• Tate Collins, 2, looks at the restored Liberty Bell 7 capsule with Diana Heim-Johnson Thursday during the Liberty Bell 7 50th Anniversary event at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.

Liberty Bell anniversary touts restoration process

Friday, July 22, 2011

Space Works restoration specialist Dale Capps minimized the challenge they'd faced by calling it "just mostly a corrosion job."

Fellow forum panelist Jim Franko said he didn't have any special training for his role in restoring the Liberty Bell capsule, but - a volunteer at the time and now a restoration specialist - he said he "learned on the job."

RELATED: See the amazing story of how the Liberty Bell 7 was rescued by the Cosmosphere.

At that point in the presentation, Meredith Miller, collections manager at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, intervened.

The Space Works staff and volunteers who restored the spacecraft that spent about 38 years in the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean were "fabulous" handymen, Miller wanted the Thursday morning audience at the Cosmosphere to know.

"They find a way to make it work," Miller said.

Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the 15-minute suborbital flight of the Mercury 7 capsule named Liberty Bell. Astronaut Gus Grissom was rescued after the flight, but the capsule sank. It was recovered in July 1999 and is part of the Cosmosphere's collection.

It is the only flown American spacecraft not owned by NASA or the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

When the Liberty Bell arrived in Hutchinson, the Cosmosphere's Space Works staff and volunteers had six months to restore the capsule before it began a national tour. Staff labored during the day, and volunteers worked on evenings and weekends. Work ceased only for holidays.

Saltwater had dissolved some artifacts, but workers gently wielding dental picks - local dentists donated hundreds of them - and other dental tools restored the spacecraft.

Every chemical used in the cleaning had to be logged, Capps said.

The goal was not to make it look new, but to preserve the capsule, said Jack Graber, director of technology at the Cosmosphere.

Surprises turned up during the restoration. "We found cigarette butts," said Franko. They must have been left by staff building the capsule, he said.

Capps recalled finding shrink-wrap plastic within a bundle of wiring, and that led to the discovery of five silver-certificate dollar bills. "The dimes just kept popping out of the rubble," Capps said of coins also put on board in order to be valuable souvenirs.

Local resident Charley McCue took off work Thursday to attend. He praised the "real good job" done by Space Works.

There are no plans now to tour the Liberty Bell again. The more it is moved or jostled, the harder it is on the aging spacecraft, Miller said.

There is space behind the Liberty Bell exhibit in the Cosmosphere to accommodate an expanded exhibit, but that display probably will not open until late next year, according to Chris Orwoll, president and chief executive officer of the Cosmosphere.