Technology, History, and Place

Tag: Mercury program

The mystique of space relics

Sixty years ago today, on July 21, 1961, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom became the second American to fly into space. Like Alan Shepard in May, Grissom flew a suborbital trajectory, because the Mercury-Redstone booster that he was riding on was not powerful enough to put his capsule, Liberty Bell 7, into orbit. Grissom took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 7:20 in the morning and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean fifteen minutes later.

When Grissom was waiting for the recovery helicopter to come pick him up, the explosive hatch on the side of the capsule blew off. Grissom dove into the ocean as the capsule filled with water, and he nearly drowned as water entered his spacesuit. The recovery helicopter was unable to lift the waterlogged capsule, and the winch operator had to cut the capsule loose. Liberty Bell 7 disappeared beneath the waves and sank to the ocean bottom, more than 15,000 feet below.

That could be the end of the story for Liberty Bell 7, but it isn’t. In 1999, a team led by underwater salvage expert Curt Newport, in the culmination of fourteen years of effort, found Gus Grissom’s capsule on the ocean floor. The team raised the capsule from the depths and whisked it off to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center for conservation by the museum’s division Spaceworks. After conservation—and much media coverage—the Liberty Bell 7 went on a tour of science museums around the United States.

Some views of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule when it stopped in Denver in early 2003. I was lucky enough to see it twice on its first tour.

Some views of the Liberty Bell 7 on tour in Denver in early 2003. I was lucky enough to see it twice on its first tour.

The recovery of Liberty Bell 7 had cost millions of dollars, bankrolled by the Discovery Channel. Conservation cost another quarter-million. What was the point? Why go to the effort? There were a couple of reasons. One of them was that the recovery of Liberty Bell 7 presented a unique opportunity for a museum displaying American space artifacts. Because of an agreement between NASA and the Smithsonian Institution, all flown Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft belong to the National Air and Space Museum. A few of them are displayed in Air and Space’s two museums in the Washington, DC area, and the rest are on loan to other museums around the country. But since Liberty Bell 7 had been lost at sea, Air and Space had no claim on the capsule. Just like for any shipwreck, Liberty Bell 7 belonged to whoever wanted to go to the effort of retrieving it.

Another reason to recover Liberty Bell 7 was rarity. Between 1961 and 1975, American astronauts flew into space aboard a total of 31 Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini spacecraft. That might seem like a lot, but it isn’t when you consider how many cities and science and aerospace museums there are in the United States alone, not to mention the rest of the world. Every science museum would love to have a flown Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo capsule, but not every one can get one. Those that can’t have to make do with dressed-up boilerplates or replicas.

A third reason for going to such great lengths to recover Liberty Bell 7 has to do with how flight, and especially spaceflight, is understood as something magical in American culture. As Joseph Corn explains in The Winged Gospel, the early decades of the twentieth century were a period of widespread enthusiasm for flying in American culture. Americans believed that flight would usher in a technological utopia or millennium. Enthusiasm for flight declined after World War II when airplanes brought death and destruction rather than utopia, and when commercial flying became commonplace and banal.

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for aircraft, as well as spacecraft, persisted among some sub-cultures in the United States. To these people—generally pilot, aviation museum, and airshow types—aircraft made before a certain time (generally, World War II or earlier) were inherently historic, regardless of whether they had had anything to do with any great events. Museum restorationists obsessively preserved every last rivet and cotter pin of an aircraft while refurbishing it for display. Adventurers traveled to the ends of the earth (including the jungles of New Guinea and the ice cap of Greenland) to salvage World War II plane wrecks for restoration, sometimes even to flying condition.

If airplanes were magical and deserved this level of investment into their recovery, then spacecraft were doubly so, because they had flown higher and faster than planes, and were much rarer. Hence the recovery of Liberty Bell 7 at great expense. More recently, Amazon.com CEO and Wernher von Braun wannabe Jeff Bezos commissioned the recovery of the F-1 engines from the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11 to the moon, for much the same reasons as the recovery of Liberty Bell 7.

In a sad irony, while Liberty Bell 7 was recovered at great expense from the ocean depths for restoration and display, another of Gus Grissom’s spacecraft has never been put on display and maybe never will be. Grissom and two crewmates, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were scheduled to fly the AS-204 spacecraft, an Apollo Block I capsule, in early 1967. On January 27 of that year, during a simulation on the launch pad, a fire broke out in the capsule, killing Grissom, White, and Chaffee before the pad crew could get the spacecraft’s hatch open. The disaster prompted the redesign of the Apollo spacecraft into the safer Block II model. The Apollo 1 capsule (as AS-204 is retroactively known) remains in storage at NASA-Langley in Virginia.

