Enlarge / Is Gus Grissom offended after the Liberty Bell 7 practically took him to the underside of the ocean? Weary? Completely shaken? It is laborious to know for positive.


Replace, July 17, 2021: In the case of NASA historical past, July 21 might not have the identical significance as July 20, the date when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. However again on July 21, 1961, one other pivotal second within the evolution of human spaceflight happened when Gus Grissom splashed down within the Atlantic Ocean inside a small Mercury capsule—nearly drowning within the course of. The teachings NASA realized that day and within the following weeks undoubtedly modified the course of human spaceflight. This neglected occasion has its sixtieth anniversary subsequent Wednesday, and as such we’re resurfacing House Editor Eric Berger’s examination of Grissom’s touchdown from the Ars archives. This story first printed on November 8, 2016, and it seems unchanged beneath.

Gus Grissom had simply entered the historical past books. A mere 10 weeks after Alan Shepard made America’s first human flight into house, Grissom adopted with the second, a 15-minute suborbital hop that took him to an altitude of 189km above the blue planet. After the small Mercury capsule’s parachutes deployed, Grissom splashed down within the Atlantic Ocean, seemingly bringing a flawless mission to an in depth.

Solely it wasn’t flawless, nor was it closed. At that second, Gus Grissom nearly drowned.

It was July 21, 1961, towards the top of the second Mercury mission, and the hatch to Grissom’s spacecraft blew early. The ocean flooded in. The astronaut responded by leaping freed from the Liberty Bell 7 capsule. He struggled for 5 minutes to stay above the churning waves whilst his spacesuit, already 22 kilos when dry, full of water.

This incident has gone down in historical past amid controversy. Some renditions of it, together with the well-known The Proper Stuff novel and film from Tom Wolfe, painting Grissom as “screwing the pooch.” Such accounts argue that the astronaut panicked and fired his hatch earlier than it was time, primarily inviting the water in.

However a new ebook by creator George Leopold about Grissom’s life—Calculated Danger: The Supersonic Life and Instances of Gus Grissom—and a latest interview with the top of NASA’s restoration choices for the Mercury program, Bob Thompson, dispels that fiction. From these measured accounts, Grissom emerges as a quick-thinking hero. He reacted decisively in an unsure scenario when in any other case this mission would have resulted in dying. Such an accident early in NASA’s house program might have given President Kennedy pause over the nation’s nascent Moon-landing ambitions at a time when the US lagged badly behind the Soviet Union.

Greater than half a century later, Grissom’s identify has pale from reminiscence. Shepard has the distinction of the primary US spaceflight, John Glenn made the primary orbital flight, and Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon. But after an all-too-brief profession that ended tragically within the 1967 Apollo 1 fireplace, Grissom deserves recognition not as an unfortunate footnote however as a real hero. And for at present’s astronauts, Grissom’s near-death expertise within the Atlantic Ocean has renewed significance, providing a sobering reminder of the ocean’s peril as NASA plans to return its Orion capsule from deep house once more by the use of the ocean.

“Water is a superb place to land in, but it surely’s a hell of a spot post-landing,” Thompson instructed Ars. “Let me inform you, you possibly can harm your self within the ocean.”

“This I didn’t do”

Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom was the second youngest of the Mercury Seven astronauts NASA introduced to the world on April 9, 1959. They have been all hotshot check pilots, decided to turn into the primary human to fly in house. Among the many group, Grissom distinguished himself by working laborious (and partying hard). By early 1961 he, Shepard, and Glenn had emerged because the frontrunners for the coveted first flight. In the end the entire Individuals misplaced out to Yuri Gagarin, however Shepard claimed the US honor. Grissom served because the back-up pilot.

The second US mission to house went to Grissom, nonetheless. He would largely repeat the primary Mercury flight with two key modifications—the Liberty Bell 7 capsule would have a trapezoid-shaped window, and a brand new explosive hatch would permit Grissom to exit the spacecraft on his personal. To blow the hatch, Grissom needed to take away a cap from the detonator, pull out a security pin, and push down on a plunger.

The flight itself was splendid. As Grissom grew to become the primary American to immediately view the Earth from house, he marveled at his dwelling planet. “The view by the window grew to become fairly spectacular because the horizon got here into view,” he stated in his flight report. “The sight was really breathtaking. The Earth was very brilliant, the sky was black, and the curvature of the Earth was fairly distinguished.”

After touchdown within the water with a “gentle jolt,” Grissom was able to press forward with the ultimate stage of his mission. “I felt that I used to be in good situation at this level and began to organize myself for egress,” he stated. Earlier than firing the hatch, Grissom was supposed to attend for a rescue helicopter to fly over, hook into the lifting loop on high of the capsule, and lift it out of the water. As soon as clear, he was to take away the cap from the detonator, pull the security pin, and activate the firing mechanism. Then he might step onto the sill of the hatch, climb right into a horse collar lowered from the helicopter, and be pulled to security with out ever getting moist.

Grissom didn’t watch for the helicopter to reach and hook the capsule, nonetheless. Because the spacecraft bobbed in four-foot seas, he eliminated the cap from the detonator and pulled the security pin. He didn’t push the plunger, which required 5 kilos of power to depress, however just a few moments later, the hatch blew anyway. Within the ebook We Seven (primarily based on firsthand accounts of the Mercury program from the astronauts), Grissom wrote, “The plunger that detonates the bolts is to date out of the best way that I must attain for it on objective to hit it. This I didn’t do.”

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