Liberty Bell 7 begins voyage from ocean to Kansas

Friday, July 23, 1999

It took years of work to pull Liberty Bell 7, the spacecraft used in the second manned American flight, from the depths of the ocean.

But the work is just beginning for the four to six workers at the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center who will have the job of restoring the craft.

"Really, the exploration of this spacecraft will continue for quite a few months until we can get this thing all figured out,"Cosmosphere President Max Ary said this week from the ship that pulled up the capsule Tuesday from its 38-year resting place three miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

The ship docked Wednesday morning at Port Canaveral, Fla. There, the capsule was transferred to a truck that will take it to Hutchinson. The capsule should arrive in Hutchinson at 9 a.m. Monday, said Jeff Ollenburger, Cosmosphere vice president of marketing.

Eventually, Cosmosphere visitors will be able to watch as the restoration of the spacecraft takes place in the Hall of Space Museum. But for the first two weeks or so, the Cosmosphere will keep the capsule in a tank with a constant flow of fresh water, meaning visitors won't be able to see the capsule, Ollenburger said.

"Our priority is preservation and not necessarily at this point to rush to get it out in front of the public," he said.

The fresh-water bath will help remove salt, which would otherwise cause corrosion when the surface of the craft is exposed to air, Ollenburger said.

At that point, Cosmosphere staff also will begin setting up the restoration area, which will allow visitors to watch the restoration, he said.

But for now, everyone at the Cosmosphere is awaiting the capsule's arrival.

Ary said the restoration plan would depend on an examination of the spacecraft's condition.

"We don't know exactly what we're dealing with yet," Ary said. "We are probably going to have to sit down and really do some reconsideration of exactly the direction we're going to go with the restoration."

Early estimates were that restoration would take about six months, but Ollenburger said that could vary, depending on what the examination reveals.

John Glass, Cosmosphere exhibit coordinator and the man who will oversee the restoration, said that besides the necessary fresh-water bath, he couldn't foresee any complications caused by the capsule's 38 years underwater until he actually sees the craft. The most important ingredients in the restoration will be time and meticulous work, he said.

"There are no written laws about how to restore this type of stuff because no one does it other than the Cosmosphere," Glass said.

Ary said his initial examination of the capsule revealed an exterior that was better preserved than he expected, although the interior was a shambles.

"One thing I was not counting on was the fact that we will have to go through a stage of identification," Ary said. "There's a lot of parts laying in the bottom of this spacecraft that have badly corroded, and we're simply going to have to try to identify where these parts all went."

Two of the three aluminum control panels had dissolved. Ary said they might be replaced with Plexiglas to hold the instrumentation in place. And although Ary had originally estimated that restorers would disassemble the craft into 35,000 pieces, he revised his estimate to 20,000 pieces after seeing the craft, because of the many missing pieces.

Once broken down into its pieces, each piece will be individually cleaned and dried, Ary said. Then they will be reassembled.

Glass and Ary both emphasized that the restoration would be a cleanup, not an attempt to return the spacecraft to a like-new condition.

"Our goal is not to make this thing look pristine and brand-new," Ary said. "It's primarily to bring it back to a point that it could be exhibited in air conditioning without further corrosion."