Cape Canaveral, Florida
Launch Complex 5
July 21, 1961
John Glenn woke first. He turned to the figure in the other bed and shook him awake. Gus Grissom rolled over. The bedside lamp went on with a click. Grissom blinked sleepily in the sudden light. The two men showered and shaved in turn, then sat down to a low residue breakfast of steak, eggs, toast, coffee and orange juice. After breakfast, Grissom walked down the hall from the astronauts’ quarters to the examination room. After his medical examination, Grissom donned the 20 pound rubber and nylon space suit that would keep him alive in the event of an explosive decompression.
An hour later the transfer van pulled up at the base of the Redstone missile. Grissom got and rode the elevator up to the Green Room. The mood among the pad technicians was different this time. Grissom felt the electricity in the air, but gone was the sense of tension that had proceeded Shepard’s flight. The technicians preparing Grissom’s spacecraft for the flight were the same men, but they were also different. They walked taller and worked with more confidence. Shepard had given them legitimacy and Kennedy had given them purpose and it showed.
Grissom squeezed through the tiny hatch into the cramped cockpit. The technicians strapped him into the form fitted seat and connected him to the spacecraft’s life support and communication systems. He began running through his pre-flight checklist, while the pad crew manoeuvred the hatch into position and sealed Grissom into the spacecraft. The technicians evacuated pad and the gantry was withdrawn.
Grissom heard a voice in his ear begin the terminal countdown.
Flames poured from the engine bells of the Redstone rocket. Grissom felt a hand on his chest as the rocket began to rise off the pad.
Grissom heard Deke Slayton’s voice in his ear. “Lift off.”
“Roger that,” said Grissom. “I read you loud and clear.”
“Tower clear,” said Shepard. “I read you loud and clear, try not to cry Jose.”
“Okey doke,” replied Grissom
The Redstone rocket soared high into the clear Florida sky. “It’s a nice ride,” said Grissom. “Ok, the fuel is go; about 1.2 Gs. Cabin pressure is just coming off the peg, the O2 is go, main power bus is reading 26 amps.”
“Roger that, Liberty Bell 7,” said Shepard. “Pitch is 88 degrees. Your trajectory is holding steady.”
“Roger that, Control,” Grissom. “Looks good here.” The rocket began to buffet wildly in the air currents of the upper atmosphere. “Ok, here. We’re starting to pick up a little bit of noise and vibration, but over all it’s not bad. Fuel is go. 1.2 Gs, cabin pressure is at 8 PSI, oxygen is go, power is holding steady at 27 amps”
“Roger that, Liberty Bell 7,” said Shepard, “pitch is 77. Trajectory is go.”
“Copy, Control,” answered Grissom. “Cabin pressure is at 6 PSI and dropping. Looks to be holding at around 5.5.”
“Acknowledged, Liberty Bell 7,” replied Shepard. “Confirm cabin pressure holding at 5.5 PSI.”
“Roger, roger,” said Grissom. “Fuel is go. 2.5 Gs, cabin pressure is 5.5. Oxygen is still go. Main bus is isolated at-,” Grissom had been about to say, “25,” but the needle flickered upward at that moment. “Check that,” he said. “Confirm primary power bus at 28 amps.”
“Confirmed,” said Shepard. “Pitch is holding steady at 62 degrees. Your trajectory is good, right down the middle of the range.”
“Roger,” answered Grissom. “Everything looks good on this end. Cabin pressure is holding steady. Suit pressure is green. 4 Gs at two minutes in to the flight, fuel is go.” Grissom nudged the pistol grip joystick. He felt the spacecraft respond immediately. “Manual control is AOK. Cabin pressure is holding, oxygen is go.”
“Roger that,” said Shepard. “Stand by for engine cut off.”
“Acknowledged, Control,” said Grissom. Pop! Pop! Pop! The explosive bolts holding the escape tower to the rocket fired. Whoosh! The solid rocket motors ignited and the escape tower soared clear of the spacecraft. Grissom blinked as bright sunlight streamed into the cockpit. “Confirm tower jettison,” he said.
