• A U.S. Marines helicopter hovers over the Atlantic ocean during an attempt to retrieve the spacecraft Liberty Bell 7, which sank 15,000 feet shortly after splashdown on July 21, 1961. At top of the spacecraft is the "horse collar" hoist which would have been used to lift astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom, who had to swim from the craft. The duration of the Mercury-Redstone 4 test flight, which is the second U.S. manned suborbital spaceflight, was 15 minutes and 37 seconds. 

Cosmosphere to help retrieve Liberty Bell 7 bottom of ocean

Thursday, April 16, 1998

The space capsule of Liberty Bell 7, long considered the forgotten flight of the American space program, may be raised next year from its sandy resting place in the Atlantic Ocean with help from the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.

Manned by astronaut Gus Grissom, the capsule was the second American manned capsule to enter space. It sank after splashdown 27 years ago.

The Cosmosphere's interest in the 2,800-pound capsule goes back 10 years, when it conducted a study on the Liberty Bell's location, just off the coast of Bermuda, about 260 miles off the tip of Florida.

Max Ary, executive director of the Cosmosphere, said at that time it was apparent that a recovery attempt was not financially or technologically feasible. The only equipment that had the potential to retrieve the capsule 16,000 feet down in the ocean was under military direction with the U.S. Navy and the cost would have been prohibitive.

Ary described Liberty Bell 7 as a ``space treasure.'' ``... It has long been the main space artifact that has been sitting out of everyone's grasp,'' he said. "We've all known where it was, but technology hadn't caught up to make (a recovery) attempt feasible.''

The Cosmosphere's current involvement in a recovery was initiated 1 1/2 years go by Curt Newport, a deep sea salvage expert from Annapolis, Md. Newport played a major role in the recovery of the debris from the Challenger explosion and also led the search and discovery of the Air India disaster several years ago.

Ary said the Hutchinson organization was contacted for several reasons: expertise in the area of space history and knowledge of Mercury spacecraft; for possible use of contacts, such as astronauts and engineers; and for restoration and preservation of the craft to make it exhibitable, if recovery is possible.

Ary said Newport has done intensive research about the current condition of the spacecraft, which is intact and upright on a flat, sandy bottom, located 1,000 feet deeper than the Titanic. He said recovery of Liberty Bell 7 will be more difficult than recovery of the ocean liner Titanic because the spacecraft is small − 5 feet in diameter and 6 feet tall.

"Essentially, we're looking for a small tin can,'' he said. "Imagine going 3 miles down trying to find something that size. Not only are we trying to locate it, but we will try to recover it.''

One stumbling block to the exploration is funding. Ary said $300,000 will be needed initially to conduct the search, location and photography of the spacecraft. Once located, Ary said at least another $1 million will be needed to raise, restore and preserve the capsule for exhibition.

With the exception of Challenger, Liberty Bell 7 is the only flown, manned spacecraft not available for public visibility. After its splashdown, the spacecraft was hooked to a helicopter, but the helicopter engine began to overheat and the spacecraft was cut loose.

Concerning loss of the spacecraft, Ary said there has always been some question about Grissom's actions and whether he blew a hatch too early or there was mechanical difficulty, causing the capsule to fill with water and sink. Ary said he wants to see the spacecraft recovered because it will focus attention on a specific space flight and a specific astronaut who did not get the attention he deserved.

"Grissom never received proper accolades and honors that those two (Alan Shepard and John Glenn) received,'' he said. "Many people remember Gus for how he died rather than how he lived.''

Grissom, who was commander of the first Gemini flight and what was to be the Apollo 1 mission, died with two other astronauts in 1967 in a flash fire during final training in an Apollo capsule.

Ary said the next realistic time for a search and recovery of the spacecraft is late spring 1989 or early summer. After restoration is complete, Ary said he hopes the spacecraft will be readied for national and international tours to space museums and other educational institutions around the world.

"We hope it to be displayed for a while here, in Hutchinson,'' Ary said. ``A great deal of international attention will be brought to this community if that can be done.''