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Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK


Sunk space capsule to be salvaged

Liberty Bell 7: The only successful US spacecraft never to have been recovered

The salvage crew which found a 38-year-old US spacecraft on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean have vowed to retrieve it within a month.

Expedition leader Curt Newport is surprised to have found the capsule
Their plans to raise the Liberty Bell 7 immediately were scuppered when rough seas snapped a cable, sending their remote-controlled submarine to join the spacecraft on the sea floor.

This occurred just hours after the spacecraft had been located 4.8 kilometres (three miles) below the ocean surface. Expedition leader, Curt Newport, said: "I can't think of a more perfect example of triumph and tragedy."

[ image: Grissom: Third man in space]
Grissom: Third man in space
When the crew returns to the site, 144km (90 miles) northeast of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, it will retrieve the Magellan 725 submersible before going after the spacecraft. "It's worth more," said Newport.

The Liberty Bell 7 carried Virgil "Gus" Grissom on a 15-minute suborbital flight on July 21, 1961, making him the second U.S. astronaut. But only 10 minutes after splashdown, it sank.

Apollo fire

Explosive bolts in the hatch, designed for an emergency, detonated and the 2.7m-tall (nine feet) spacecraft flooded. Grissom nearly drowned.

The cause of the accident has never been determined. Grissom, who died in 1967 in an Apollo launch pad fire, insisted that he had not made a mistake or panicked, as others have suggested.

[ image: Newport: Needs to find a new submersible to continue]
Newport: Needs to find a new submersible to continue
Two cameras and a tape recorder on the capsule could shed light on the mystery but the film is unlikely to have survived so long underwater.

The hatch door would reveal the answer. But finding the capsule itself was the culmination of 14 years research. Finding the door would be almost miraculous, as Newport estimates it could be as much as 1.6km (one mile) from the Liberty Bell 7.

Nonetheless, he plans to spend a day looking for it when he returns for the capsule and the sunken rover.

Spot on

Newport's expedition had pinpointed 88 possible targets in a 62 square kilometre (24 square mile) area prior to setting sail on April 19. The very first target they looked at with the submersible turned out to be the titanium and aluminum capsule.

[ image: Liberty Bell 7 found off Great Abaco Island]
Liberty Bell 7 found off Great Abaco Island
The team followed a trail of the capsule's corroded heat shield up an underwater hill. That led them to the capsule, propped upright on the ocean floor.

"It looks to be in beautiful condition," said Mr Newport. The words "Liberty Bell 7" and "United States" are still clearly visible, a window is intact and even the scorch marks left by the exploding bolts can still be seen.

Lucky fall

"This was really a difficult thing to find," said Mr Newport. "The terrain down there means that had the capsule fallen somewhere else, it could easily have been obscured from the sonar and we may not have seen it at all."

Watch Liberty Bell 7's 1961 mission
"What we did was find something in water deeper than the Titanic and it's smaller than one of the Titanic's boilers," he said.

Mr Newport, a former space station worker, had made two previous attempts to find the capsule in 1992 and 1993. These failed due to lack of sophisticated enough equipment and time.

The successful mission has been funded by the Discovery Channel, a television company. The cost was at least "seven figures", in other words over $1m.

Nasa says there is no scientific merit to the proposed salvage but Mr Newport was ecstatic at the discovery. "I'd thought about what I would feel, what I would say at that moment," Newport said, but when the time came, all he did was sputter: "Oh my God!"

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