Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Flight of Liberty Bell 7

On this date in 1961 Hoosier astronaut Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom became the second American and the third human to rocket into space as a Redstone rocket blasted his Libert Bell 7 spacecraft into a suborbital flight lasting approximately fifteen minutes.

Grissom's flight, however, is best known today for what happened after he successfully splashdowned in the Atlantic Ocean. As I noted in my biography of Grissom, written as part of the Indiana Historical Society Press's Indiana Biography Series, the astronaut was lying flat on his back waiting for the helicopter’s call that it had hooked onto the spacecraft, Grissom turned his attention for a second to the knife he had placed in his survival pack, wondering if he could carry it out with him as a souvenir instead of leaving it in the spacecraft. “I heard the hatch blow—the noise was a dull thud—and looked up to see blue sky out the hatch and water start to spill over the doorsill,” he told National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials. Acting on instinct, Grissom quickly tossed his helmet to the floor, grabbed the right side of the instrument panel, and exited the spacecraft. “I have never moved faster in my life,” he noted. “The next thing I knew I was floating high in my suit with the water up to my armpits.”

Inside NASA there existed “two vehement camps” with opinions on what happened. One side believed Grissom had either panicked or hit the switch by accident, causing the hatch to blow. Another faction pointed to some unknown problem with the machine and held the astronaut blameless for the accident.

The debate on the question of whether or not Grissom was to blame for the hatch’s firing seemed about to be put to rest for good in May 1999 when Curt Newport, whose twin passions as a child had been spaceflight and undersea exploration, found the long-abandoned spacecraft on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. In July, Newport, joined by Guenter Wendt, a German engineer known as the "Pad Leader" by American astronauts and Jim Lewis, the helicopter pilot on the original Liberty Bell 7 recovery, returned to the site and, at 2:15 a.m. July 20—thirty-eight years almost to the day it had been blasted into space—hoisted the capsule off of the ocean floor and onto the deck of the ship Ocean Project.

As a restoration team at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center cleaned and reassembled the spacecraft’s 27,000 separate parts, they discovered some intriguing material to help the case that Grissom had not panicked on his flight and prematurely blown the hatch. The museum team, which completed its work in March 2000, discovered Grissom’s waterlogged checklist, which had been about a third of the way completed before the hatch blew. “As far as I’m concerned, that checklist pretty much cleared Grissom of any wrongdoing in connection to what happened,” said John Glass, who supervised the capsule’s restoration at the Cosmosphere.

In addition, Greg “Buck” Buckingham, a key figure in the restoration effort, pointed out that there were no burn marks from the explosive cord that had been intended to trigger the hatch’s release. If the explosive cord never detonated, Buckingham theorized that the spacecraft had slammed hatch-down into the ocean when it returned to earth, causing a titanium strip along the hatch sill to buckle and the seventy explosive bolts to fire one by one. “Most telltale to me are the lack of burn marks,” said Buckingham.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Nominees Named for New Indiana Authors Award

The inaugural Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award recipient has been named. Indiana native James Alexander Thom was chosen as the national recipient, and finalists in all categories were named. The winning author in the regional and emerging author categories will each be named on September 26 among the finalists.

This new award seeks to recognize the contributions of Indiana authors to the literary landscape in Indiana and across the nation by the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library Foundation, and is funded by the generosity of The Glick Fund, a fund of Central Indiana Community Foundation.

Nominations were submitted from across the state in early spring. Any published writer who was born in Indiana or has lived in Indiana for at least five years was eligible. A seven-member, statewide Award Panel selected the national winner and finalists in three categories from the pool of publicly nominated authors:

• National Author - $10,000 prize: a writer with Indiana ties, but whose work is known and read throughout the country. National authors were evaluated on their entire body of work. Winner: James Alexander Thom; Finalists: Scott Russell Sanders and Margaret McMullan

• Regional Author - $7,500 prize: A writer who is well-known and respected throughout the state of Indiana. Regional authors were evaluated on their entire body of work. Finalists: Jared Carter, James H. Madison and Susan Neville

• Emerging Author - $5,000 prize: A writer with only one published book. Emerging authors were evaluated on their single published work. Finalists: Kathleen Hughes, Christine Montross and Greg Schwipps

Award finalists in all three categories will be honored on September 26, 2009 at the Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. The day’s events will include free public programming such as author lectures, “how to get published” workshops for aspiring writers, and more. An award dinner/fund raiser benefiting the Library Foundation will follow that evening where the winner of the Regional Author and Emerging Author categories will each be named. Thom will serve as the dinner’s keynote speaker. Ticket information for the award dinner is available by contacting the Library Foundation at (317) 275-4700.