Category Liberty Bell 7


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

An astronaut in peril

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

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

Epilogue: From the depths of the ocean

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


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

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

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

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

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

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