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Liberty Bell 7 Yields Clues to Its Sinking

Salvage: Manned by Gus Grissom in 1961, the capsule was only U.S. manned spacecraft lost after a successful flight. Discovery Channel is financing recovery effort.

December 12, 1999|MARCIA DUNN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HUTCHINSON, Kan. — First, out came the Mercury dimes, stashed 38 years ago aboard Liberty Bell 7. Then came Gus Grissom's survival knife and post-flight checklist, his grease-pencil marks still a vivid black.

The 7-foot Mercury space capsule, pulled from the Atlantic this summer and emptied of 70 gallons of ocean gunk and thousands of corroded parts, even offered up a plastic cup, a cigarette butt and a slapdash patch job.

But what really intrigues Greg "Buck" Buckingham, leader of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center's restoration team, is the buckled strip of titanium next to the gaping hole where the hatch had been.

The sill is bowed a half-inch along that side, clearly the result of great force. And, curiously, there are no burn marks from the explosive cord that supposedly blew out the hatch on July 21, 1961.

The capsule ended up sinking after a successful suborbital flight, an embarrassing loss for the nation's fledgling space program and, particularly, for Grissom.

Perhaps the explosive cord never detonated.

Perhaps, Buckingham suggests, Liberty Bell 7 slammed hatch-down into the Atlantic, buckling the titanium strip and popping the 70 explosive-rigged bolts on the convex hatch, one by one.

Perhaps that's why the hatch came off prematurely, he says, causing the capsule to sink and nearly causing Grissom to drown.

Buckingham stresses that this is only a theory, his theory. More research is needed before anything definitive, if ever, can be said. He wants to examine photographs of the test hatches and results from tests on the hatch, before and after, and consult metal experts.

Yet he wonders: Can he help solve one of the most enduring mysteries of spaceflight? Was Grissom, a faulty hatch or something else responsible for the loss of America's second manned spacecraft?

Visitors to the Kansas Cosmosphere want to know: What about the hatch? It's the No. 1 question ever since July, when Liberty Bell 7 was fished from the Atlantic 300 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Grissom insisted it wasn't his fault the hatch blew so soon.

NASA believed him. He went on to fly Gemini 3 in 1965, sportingly naming his capsule the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Two years later, during a practice drill for Apollo 1, he died with two crew mates in a spacecraft inferno on the launch pad. Ironically, that hatch was not designed to be opened fast.

Even without the hatch, forever lost on the ocean floor, the resurrected Liberty Bell 7 is yielding surprises.

Grissom's unused life raft, for instance, is not only intact, it can still hold air despite being at depths of 16,000 feet where the crushing pressure is 7,000 pounds per square inch.

Much of the muslin cloth tucked between metal layers as thermal insulation is also intact, its stitches still tight. And the tape that recorded Grissom's communication and other flight data is still on the reel; it might be salvageable.

Fifty-two dimes bearing the head of the Roman god Mercury, circa 1935 to 1945, have emerged from the muck. Some have initials or other marks carved into them, leading the space museum's president, Max Ary, to believe launch-pad workers gave them to Grissom to fly as souvenirs.

Grissom stuffed two of his own rolls of 1961 dimes in a pocket of his spacesuit, along with small models of the capsule. "These were all adding weight that I could have done without," he ruefully observed after a helicopter plucked him from the ocean.

As for the plastic cup and cigarette butt (the filter survived, the paper disintegrated), Ary feels certain that aerospace workers accidentally left them behind. Grissom did not smoke.

Other human touches were found inside Grissom's survival kit: slimy shark repellent and a vacuum-packed bar of soap. Ary delights in noting how NASA packed soap for a 15-minute trip.

Buckingham's surprise? The patch on one of the outer nickel-alloy shingles. A worker punched a hole in the wrong place. Instead of replacing the panel, the worker welded a metal bandage onto the back and repunched the hole. "It's the old lowest-bidder thing," Buckingham says, chuckling.

And, of course, there's the mysterious buckling and bending near the hatch opening. Curt Newport, the underwater salvage expert who led the recovery effort, was eager to see that when he visited the cosmosphere in November.

Newport and Buckingham peered at the structural deformities and consulted blueprints.

"That's a lot of deflection," Newport observed. "If that hatch was blown, it would have sort of been somewhat uniform."

"Most telltale to me is a lack of burn marks," Buckingham offered.

Skinned and gutted to remove every speck of corrosive ocean salt, the titanium capsule rested sideways in a sling after having been under a constant shower for its first two months at the cosmosphere. Its shingles hung on a wall nearby, arranged in the order they had covered the craft.

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