Searching For Grissom's Ship

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.: Aside from Challenger, it was the only ship NASA ever lost: the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule that carried astronaut Gus Grissom into space and back 38 years ago before sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic when its hatch blew and the capsule filled with water. Grissom made it -- he would die on the launching pad in 1967 when his Apollo capsule burst into flames -- but the Liberty Bell 7 has been the space program's Titanic ever since. Now underwater salvage expert Curt Newport, with some help from the Discovery Channel, sets sail Sunday on a two-week hunt in 3-mile-deep water about 300 miles offshore. "We have a pretty good idea where to look for it," Newport said Wednesday. "To say I'm cautiously optimistic is probably the right term."

TIME science writer Jeffrey Kluger says that even if Newport finds the capsule (and considering its tiny size, it won't be easy) he's not likely to solve the Grissom mystery: how did the hatch open? Grissom maintained until his death that it was a malfunction; Tom Wolfe, in "The Right Stuff," suggests Grissom panicked and "screwed the pooch." Kluger thinks the truth is in between. "I suspect that he bumped into the release by accident," he says. "Grissom, as well-trained a pilot as he was, is unlikely to have lost his nerve under pressure." But though the titanium capsule is likely to be well-preserved, Kluger guesses that any useful evidence, such as chemical traces or explosive powder, is long washed away.

Not that NASA, which quickly exonerated Grissom after the incident, particularly wants to know; this is a mission of reclamation, not investigation. "He's been dead for 32 years," says Kluger, "and died as one of NASA's and America's heroes. There's nothing NASA could gain from finding out now." And a little it could lose.