Category Liberty Bell 7


After much deliberation and testing, a decision had been reached on the style and com­position of the capsule’s heat shield. For the initial suborbital flights, it had been decided to adopt a proven system known as a ‘heat sink,’ which had been developed for the bal­listic missile program. Previous testing had revealed that although the intense shock wave generated by a missile cone’s trajectory through the atmosphere managed to keep the massively high temperatures away from the forward-facing blunt end of the cone, enough heat – estimated at a temperature of around 3,000°F – could potentially soak through to melt or even vaporize in an explosive release of gases any normal metal, greatly endangering the life of an astronaut. However, beryllium, with its unusual ability to absorb extremely large quantities of heat, was the obvious candidate to test as the heat sink for a manned capsule.

On Monday, 8 June 1959, after details had been kept secret to that time, it was announced that the Brush Beryllium Company, which operated a plant near Elmore, Ohio, had been assigned the task of producing six gently curved heat shields to protect astronauts from the tremendous frictional heat encountered when their spacecraft reentered the atmosphere.

Beryllium is a hard, light metal that has a high melting point and it was used due to its ability to absorb heat as well as its high conductivity, preventing disastrous build­ups of concentrated surface temperatures. Specifications called for the heat shield to be constructed of “hot-pressed” beryllium, with a diameter of 80 inches and a radius of curvature of 120 inches. It would prove to be the largest single piece of beryllium ever forged to that time.17

In July 1959 Brush Beryllium and the Aluminum Company of America announced the successful production of the first giant, dish-shaped beryllium piece, forged by Alcoa from a record-size billet supplied by Brush.

To produce the heat-sink shield, Brush first hot-pressed a beryllium billet 62 inches in diameter, one of the largest ever made to that time using powder-metallurgy techniques. This was achieved using the company’s patented QMV (quantum mechan­ical vacuum) process, involving simultaneous applications of vacuum, heat and pressure to beryllium powder. Following preliminary machining by Brush, the billet was encased in steel for the high-temperature forging operation. It was then deliv­ered to the Alcoa factory in Cleveland, where it was heated to approximately 2000°F in a specially designed furnace. A huge manipulator then removed the glowing,

steel-jacketed beryllium piece and placed it onto a pre-heated die. The mighty force of a 50,000-ton press, operated by Alcoa under the U. S. Air Force’s Heavy Press Program, squeezed the beryllium billet into a saucer-shaped disc 80 inches across and three inches thick.

Under the contract, Brush Beryllium then forged the final dimensions in their preci­sion machine shop in Cleveland. The last operation in the manufacturing process – ultrasonic inspection – was carried out by Alcoa. Following this, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation received the finished piece, 72 inches in diameter, ready to be installed as a heat sink of one of the Mercury spacecraft.18

While a beryllium heat shield would be used on capsules in the early booster test flights and the two suborbital missions of Shepard and Grissom, for orbital missions a new, ablative heat shield weighing far less was developed for the Mercury-Atlas flights that would follow.


Grissom was pleased with the overall success of the MA-2 flight, but his mother was somewhat less thrilled when the news broke that he had been selected as one of three candidates to make America’s first flight into space. “Oh no,” she told reporters. “I’ve been hoping and praying he wouldn’t be the one. I hate to be against him because I know he wants to go.” After a pause, she added, “I’ve thought all along he would be one of them. And I’ll be more than proud if everything turns out alright.”1

For his part, Grissom had been brimful of confidence that he might get the first flight, but that lofty ambition had been abruptly thwarted during a private meeting between the astronauts and their boss, Robert Gilruth, on 19 January during which Gilruth had unceremoniously told the seven astronauts that after much deliberation

Shepard had been chosen to make the first suborbital flight and Grissom the second, with Glenn backing up both flights. They were asked to keep the news to themselves until the time of the actual first mission, a chore that was often difficult. As Grissom stoically told one newsman when asked if he would like to be the one chosen to make the first flight, “Everything I do is influenced by it. With everything I do, I expect it. I am here to ride the capsule.”2


The three Mercury candidates for the first suborbital flight: Glenn, Grissom and Shepard. (Photo: NASA)


NASA’s Mercury tracking station on the island of Bermuda. (Photo: NASA)

