Sixty years ago: America’s second suborbital Mercury flight

July 21, 1961: The struggle to lift Gus Grissom’s capsule

*****

            “Can see the water coming right on up.”  As viewed by the periscope, the water appears to rise rise as the capsule named Liberty Bell 7 descends toward the Atlantic. 

            Gus Grissom and his Liberty Bell 7 hit the water, a 15-G jolt, despite the cushion of the landing bag extended below the capsule. She heels over to its port side, the window submerging amid gurgling noises.  The second U.S. suborbital flight is over.  Or is it?

            Mark, splashdown at 15 minutes 37 seconds elapse time, 302 miles down range from Cape Canaveral; Gus Grissom has just set a new U.S. space endurance record.  Twelve seconds longer than Al Shepard’s flight.

            A little higher, 118 miles, a few seconds longer.

            And a modified capsule nearly identical to the ones which will ply orbital space.

            “Does anyone read Liberty Bell 7?”

            The recovery helicopter responds.  They’re moving in, the big bulbous-nosed Sikorsky code named Hunt Club 1.  They’re coming to him from two miles to the southwest, calling, “We’ll be over you in just about 30 seconds.”  

            “Roger, my condition is good.”  The capsule rights itself.  Everything watertight.

            Four recovery helicopters begin orbiting the splash point, six miles from the carrier Randolph.   Visibility good, seas relatively calm with two-feet swells.   

            Little Gus, the smallest of the astronauts, feels in good shape.   He unstraps himself and disconnects hoses and electrical leads, leaving only the suit’s oxygen inlet hose connected for cooling, and the communications wire.  He prepares for exiting, removing the cap from the hatch detonator above his right shoulder.  And pulls the safety pin. 

            Three minutes since splashdown.  “Give me about another five minutes to mark these switch positions here before I give you a call to come in and hook on.”

            It’s something Al Shepard hadn’t been required to do; but this time they wanted the readings noted before the capsule is moved.  The capsule bobbing around, despite the relatively calm seas, despite the stabilizing effect of the landing bag, filled with water and acting as a sea anchor, holding Liberty Bell low in the water.  

            Five minutes after splash, Grissom, still making comments on his tape recorder and writing a list of switch position with a grease pencil, tells the lead helicopter “I’ll be ready for you in just about two more minutes, I would say.”  But it takes longer, in those awkward suit gloves, marking switch positions and gauge readings.   

            Five minutes later, he calls, “This is Liberty Bell 7, are you ready for pickup?”

            It’s eleven minutes since splashdown.  At a similar point, Al Shepherd had already set foot on the carrier deck.   

            Bobbing, rolling with the swells, pitching like a pendulum.

            Hunt Club 1:  coming up recovery position, estimating 15-20 seconds until we’ve latched on.  

            Liberty Bell 7:  Mass and motion . . . and two small o-rings holding back a plunger, a plunge just five-pounds of force away.  The arms of the ocean reaching up, ribbons of white water in the wash of the approaching helicopter thrumming the air thrashing the water.  Seconds away.

***

***

            It’s sixty years ago, July 21, 1961, and we are Gus Grissom, worrying over every wire, connection and system of Capsule #11.  Our capsule.    Do good work.  Don’t mess up; don’t mess around with our capsule.  For weeks we’ve fretted every detail.  This is no mirror image mission of Al Shepard’s flight.  We’ll evaluate an upgraded capsule, approaching the orbital configuration, one with a window on the world. 

            The window manufactured by the Corning Glass Works, is location, capsule centerline, just in front of the pilot, replacing the two awkwardly placed portholes that Shepard strained to look through. Trapezoid shaped, made of triple panes of Vycor glass, the outer pane, 19 inches long and 11 inches wide narrowing to 7.5 inches  towards the nose, curved to match the slope of the capsule’s line.  Looking slightly up, the pilot can see through an arc of 30 degrees in the horizontal and 33 degrees in the vertical.

             Yes, a rather narrow field of view, but a vista compared to the previous portholes. We dub it a “picture window,” giving us the means to see directly what Al Shepard only saw through the gauzy eye of a periscope.  Flight plan cleared to allot more time for visual observations — one full minute. Which is a long span on a 15-minute suborbital flight.  During the five-minute period of weightlessness at the top of the suborbital arc, the flight plan calls for the assumption of manual control all three axes at once, pitch, yaw and roll — instead of the slow, one axis-at-a-time done by Shepard.   Fewer maneuvers and tasks, more time for observations.  

