Category Liberty Bell 7

Liberty Bell 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberty Bell 7

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

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

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

Lowell Grissom Mitchell, Indiana March, 2013


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

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

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

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

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


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


Hangar S at Cape Canaveral. (Photo: NASA)

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Curt Newport is not one to let the grass grow under his feet. Since the recovery of Liberty Bell 7 he has been involved in a number of enterprises and recoveries. These include the recovery of Blackhawk helicopter 221 off Fiji; the Australian Navy’s Remora Submarine Rescue System near Fremantle, Western Australia; the search for Air France 447 out of Natal, Brazil; and locating an E-2C Hawkeye (Bluetail 601) in the Arabian Sea and an AV-8 Harrier in the Gulf of Aden. More recently there was a


Curt Newport talks to reporters on the dock at Port Canaveral. (NASA-KSC, Photo ID KSC-99PP-1030)


Former McDonnell pad leader Guenter Wendt (left) and Lowell Grissom view the salvaged spacecraft. (Photo: Kansas Center and Space Center)

Republic of China Air Force F-16 fighter that went down in the Taiwan Straits and a highly classified mission which, unfortunately, no one will ever know about.

“People never know much about my ‘real job,’” he muses, “and based on Liberty Bell 7, the Indianapolis, or the Belgrano, probably believe I’ve had few successes. But in reality, most of the search and recovery operations I’ve supported have been suc­cessfully completed. It helps to have the government’s money to do them right; most of these historic project are always done cutting corners to save money and that is while many of them fail.”25

In concluding the recovery story, Curt Newport asked to make one final comment. “In the end, after the dust settled, it was good to be proven right and everyone else wrong. It simply came down to the fact that no one else knew what I knew because they had not read all the documents, done the underwater work in the ocean, and sim­ply thought of a way to do it. There was never any question in my mind that it could be done. All we needed was the will to do it, the right equipment, people, and of course, the money.

“The only bad taste in my mouth about this thing is that NASA, as an agency, never said an official word to me after the recovery, unlike Jeff Bezos’ F-1 engine salvage [in 2013]. I did receive a couple of nice letters from George Abbey (JSC) and Art Stephenson (Marshall Space Flight Center), but that was only because they knew me and recognized how much work I did. But NASA? Never a word. I think they simply regarded the capsule’s loss as an embarrassment, even after 38 years.”26


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.


To assist in astronaut water survival and egress training, McDonnell supplied NASA with a full-size boilerplate Mercury capsule designated Unit SC-5. The first phase of this crucial training program took place in February 1960 at the Langley Flight Research Center’s hydrodynamic basin – an open tank of fresh water 2,200 feet long by just 8 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Each of the astronauts, dressed in regular flight suits, had to make several egresses through the top end of the floating capsule in both still water and simulated waves.


While assembling a Little Joe craft a workman tapes a signed $20 bill to the inside of the capsule as a souvenir of the flight. (Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center)


Navy crewmen maneuver a huge net alongside the salvage ship USS Preserver (ARS-8) to retrieve the unmanned Little Joe 1-B capsule five miles off the coast of Wallops Island. (Photo: NASA)



During impact studies conducted in Virginia’s Back River, the astronauts practiced the dangerous maneuver of exiting a floating spacecraft after splashdown. (Photo: NASA)

The second phase of this training began two months later in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore from the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. Wearing astronaut-style flight pressure suits, the men now had to practice egress techniques which involved clambering out of their couches and making their way up through the top of the mockup spacecraft. They also had to practice egress methods from the open side hatch, all the while supported by Navy frogmen.

The third phase of this training commenced in August 1960 back at Langley. On this occasion the boilerplate SC-5 was fully submerged in the center’s hydrodynamic basin and each astronaut now had to egress the capsule six times – thrice wearing flight suits and thrice again wearing flight pressure suits.


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.


