Lost Spacecraft – Capsule Adventure
THE LOST SPACECRAFT: LIBERTY BELL 7 RECOVERED THE CAPSULE’S ADVENTURE
It’s a bell-shaped spacecraft with a crack painted down its side. It spent about 15 minutes in space and 38 years on the ocean floor. Liberty Bell 7 was a symbol of hope for U.S. supremacy in the space race during the Cold War. In an atmosphere of nuclear missiles and bomb shelters, the Soviet Union pulled ahead with its orbit of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. Determined not to be outdone, the United States stepped up its Mercury Project, which intended to put a manned spacecraft into the earth’s orbit and to investigate a human’s ability to survive and work in space.
The Mercury program lasted 55 months, involved 7,300 contractors, 2 million people and cost more than $400 million. McDonnell Aircraft built Mercury space capsules in St. Louis, Mo. The second American in space, U.S. Air Force Capt. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, mannedLiberty Bell 7–the first capsule to have pilot controls, an escape hatch and a viewing window.
Liberty Bell 7 came to rest in the Atlantic Ocean in an area known as the Blake Basin, more than three miles deep . The sun never shines at such depths. The saltwater is freezing. There are no plant materials to intertwine themselves around foreign objects and no barnacles to colonize their surfaces. Liberty Bell 7 sat in a virtual sensory deprivation tank, filled with mud and debris deposited by the sea and created by the corrosion of its aluminum surfaces.
The expedition, funded solely by the Discovery Channel, left Cape Canaveral aboard theOcean Project on April 16, 1999, and was one of extreme highs and lows. After days of meticulously exploring the 24-square-mile search area 300 miles off the coast of Florida with a side-scan sonar, the crew had mapped 88 potential targets. They narrowed their search down to 18 targets; they would dive with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) called theOcean Discovery using high-definition cameras. The first target they dove on was Liberty Bell 7. But their excitement was short-lived when the tether of the ROV was severed in extremely rough sea conditions and the ROV fell to the bottom of the ocean, effectively ending the first expedition.
A new ROV was built and a second expedition mounted to retrieve Liberty Bell 7 on July 1, 1999. The spacecraft was recovered from the ocean floor and returned to land on July 21, exactly 38 years after its flight into space.
Once raised to the surface, the Liberty Bell 7 capsule was placed in a custom-built steel transport container and sent to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, for restoration and preservation. A four-person crew painstakingly removed, cleaned and replaced as many as 26,000 parts from Gus Grissom’s spacecraft.
As they were taking apart the Liberty Bell 7, the museum crew came across cigarette butts, a disposable plastic cup, a motel-sized bar of Dial soap and $10.20 in cash. The cash included five $1 silver certificates, some signed by members of the original assembly crew. The remaining $5.20 was in Mercury dimes, with still-unidentified initials and symbols scratched into many of the coins.
All parts have been dried and cleaned of corrosion and debris. Thirty-eight years at the bottom of the ocean caused a lot of damage, and the aluminum components on the control panel were badly corroded. But parts covered in fabric survived, and Grissom’s personal parachute is in excellent condition.
The hardest part of the job, said restoration specialist Greg “Buck” Buckingham, was sifting through the thick layer of muck, debris and corroded metal that had settled to the bottom of the Liberty Bell 7. To ensure that no piece of the spacecraft–not even a washer–was thrown away by mistake, the restoration crew sifted through more than 50 gallons of debris in search of missing components. “We had to go through several layers of debris, one at a time,” Buckingham said. “That’s when it becomes a lot like an archaeological dig.”
“The Lost Spacecraft: Liberty Bell 7 Recovered” interactive exhibit from Discovery Channel allows science center and museum visitors to see the flight of the capsule with actual audio and video accounts of Grissom and the other six astronauts of the Mercury Program, news coverage by Walter Cronkite and NASA footage. Sound bites from historic figures including President John F. Kennedy (with his “landing a man on the moon” speech) and modern-day heroes such as recovery expert Curt Newport create a mood of reflection and triumph. Visitors can also see the original helicopter recovery cable, dye marker canister and landing bag, as well as artifacts found within the capsule. Inside a re-created heliopter, visitors can view actual footage of the recovery attempt. Also featured are the helmet and the flight suit of copter pilot Jim Lewis and audio of his and others’ recollections of that day. An actual Mercury hatch is on display, along with archival video and audio that explain various theories of why the hatch blew prematurely, sinking Liberty Bell 7.
To learn more about the mission, the expedition and the exhibit, visit www.discovery.com
Evergreen Exhibitions, based in San Antonio, Texas, is a world leader in providing high quality, state-of-the-art, family educational experiences, and serves as a major development partner with more than 200 leading museums and research institutions. Evergreen Exhibitions is proud to work with Fortune 500 corporations such as Ford Motor Company, Pfizer Inc, IBM, TIME and others to bring blockbuster exhibits and events to people around the globe. In addition to the “The Lost Spacecraft: Liberty Bell 7 Recovered,” current exhibits include the award-winning The Robot Zoo; Extreme Deep: Mission to the Abyss; Theme Park: The Art & Science of Universal’s Islands of Adventure; Microbes: Invisible Invaders … Amazing Allies; Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats; EarthQuest: The Challenge Begins (retired); AFRICA: One Continent. Many Worlds; and Chicano Now : American Expressions.
Discovery Channel is one of the United States’ two largest cable television networks, serving 78 million households across the nation with the finest in informative entertainment. Discovery Networks, a division of Discovery Communications, Inc., operates and manages Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel, Discovery People, Discovery Kids Channel, Discovery Science Channel, Discovery Home & Leisure Channel, Discovery Civilization Channel, Discovery Wings Channel, and Discovery en Español. The unit also markets and distributes BBC America.
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Source: Evergreen Exhibitions