On July 21, 1961, Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom, 33, a decorated fighter pilot, was strapped into the tiny Mercury space capsule he’d nicknamed Liberty Bell 7 and launched into space aboard a Redstone rocket.
The U.S.’s first manned spaceflight, Alan Shepard 15-minute sub-orbital flight, had occurred just 2 1/2 months before. Grissom’s mission was nearly identical, except for some minor changes to the space capsule: a large viewing window, a better steering system, and a new hatch, designed to be quickly blown off by tiny explosives ringing the 70 bolts holding it on.
Grissom soared to 188 kilometres, experienced five minutes and 18 seconds of weighlessness, pivoted the Liberty Bell 7 for re-entry and splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean 483 kilometres from Cape Canaveral, less than five kilometres short of the designated spot.
But before the rescue helicopter latched on to the capsule, the hatch unexpectedly blew off. Water poured in. Grissom escaped, but, flooded, the Liberty Bell 7 was too heavy for the helicopter to lift, and sank.
Grissom almost followed it. He’d left a valve open in the belly of his spacesuit, and the air keeping him bouyant was rapidly leaking out. As well, the helicopters, still trying to save the capsule, were stirring up waves that kept splashing over his head. Finally, he was pulled to safety.
Some people suggested Grissom must have panicked and blown the hatch prematurely. Grissom denied it until the day he died, tragically, six years later in the Apollo 1 training fire. In any event, it seemed the Liberty Bell 7 was lost forever–until May 1 of this year.
An expedition funded by the Discovery Channel, led by deep sea salvage expert Curt Newport, set out on April 19 for the area where the capsule went down. It seemed like searching for a needle in a haystack. The capsule sank in water 800 metres deeper than that in which the Titanic went down, and is only about a quarter the size of one of the Titanic’s boilers. Indeed, two previous attempts to locate Liberty Bell 7 had failed.
The search began with a sonar scan by the Ocean Explorer 6000, an unmanned vehicle towed along the ocean floor at the end of an eight-kilometre cable. It sent out pings of sound, and recorded the echoes that bounced back to it. A computer translated those echoes into a picture, showing anything sticking up from the mud that might be a space capsule.
After two weeks, the expedition had identified 88 possible targets in a 61-square-kilometre area. They chose to take a closer look at target number 71 first, and sent down the robot submersible Magellan 725 with a video camera. Magellan followed a trail of debris…and found, at the end of it, the Liberty Bell 7, sitting upright, the words “United States” and “Liberty Bell” clearly visible on the side. Even the singe marks left by the premature explosion of the hatch bolts could be seen.
Magellan was supposed to attach a cable to the Liberty Bell 7 so it could be hauled to the surface. Instead, Magellan’s own cable snapped in rough seas, and it joined the space capsule on the ocean floor. The expedition plans to return in a few weeks to recover both the Liberty Bell 7 and Magellan 725.
Liberty Bell 7 will go on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Centre, in Hutchinson, Kansas, under an agreement with NASA and the Smithsonian Institution. It will be transported to Kansas in a special seawater-filled container, then flushed carefully with fresh water before restoration begins. The goal isn’t to make the capsule look brand-new, but to prevent it from deteriorating further. When it goes on display, it should look exactly as it did when it was found on the ocean floor.
Historians hope they may learn from the capsule why the hatch blew off early. Two cameras and a tape recorder that sank with the capsule might shed some light on the question if anything can be salvaged from them, but that’s doubtful. The hatch itself might provide the answer. The expedition hopes to spend a day looking for it when it returns to salvage the capsule.
Most likely, Liberty Bell 7 will go on display without telling us why it sank in the first place. That doesn’t really matter. Its greater purpose is to testify to the enormous courage of the men who took humanity’s first steps into space–and that it does admirably, just as it is.