            The capsule also is equipped with a new, lighter side hatch.  Shepard’s capsule was equipped with a heavy — about 67 lbs. — mechanically latched hatch. The new quick-jettison hatch weighs just 23 lbs.  The 70 bolts holding the hatch have weak points drilled in them which will break when an explosive charge channeled around the hatch seal is fired.  The hatch is blown by the astronaut pushing a short plunger located on the inside of the hatch, within about a half foot of his right hand.  When the safety pin is pulled, the plunger requires 5 lbs. of force to push.    

            Our capsule incorporates a new control system, allowing finer control, more precise manual maneuvers.  The Rate Command System translates the pilot’s stick movements into changes in the precise rate at which the capsule turns, sorta like power steering.

            Capsule #11’s instrument panel is also equipped with a globe-like earth-path indicator, the same as the orbital capsule.  And the fairing between the capsule and Redstone booster has been modified to ease the vibrations that shook Shepard early in the launch.  

            Everything converged for a launch on July 18. Except the weather.  We were rained out before the bird can be fueled.  

            Ramping up for the 19th, we went through all the prelaunch rituals, making the predawn walk through the arc lights of the pad to the steaming rocket, launch moved up an hour in hopes to beat the weather.  The perpetual back-up, John Glenn, helped us shoehorn into the capsule, patted us on the shoulder, and said “Have a smooth apogee.”  The new hatch was secured by 70 bolts.  Counting down, in the Redstone blockhouse near the pad and at Mercury Control further away on the Cape, the tension not as extreme as with the first flight, the sharp edge of unknowns smoothed by experience. . . . T minus 10 min. 30 sec. and . . . and holding.  A five-minute hold for a check of cloud cover.  

            Just like the damn delays for Shepard’s flight . . .   The five minutes turned into a 30 minute hold . . . that turned into never, the cloud cover won’t cure itself, not on the 19. The flight was scrubbed, requiring, since the rocket had been fueled, a 48-hour turnaround.

*          

            July 21, feels like the day even before it dawns, despite a cap of thin cirrus clouds. 

            Once again the preparations proceed out of darkness. Flood lights prize open the night to sculpt Pad 5 in harsh light.  Once again the cloud-like vapors roil across the concrete.    

            The count is proceeding nicely, aiming toward a 6 a.m. launch.

            Once again the ritual of walkout from Hangar S, the slow trailer crawl to the pad.  Once again we face the rocket, and rides the cage-like elevator to the capsule. There, to disappear, as if ingested into its confines. 

            All perfectly on schedule, until T minus 45 min. and.  Holding. We have a hold.  Technicians at the pad have discovered one of the bolts holding the hatch is misaligned.  They, engineers from capsule manufacturer McDonnell Aircraft and NASA’s Space Task Group, are discussing what to do. 

            A half hour passes, and the team decides we can proceed without that bolt.  The other 69 bolts sufficient to hold the hatch in place.  We’re counting again.

            Daybreak, T minus 20 min., and.  Holding.  Holding until the pad spotlights are turned off.  They are believed a source of electronic interference with launch telemetry circuits.  After nine minutes the count resumes.   

             T minus 15, and another hold to await better cloud conditions.  Patches of heavy cumulus take 41 minutes to clear the launch area.  Visibility is go; we are go to resume the count.   

            Have a smooth apogee.  T minus one minute.  T minus 30 sec.  Mercury umbilical is out.

            Deke Slayton in the launch blockhouse calls ignition.   We feel . . . a touch scared.  Yes, admit it.  

            Liftoff, at 7:20 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.  A sheet of smoke-wisp flame against a sheet of smoke-thin cirrus sky.

            There’s vibration, the engine’s hoarse roar.  We punches the clock, Zero Time.

            “Liftoff” Capcom Al Shepard calls.

            “This is Liberty Bell 7.  The clock is operating.”

            Very smooth.  Eighteen seconds.  “OK, it’s a nice ride up to now.”  

            Coming up on one minute, heading into the Max Q region of highest pressure on the vehicle.  “We’re starting to pick up a little bit of noise and vibration, not bad, though, at all.”   Just low-level.  At 70 seconds, vibrations tailing away.  We punch through a thin layer of cirrus, experience none of the buffeting that Al Shepard did at 36,000 ft. 

            Smooth, believe me, gaining confidence.  “It looks good in here.”

            Eyes on the instruments, reporting status every 30 seconds; eyes on the window, a dark blue sky out there.  Suddenly turning black at two minutes into the flight, 100,000 feet up.

            Absolute black, believe me.

            “And I see a star.”  Right in the center of the window during the last seconds of the Redstone’s burn, a faint star.  There — Yuri Gagarin saw stars during flight, now so has an American astronaut.

