When an expedition led by deep-sea salvage expert Curt Newport located astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom's lost space capsule and hauled it to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, it was remarkably intact.
"Fortunately, it all hung together," said Newport. "The interior was not in as good a condition as I hoped, but other parts were in better shape."
The titanium structure and nickel-alloy exterior plating were in such good condition the Liberty Bell 7 name was clearly legible on the side, along with the Liberty Bell "crack" painted next to it.
Grissom's unused personal parachute was in good order. And when they later pumped air into his one-man life raft, it stayed inflated.
However, the bomb on board had failed to detonate. More on that later.
The salvage job was the latest in the career of Newport, a Potomac, Md., resident, who has supported government salvage operations that have included picking up the pieces of TWA Flight 800 and the Space Shuttle Challenger.
This time he found himself sponsored by Discovery Channel, which estimated the cost of the Liberty Bell 7 project at $3 million. Discovery will air a two-hour documentary on the capsule recovery Sunday at 9 p.m.
The show, "In Search of Liberty Bell 7," not only documents Newport's work but also recounts the early days in the space race in which Grissom's 16-minute suborbital flight on July 21, 1961, made him the second American to be launched into space.
But it turned out to be a troubled mission. When Grissom splashed down 300 miles from the Cape Canaveral Florida launch site, the escape hatch blew open prematurely, bringing a rush of water into the capsule.
Grissom scrambled out and was rescued by helicopter. He was closer to drowning, we're told, than was realized at the time.
Another chopper attached a cable to the capsule but was nearly swamped by the weight of the water-filled craft. The pilot let it go, the capsule disappearing into water three miles deep.
Grissom was criticized at the time for firing the hatch-release mechanism, though he maintained he never touched the switch. This piece offers testimony lauding him as an astronaut. And it is suggested that had he not been killed with Edward White and Roger Chaffee in a cabin fire during an Apollo 1 test, he might well have been the first man to land on the moon. However, none of Grissom's fellow original-seven astronauts made that trip.
"What I really liked about the film is that it was about Grissom," said Newport. "I was 10 years old when Liberty Bell 7 was launched," he recalled. The capsule had been build by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, headquartered in St. Louis, where Newport grew up.
"Grissom stood out. I remember him very well," said Newport. He was "one of the significant ones. . . . Looking at him, I don't think he got the credit he deserved for what he did for the space program."
Newport recalled that some people thought of Grissom's flight as a mere repeat of Alan Shepherd's similar, earlier mission. "It wasn't," said Newport. The capsule had been modified for Grissom's flight, making it more like the vehicles that followed. "He was probably one of the better pilots of the original seven -- at least that's what I heard," said Newport. "People who knew him speak of him in reverent terms."
Newport's salvage work this summer was set back by rough seas, blessed with a major stroke of good luck, and undeterred by the bomb.
Having established a 24-square-mile search area, Newport's crew lowered a sonar device and trolled the area looking for unnatural formations on the ocean floor. They identified 88 possibilities, then narrowed those to the 16 most likely targets.
When they lowered a camera to the very first location they chose to check, there was the capsule sitting upright on the ocean floor.
Specially designed clamps were attached, and the capsule was raised to the deck of the recovery ship, looking much as it did 38 years ago.
Beers all around! But wait. First they had to deal with the bomb.
A device called a SOFAR charge (sound fixing and ranging) was stored on the craft. It was used in those days as part of a system to help locate the craft -- and possibly to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. It was designed to explode at a depth of 4,000 feet.
"Its purpose," said Newport, "was if the capsule sank to a nonrecoverable depth, it would go off indicating there was no need to continue looking for it. It had not been heard to go off."
An explosives expert cleared the deck of the recovery ship, located the bomb -- armed but intact -- and tossed it overboard.
The film in an onboard camera, which might have shed light on the blown-hatch question, had totally deteriorated, Newport said.
But the tape from an audio recorder appeared to be in decent shape and was yet to be analyzed.
"We found damage around the hatch opening," said Newport. "I don't know if it was caused by the hatch blowing or if it contributed to it blowing."
The capsule is undergoing restoration at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson and may be viewed on the center's Web site, www.cosmo.org.
Newport said he expects Liberty Bell 7 to go on tour beginning in June.
QUERIES FOR CURT NEWPORT?
The salvage expert who recovered the Liberty Bell 7 capsule is scheduled to be online Monday at www.washingtonpost.com to answer your questions.