It’s one of the great mysteries of the early space age. How did Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom, after a near-perfect flight on just the second U.S. space mission, inadvertently “blow” the escape hatch prematurely on his Liberty Bell 7 capsule, causing it to fill with water and sink in the Atlantic? In fact, did Grissom blow the hatch? Or was some technical glitch to blame?
Grissom himself insisted he hadn’t accidentally triggered the explosive bolts designed to open the hatch during his ocean recovery. His NASA colleagues, by and large, believed him. Years later, Apollo flight director Gene Kranz told historians Francis French and Colin Burgess, “If Gus says he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.” And, as writer George Leopold points out in his 2016 biography, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom, NASA would later pick Grissom for the first shakedown flights of its Gemini and Apollo spacecraft—hardly what you’d expect if the agency had lost confidence in him.
But in his bestselling book The Right Stuff, author Tom Wolfe played the incident for laughs, reporting that test pilots outside NASA thought Grissom had, in their vernacular, “screwed the pooch.” The episode hung over the astronaut’s head until his premature death in 1967 in the Apollo 1 fire.
Now Leopold and Andy Saunders, a space photo expert and author of Apollo Remastered, think they’ve solved the mystery of what really happened to Liberty Bell 7 that day. An electrical discharge during the recovery operation—not a panicky or clumsy astronaut—caused the hatch to blow. Their detailed analysis is published today in Astronomy magazine.
Here’s how the capsule recovery was supposed to go: While Liberty Bell 7 bobbed in the water with Grissom inside, the rescue helicopter would move in close enough for co-pilot John Reinhard to lean out and snip off a long antenna on the capsule with a cutting tool. The helicopter would then hook onto the capsule and raise it enough for the hatch to be fully above water. Grissom would hit a button to blow the hatch, then climb out through the open hatchway to be hoisted on a sling into the helicopter.
That was the plan. Instead, the hatch blew suddenly when it was still half submerged, surprising Grissom and the recovery team. Water started pouring in, and Grissom had to jump out to keep from going down with the capsule, nearly drowning in the process.
Through careful enhancement of film footage shot during the rescue, and from certain key details Reinhard recalled from that morning, Saunders and Leopold now think they can reconstruct what really happened. Reinhard remembers seeing an electrical arc just as he touched the cutting tool to Liberty Bell 7’s antenna—before the helicopter hooked on to the spacecraft to raise the hatch above water. That same electrical charge, conclude the authors, probably caused the hatch to blow.
And they’ve produced photographic proof. In enhanced frames from the film, just as the cutting tool touches the spacecraft, a small, dark object is seen jetting away from the capsule. It’s very likely—though not absolutely certain—that this is the hatch, as shown in this short clip (Grissom appears in the video’s initial poster frame, to show the location of the hatch):
Sixty years later, the pilot of the rescue helicopter, Jim Lewis, appears convinced, telling the authors: “My original impression of events was that the hatch blew as I was completing our approach to Liberty Bell 7, but Andy Saunders’s awesome work on the recovery film has really made me re-examine my memory banks....Reinhard must have cut the antenna a mere second or two before I got us in a position for him to attach our harness to the capsule lifting bale. It would appear that the hatch may well have blown at this moment.”
We may never get a more conclusive answer than this, but for now, it seems a plausible explanation for what transpired back in July 1961. And it exonerates Grissom, who turns out to have been every bit the cool professional that he seemed.