Anyone who has seen the 1983 film Good things You may remember the scene where astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom (played by actor Fred Ward) nearly drowned after the landing when the hatch of his Mercury capsule unexpectedly exploded, flooding the seawater spaceship.
The film – and Tom Wolfe’s book it was based on – suggest that Grissom panicked and manually triggered the explosive bolts that open the hatch, despite the astronaut’s insistence on debriefings after his 1961 flight that ‘it was caused by a mechanical malfunction.
Despite Grissom’s apparent justification in a NASA post-flight review, the issue of the blown-up hatch persisted, at least in the public mind – in large part thanks to Good things.
Now, new evidence has emerged to support Grissom’s account.
Static electricity may be to blame
George Leopold, who wrote a biography of Grissom, and Andy Saunders, space photography expert and author, write in Astronomy magazine that they believe the mystery can be solved once and for all.
Researchers say that before his death in 2020, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. John Reinhard, who was co-pilot of the recovery helicopter sent to retrieve Grissom and the Mercury capsule, said he recalled seeing something unusual just before a pole is extended to cut an antenna. on the spacecraft as part of the locking procedure on the capsule.
“When I hit the antenna there was an arc,” Reinhard said. “At the same time, the hatch came off. A static charge may have built up. [the hatch] disabled. “
Static electricity is a known problem for spacecraft after reentry. The authors note that salvage expert Curt Newport, who retrieved Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 capsule from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1999, said the capsule’s hatch mechanism likely contained mercury fulminate, a compound that can be triggered by a static charge. . A NASA manual “makes several references to static electricity as a safety issue,” Leopold and Saunders write. “The manual also urges designers to ‘prevent inadvertent initiation’ of spacecraft pyrotechnics by ‘electrostatic discharge’.”
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Francis French and Colin Burgess, write in their book In this silent sea that “the astronaut had to activate a switch to arm the mechanism. … a recovery loop on top of the capsule became the trigger. When the recovery helicopter’s lifting cable was hooked to the loop, the pressure created by lifting the capsule triggered the mechanism and blew up the hatch. “
Leopold and Saunders say their analysis of the improved images corroborates Reinhard’s sequence of events – that the hatch activated before the helicopter hooked onto the capsule (shown by the grainy images below, say) they).
They conclude that the arc seen by Reinhold was an electric shock that caused the hatch firing mechanism to malfunction.
The sinking may have sealed Grissom’s fate years later
Years after his Mercury mission, Grissom – a test pilot who flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War before joining NASA – was chosen to command the first two-person flight in the Gemini program. He was to do the same for Apollo 1 when he and two other astronauts were killed in a fire that swept through their capsule during a ground test.
With Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 flight in mind, the engineers designing the Apollo spacecraft opted to omit an explosive hatch on it and instead install a manual hatch that could only be opened by ground personnel. . Tragically, some speculate that could have prevented Grissom and his teammates, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, from exiting their Apollo 1 spacecraft in the sudden fire that killed them in 1967.