When An Astronaut Started To Drown After Splashdown, NASA Knew It Needed To Act Fast

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A little thud – that’s all Gus Grissom hears before his vessel, bobbing in the middle of the Atlantic, starts to flood with water. The astronaut has no choice but to try and escape. And the helicopters hovering nearby have no idea how much trouble the NASA pilot is in. He has just a few minutes before he feels like he might drown.

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Indeed, Grissom had boarded the Liberty Bell 7 craft with a simple mission. He and the rest of the Project Mercury team hoped to send men into space and get them to orbit the Earth for the first time. The space pilot’s successful launch made him only the second American man in space. But his pioneering spirit couldn’t help him once he returned.

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Instead, Grissom found himself in trouble, as his vessel had plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean. He felt as though the landing was a soft one, but gentle waves wouldn’t carry him back to his life on land. Instead, the astronaut would suddenly and unexpectedly have to fight for his life as the capsule filled with water. And NASA helicopters had to race to the scene to save him in time.

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Virgil Ivan Grissom didn’t get his nickname, Gus, until one of his childhood friends misread his surname. That little moniker stayed with him for life, as did his passion for aviation. Even as a kid, the future astronaut loved to build model airplanes, and that interest would kick-start his lifelong career in flight.

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Indeed, World War II started while Grissom was a high school student. So, after graduation in 1944, he immediately enlisted in the war effort. He, of course, signed up for aviation training, but the future pilot never saw combat. Still, his time in the U.S. Armed Forces gave him access to the G.I. Bill, a resource that would pay for college for returning soldiers, among other benefits.

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Unsurprisingly, Grissom hoped to use his funds to study aviation and pursue a career in the field. After graduating from Purdue University, the plane aficionado re-enlisted in the military, joining the then-new U.S. Air Force. He completed around 100 different combat missions during the Korean War, even flying into and disrupting enemy air raids.

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Grissom’s in-flight prowess later earned him a special invitation in 1959. He got a letter that directed him to change into his civilian clothes and attend a meeting in the nation’s capital. Once in Washington, D.C., he learned more details. It seems he was among the 110 pilots chosen to learn about, and potentially join, America’s new space program.

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The top-secret gathering did indeed pique Grissom’s interest, but he knew that many others in attendance felt the same. As such, it would be tough to get a spot on the new program. But the former Air Force pilot made it through the first round of screenings. Those trials then segued into medical and psychological testing in New Mexico, and Ohio.

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At that point, Grissom almost lost his bid to join the space program. The examining doctors found out that the pilot suffered from allergies. However, when he retorted that they wouldn’t bother him in space – irritants like ragweed pollen wouldn’t be present – the medical team allowed him to continue through the screening process.

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With that, Grissom just had to wait to find out if he’d made the squad. And, in April 1959, he got the news he had been waiting for – he was now among the seven members of the space program’s Project Mercury. So, the former pilot left his post at the Air Force and reported for astronaut training two weeks later.

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Project Mercury had one goal – send a man to space, shuttle him around the planet in Earth’s orbit, then bring him back. The U.S. hoped to complete such a feat before their space-race rivals, the Soviet Union, could do so. As such, the country funneled the equivalent of $2.2 billion today into the program.

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Grissom, though, wouldn’t be the first man from Project Mercury to leave the planet. First, Alan Shepard got his chance in 1961, when he manned the Freedom 7. The vessel made it to space, but it couldn’t get into orbit. Still, with his trek outside of Earth, Shepard became the first American citizen in space.

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Eventually, though, Grissom would get a turn. He found out in January of the same year that he would lead the country’s second human spaceflight. And in July 1961 it was time for take-off, although the original date of departure, the 16th, had to be changed. Indeed, clouds covered the sky so thickly that the vessel couldn’t launch.

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Five days later, though, the weather appeared promising. The Project Mercury team prepared the vessel – which Grissom named Liberty Bell 7 – for its departure. The pilot boarded his ship and, soon, the NASA team put dozens of hatch bolts into place to seal him in. This step didn’t go off without a hitch, however.

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Instead, a technician realized that one of the 70 bolts hadn’t been screwed into place properly. As such, NASA engineers spent a half-hour discussing what to do – could the launch still happen? They eventually decided that the hatch’s remaining 69 bolts would be strong enough to hold the door in place.

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Indeed, this hatch had an interesting feature beyond the 69 bolts that would keep it shut. It also had an explosive release, which would give Grissom the ability to escape the Liberty Bell 7, should he encounter an emergency situation. Rescue crews could also blast off the door with an external pull-cord.

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With that extra piece of assurance – and lacking a single bolt – Grissom was ready for lift-off. And, on July 21, 1961, he finally made his way into the sky. He later revealed that the first few seconds of the launch had him feeling nervous. But as the Liberty Bell 7 gained speed and flew unexpectedly smoothly, the astronaut started to feel more confident.

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When Grissom eventually took manual control of the Liberty Bell 7, he earned a new set of wings – he became a space pilot. The former Air Force flyer, however, found it tough to pay attention to the tasks in front of him. Instead, he wanted to sneak views of the Earth’s horizon, a sight he would later describe as fascinating.

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However, when it came time for the capsule’s movement and pitch changes, Grissom realized he had passed his set mark. The space pilot felt as if some of the vessel’s controls were more sluggish in real life than in the simulation. Eventually, though, he did roll the Liberty Bell 7 so that he could look out of the window and see the Earth beneath him.

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With that maneuver, Grissom could see Florida, tracing the Indian River, the Banana River and even an airport runway. But his mission would soon require him to change his vessel’s trajectory once again, as it had to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. So, the space pilot pushed the craft downward, and it sped toward the pilot’s home planet. His heart began to race, too – his pulse soared to 171 beats every 60 seconds

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But Grissom had no big problems with reentry and kept in touch with the Mercury Control Center throughout the process. The vessel’s first parachute deployed at the right moment, too. The second one seemed to have a few tears, but none of them expanded as the Liberty Bell 7 plunged toward Earth.