“Copy that,” said Shepard.
Bang! Grissom was suddenly thrown forward against his seat restraints, as the explosive bolts holding the spacecraft the rocket fired. On the instrument panel in front of him, the CAP SEP light clicked on. “Confirm capsule separation,” he said. As he spoke, the role, pitch and yaw indicators began to move. “The turn around has started,” said Grissom. “Switching to manual control.”
“Copy that,” said Shepard.
Grissom hazarded a look out of his cockpit window. He couldn’t see anything, except for an infinite expanse of inky black sky. “The sky is very, very black,” he said. “The capsule is coming around to orbital attitude. The roll rate is a little sluggish.”
“Roger,” said Shepard. “Have you seen any sign of the booster?”
“Negative,” replied Grissom. “I haven’t seen it any place.” He turned his attention back to his instruments. “Command rate is coming up, and I am on orbit attitude.”
“Orbit attitude confirmed,” said Shepard.
“Roger,” said Grissom. “I’m pitching up to 40- stand by.” The read out on the roll indicator had suddenly changed. “I’ve lost some roll someplace. Switching to manual.”
“Roger,” said Shepard.
Grissom reached up and turned a knob labelled FLIGHT CONTROL from AUTO to MANUAL.
“Confirm manual control,” replied Shepard.
“Ok, Control,” said Grissom, “I have control back. I am at 24 degrees pitch.”
“Copy that, Liberty Bell 7,” said Shepard, “your impact point is right on the money.”
“Copy that, Control,” replied Grissom. He was still fighting with the erratic roll rates. Every time he straightened out the spacecraft’s trajectory, it drifted off course again. “Control, Liberty Bell 7, I am still have trouble with the roll rate. It’s more sluggish than I expected.”
“Roger that,” said Shepard.
Grissom began moving the hand controller systematically through all three axis. “If I can get her stabilized then all three axis should be all right.”
“Roger that,” said Shepard.
Grissom continued to work the hand controller. “Ok, I’m yawing left.”
“Roger left yaw,” said Shepard.
“Control, Liberty Bell 7,” said Grissom, “Its still responding sluggishly. I am going to skip the roll because I’m a little bit late and I’m going to try this rough yaw maneuver.” He chanced another look out the window. “About all I can really see is clouds. I haven’t seen land anyplace yet.”
“Roger that,” said Shepard. “Are you trying the yaw maneuver?”
“Affirmative,” responded Grissom. “I am trying the yaw manuever and looking out the window.” The east coast of the United States was sliding silently past Grissom’s widow. “It’s such a fascinating view out the window you just can’t help but look out that way.”
“Roger that, Liberty Bell 7. You are at 4 plus 30.”
“Copy that, Control, I’m returning to retro attitude.”
“Roger that, Liberty Bell 7,” said Shepard. “You are go for retro attitude.”
“Acknowledged,” said Grissom, “retro sequence is green.” Thud! Thud! Thud! The staccato vibrations of the retro rockets rippled through the spacecraft. “Retro 1,” said Grissom.
“Roger,” said Shepard. “Retro 1 firing.”
“Retro 2, retro 3,” said Grissom.
“Copy that,” said Shepard. “All three retros are fired.”
“Roger,” said Grissom. He pushed a button on the control panel in front of him. “Switching retro jettison to ARM.”
“Confirm retro jettison,” replied Shepard. “Switch to rate command.”
“Copy that, Control, switching to RATE COMMAND.” Grissom flipped a switch. Static crackled in Grissom’s ear. “Control, Liberty Bell 7, I am switching the high frequency antenna.” Grissom turn a knob and the static subsided.
“Copy that, Liberty Bell 7,” said Shepard. “Switching to HF antenna. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. How do you read?”
On the ground in Mercury Control, Alan Shepard caught pieces of a garbled transmission. He keyed his mike. “Liberty Bell 7, Capcom, com check, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. How do you read.?”