            T plus 2 min. 22 sec.  Booster engine cut-off.  BECO, on the button, a slam-bang affair with no gradual tailoff of thrust.  We feel a tumbling sensation, quickly quelled.  BECO  and tower jettison.  We hear the solid-fueled rocket pull the tower from the nose.  There it goes; he watches the escape tower, long and slender against the pure blackness.  

            Ten seconds coasting.  “There went posigrades, capsule has separated.”  We hear the three small rockets imbedded in the retropack pop the capsule loose.   

            Posigrades.  The three pint-size solid motors give their 100 pounds of thrust for one second, enough to give a 1-G kick and pop the capsule free.   And we mean pop.  On Shepard’s flight, the capsule separated and then fired the posigrades.  Some engineers expressed concern the separation was large enough; the spent rocket and capsule could collide.  So our posigrades fire while we’re still attached to the booster giving an added popgun effect.   And how.

            Feels like she’s tumbling out of control, but the instruments show all is OK, the automatic ASCS control system dampening out oscillations.  “We are zero G and turning around and the sun is really bright.”   Automatically swinging the capsule slowly around toward orbital attitude, heatshield forward.  A shaft of sunlight marks the progress, creeping up our chest…stopping short of our eyes.

            Strapped tight, we feel no sensation of weightlessness. The only clue — a stray washer, bits of debris that float from the capsule’s recesses.

            On the window, the horizon coming up, curvature very pronounced; the earth, very bright, very blue filling the bottom two-thirds of the window.  And the black sky above, a fuzzy gray layer in between.

            “Oh boy!   Manual handle is out; the sky is very black; the capsule is coming around into orbit attitude; the roll is a little bit slow.”

            Our voice is calm and cadenced, masking the fact that, with so much to report at once, it’s a struggle to choose words. As we swing into orbital attitude, heatshield forward, a shaft of sunlight swings through the cabin, headed for our eyes, but stops short.  Give the autopilot, the ASCS, an extra 10 seconds extra to stabilize us.   But that cuts into our limited maneuvering time, every aspect of the short flight timed to the second..   

            Manually bringing the roll into proper position. And that view — distracting. Pitch maneuver.  “I’m pitching up.”  But control is sluggish.  Come on, nudging it along, but overshoot the 20-degree mark.   The needle reaches 24 degrees.

            Yaw maneuver.  The same – sluggish, and again we overshoot.  “I’m a little bit late there.”  Skip the roll maneuver.  On the window, a minute on the clock for visual observations.  Performing a second yaw, swinging 60-degrees to the south, using visual reference rather than instruments.

            Looking for reference points to gauge the maneuver.  “About all I can see is clouds.”    Can see a bit of the Gulf of Mexico coast, Florida up to Alabama, distant on the curve near the horizon.  Lack of landmarks makes judging yaw a bit hard.  Swinging south, a bit of beach line comes into view.

            In that calm, measured voice, we report, “It’s such a fascinating view out the window you can’t help but look out that way.” Almost dreamy, as if sitting at a living room window watching snow fall.  

            We’ve got the yaw, and that’s enough, enough despite the lack of landmarks for a pilot to judge that visual yaw reference should be no problem on future flights  We’ve got the view, becoming clearer, of the coastline.  The Capcom calls, “Four Plus thirty.”

            Four minutes and a half minutes into the flight – approaching retrosequence.  “OK, let me get back here to retro attitude.”   Maneuvering to attitude.  Working hard with those sluggish controls.   “I’m in bad, not in very good shape here.” 

            The sluggish response of the controls would be traced to a defect in the hand controller.

            The Capcom watching over our shoulder:  “Got 15 seconds, plenty of time.”  

            We hit the mark.  “OK, retro attitude is green.”   Within limits.  Still on manual control.

            Can hear the first rocket; they fire in a staggered start, thrust building rapidly.  We’re looking out the window and feels the illusion that Liberty Bell 7 has reversed course and is heading back to the coast.  “Nice little boost.”  We sees the capsule begin to yaw to the right.  Wanted to bring her back into position visually using the new window, but with a pilot’s instincts, we rely the instruments as a guide.

            Retrofire takes 22 seconds.  “Retro jettison is armed, going to rate command.”  We begin testing the new manual control, the rate command system.   On the window, and immediately the Cape jumps into view, hanging out there as if closer than the current slant range of 150 miles.  The Banana and Indian rivers clearly visible, the white beaches along the curve of the cape, even the plots of the industrial areas of the launch complexes.  Reach out and touch it.  “…And, oh, boy, that’s some sight.”

