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Mercury Capsule Found

Thirty-eight years after it vanished into the Atlantic Ocean, the Mercury space capsule flown by astronaut Gus Grissom has been found in amazingly good condition, considering where it is.

Liberty Bell 7 (the only U.S. manned spacecraft ever lost following a successful mission) was discovered Saturday 300 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral, three miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic.

Salvagers will have to wait several more weeks, however, before they can exhume it. The underwater robotic rover that was used to identify and photograph the spacecraft sank in rough seas Saturday, putting recovery efforts on hold until a new vessel can be obtained.

Expedition leader Curt Newport said on his way back to port Sunday that he went from an emotional high when the capsule was located to an emotional low when the recovery vessel sank, all in a matter of hours.

"I can't think of a more perfect example of triumph and tragedy," he said in a ship-to-shore news conference arranged by the Discovery Channel, which is funding the mission.

Before its tether snapped, the remotely operated submersible sent back haunting video of the capsule.

Still shiny in spots, the spacecraft is propped upright on a sandy knoll, its window and parachute liner still intact and its periscope still extended. The words "United States" and "Liberty Bell" are visible.

Newport said he also could see the fake crack that was painted on the exterior of Liberty Bell 7 to replicate its namesake, as well as the singe marks left by the explosives that blew out the hatch following splashdown on July 21, 1961.

The explosives detonated too soon, and the spacecraft took on so much water that helicopter rescuers could not lift it from the sea. Grissom nearly drowned, but was pulled to safety.

The mishap forever marred Grissom's otherwise successful 15-minute suborbital flight, which was the nation's second manned space shot. The astronaut, who went on to fly in Gemini, insisted until his death in the 1967 Apollo launch pad fire that he'd done nothing wrong.

Gus Grissom and Liberty 7 before his July 21, 1961 flight.

Some wondered at the time (and still do) whether Grissom bumped something or even panicked.

His widow, Betty Grissom, feels certain the hatch malfunctioned. In any case, she wishes the capsule was never found.

Mrs. Grissom said last month that she resents not being consulted from the start about the salvage effort and doesn't want the capsule to be restored at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Sace Center, as is the plan. That's where the capsule eventually will be put on display under an agreement with NASA and the Smithsonian Institution.

Finding Grissom's capsule wasn't easy.

Shortly after setting sail on April 19, Newport and his team struggled with a broken sonar. Once fixed, it uncovered 88 potential targets in a 24-square-mile area that Newport had pinpointed based on 14 years of analyzing NASA charts and photographs.

The first target they looked at with the camera-equipped rover turned out to be Liberty Bell 7.

Newport said the team followed the decomposed pieces of the capsule's heat shield up a hill. The trail of debris led them to the 7-foot titanium and aluminum capsule.

At first, Newport thought the dark, tall, conical object was airplane wreckage. He was stunned when he saw the words "United States."

"I remember saying, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it. That's it. We found it. This is it!' There was a lot of shaking hands and slapping each other on the back and just congratulating each other and just staring in disbelief at this spacecraft in front of us, us being the first ones to see it since 1961," he said.

Written by Marcia Dunn
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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