“Lib…ell 7, here do you read me on HF?” Grissom was coming in, but only barely. Another burst of static hissed Shepard’s ear. “Switching back to U….” More static. “I am back on UHF…ret…jettisoned.”
Shepard got on the Flight Director’s loop. “Capcom, Flight. Let’s switch over to the UHF antenna. He’s coming very garbled.”
“Copy that, Capcom,” said Chris Kraft.
Liberty Bell 7
Grissom tried again. “Control, Liberty Bell 7, I am on the UHF antenna. Do you copy?” Grissom thought he heard Shepard’s voice in his ear, but it was very staticy. He switched back to the high frequency antenna and tried again. “Control, Liberty Bell 7, please respond.”
Shepard’s voice came through crystal clear. “Liberty Bell 7, this Mercury Control. I read you 5 by 5. Can you confirm retro jettison?”
“Copy that, Control,” said Grissom. “Retros are away.”
“Roger that,” said Shepard. “Stand by for re-entry attitude.”
“Copy,” said Grissom. “Switching to re-entry attitude.” He twitched the hand controller and the Earth pin-wheeled in the window. The spacecraft’s heat shield was now facing in the direction of travel, and Grissom felt as though he were flying backwards. He also began to feel the gentle and persistent tug of gravity as the broad, blunt base of the spacecraft began to bight into the atmosphere.
“Liberty Bell 7,” said Shepard, “your impact point is right on.”
“Roger,” said Grissom. “How does it look out the window?”
“It’s hard to tell,” replied Grissom. “The sun is shining directly into the cockpit All I can see is darkness. The sky is very black.” That wasn’t quite true though. As the leading edge of the heat shield bit into the upper fringes of the atmosphere, friction, which created a cloud of plasma to surround the spacecraft, began to build. As it did, static built up and began to interfere with the radio channel. “Control, Liberty Bell 7, how do you read?”
“Liberty Bell 7,” said Shepard, “I read you 5 by 5.” Shepard’s voice was distant, but still clear. “How do you feel up there?”
“I feel very good, Control,” said Grissom. “Auto fuel is 90, manual is 50.”
“Acknowledged,” said Shepard. “0.05 Gs in ten seconds.” As the spacecraft dropped, the horizon climbed. The sky gradually began to fade from pitch black to a deep blue. Gossamers streams of ionized gas painted pink and orange streaks against the blue-black background. The G force indicator ticked upward. “Now reading 0.05 Gs,” said Grissom. In the steadily increasing gravity, Grissom felt the spacecraft begin to corkscrew. Outside his window, the horizon shifted again. “Roll program initiated,” he said.
“Roger,” said Shepard.
“Confirm pitch program,” said Grissom. “I can feel the G forces building.”
Grissom felt as though an elephant was standing on his chest. He was pinned in his seat and could barely move. “Control, Liberty Bell 7, G force indicator is pegged off scale at 10 Gs.” Grissom spoke through gritted teeth. He had to fight the enormous G forces to get it out. As he continued drop through the atmosphere, the sky began to change from black to deep blue and gradually to a lighter blue. At the same time, the G forces acting on the spacecraft began to decrease. “Control, Liberty Bell 7, my altimeter is active. I am currently at 65,000 feet and falling. G force indicator is reading 7 Gs.”
“Acknowledged,” said Shepard. “Confirm altitude at 65,000 feet and 7 Gs.”
Grissom felt the pressure on his chest ease as the G forces minimized. The spacecraft rocked back and forth, buffeted by eddies and air currents in the upper atmosphere. “I am experiencing contrails and shockwaves. I am at 50,000 feet. Everything is AOK. All systems are in the green.”
“Copy that,” responded Shepard. The spacecraft continued to fall.
45, 000 feet.
40, 000 feet.
35, 000 feet.
30, 000 feet.
“Liberty Bell 7, this is Capcom, how do you read?”
“Capcom, Liberty Bell 7, I read you 5 by 5,” said Grissom. “I am at 25,000 feet and approaching DROGUE DEPLOY altitude.”