Spacecraft No. 11, which would fly the MR-4 mission, was delivered from the McDonnell plant on 7 March. Grissom had viewed the capsule under assembly at the St. Louis plant two months earlier and attended several production meetings there as the months rolled by prior to the capsule being delivered to the Cape. “I thought it would be good for the engineers and workmen who were building my spacecraft to see the pilot who would have to fly it hanging around,” he observed in the astronaut book, We Seven. “It might make them just a little more careful than they already were and a little more eager to get the work done on time if they saw how much I cared.”3

Following NASA’s announcement, speculation on which of the three astronauts would fly the first mission was rife in the press. On 12 March that year, Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine editor Marvin Miles published an article under the title “Marine Stands Out as Astronaut Choice.” The article began by explaining its rather emphatic title, suggesting, “We say this because Glenn, at 39 the eldest of the group, has always been the father of the seven-man team; a leader without appointment; an officer particularly respected among the astronauts – and apparently all others in the Mercury program – for his personality, his dedication, his skill and his experience.” While incorrect in its speculation, the magazine was only echoing the public’s prevail­ing conjecture on the subject.4


Jim Lewis was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on 10 November 1936, which he always proudly states happens to coincide with the birthday of the U. S. Marine Corps. His father had served as a Warrant Officer during World War II, “having enlisted by fudging a bit on his age.” After the war the Lewis family relocated to Oklahoma City, where his father had taken on employment with the International Harvester Company. Following several promotions and transfers, the family moved once again to Houston, Texas. Here Jim Lewis attended 6th grade right through to high school, later attending the University of Houston, which meant he could live at home and work various jobs while undertaking his studies. During his junior year he joined the Marine Corps Platoon Leader’s program. By attending Platoon Leader’s Class (PLC) in the summer between his junior and senior years, he was able to be commissioned a 2nd lieutenant on graduation and receive twelve hours of college credits for the PLC program.

While at Quantico, Virginia, that summer he applied for and was accepted into flight school, which he was scheduled to begin after graduating from college. He admits that he had only chosen the Marine Corps because his father had enlisted in the U. S. Army, and like most young people he wanted to do something different. He served in the Far East after graduation from flight school, spending six months in


Lewis’s Marine buddy Wayne Koons (left) and helicopter co-pilot George Cox flank MR-3 astronaut Cdr. Alan Shepard during a recovery training session. (Photo: Wayne Koons)

Japan and several more on the island of Okinawa, before serving with Marine Light Helicopter Squadron HMR(L) 261 on carriers engaged in supply duties to Vietnam in 1959. However he was not involved in any combat operations.

On his return to the United States he took the advice of Wayne Koons, a friend from flight school, and requested a transfer to the 2nd Marine Air Wing on the east coast at MCAS New River, North Carolina. He opted for this unit because Koons was then involved with the Air Wing in the Mercury capsule recovery program for NASA. Lewis’s request was approved, and he later became primary recovery pilot for the MR-4 mission.

“The Marine Corps had been selected [to recover the Mercury spacecraft from the ocean] for several reasons,” Lewis told the author. “One was that our helicopters had the payload capacity to lift the capsule. Similar Navy models combined a lot of sonar search equipment that reduced their payloads considerably. In addition, one of the Marine Corps’ missions was to deposit heavy external loads in small, tight jungle-type areas surrounded by trees… a task which required a fairly high degree of precision. While most pilots could accomplish this after training, Marine Corps pilots had been practicing it as part of their normal duties for quite a while.”

Another factor in favor of the Marine Corps acting as the recovery force was that they operated a base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which was reasonably close to Langley AFB, Virginia, where NASA’s recently formed Space Task Group (STG) was then located.

Lewis was serving in HMR(L)-262 when he first met Gus Grissom at Langley. The astronaut was visiting the STG for a meeting concerned with the recovery of Mercury spacecraft. Asked how well he got to know Grissom back then, Lewis responded, “I didn’t get to know Gus really well… there was little personal contact at Langley.


The USS Randolph (CVS-15) at sea in 1962. (Photo: U. S. Navy)

I didn’t get to know Gus really well until I was a Manned Spacecraft Center employee [in Houston, Texas]. I think my impressions were like most. Gus was a serious guy, and the more one had the opportunity to work directly with him, the more one appreci­ated how good he was. He worked technical problems well, penetrating to the core, and making sure he and all of us took care of any peripheral concerns. In other words, I really appreciated how comprehensive his work ethic was. I imagine that’s one of the things that helped him survive his combat missions in Korea.”1

As primary recovery pilot for the suborbital MR-4 mission, Lewis was assigned to the lead helicopter, a Sikorsky HUS-1 Seahorse of the Marine Medium Transport Squadron, and given the transmission call-sign of Hunt Club 1. While in training for the assignment, Lewis and his team practiced for every conceivable scenario, which included the recovery of unmanned capsules from Little Joe booster flights fired out of Wallops Island, Virginia.

