118 Miles Up, 3 Miles Down

Gus Grissom’s Mercury spacecraft “Liberty Bell 7” is recovered, restored, and on exhibit

by Michelle Evans


Up ahead there is a portal. You move a moment in the darkness, turn a corner, and come out the other side. You’re now standing in someone’s living room. But it doesn’t look quite right. Oh, that’s it, everything looks a little dated. Not old, but not of this era. In fact, if you had to make a guess, you’d say this could be a typical living room of a typical middle American home, say some 40-odd years ago. Look at the lampshades, the style of the couch, the knickknacks on the bookshelves. But the final piece of the puzzle is on the television screen. A black-and-white image flickers, the contrast a little high, making it difficult for a moment to see that it is a slender rocket sitting on a launch pad.


Then the telephone rings. Startled, you look in the direction of the sound and see a black dial phone sitting on a small end table. A dial telephone! This must be a museum. The ring is insistent and no one is around, so you figure you might as well answer the phone. Picking it up, you hear an excited female voice at the other end of the line.

“Are you watching? Can you see it? I can’t believe it! Can you? Gus Grissom going into outer space. Why, he used to be our paper boy.”


The neighborly voice says something about friends coming over to watch the launch and she must go answer the door. You never had a chance to utter a word.


Back to the television and you see that she was right. On the screen, the rocket you see is the smallest manned vehicle ever used by any country. It is the Redstone booster with a one-man Mercury capsule sitting on top. As you watch, smoke starts to billow and the pencil-thin rocket quickly leaves the pad. It is July 21, 1961, and you have just been transported back in time to witness the launch of the second American into space.


The portal you entered was not one from The Twilight Zone. It was the entrance to a traveling museum exhibit that provides a quantum leap back to the dawn of the space race.


Divided into two parts, the first takes you into the world of 1961 to see a slice of what life in general was like in America at that time, and how the beginnings of our space program came about through a Cold War technology race with the Russians.


Part two takes you from the vacuum of space into the dark, lonely, extreme pressure of the ocean over three miles down in the Atlantic. It follows Curt Newport and his years long search to find and recover Gus Grissom’s lost Mercury spacecraft, the Liberty Bell 7.


When Grissom was sealed into his tiny spacecraft that hot and humid Florida morning, he was poised to become the third person into space (following Alan Shepard and Yuri Gagarin). At 7:20 am the rocket ignited and sent him leaping toward space. It arced to a height of 118 miles and a speed of 5,310 mph before onset of reentry and a rapid deceleration. Just 15 minutes and 37 seconds later, 303 miles out in the ocean, the black corrugated spacecraft splashed down.


As the recovery helicopters hovered overhead, Gus prepared to be plucked from the water. Then, as he later described it, “I was just lying there and [the hatch] blew.” Water started to flood in through the now open hatchway. Desperate to escape the sinking capsule, Gus took to the water. Rocking in the waves, water also poured into his spacesuit through an access plug port, rapidly making him too heavy to stay above the surface.


He waved to the helicopter pilot in an attempt to tell him he was in trouble. Instead, the pilot thought Gus meant he was okay and that he should go ahead with capsule recovery. Luckily, a second chopper was able to haul Gus to safety as he was about to go under. Meanwhile, the first chopper started to get dragged down into the ocean by the completely submerged spacecraft. When the helicopter wheels actually went below the waves, the pilot knew it was time to cut the cord and let Liberty Bell 7 plunge to the bottom.


No one thought it would ever be seen again. How could anyone be expected to find a tiny capsule over 16,000 feet down? It had taken years to find the Titanic, which was an obviously bigger target, not to mention that the ocean floor it rested on was 3,500 feet higher than Liberty Bell 7.


Then Curt Newport decided to give it a try. He engaged the services of the Discovery Channel to provide financial and documentary support. Using side-scan sonar they “mowed” the ocean floor for likely targets in the area Liberty Bell 7 was thought to reside. In 1999, with weather closing in, they didn’t have time to look at all of the likely targets, so Curt made the decision of which target should be first. As one of the most amazing items in this amazing saga, the very first radar target turned out to be Liberty Bell 7!


Looming out of the darkness was a sea-grime encrusted cone with the words “United States” still clearly visible after nearly four decades in the deep. Bringing it to the surface the crew of the ship Ocean Project, then headed for shore, where it was placed again on the soil of Cape Canaveral, exactly 38 years to the day from whence it had left.


All spacecraft ever flown, by Federal edict, belong to the Smithsonian Institute after they are no longer required for service. Prior to recovering Liberty Bell 7, arrangements were made that ownership of this spacecraft would remain with those who salvaged and restored her. In the latter case, this was accomplished by a team of four dedicated individuals from the Kansas Cosmosphere.


Sifting through the muck inside the spacecraft, they removed 26,000 parts, cleaning them, and restoring them to their rightful place in and on the capsule. Some of the more interesting items recovered included a bar of hotel soap, $10.20 in cash (including five $1 Silver Certificates), and $5.20 in Mercury dimes. There was also a disposable cup and several cigarette butts (Gus Grissom did not smoke, so these must have been left inside during assembly and checkout).

Now all of this can been seen as part of a wonderful traveling exhibit. I had the opportunity to view “The Lost Spacecraft: Liberty Bell 7 Recovered” at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland (see profile of Chabot on page 3). I want to thank David Perry of Chabot for his assistance during my foray to Northern California.


It was a disappointment that the exhibit was not scheduled for a stop closer to Orange County before returning to Hutchinson, Kansas for permanent display. However, trust me when I say that, if you go, your trip back in time will be well worth the effort.