“Roger that,” said Shepard.
The spacecraft jerked hard and slowed perceptible. The DROGUE DEPLOY light clicked on. “There goes the drogue,” said Grissom.
“Confirm good drogue,” said Shepard. “Liberty Bell 7, how do you read?”
“I read you loud and clear,” said Grissom. “My altitude is 13,000 feet.”
“Acknowledged,” said Shepard.
The spacecraft jerked again and swayed back and forth. The MAIN CHUTE DEPLOY light glowed green. “There goes the main chute,” said Grissom. “Control, Liberty Bell 7, main chute is good, rate of descent is 32 feet per second. Landing bag is green.”
“Copy that, Liberty Bell 7,” said Shepard.
Grissom heard a new voice cut in on the air to ground loop. “Liberty Bell 7, this is Atlantic Ship Capcom. We read you 5 by 5. Our telemetry downlink confirms your events.”
“Copy that, Atlantic Ship Capcom,” said Grissom.
“Liberty Bell 7, we read you loud and clear, your status is good and your systems are green.”
“Roger, Atlantic Ship Capcom,” said Grissom. “Confirm system status.” He flipped up a clear plastic cover and pushed a button marked FUEL DUMP. It depressed with an audible click. The fuel flowed out of the valves with a gurgling hiss.
“Liberty Bell 7, Atlantic Ship Capcom, confirm fuel dump.”
“Roger,” said Grissom. “Fuel dump confirmed. I’m passing through 6,000 feet. All systems are A-OK.”
The spotter plane broke in on the air to ground loop. “Liberty Bell 7, this is Cardfile 23. I am inbound to your position.”
“Copy that, Cardfile 23,” said Grissom, “I am passing through 3,000 feet. All fuses are in flight condition, stabilization and control system is normal, gyros are green, and squibs are armed. Telemetry and landing bag are set to AUTO. I am passing through clouds at 2,000 feet. All systems are in the green.”
The recovery chopper broke in. “Liberty Bell 7, this is Hunt Club 1, I am two miles southwest of you. I am inbound to your position on bearing 020.”
The spacecraft impacted the surface of the water with a jarring thud and splash. Grissom could hear the sound of sloshing waves, as the spacecraft wallowed in the ocean.
“Liberty Bell 7, this is Hunt Club 1. I am orbiting your position.”
“Roger, Hunt Club 1,” said Grissom. He opened a compartment and took out a grease pencil and several white boards. “Give me five more minutes. I need to mark these switch positions.”
“Copy, Liberty Bell 7, Hunt Club 1 standing by.”
Grissom spent the next several minutes marking down the instrument readings and the switch positions. He was lying back in his seat, disconnecting himself from the communication and life support systems. He pulled the pin out of the protective cover on top of the plunger that triggered the explosive bolts that released the hatch, but hadn’t actually removed the cover. He was waiting for the recovery chopper to hook on to the spacecraft when the hatch blew open with a dull thud! Cold seawater poured in through the open hatch and into the cockpit. Grissom was never able to remember exactly what he did next, but he later had confused recollections of launching himself out of his seat and through the hatch. Grissom landed in the water with a splash. He tasted salt water and was buffeted by the down draft from the recovery chopper hovering overhead. He felt a cold trickle inside his spacesuit and ran his hand over his fittings. In his haste to egress the spacecraft he must have forgotten to properly seal one of the valves that had pumped oxygen into his spacesuit during the flight. He felt the cold sensation of rising water inside his spacesuit. He also felt his suit becoming heavier as he began to sink. He waved his hands over his head. “HEY!” but the helicopter pilot misinterpreted his meaning and moved to try to pick the spacecraft, which was rapidly filling with water. Grissom tried to get their attention again. “HEY!” It was no good. The rescue choppers were still focused on trying to save the spacecraft, which was now too heavy for the helicopters to lift. It was released with a splash, and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Grissom was finally pulled, wet and bedraggled looking from the water.