As the time grew near for Grissom’s suborbital flight, Lewis and his co-pilot John Reinhard from Bloomington, Illinois selected the three best-performing helicopters from their base and flew them to the USS Randolph (CVS-15), the prime recovery aircraft carrier. On the morning of the space flight they test flew all three helicopters to ensure they were at peak performance for the recovery effort.


When asked if he’d had much of a chance to discuss the loss of Liberty Bell 7 with Grissom on Grand Bahama Island or afterwards, helicopter pilot Jim Lewis replied, “We saw several of the astronauts at GBI, including Gus, but other than shaking hands and passing momentary pleasantries, I didn’t see Gus again until working at MSC in Houston.

“We really never discussed MR-4. I think we had moved on, and both of us knew we had followed nominal and contingency procedures properly. I had received two commendations for my actions that day and [later] Gus was subsequently selected to command the first Gemini and Apollo missions. No greater vote of assurance could have been given to him.

“We both knew he had done nothing to cause the door to detach itself that day, and we both knew we would not be able to find out specifically what happened, so there was little to discuss. Our conversations revolved around the present and future, and I’ll guarantee you we had plenty to keep us occupied. The work in those days was exhila­rating, intense, long, and hard… and, great fun.”14


Flight Director Gene Kranz at his Mercury Control Center console. (Photo: NASA)

The agency’s near-legendary flight controller Gene Kranz always set the tone in launch control with his calm, confident and professional manner. He would display very little emotion in the thick of a mission and he always remained focused on the tasks that lay ahead, like a general before a battle. He was not one to quibble or stay silent if he felt someone had underperformed, and he is quite adamant that Grissom did not blow the hatch.

“I spent a lot of time with Gus,” Kranz stated. “Everybody alleges that the guy panicked. Gus is not the kind of guy who would panic… he is a very controlled per­son. I also knew we had an inherently different hatch design, from the standpoint of a release mechanism, to the other [Shepard] one. I knew the limitations in testing, and if Gus says he didn’t do it, then he didn’t do it. It’s that straightforward.”15

Another front-line exponent of Gus Grissom was McDonnell engineer Guenter Wendt, who helped insert Grissom and the other early astronauts into their spacecraft prior to hatch closure. Wendt, who died in May 2010, was a staunch admirer of Grissom. “We cannot prove what happened,” he told interviewer Jim Banke in June 2000. “It was an unexplained anomaly. But we know that Grissom did not blow the hatch.”


Former McDonnell Pad Leader Guenter Wendt (Photo: NASA)

Based upon his interview with Wendt, Banke later wrote that to detonate the ord­nance, either Grissom would have had to firmly bang his wrist on a plunger inside the capsule, or a recovery diver alongside the spacecraft in the water could move a small panel on the outside and pull a T-shaped handle in the event that the astronaut was disabled. Later experience would show that if a Mercury astronaut were to detonate the hatch from the inside, the amount of force necessary to hit and activate the plunger would leave a nasty bruise, which Grissom didn’t have.

It was put to Wendt that perhaps the switch on the outside of the capsule was acci­dentally pulled. Wendt responded with a theory that the small panel on the outside of Liberty Bell 7 might have broken off as the spacecraft deployed its main parachute or shortly thereafter. In one transmission to Alan Shepard in the Mercury Control Center, Grissom said “you might make a note” of the fact that there was a six-by-six-inch hole in the parachute which Wendt said approximated the size of the access panel. Then, after splashdown, Wendt believes something may have tugged on the exposed handle just enough to cause the hatch to blow – perhaps a parachute line or a line associated with the green dye markers deployed from the capsule after splashdown. It is a known fact that after Grissom quickly egressed from the sinking spacecraft he reported becoming tangled in a marker line outside the hatch.

“That is the one [possibility] that I believe in,” Wendt concluded. “It is the most logical explanation. Can we prove it? No.”16

When asked to characterize Gus Grissom in the light of later criticism of him and his actions that day – particularly in the movie adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff – Jim Lewis expressed his particularly strong recollections and feelings.

