps? She said both boys would probably become pilots.

Finishing up the interview, Betty said, “Now I can rest for a few days and get back to normal.” She planned to spend the remainder of that day “watching television and answering the telephone.”

“And I’ll go swimming,” Scott chimed in. Betty would later state that her interview with the newsmen was “much worse than watching the flight on television.”4


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.



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