July 21, 1961. America's second trip into space. A Mercury Redstone rocket took the Liberty Bell 7 capsule and its pilot Gus Grissom on a 15-minute suborbital flight. All went well until just after splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. While the capsule floated on the waves waiting for helicopter recovery, the explosive bolts on the hatch detonated. As water poured into the capsule through the open hatch, Grissom jumped out into the ocean. Grissom was rescued, but the capsule sank, coming to rest on the sea floor 3 miles below the surface. Why the hatch blew was never resolved. Grissom swore that he never hit the detonator button, but NASA engineers could identify nothing that would cause a hatch to "just blow."
Liberty Bell 7 remained in its watery grave for 38 years, until it was located and brought to the surface on July 20, 1999. Meticulously restored and put on display, the capsule provides a fascinating glimpse into the early days of the space program ... but the mystery remains.
I saw the Liberty Bell 7 in August 2003, on its national traveling exhibition stop at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After the tour, the capsule will go on permanent display at the same location where it was restored, the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchison, Kansas. For more information see the Kansas Cosmosphere web site.
Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (1926 - 1967) was the second American in space as one of NASA's original seven Mercury Astronauts (1961). During the Gemini program (1965), he became the first man to fly in space twice. He was chosen as commander of the first Apollo Earth-orbit mission; on January 27, 1967 he was killed in a fire in the command module during a launch pad test for that mission.
July 9, 2006: Thanks to Robyn Joffe for the following note:
"I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Beddingfield, who was the Mechanical Engineer for NASA's Mercury Program, and who also was a part of the investigation into the Liberty Bell accident, and he informed me that he and other engineers had actually identified two specific, documentable sequences of events that could have blown the hatch in the manner Grissom described. Even after all these years, he is still quite insistent that Mr. Grissom was not at fault - and, in fact, every astronaut that did subsequently blown the hatch themselves (Glenn, Schirra, etc) received a bruise on their right hand, which Grissom never had.
"You can find confirmation of this in the book Apollo: The Race to the Moon (retitled Apollo in recent printings) by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, as well as The Unbroken Chain by Guenter Wendt, who was the (Launch) Pad Leader during Mercury, Gemini and Apollo (and possibly the beginning of the Shuttle era as well)."