December 12, 1999
— On July 21, 1961, Virgil Grissom made history as the second Mercury astronaut launched into space. His 16-minute sub-orbital flight in the capsule Liberty Bell 7 was a success — but a series of surprises after splashdown nearly cost Grissom his life and left the NASA spacecraft sinking to the ocean floor.
After landing in the Atlantic Ocean, 300 miles from Cape Canaveral, Liberty Bell 7's explosive-powered hatch was jettisoned prematurely, flooding the vehicle and Grissom's spacesuit. A Marine rescue helicopter, unable to lift the waterlogged capsule, had to let it go. The Liberty Bell 7 quickly sank out of sight. Grissom was lifted to safety in a valiant effort, but his spacecraft remained lost at the bottom of the Atlantic — the only manned spacecraft that NASA never recovered.
Nearly 40 years later, the Discovery Channel funded and filmed an expedition to locate and recover this lost part of U.S. space history as part of their Expedition Adventure initiative. The results are chronicled in a two-hour film, In Search of Liberty Bell 7, which makes its world television premiere on Discovery Channel on Sunday, December 12 from 9-11 PM and midnight-2 AM ET/PT. The program is narrated by actor James Earl Jones.
Woven throughout this expedition is the story of the U.S. efforts to conquer space. In Search features interviews with Mercury astronauts Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra, who share their thoughts on being the pioneers in the U.S. space program.
Scientists, engineers, and key NASA personnel provide additional insight into the Liberty Bell 7 story. Guenter Wendt, the NASA Pad Leader who strapped Grissom into the capsule, recalls being one of the last to see Grissom before liftoff. And Jim Lewis, the helicopter pilot who tried to recover the capsule in 1961, recounts his experience in the rescue effort. The film also takes an in-depth look at Grissom's roll as a Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut as well as his personal life through discussions with his brother, Lowell.
The film sets sail to recover the Liberty Bell 7 with leader Curt Newport, a salvage and Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) expert, and his crew, from Port Canaveral, Florida. Newport, who for 14 years dreamed of finding the Liberty Bell 7, previously worked on such well-known underwater search-and-recovery missions as TWA Flight 800 and the space shuttle Challenger. He has also piloted ROVs for the Discovery Channel's expeditions to the RMS Titanic.
Newport used computer model and state-of-the-art tools, including underwater sonar, to locate the elusive capsule — a "needle in a haystack" endeavor. Following years of extensive research, Newport determined that the capsule was located somewhere in a 24-square-mile area 90 miles northeast of the Bahamas in water that was three miles deep, more than half a mile deeper than the RMS Titanic. "To reach this depth you'd have to stack 11 Empire State Buildings on top of each other," Newport explains.
After seven days of scanning the seafloor with sonar and narrowing their search to a high probability area, Newport and his team get lucky, finding the Liberty Bell 7 capsule on their first try out of a possible 88 targets. Viewers will witness dramatic footage shot by the underwater camera attached to the Magellan ROV as it first spies the Liberty Bell 7 on the ocean floor — the stenciled words "United States" still legible on its side. Newport's glee in locating the capsule is cut short in another dramatic turn as rough seas sever the ROV's umbilical tether and it sinks to the ocean floor.
In Search continues with Newport's second expedition, mounted several weeks later to recover the Liberty Bell 7. A new ROV called Ocean Discovery is built in record time so that this expedition can get underway before hurricane season. Joining Newport's team this time are Wendt and Lewis who hope to witness the recovery of this lost piece of space history.
In an ironic sequence of events, Newport and his team pull the Liberty Bell 7 capsule out of the water on July 20, 1999, the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing. By further coincidence, the capsule arrives in Port Canaveral on July 21, 1999, 38 years to the day of Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 flight on July 21, 1961. Waiting at the Port to see the capsule is Lowell Grissom, who brings closure to the Liberty Bell 7 story, "I think Gus would be really pleased to see Liberty Bell back home. [It's] the only craft that he didn't bring back."
Liberty Bell 7 is currently undergoing restoration efforts at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, the facility that has restored major artifacts for organizations such as the National Air and Space Museum and NASA. When work is complete, Discovery Channel will take the capsule on a three-year, state-of-the-art touring exhibition titled Liberty Bell 7 Recovered. Discovery Exhibits, in association with BBH Exhibits, Inc. is producing Liberty Bell 7 Recovered, which is set to launch in mid-2000. Following its tour, the capsule will return to the Cosmosphere and Space Center for permanent display in the Hall of Space Museum.
In spring 1998, Discovery Channel launched Expedition Adventure, its most ambitious programming initiative to date. Discovery Channel funds and films expeditions to make important scientific or historic discoveries and to be the first to capture them on film.
In Search of Liberty Bell 7 is produced for Discovery by Partisan Pictures. Peter Schnall is executive producer. Discovery's executive producer is Suzy Geller Wolf. The executive in charge of the production is Mike Quattrone. Co-sponors include Lincoln, Kodak, Fidelity Investments, Relenza and Hewlett-Packard.