Did Gus Grissom Screw the Pooch and Blow Liberty Bell 7's Hatch?

A few years ago I watched the Discovery Channel program on the recovery of Liberty Bell 7, but the show ended after the capsule had been pulled onboard the salvage ship. Did further investigation determine whether the explosive bolts actually went off accidentally, or did Gus Grissom panic?

According to Wikipedia :

Also, when Liberty Bell 7 was pulled from the drink, the salvagers found cigarette butts and a Coke bottle behind the seat. While I don’t think anyone could say for sure that the bottle wasn’t Grissom’s it is well know that he didn’t smoke.

As some one said, it was a case of the capsule having had been built by the lowest bidder.

Remember too that Grissom was the command pilot on the first manned Gemini flight (Gemini III, which he named Molly Brown :wink: ) and the command pilot of the ill-fated Apollo I. Had he seriously been suspected of losing a spacecraft, I doubt he would have been named to command the first manned flights of two new designs.

I have a hard time believing that any cigarette butts would still be intact after 30 years on the sea floor, presumably immersed in sea water. This sounds real fishy (ar ar) to me.

Grissom swore he didn’t do it. In one of the books written by someone involved in the early space program (I forget which), it is said that if he had accidentally bumped the hatch-blow lever with arm, the force required to do so would have left a bruise, which he did not have.

Given what a piece of crap the original Apollo design was (Grissom famously hung a lemon in the capsule one day), I have little trouble believing the Liberty Bell 7 incident was some sort of technical/manufacturing glitch.

I never heard any real reason about how it could have happened or why it would have happened in terms of him. He wasn’t some lifeboat refugee. He was a trained astronaut and knew damned well what switches did what. Did they think he was playing with something he shouldn’t have been while bored?

Even if one of his egress preparation moves accidentally hit the wrong combination of things to blow the hatch, that was a design flaw in the cramped quarters and not his fault. I have no doubt that he never knew himself what caused the hatch to blow. The whole capsule rather violently slammed down into the ocean shortly before and then bobbed around in corrosive salt water for a while. I doubt the engineers understand all the things that could go wrong at that point.

First of all, the Gemini CSM was built by McDonnell Douglas, while the Apollo CSM was constructed by North American Aviation. While both companies have sense been absorbed via proxy within The Boeing Company, neither participated in the design of their then-competitor’s spacecraft, and there are significant differences between Gemini (which is in many ways a scaled up Mercury) and Apollo.

Second, while there were some noted problems with Apollo, particularly the Block I design (culimating in the fire in Apollo 1 that killed Grissom, White, and Chaffee), this was largely due to a lack of oversight and coordination, shifting high level performance and technical requirements, and a push to maintain schedule at any cost or risk. (The hazards of an oxygen-rich environment were well known but changing would have forced considerable redesign, particularly to sensitive environmental systems.)

As far as dredging up the Liberty Bell 7 issue again, it’s hardly necessary. Grissom, an experienced and trusted test pilot with a long history of coolness under fire, claims not to have actuated the hatch release, and there was no reason not to believe him, while the design of the external release was such that it could conceivably be actuated by accident. The design of the release was changed (as was the pressure suit that almost killed Grissom) post this mission. In the aerospace contractor world, we call this “lessons learned”, i.e. you determine the root cause of the problem, fix it, and move on. If you aren’t making any mistakes, you probably aren’t learning anything useful.

One noteworthy thing about Gemini and Apollo is that the expensive and hazardous landing and recovery at sea was selected, owing to the lack of large expanses of flat land in the United States and liability. (The Soviets, who landed their capsules in the stepes of eastern Russia and Kazakhstan, rightly figure that if they land on some poor herdsman nobody is going to care much anyway.) As it turns out, with the exception of Gemini 8, which had to abort due to a retro failure, all Gemini and Apollo capsules landed well within the planned recovery zone, sometimes uncomfortably close to the recovery vessel (leading to the prudent decision to keep the vessels well outside the recovery zone). They could have easily landed these in the Mojave, and this was in fact the plan with Blue Gemini, the Air Force’s abortive manned space program using legacy Gemini hardware with landing skids and a horizontal landing attitude.


Oh yeah? Then explain the used condom they found.

I don’t think Gus was the first one to take that capsule for a trip around the world. :wink:

Huh. I have always been under the impression that the Soviets landed on land for secrecy reasons, and that landing at sea was safer. (Born in '57, if that helps expain my impression, which is reinforced by the fact that the vast majority of space fatalities, even before the shuttle, have been on reentry of a vehicle designed to land on land.)

Feel free to fight some ignorance here.