As the drama continued to unfold, it was being captured on film by photographers aboard a second Navy helicopter, whose pilot had been instructed to remain well clear of the recovery area. Their dramatic images caught Grissom wallowing in the ocean swell. Every so often, the powerful down draft from the helicopters would momentarily force him below the surface of the water, and then he would bob up again like a cork.

Donald Harter from Columbus, Ohio recalls that day as one filled with many emo­tions. He was a DC2 (Damage Control, 2nd Class Petty Officer) temporarily assigned to the rescue/recovery team aboard the USS Randolph, and was aboard Navy Sikorsky HSS-1 N No. 52 from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron HS-7 (“The Big Dippers”). Positioned in the helicopter’s doorway, he witnessed the drama below from close hand.

“I had trained in astronaut recovery previously,” he reflected. “The protocol was to always have two helicopters involved in the recovery of the astronaut and the capsule. There was another helicopter in the area filled with photographers, but they had been warned to keep well away from the recovery effort.


John Reinhard begins to lower a horse-collar rescue sling down to Grissom before the crew’s attempt to raise him was aborted. (Photo: NASA)

“When Lewis notified that he was returning to the carrier because of possible engine failure, we were dispatched as part of the two-aircraft protocol to assist Upschulte and Cox if necessary. If something unforeseen were to happen, we had recovery gear on board; in fact all the helicopters aboard the carrier had winches on the open side door and safety harnesses.”18


Taken from a high-level recovery airplane this photo shows Lewis’s helicopter trying to raise Liberty Bell 7 while Upschulte approaches Grissom from behind. They are flanked by a Navy support helicopter and (nearest the camera) the photographic helicopter. (Photo: NASA)

Grissom, now struggling to keep his head above water, noticed with alacrity the photographic helicopter in the distance, and would later recall that “I could see two guys standing in the door with what looked like chest packs strapped around them. A third guy was taking pictures of me through a window.” Unbeknownst to them, the photographers might very well have been recording on film the last desperate moments of astronaut Gus Grissom, for as he revealed in We Seven he was now in a fierce struggle just to stay afloat. Flailing about in the water, he knew he could not last much longer.

“At this point the waves were leaping over my head,” he wrote. “I was floating lower and lower in the water. I had to swim hard just to keep my head up. I thought to myself, ‘Well, you’ve gone right through the whole flight, and now you’re going to sink right here in front of all these people.’”19

Grissom then saw to his relief that the backup helicopter was moving in towards him, dragging a horse-collar sling across the surface chop of the water. He was still in danger of drowning, however, since the rotor wash of the two rescue helicopters and the weight of his waterlogged space suit meant that he could not reach the sling, now about 20 feet away.

Sensing Grissom’s problem, Phil Upschulte flew a little further forward, dragging the horse collar right up to the astronaut, who was also swimming towards the sling. Despite his fatigue, Grissom looked up and saw the familiar face of George Cox lean­ing out of the doorway. The Marine pilot had earlier been involved in successful ocean recoveries of both Alan Shepard and the chimpanzee Ham. “As soon as I saw Cox, I thought, ‘I’ve got it made,’” Grissom later reflected. Now close to complete physical exhaustion, he was able to grab hold of the lifesaving collar. “I had a hard time getting it on,” he reported at his post-flight technical debriefing, “but I finally got into it.


Upschulte and Cox finally retrieve an exhausted Grissom from the ocean. (Photo: NASA)

A few waves were breaking over my head and I was swallowing water.” In fact, he was so exhausted that he could do little more than pass his arms through the life­saving collar, not caring that it was on backwards, and hang from it.