“Gus flew 100 combat missions in Korea. He was a successful test pilot. He had been selected to be an astronaut. Many applied, few were chosen. He was selected to fly the second manned U. S. space mission. He was later selected to command both the first Gemini mission and the first Apollo mission. Those kinds of things do not happen to a ‘screw up.’

“That kind of person would never have survived combat or been a test pilot, and would not have been selected to be the first in line to blaze the way for new space programs… Gemini and Apollo. NASA obviously had confidence in Gus. I am sad that Wolfe and his media apparently chose to ignore what, to me, is the obvious. I went through the same flight school as Gus – a bit later – flew in the Far East, and was an engineering test pilot. Nothing in Wolfe’s book about flight school or the MR-4 mission or flying in general was characterized the way I would have chosen. but Wolfe neither interviewed me nor asked my opinion.

“In addition, think about this. MR-4 had a large window – the first spacecraft to have such – adjacent to the hatch. When the capsule was floating, Gus looked right out that window and could see water above the hatch sill and above the lower edge of the window, which was lined up with the lower sill of the hatch. Do you think anyone would have purposefully released a hatch under those conditions? I would add that since we had practiced such things, he also knew that I wasn’t there yet and obviously hadn’t lifted his spacecraft clear of the water. So then, did he accidentally hit the release? NASA records show that every astronaut who used that plunger to release a hatch got a bruise or skin abrasion from the rebound of the plunger. Gus’s post-flight physical documented that his body was totally unmarked. This is positive evidence that he did not ‘accidentally’ hit that plunger. Had he done so, he would have been even less able to escape its rebound than any of those who actuated it on purpose.

“Gus was a consummate pilot, a very bright individual, and a skilled engineer who had everyone’s respect. No one who knew him could or would argue with that state­ment, and that is how he should be remembered.”17


The Air India experience caused Newport to ponder further the difficult question of locating and salvaging the lost Mercury spacecraft. As he researched where it might be on the ocean floor, he realized that no existing ROV was capable of reaching an object three miles down. After returning from Ireland he asked the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) about Liberty Bell 7 “but got nowhere.” His next major salvage assignment involved the tragic loss of NASA’s space shuttle Challenger and her crew of seven on 28 January 1986. Newport spent two months working out of Port Canaveral, Florida on the contract salvage ship Stena Workhorse. The major discovery of the operation occurred while Newport was on a midnight shift piloting the Gemini ROV and brought a booster section to the surface. It happened to be the most crucial find of the search – the segment of the right-hand solid rocket booster where the burn-through of an O-ring had set in motion the fatal explosion and NASA’s greatest tragedy to that time.


A 4,000-pound segment of Challenger’s nght-hand solid rocket booster is offloaded at Port Canaveral from the Stena Workhorse following its recovery on 13 April 1986. (Photo: NASA-JSC)

“The operation was a real grind,” he says, “mostly due to the numerous technical problems we had with the Gemini ROV. During six weeks we repaired its electrical umbilical a staggering 32 times and even replaced the whole thing four times: not a good record. But while I was in Florida and on one of my rare days off, I visited the archives at the Kennedy Space Center and collected a little more data on Liberty Bell 7.”6 He also began to establish solid contacts in his ongoing research into the loss of Grissom’s spacecraft, including the Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford, who would not only prove to be a staunch advocate of Newport’s plans but also provided important leads and privileged access to documents and information to assist him in his quest to pinpoint the location of the sunken craft. “Gene Cernan, John Yardley (McDonnell Aircraft Corporation) and Robert F. Thompson (JSC) were also a big help.”7

Another interested and influential ally was Max Ary, then President of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, who had also considered the possibility of finding and recovering Liberty Bell 7. As he told Lawrence McGlynn for collectSPACE, “Actually my interest, relative to the Cosmosphere, in recovering the Liberty Bell 7 goes way back. In 1978, before the Cosmosphere opened but when we were still trying to put together a space artifact collection, one of my many basic goals was to place on exhibit examples of all three of the early manned spacecraft. We knew when we were going to get the Gemini and Apollo, but we knew, because of the rarity of the Mercury [capsules] that it was going to be our biggest challenge. When I realized that all of the available Mercury [craft] were on long-term exhibit, it occurred to me there was still one that might be made available, and that was LB7.

Being from Kansas, and with no knowledge of the ocean, I didn’t specifically see why there would be any problem in recovering something from 16,000 feet down. As they often say ‘ignorance is bliss.’”8