The Apollo 1 capsule before the fire.

The Apollo 1 capsule before the fire. (NASA photo)

The prime crew of Apollo 1 posing with a model of their capsule (L-r): Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. (NASA photo)

The prime crew of Apollo 1 posing with a model of their capsule (L-R): Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. (NASA photo)

The original hatch of the AS-204 capsule was displayed at Kennedy Space Center in 2017, alongside an example of the redesigned and easier-to-open Apollo Block II hatch. This was the first time that any part of the capsule had been displayed publicly. (NASA photo)

The original hatch of the AS-204 capsule was displayed at Kennedy Space Center in 2017, alongside an example of the redesigned and easier-to-open Apollo Block II hatch. This was the first time that any part of the capsule had been displayed publicly. (NASA photo)

From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 1 “Can We Do This?” and Part 2 “Apollo One”

The first episode of From the Earth to the Moon, “Can We Do This?”, narrates the beginning of the race to the moon. The episode opens with Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space (sixty years ago next month) and the Americans’ reaction to it. The episode goes on to portray the first flight of the Mercury program and a couple of selected missions from Project Gemini: Gemini 4 (the first spacewalk), Gemini 8 (the first docking, followed immediately by a malfunction that caused the spacecraft to spin out of control), and Gemini 12 (the last mission of the program). When the episode ends, astronaut chief Deke Slayton calls the astronauts together to brief them on plans for a manned landing on the moon.

Narratively, the episode is a bit of a hodgepodge, but its main purpose is to set the stage for the stories to come in subsequent episodes. The four space missions featured in this episode all introduce a character who will play an important role in one or more of the later episodes. The first Mercury flight is piloted by Alan Shepard, who flies to the moon in the ninth episode. The spacewalker on Gemini 4 is Ed White, who dies in the Apollo 1 fire in the next episode. Neil Armstrong is on Gemini 8 and Buzz Aldrin on Gemini 12; they will be the first men to land on the moon in the sixth episode.

A much stronger episode – one of the best of the show – is Part 2, “Apollo One.” This episode tells the tragic story of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts during a ground test of the space capsule on January 27, 1967. The episode opens with a well-staged reenactment of the fire itself. The main plotline of the episode revolves around the investigation into the disaster and its repercussions within NASA and North American Aviation, the contractor that built the spacecraft.

The first thing that I noticed when watching these episodes for the first time in more than a decade was the production values. The show was produced for television in the late-nineties, and it looks dated now. Although the production values were higher than for full-season episodic television at the time, they are lower than for TV now. (Within the past ten years or so, TV shows have gotten into a production values arms race. The results are impressive but may not be sustainable.) The episodes are shot in the aspect ration 4:3, to fit on pre-HDTVs. Characters talk about things, or hear them on the radio, rather than seeing the events themselves. Events are also portrayed by stock footage or period photographs, with the show’s actors photoshopped in over the real people where necessary. The production clearly had limited resources, and sometimes it shows.

Two aspects of the episodes compare favorably to TV shows now: the music and some of the effects. The Mercury and Gemini spacecraft in the first episode are portrayed by physical models rather than CGI. Although the compositing isn’t always as good as it could be, the models look great. They have a physicality and even warmth that CGI models never seem to be able to match. As for the show’s music, it is beautiful and stirring and, what’s more, made with real instruments, not computers.

When watching the first two episodes, I noticed some errors that I had never seen before. They are nothing major, but they served as a reminder that I was, after all, watching a TV show made in the late nineties, not real space missions from the sixties. Here are two errors that I noticed:

  • In Part 1, Gemini 8 is over the Indian Ocean and heading east when it spins out of control. This is mentioned in a line of dialogue, and it is also shown on the map in Mission Control. And yet the effects shots show the spacecraft flying over the eastern Mediterranean, with the unmistakable island of Cyprus clearly visible!
  • Part 2 has some nice location shots from the Mall in Washington, DC. One is shot at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial near the Capitol and the other is shot at the other end of the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool. There are a couple of nineties-era cars visible in the background in these scenes.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén