July 21, 1961 – NASA prepares for their second manned launch, a 15-minute suborbital shot designed to place astronaut Gus Grissom a hundred miles above the surface of the earth.
Everything went perfectly as space capsule “Liberty Bell 7”atop the Mercury-Redstone 4 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida and began her three hundred mile flight eastward over the Atlantic. Grissom initiated his reentry sequence at 120 miles altitude, sending the lone capsule plummeting back towards earth. Parachutes deployed at 21,000 feet, slowing the spacecraft in preparation for oceanic splashdown.
Liberty Bell 7 hit the water, heeling over in the swells. With recovery helicopters inbound, Grissom prepared to exit the capsule. Without warning, a “dull thud” sounded in the cabin as the hatch cover blew open and the spacecraft began taking on water. Things were beginning to go very, very wrong—if Grissom hadn’t already unbuckled his harness he might not have been able to escape as the craft began to sink. Abandoning the capsule, Grissom began to swim for his life.
The incoming helicopter pilot fell back on his training, focusing on the capsule rather than the swimming astronaut. But the craft had already taken on too much water, almost pulling the helicopter down with it as it sank. A second chopper moved in to pick up Grissom, who himself was struggling and began to sink due to an unsecured intake valve in his space suit.
Had Grissom panicked and blown the hatch without authorization? Independent inquiries did not believe so, despite the insistence of some within the engineering team. The administration sided with Grissom, keeping him in a command position during the future Gemini and Apollo projects. Liberty Bell 7 was deemed lost forever.