From Wiki:

To date, eighteen people have been killed on four spaceflight missions…
[ul][li]1967 April 24 - Vladimir Komarov died during the landing of Soyuz 1 when the capsule’s parachute failed to open properly.[/li][li]1971 June 30 - The crew of Soyuz 11, Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov, suffocated after undocking from space station Salyut 1. A valve on their spacecraft had accidentally opened when the service module separated, letting their air leak out into space.[/ul][/li][/quote]

A failed parachute would be fatal in a water landing as well as a ground landing. Soyuz 11 landed normally, but the crew had already died due to the failed valve.

But was it secrecy or convenience that prompted the Soviets to land on land? I have to confess I didn’t read the whole article I linked. I think secrecy might have been a part of it, but IIRC the Soviets didn’t have aircraft carriers they could use for recovery. I suppose they could have launched a helicopter from a smaller vessel. But they have a lot of open, empty territory so why not use it?

I was going to mention the landing skids if you didn’t. I kind of wish they’d have tried it once.

From the Wiki article: “Guenter Wendt, “Pad Fuhrer” for most of the early American space launches …”,

I had not heard this theory before. It’s been my personal experience that you shold pay attention to what people like Guenter have to say.

‘I vonder vhere Guenter Vendt?’

I won’t contest that the Soviets were obsessed with secrecy–usually not even publically announcing a launch until it was already successfully completed–but the reason they targeted their return to land was because of the vast open spaces that they have in Central Asia and the relative dearth of at-sea retrieval capability. You wouldn’t necessarily need an aircraft carrier to perform retrieval (though having spotting planes around would be very desireable) but the Soviet surface fleet at the time was nowhere near what the US had.

Also, landing at sea adds the additional hazards of capsizing, leakage, drowning, limited recovery options, exposure to a hazardous environment (if the cosmonauts land safely but can’t be located, they’re not exactly going to swim to land, whereas if they land on dirt they can walk it out…this has almost happened to the Soviets on more than one occasion), et cetera. Retrieval at sea is also expensive, which was a primary reason why one of the requirements of the post-Apollo vehicle was the capability to return to land, and with sufficient cross range to return to the launch point after a single polar orbit. (USAF requirement for polar orbit deployment.)


If you’re serious, and IF there was a condom, it might have been Gus Grissom’s urine holder.

Seriously- Mercury astronauts wore an oversized condom in case they had to take a leak in the space capsule (they’d neglected to provide Alan Shepard with anything, because his flight was only supposed to last a very short yime).

The thought behind my comment was that a cigarette butt is very water soluble. After 30+ years in sea water the paper & glue would long since have dissolved & the biodegradable tobacco washed away if not consumed by bacteria or whatever.

The idea that other, more sturdy, foreign objects might be found in the capsule makes sense. Cigarettes, not so much.
As to condoms, when I flew for the USAF unlubricated condoms were packed in our survival vests/kits & labeled “water carrying bags”. Seriously, that is what they were for.

They were also handy as emergency urine containers, aka “piddle paks”, if the genuine piddle pak was full, leaking or missing.

Another disadvantage to ocean landings: A few months ago, I sat in on a presentation at the aerospace company I work for, discussing our the mission requirements for a moon shot next decade. One requirement was that they wanted a land-based rather than a sea based landing. It had never occurred to me before (though stupidly obvious in hindsight) was once a spacecraft hits the ocean, it can never be reused for another spaceflight because the thrill of a using a corroded spacecraft is not something NASA would ever allow. A refurbishment would be more expensive then just ordering a new one. So once you hit the water you’re destined for a museum (unless of course you “screw the pooch”, which reduces your chance considerably).

A landing on terra firma, however, does apparently allow reuse. I can prove it by noting you’ve never seen the Space Shuttle using water skis on landing :smiley:

Unfortunately, I failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: so did the Soviets reuse any of their manned vehicles? I don’t know; Stranger on a Train do you know otherwise?

Doesn’t NASA re-use the shuttle boosters? They hit the water.

(And here’s an awesome video of such a splashdown.)

Ever *seen * a Mercury? Barely room for one in there, and not if he’s taller than average. I.e. no need for a condom.

Just adding my two cents on the land-based recoveries the Soviets used:

The Soviets were very practical when it came to engineering - downright frugal compared to us. You can see this throughout their history of aircraft and spacecraft design.

They had a lot of land to use, so land recovery was the most practical solution. All they needed were a few spotter aircraft and some trucks.

By comparison, the U.S. had to call out half the freakin’ navy to recover capsules in the water. Big expense saved right there by opting for land recovery.

As for Grissom, I don’t think he blew the hatch. But I also don’t think it went off by itself. Something tripped it, dunno what.