Restoration of Liberty Bell 7 capsule revives controversy over astronaut; Crew leader says craft offers no evidence that Grissom panicked

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WICHITA, Kan. -- As Greg Buckingham and his crew shine up a piece of American space history, they might also be restoring the luster of a space pioneer.

Buckingham is leading the restoration of the Liberty Bell 7 space capsule that carried astronaut Gus Grissom into space in 1961 before returning to Earth -- and the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

The capsule was salvaged last summer from 16,000 feet below sea level and brought to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson.

Visitors are watching as Buckingham's crew restores the captured capsule, piece by piece.

"There's been some biology, chemistry, metallurgy -- a little bit of everything," he said. And, although Buckingham claims no expertise as a historian, his work might help answer a lingering question about a man regarded by many as a hero:

Did astronaut Gus Grissom panic and blow the capsule's hatch open?

Grissom used the Liberty Bell 7 for America's second manned spaceflight on July 21, 1961. When the hatch jettisoned prematurely after splashdown, the capsule flooded and sank about 160 miles off the Florida coast. Grissom insisted he did not release the hatch, and a NASA investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Again and again, Buckingham said, museum visitors ask what caused the hatch to open.

"As you're talking to them," he said, "it becomes fairly obvious they've gotten their history from the movie 'The Right Stuff' which was inaccurate."

The movie portrays a panicky Grissom blowing open the hatch and fleeing the capsule.

"It is absolutely ludicrous to think that Gus Grissom panicked and blew that hatch," said Max Ary, president and chairman of the Cosmosphere. "This guy was a consummate test pilot who flew 100 combat missions in Korea. He'd been in far more dire straits than he was in that spacecraft."

Buckingham and Ary are careful to state that their job is to restore the capsule. But nothing they've learned, they say, suggest blame to Grissom.

Audiotapes of the mission indicate Grissom was calmly going through the post-flight checklist and waiting for rescue crews to arrive when the hatch suddenly blew, Ary said. The museum has a portion of that checklist, the marks from Grissom's black grease pencil still visible.

If the hatch had been blown open, Buckingham suspects, scorch marks and distinctive hatch frame damage would have been left behind -- neither of which is there. But he won't know that for sure, he said, unless he can study film showing tests of the hatch being released.

Astronauts who released the hatch in tests had to strike the release mechanism so hard they invariably bruised their hand, Buckingham said. At his post-flight exam, Grissom had no such bruise.

In tests of the emergency release, Buckingham said, the door would be blown 25 feet out and 6 feet up. Film of the splashdown shows the door popped out only a few feet.

Buckingham and the Cosmosphere's restoration crew expect to complete the restoration in February. The capsule will tour North American museums for three years before going on permanent display at the Cosmosphere.

Grissom and fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in the Apollo 1 capsule when a fire swept through it during preflight testing on Jan. 27, 1967.

In the wake of the mishap with Liberty Bell 7, Grissom had been asked to help design a new escape hatch. That design -- in which the hatch opened inward rather than outward -- contributed to the astronauts' deaths.

Air pressure that built up as the fire spread, Ary said, prevented rescuers from opening the hatch to reach the men.

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