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Salvaging A Piece Of History

Like a ghost, the Mercury space capsule emerged from its 38-year-old grave at the bottom of the sea and came back to shore Wednesday to begin a new life as a monument to space exploration.

An underwater salvage team spent eight hours in darkness late Monday and early Tuesday reeling in the Liberty Bell 7 flown in 1961 by astronaut Gus Grissom, the second American in space.

The 7 1/2-foot aluminum-and-titanium spacecraft arrived by ship at Kennedy Space Center this morning, the 38th anniversary of its sinking after splashdown. It was strapped inside a steel container that was lifted by crane onto the dock and opened.

Â"It brings back a lot of emotion,Â" said Lowell Grissom, 65, the late astronaut's younger brother, who was on hand for the unveiling. Â"This was the only craft that Gus didn't bring home, and he would be extremely pleased that Liberty Bell 7 is back.Â"

Through the opening of the capsule's missing hatch could be seen dangling wires and a pile of corroded rubble, along with gray and green fabric straps that held Grissom and his parachute in place during the flight.

Â"This is pleasure,Â" Max Ary said today as he sprayed water onto the capsule to keep the chunks of corrosion from hardening in the hot sun. Â"This spacecraft, there's not a day that's gone by in the last 20 years that I haven't thought about it.Â"

Ary is president of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kan., which will clean and eventually house the capsule.

Betty Grissom, the astronaut's widow, said Wednesday she's still against the restoration and irritated that NASA has yet to comment publicly on the Liberty Bell 7 discovery. Â"This restoring is just out of control,Â" she said in a phone interview from her Houston home.

Expedition leader Curt Newport, who watched the capsule complete its three-mile trip back to the surface, described the experience Tuesday as similar to traveling through time.

Â"When we were diving on it, it was on the bottom, it was still 1961. When we got it up to the surface, all of a sudden it was 1999. So it was almost like having this thing punch to the surface through some type of time portal or something,Â" he said in a ship-to-shore news conference.

The capsule sank after splashdown on July 21, 1961, when its hatch blew open prematurely and it filled with water.

Grissom narrowly escaped drowning, and insisted until his death in a 1967 Apollo launch-pad fire that he did nothing to cause the hatch to blow.

The mishap forever marred Grissom's otherwise successful 15-minute suborbital flight, which was the nation's second manned space shot.

Newport's team did not find the capsule's hatch, which could have shed light on whether its explosive bolts malfunctioned or whether Grissom activated them prematurely.

Once Liberty Bell 7 was aboard the recovery ship, Newport rummaged through the spacecraft, which ha a sulfurous odor. He and a colleague found seven Mercury dimes Grissom carried into space as souvenirs.

After the capsule is cleaned at the Cosmosphere, the Discovery Channel, which financed the multimillion-dollar expedition, will take it on a three-year tour before returning it to the Kansas museum for display.

Newport located the spacecraft on May 1, about 300 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral. But he had to leave it there when the cable to the expedition's robot vessel snapped in rough seas.

When Newport finally located it again this month, the ship's robot vessel was used to attach a sling to the capsule. Then, sturdy Kevlar cord was used to reel in the capsule, which weighed about 3,000 pounds with the water inside.

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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