By this time Grissom had been swimming or floating in the choppy seas for four or five minutes, “although it seemed like an eternity to me,” he reflected later. In a depar­ture from procedure, he was dragged 15 feet through the water prior to being hoisted into the air with water streaming from his space suit until he was able to be assisted into the cabin of the helicopter.20

Don Harter, watching from nearby Navy helicopter No. 52 remembers the scene well. “We arrived just before [George] Cox had lowered their harness to Gus. We backed off so as not to prop-wash Gus, and let Cox complete the recovery, but still near enough to give assistance. Gus had to swim for the horse collar, with swells going over his head. The NASA helicopter with the photographers who had been waving at Gus while he was trying to stay alive left and returned to the carrier.”21

Prior to a waterlogged Grissom being hoisted into Upschulte’s helicopter, Jim Lewis had been faced with an incredibly difficult decision.

“I was pointed into the wind at this stage and the backup helicopter was behind me, also pointing into the wind to give added lift, so I could no longer see Gus. But as we had communication between aircraft, the pilot of the backup craft let me know when he had Gus aboard. Gus was safely aboard and on his way to the Randolph in less than four minutes after the hatch blew on Liberty Bell 7, so you can see that our contin­gency procedures worked perfectly. This is exactly why we had the backup helicopter close at hand.

“After close to five minutes of pulling maximum power [on my helicopter], the cylinder head temperature began to rise and the engine oil pressure began to drop. I decided to release the capsule, so I could set the helicopter down ‘normally’ in the water if the engine died. That was accomplished by pulling a trigger in the cockpit that caused the hook to open and release the recovery cable from the helicopter. I couldn’t see the line but I could feel the result of a reduced payload. I wondered if we could make it back. I declared an emergency at that point, and proceeded back toward the Randolph, and was able to land aboard the carrier.”22

Once onboard Upschulte’s helicopter, Grissom shed the horse-collar, and shook Cox’s hand with a heartfelt, “Boy, am I glad to see you.” Then he grabbed a nearby Mae West life preserver and slipped it over his head. While this might have been stan­dard over-the-water military procedure, he was simply ensuring he was ready in case anything happened to the craft he was now occupying. Once was enough, he figured: he had no wish to endure any more time splashing around in the Atlantic trying to stay afloat. As he fastened the Mae West he was told that his capsule had been lost. He then spent the duration of his ten-minute flight over to the Randolph without speaking, tightly buckled up in the lifejacket.

Meanwhile, on the USS Randolph, Capt. Henry (‘Harry’) E. Cook, Jr. had been made aware of the problem as Lewis’s helicopter was straining to lift Liberty Bell 7 out of the water. “The capsule was filled with sea water and so heavy it just couldn’t be lifted,” he said, looking back to that time. “I was preparing to launch boats to lash on to it and tow it alongside and then use the ship’s boat crane to hoist it aboard.”23 When word passed around the nearly 1,000 crewmen lining the afterdeck and the superstructure of the Randolph that the capsule had sunk, there was a brief chill as those watching the drama out at sea feared Grissom himself might have been lost. But the Navy quickly made it clear that the astronaut was safe. Several hundred sailors, including midshipmen from various universities undergoing reserve officer training, were lined up behind ropes on the flight deck of the carrier. But this time there was less of the joyous whooping and hollering that marked the scene on the USS Lake Champlain when Shepard came aboard that carrier. Perhaps this relative quietness was due to the observers silently offering thanks that the astronaut had made it.

Meanwhile, back in the Mercury Control Center, everyone was tense, waiting to find out what was happening. They had heard that Grissom was in the water, but the conversation on Chris Kraft’s communication line was becoming confusing.


Anxious crewmembers aboard the USS Randolph scan the skies as they wait for news on the fate of the astronaut and his spacecraft. (Photos: NASA)

“We didn’t know what had happened to Gus,” he later wrote. “After a minute of silence, a second helicopter reported that they were ‘attempting to recover the astronaut.’”

“What does that mean?” someone innocently asked Kraft.

At that Kraft snapped, and loudly told everyone to just shut up and listen.

“I remember thinking, I hope it’s not a body they’re recovering,” Kraft related. “The next minute dragged on forever. Then we heard it. Gus was aboard the chopper. They were returning to the ship.”24