            Retro jettison, 6 min. 7 sec. into the flight.  Through the scope, we see the spent motors float away.  “Going to re-entry attitude.”

            Switch to Rate command, attitudes and maintaining maneuver rates, no problem, crisp, not sluggish.  But the system really guzzles the fuel.   “I’m in re-entry attitude.”

            “Roger, how does it look out the window now?”

            “Ah, the sun is coming in and so all I can see really is, ah, is just darkness.  The sky is very black.”

            “Roger, you have some more time to look around.”

            Have 40 seconds to ourselves and the window. Looking for the stars, but unable to see any in the brightness despite the blackness of space.   Forty seconds over the top of the ballistic arc, OK, and then T plus 7 min. 54 sec., “I’ve got 0.05 G and roll rate has started.   Rifling back into the atmosphere.   Building Gs.  Seventeen seconds later, reporting, “G’s are building, we’re up to six.”  Six seconds later, “There’s nine….  There’s about ten.”   Forcing the words through the G forces, yet speaking in a full-sentence repose.   Gs max out at 11.2.  Observing a white shock wave smoking away, feeling the capsule pitch a bit as it bites atmosphere, a roar reaching through the capsule walls.  Reaching 50,000 feet, “I’m feeling good.  I’m very good, everything is fine.”

            “There’s the drogue chute.”  We’re 9 min. 41 sec. since launch, altitude 21,000 ft.  The small drogue chute is good.  We’re stabilized, and at 13,000 feet:  “There goes the main chute.”

            “Hello, does anybody read Liberty Bell, main chute is good, landing bag is on green.”   Four Sikorsky UH-34D helicopters from the recovery ship, the USS Randolph, are in the air, the Hunt Club.

            Through the periscope, we see the sea coming up….and everything is in good shape; We’re fine, splash with a solid thump. The capsule rights itself.  

            We unstrap, take off our helmet.  Should we bother to unroll the rubber neck dam that would prevent water from coming in the neck ring.  It’s a pain in the ass — but let’s unroll it.     “Give me a few minutes here….”

            A few minutes, we prepare everything for our exit, remove the cover from hatch detonator, the short plunger at our right shoulder.  Pull the safety pin.  We need to record all the switch positions — no rush.  A few minutes, bobbing in the Atlantic swells.

            It’s now 11 minutes since splash.  Hunt Club 1 says, “We’re turning base at this time.”  The chopper just seconds away and . . .

            Sitting flat on our back in the shifting capsule, mind relaxed thinking what a fine souvenir of success the survival knife would make, when . . .

            Hunt Club 1:  Hovering about five feet away.  Copilot John Rinehard leans out with with a long “tree trimmer” to snip the capsule’s whip antenna which could hit a rotor.  As the cutter touches the antenna . . . a discharge of static electricity runs through the cutter and into the antenna stub. 

            At the same moment, inside Liberty Bell 7, dull thud, daylight where the hatch should be, and the ocean tongue-lashing over the sill.  The ocean quickly will pull her down in seconds; we know that.  Don’t have to think, it’s instinctive:  Grab the edge of the instrument panel and jackknife out the tiny hatch.

            Hunt Club 1:  The two-man crew sees hatch skip across water, followed immediately by the astronaut.  Capsule instantly beginning to sink.  Copilot John Rinehard at the helicopter’s wide side door sees Grissom swim off.  The helicopter pilots know an astronaut, buoyant in his balloon-like can float fine, is in no danger.  But the capsule is going down fast.   Within seconds, the helicopter elevators down over it. Rinehard, holding a line-threading pole, like shepherd’s hook, fishes to hook a line on capsule’s neck.    

            We find ourselves five feet away from Liberty Bell 7, floating high in the suit,   One second flat on our backs and the next, treading water, riding chest high in our air-filled suit.   Looking back, see Liberty Bell 7 up to its neck, about to be swallowed by a hole in the sea, the chopper right above it, wheels almost in water, struggling to hook on. We swim back to assist, the capsule damn near under the water. just as they hook it with a line.   We give the thumbs up.  Then swim out of the way.

            Hunt Club 1: Got a line on it, but the capsule sinks out of sight.  Pilot Jim Lewis throttles full power. 

            We watch the chopper rise.  The capsule gracefully emerging, water pouring out if its hatch mouth.  OK, we’re back on track, in good shape.  Expect them to lower the horse-collar sling to us.

            Hunt Club 1: sustaining maximum power, tries to lift capsule clear of the water drain the landing bag . . .  Straining the engine.  Indications of engine failure, a red light indicating metal fragments in the engine oil, estimated five minutes to failure.  Lewis orders Rinehard, take up the sling. 

