The Dangers Of Splashdown: A Hop Into History
While many people would consider the sight of a descending spacecraft suspended below parachutes the moment to breathe a sigh of relief, the truth was the astronaut wasn’t out of danger. Landing in the ocean was easiest from an engineering standpoint, but it was a dangerous method for astronauts as Gus Grissom found out in 1961.
Museum Exhibit: Pieces from the Umbilical Head
The items displayed here are part of the umbilical head that supplied power to the spacecraft until just before launch when it switched to its internal power source. Liberty Bell 7 launched beautifully on July 21, 1961 with astronaut Gus Grissom on board. The flight was similarly flawless, though it was a carbon copy of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight that had launched two months prior. Grissom followed a suborbital flight, meaning he didn’t reach orbit. Rather, he launched straight up to reach a peak altitude of 118 miles before falling back towards the Atlantic Ocean. Grissom splashed down just 302 miles from his launch point at the end of a perfect flight.
Fun Fact 1: The Mercury "7"s
All the Mercury spacecraft had the numeral 7 in the name, not because there were seven astronauts but because the first spacecraft was seventh off the production line. After the media assigned significance to the number, all the astronauts gave their spacecraft a name followed by “7.”
Liberty Bell 7 vs. The Atlantic Ocean
Grissom was bobbing in the ocean after splashing down when he heard a loud bang. The explosive bolts designed to open the hatch had detonated on their own, and suddenly water was streaming in. The tiny spacecraft quickly flooded, and in his haste to get out Grissom forgot to close the oxygen inlet valve on his space suit. Once he got into the open ocean, the astronaut found his suit was flooding as fast as the spacecraft. The recovery helicopter overhead took Grissom’s frantic waving as a sign to recover the spacecraft first. It wasn’t; Grissom was close to drowning in his waterlogged suit while fighting the rotor wash of the helicopter but he couldn’t convey his message to the recovery crew. The helicopter hooked the flooded Liberty Bell 7 but it was too heavy. The cable snapped and the spacecraft sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic. Grissom was recovered after four minutes of fighting the choppy ocean, shaken but otherwise fine. The astronaut insisted the hatch had detonated on its own while NASA maintained that was impossible.
Recovering Liberty Bell
After a 14-year search effort, Curt Newport found Liberty Bell 7 at the bottom of the Atlantic at a depth of 15,000 feet 345 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral. It was raised on July 20, 1999, on the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and one day before the 38th anniversary of Grissom’s flight. Considering it had spent nearly 40 years under water, the spacecraft was found in surprisingly good condition. Some of the interior aluminum panels had deteriorated but other fabric items like Grissom’s personal parachute were intact. Unfortunately, the recovered capsule could not settle the question of whether or not the hatch had blown on its own, though there was evidence to suggest it had: bent metal and a lack of burn marks around the hatch are consistent with an engineering flaw.
The Trouble with Hatches
After the loss of Liberty Bell 7, Grissom fought to have explosive bolts removed from later spacecraft. He won, but in a cruel twist of fate the lack of explosive bolts contributed to his death. A fire broke out in the Apollo 1 spacecraft while he and his crew were training, and they couldn’t open the manual hatch in time. Grissom died on the launch pad on January 27, 1967. Thankfully, history remembers Grissom for his career as one of America’s first astronauts and not as the man who lost his spacecraft at sea.
Fun Fact 2: The Unsinkable Molly Brown
After his ordeal on Liberty Bell 7, Grissom wanted to give his next spacecraft a more buoyant name. He picked Molly Brown after the “unsinkable” heroine who tried to save victims of the Titanic. NASA disapproved; no Gemini spacecraft were ever named.