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Soon enough, Grissom and his vessel hit the water with a much softer impact than the space pilot had expected. With that, he began taking the necessary post-flight steps. As such, he flipped on the switch that initiated his rescue aids. Meanwhile, the vessel stayed water-tight as it rolled through the waves.

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Grissom then took off his helmet and started to prepare his spacesuit in case he had to escape the vessel in a hurry. He then grabbed a grease pencil and scribbled down some of his final pieces of panel data. With that finished, the astronaut radioed the helicopters nearby to tell them he was ready for pick-up.

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As Grissom waited, he pulled the pin from the detonator that would open the hatch. As he laid back on the vessel’s sofa, though, he heard something – a thud. That sound indicated that the door had, in fact, detonated. The cover flew off and blew away, leaving the space pilot and his capsule exposed to the open water.

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Soon enough, saltwater started pouring in through the hatch and into the space capsule. Without help, the Liberty Bell 7 would sink into the ocean. As for how the door blew in the first place, Grissom didn’t recall activating it. But he had no time to recollect his movements – he had to get out of the vessel.

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Realizing the danger posed by the sinking capsule, Grissom grabbed onto the Liberty Bell 7’s instrument panel. Then, he escaped the vessel through the blown-open hatch. He got into the water, where a hovering helicopter pilot saw him swimming away and into the open ocean. It appeared the astronaut was okay, so the pilot directed his aircraft to the stricken spacecraft , which he hoped to save.

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Grissom watched as the helicopter struggled to ensnare and lift up the sinking spacecraft. So, he paddled back to try and assist. In doing so, he realized something even more terrifying than the fact that his former vessel had started to disappear beneath the waves. He, too, had begun to lose buoyancy.

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The first NASA helicopter left Grissom without a rescue line, which would have been fine if his suit hadn’t begun leaking air. The astronaut was now losing his ability to float, and swimming became difficult. He wondered why no one had tried helping him yet. And, as a result, became frightened and angry as he fought to stay above the waves.

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But a second helicopter soon swooped in to help Grissom. He even recognized one of the crew members as the aircraft flew in closer. That man, George Cox, flung a lifeline to the astronaut who wrapped himself up in the sling-style rescue tool. Nevertheless, the waves pushed him under twice more.

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With that, Grissom was saved – but he quickly found himself in hot water once again. This time, though, the problem was that some wondered if the space pilot had actually triggered the hatch’s release himself. He maintained that the exit had opened on its own, but it could have been an accidental detonation, others argued. If that was the case, the astronaut could be held responsible for the loss of the Liberty Bell 7.

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As Project Mercury continued, another astronaut named Wally Schirra tried to prove Grissom’s side of the story. During one of his missions, Schirra purposely detonated the hatch manually, and he walked away with a hand injury from doing so. As the accused former pilot didn’t have any such mark, this experiment seemed to prove his innocence.

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It seems as though the Astronaut Office accepted Grissom’s side of the story. Which meant that he maintained his spot in the rotation for space flights. He would later go on to helm a Gemini flight, as well as the inaugural flight in NASA’s Apollo program. And four years after he almost drowned, the pilot came up with a better explanation as to what happened with the hatch on his first Project Mercury journey

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Grissom recalled the vessel’s exterior lanyard, meant to allow emergency crews to pop open the hatch. He theorized that the cord had somehow gotten loose, which had initiated the door’s explosive release. Indeed, the device had only one screw to keep it in place – in the rocky seas, perhaps it was knocked loose.

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Grissom’s rescue, thankfully, had come quickly. But it would take nearly three more decades for the Liberty Bell 7 to return from the ocean. For one thing, it took 14 years to locate the vessel after all the time it had spent on the seabed. In the end, the Discovery Channel financed the mission to find the lost capsule.

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When the Discovery Channel-backed team located the Liberty Bell 7, they still had a ways to go to get it out of the water. In fact, they made a handful of failed attempts between 1992 and 1993. But it would be a whopping six additional years before they eventually pulled the sunken vessel from the depths of the ocean.

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Although the Liberty Bell 7 had sunk to a depth of about 16,000 feet, some of its 1960s charms remained. For starters, the Discovery Channel team found space-flight souvenirs and flight gear still on board the vessel. They also had to remove a built-in bomb meant to detonate if the capsule sank. This device, though, had clearly failed.

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After the craft’s rescue, a Kansas-based space museum, the Cosmosphere, brought the Liberty Bell 7 back to its premises. Once there, the capsule became a permanent display. Later, a national tour sent it around the country so that aviation aficionados everywhere could see one of the first vessels to have carried an American into space.

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As for that remarkable pilot, Grissom’s career in space would end in tragedy. As we saw, he later became the commander of the first manned Apollo mission. However, the simulator for that journey constantly malfunctioned, which bothered him. As a result, some called him “Gruff Gus” for his outspoken nature regarding the failing technology.

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Nevertheless, the second American in space continued to fulfill his Apollo-centric responsibilities. And on January 27, 1967, he and two other astronauts performed a launch test in the interior of the craft’s Command Module. But that section of the vessel caught fire for unknown reasons. Sadly, Grissom and his fellow crew members asphyxiated in the blaze.

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The astronaut’s tragic death, however, would not define NASA’s Apollo era. Instead, they continued toward their goal of putting a man on the moon. And they achieved it just two and a half years later, in July 1969. After such a huge success, it’s easy to assume that a passionate aviator like Grissom would be pleased that his hard work helped pave the way to such a monumental achievement.

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