            We swim for the sling, fighting the rotor wash. But the helicopter moves off. Wave at them – hey!   But they raise the sling and continue away, dragging the capsule across the surface.  Hey!

            Hunt Club 1: Calls to Hunt Club 2 to retrieve the astronaut.  But the straining prime chopper takes a couple minutes to clear the area with the capsule.   Dragging Liberty Bell 7 across the surface, its landing bag still heeled into the water.

            We look to the other helicopters cutting lazy circles, waves of  is floating lower, waves our arms to other helicopters, swim for them, but are caught between the interfering  waves fronts of rotor wash.  We’re floating lower, air escaping the suit.  Losing buoyancy.  Feeling scared, waves breaking over us, tasting saltwater.  Scared.  Drowning.  The choppers seem to be watching, doing nothing.  Scared. . . now angry.   

            Hunt Club 1: Is moving, trying to gain lift with forward motion, lift the capsule vomit seawater from its open mouth, but below the capsule, still in the water, the rubberized landing bag, still filled with water, acting as a sea anchor, the ocean still pulling on the capsule. Just when Lewis manages to lift high enough for water to begin to drain from the bag, a swell reaches up and fills it.

            A daisy chain of helicopters.  Their rotor wash blows us between them. 

            We float lower with each swell, our shoulders being dragged down.  The oxygen inlet port – we’d neglected to close it.  There on the stomach of the silver suit, letting in sips of water, slowly filling the suit, letting air escape, slowly dragging us under.

            Lower in the water, swamped by the swells.  The bitter water, rising and pushing down, falling and pulling under.  We fight against it.  Wave our arms at them.

            Christ!   Can’t sink here in front of everyone.

            Hunt Club 2:   Finally able to move into position, but finding it difficult to get it close as we’re being blown back by the rotor wash.   Copilot George Cox, the man who retrieved Al Shepard, lowers the sling. 

            We see Cox, recognize him, see the horse collar and figure we have it made.   But the damn rotor wash. . . keeps blowing us back.  Another moment of fear.  Swimming. Tiring.  Floating lower.  Swimming. Drowning.  A stab of fear, throat tightening on the sting of saltwater. Drowning.    

            Hunt Club 1:   Heading to the carrier, trying to raise the capsule, but straining against the sea which keeps flooding back.  A thousand pounds over the Sikorsky’s load limit.   Whirling blades beating the air to lift half a ton beyond limits.  Engine overheating.  

            Swimming hard, we reach the sling.  Hoists our arms through it — backwards, but give the thumbs up.  Backwards — who cares? — just get us out of the water.    

            Hunt Club 2:  Astronaut picked up. Only about four minutes since hatch blew, a lifetime.  

            Hunt Club 1:   After nearly five minutes of maximum power on its engine — oil pressure dropping and cylinder head temperature rising, hears on radio Grissom is retrieved, declares in-flight emergency and drops capsule.

            Liberty Bell 7:  The sea closes over the window.  Into darkness, a drifting fall to the ocean floor, taking nearly an hour, the last flight of Liberty Bell 7.  And the watery sky is very black.

            Aboard Hunt Club 2:  Fatigued, wet, angry, relieved to be alive. A silver suit all that’s left to show of the flight.  That and the space helmet a helicopter crew finds floating with the sharks.

*

            Review it again:   The flight is over, but not for us, forced to review the sequence endlessly.  Detonator cover off.  Pull safety.  Mark down instrument panel readings. Transfer survival knife from hatch to survival kit.  Just lying there.  Capsule rocking about in the swells.  Just lying there and….  Who knows, with that capsule rocking like it was, but . . .

            Again, the sequence.

            Detonator cover off.  No, couldn’t have hit that thing, just lying there.  No.  Couldn’t have.  Sure as hell didn’t blow it on purpose.  Was just waiting for the call from the helicopter.

            Again?   No one is quite sure what happened.  Some, ones who want to bring the astronauts down a peg, whisper that it was our fault, that we panicked and blew the hatch.  The stories won’t go away, but we need to move on.  Here’s what we need to do.  It’s obvious now — write every step in checklists.   Those checklists will say, keep the safety pin in, the detonator cover on until the final moment before egress.  A simple solution — don’t touch the detonator cap until you need to. 

            Still, the questions won’t end.  Screw them.  No one can take this away:  We’ve seen the Earth through a picture window as no other human has.  We’ve been to where the sky is very black.  

            And star we saw?  It wasn’t a star after all.  It was a planet.  Venus.

            Next time, we’ll see the actual stars. 

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