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Ocean expedition hopes to salvage Mercury space capsule

Expedition leader Curt Newport, top, displays the undersea equipment to be used for the salvage mission; Grissom, bottom, poses beside the Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961  

April 17, 1999
Web posted at: 12:53 p.m. EDT (1653 GMT)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- Undersea salvage experts set off this weekend in search of a 38-year-old treasure -- the Mercury space capsule that sank after splashdown, nearly drowning astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom.

Liberty Bell 7 carried Grissom, the second American in space, on a 15-minute suborbital flight in 1961. The flight ended dramatically when the capsule's escape hatch blew off prematurely on splashdown.

Grissom, wearing his bulky spacesuit, bailed out as the capsule filled with water.

One recovery helicopter, tethered to the capsule, struggled to keep it afloat while a second chopper went for Grissom. He was rescued after struggling for four minutes to stay above water, but the Liberty Bell 7 sank into nearly three miles of water.

"Poor Gus was swimming for his life out there," said Howard Benedict, executive director of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation in Titusville, Florida.

Grissom told Benedict, an Associated Press reporter covering the space program at the time, that the incident shook him up.

"He said 'I did feel a little fear. I was a little scared,'" Benedict said. "As an astronaut or a test pilot, you never say you are scared of anything."

Third time's the charm?

Later, when he flew the first Gemini mission with John Young, Grissom called their capsule Molly Brown for the Broadway musical "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." The moniker was also a tip of the hat to the sunken Liberty Bell.

Grissom's luck ran out in 1967, when he died in a fire during a pre-flight test on the Apollo 1 launch pad. Fellow astronauts Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee also died in the blaze.

Grissom died without ever learning why his Mercury hatch blew off.

If the salvage mission -- funded by the Discovery Channel cable TV channel -- brings up the Liberty Bell, NASA hopes to study the craft and figure out what went wrong.

It's the third attempt to find the capsule, and the search is scheduled to last for two weeks. The exploration team will use side-scan sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle to search for the Liberty Bell, believed to be located somewhere near the Bahamas.

Miami Bureau Chief John Zarrella contributed to this report.

Glenn's Mercury mates cast wistful glance at Mars
October 29, 1998
30 years later, Apollo 1 astronaut gains Hall of Fame status
May 22, 1997
The Mercury 7: Heroes, rivals, brothers

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