Astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom is inserted into his Liberty Bell 7 capsule on the morning of July 21, 1961. He would soon be embroiled in a controversy that lingers to this day. Photo Credit: NASA
In this installment of “Space Myths Busted,” I’ll tackle a myth that somehow still persists to this day despite many attempts to debunk it: On July 21, 1961, shortly after splashdown, a panicked Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom blew the hatch on his Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule shortly after an otherwise successful suborbital spaceflight. A clearly freaked-out Grissom then commenced to flail around in the water prior to being picked up by rescue helicopters. Read more after the jump…

The 1983 film The Right Stuff, canon among many space buffs,depicted Grissom in this exact situation. While the movie isn’t terrible, it’s more of a history of “moods” than what actually took place during the Mercury program, and its portrayal of Grissom is one of its biggest failings. By the time the movie was released, Grissom had conveniently been dead for over 15 years, leaving him essentially voiceless. So here’s what really happened during the Liberty Bell 7 recovery.

The book Into That Silent Sea by Francis French and Colin Burgess tells the story of Liberty Bell 7’s recovery in detail, beginning well before splashdown. While Grissom’s spacecraft floated under a ring-sail parachute toward the Atlantic Ocean, the astronaut – the second U.S. person to fly in space – began preparing for splashdown. A top-notch engineer and pilot, Grissom was hardly an acolyte, and had been training for this spaceflight since his astronaut selection in 1959.

Notably, this capsule possessed an explosive-actuated hatch, unlike the latch-operated hatch on the previous Mercury flight (Alan Shepard’s suborbital Freedom 7 mission, which had occurred in May 1961). The book explained how this hatch design was meant to work: “A percussion-activated, explosive primer cord surrounded the new hatch, and the astronaut had to activate a switch in order to arm the mechanism. When he was ready for recovery the astronaut would place the switch in the armed position, and a recovery loop on top on the capsule became the trigger. When the recovery helicopter’s hoisting cable was hooked onto the loop, the pressure created by lifting the capsule fired the mechanism and blew the hatch off.” Ironically, this hatch was designed for easy access, in case an astronaut was in trouble.

Before Liberty Bell 7 hit the water, Grissom was already hard at work, focusing on recovery. The book continued, “He reported opening his faceplate and then had problems inserting one of the door pins that held the hatch to the side of the capsule, a procedure designed to prevent the entire hatch from accidentally detonating outward when he began his exit from the spacecraft.” It was noted in the book that this step did not in any way contribute to what would soon occur. Liberty Bell 7 splashed down after a nearly picture-perfect mission at 7:36 a.m., some fifteen minutes after liftoff.

An exhausted but safe Grissom on the deck of the USS Randolph, shortly after being plucked out of the Atlantic Ocean. Photo Credit: NASA
Grissom then performed some final checks, including some that involved the hatch system. In postflight briefing reports compiled in the book, Grissom stated in part:
I took the pins off both the top and bottom of the hatch to make sure the wires wouldn’t be in the way…I took the detonator cap off and put it toward my feet.
Again, Grissom’s action did not contribute to what was about to happen. According to Into That Silent Sea, this is what was supposed to happen: the rescue helicopter’s pilot, Jim Lewis, and his co-pilot were to sever the spacecraft’s whip antenna, hook a recovery cable onto the capsule, lift the capsule slightly to allow the astronaut to emerge, and lower a rescue sling. Grissom would then remove his helmet, wait for the hatch to blow on its own volition, exit the capsule, and put himself into the rescue sling. This setup had worked fine during Shepard’s spaceflight months earlier, minus one difference – the explosive-actuated hatch.

As Grissom waited for further instructions from the Hunt Club-1 rescue helicopter, the unthinkable happened as he lay back on his couch. The book stated, “Suddenly, he heard a dull thud as, without warning, the spacecraft hatch blew. He looked up in disbelief, not only seeing blue sky, but the unnerving sight of saltwater spilling over in the doorsill.” Grissom took off his helmet and exited the spacecraft, understandably in a state of shock, and soon was in a life-and-death struggle as he swam against the strong currents of the Atlantic, which would pose a challenge even for an Olympic swimmer.

Enter Wally Schirra, who would vindicate Grissom in October 1962. 1960 NASA photo.

Helicopter pilot Lewis and his co-pilot then attempted to hoist the capsule, but their efforts were futile, as their engine began to overheat due to its weight. A backup helicopter came in to save Grissom, who by now was in water coming over his head; he arguably was saved by a watertight neck dam that kept water out of his suit – his colleague and close friend, Wally Schirra, had recently persuaded him to wear it. (More on Schirra shortly.) After a short struggle, he was able to reach the rescue collar. While Grissom was thankfully safe and sound, the Liberty Bell 7 capsule was lost, only to be recovered from the bottom of the sea nearly 38 years later in July 1999. 

An interesting coda to the Liberty Bell 7 story occurred during another Mercury mission. Over a year later, Wally Schirra flew the program’s flawless third orbital mission, Sigma 7, in October 1962. At the end of Schirra’s flight, he further vindicated Grissom’s story about the hatch blowing independently of any intervention. Burgess’ book, Liberty Bell 7: The Suborbital Mercury Flight of Virgil I. Grissom, discusses this at length, and also contains testimonies by fellow Mercury astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton and NASA aeronautical engineer Sam Beddingfield that Grissom would have had a deep bone-bruise on his hand had he manually blown the hatch.

Schirra sustained deep bruising and a cut to a hand after hitting the plunger meant to blow the hatch. Grissom suffered no such bruising. Photo Credit: NASA
…But more on Schirra’s mission. At its end, according to Burgess’ book, Schirra blew Sigma 7’s hatch when he was ready to exit. The book underscored, “He had to hit the plunger with five or six pounds of fist force; so hard that he injured his hand. He was not slow to show the tell-tale impact bruising and cut on his hand at his medical briefing.” Schirra stated further in his own book, Schirra’s Space, that the brute force of hitting the plunger had cut through one of his metal-reinforced gloves. Slayton, Beddingfield, and Schirra all confirmed that Grissom had suffered no bruising of any type after his mission, thus nixing the theory that he somehow blew the hatch.

Gus Grissom should be remembered as one of the world’s spaceflight pioneers, not as some hapless “hatch blower” flailing in the ocean – because the latter suggestion never even happened.

Grissom would go on to have a resounding success once again with the first human-helmed Gemini mission, Gemini 3 (jokingly dubbed The Molly Brown, because this time, it would be “unsinkable”), in March 1965; co-piloted by then-rookie astronaut John W. Young, this mission was a vital sequential step in the Gemini program, which proved to be the critical bridge between Mercury and Apollo, making the Moon landings wholly possible.

His story, however, wouldn’t have a happy ending. On January 27, 1967, his life – as well as the lives of astronauts Edward H. White, II and Roger B. Chaffee – would be cut obscenely short by the Apollo 1 capsule fire. This time, an over-complicated hatch system – one that wouldn’t open quickly enough – would seal his fate. 
  • Billings, R.N., & Schirra, W. (1995.) Schirra’s Space. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 
  • Burgess, C., & French, F. (2007.) Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Burgess, C. (2014). Liberty Bell 7: The Suborbital Mercury Flight of Virgil I. Grissom. New York, NY: Springer Praxis.

Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.

Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.

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