• Visitors to the Kansas State Fair look at the Liberty Bell 7 capsule in the Oz Gallery building Friday, Sept. 15, 2006 an Hutchinson, Kan. The capsule will be displayed at the fair until Sunday and then permanently at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. 

  • The restored capsule on display after returning to the Cosmosphere.

Liberty Bell 7 splashes down at fair before returning to Cosmosphere

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Houston, Liberty Bell 7 is home.

Sorta.

On Friday morning, the Mercury spacecraft ended a six-year national tour and reached its final destination: Hutchinson. Its permanent home will be in the lower-level Hall of Space Museum at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, 1100 North Plum.

Before settling Monday into its spot at the Cosmosphere, though, Liberty Bell 7 is taking a detour to Oz.

Visitors on the final weekend at the Kansas State Fair can see - but not touch - the historic spacecraft on display at the fairgrounds' Oz Gallery. Corporate sponsor AT&T contributed $12,000 to help cover shipping costs from the capsule's previous exhibit in Florida to Kansas, and will hand out 25,000 wooden coins on a first-come, first-serve basis at the fair. One side of the coin bears the Liberty Bell 7 logo, with the AT&T logo on the reverse side.

"We hope they last for two days," said Richard Shank, director for external affairs at AT&T, who thinks the spacecraft will be "a great draw" for the fair.

With astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom aboard, Liberty Bell 7's suborbital flight lasted 15 minutes on July 21, 1961. The capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda. The hatch burst open prematurely and water swamped the capsule, making it impossible for the recovery helicopter to lift the craft. Grissom was plucked from the ocean, but Liberty Bell 7 sank to the ocean floor.

The capsule was retrieved from the Atlantic on July 20, 1999 - 38 years after the flight. The Discovery Channel financed the recovery project, and then-Cosmosphere president and chief executive officer Max Ary was on board the ship when the craft was raised.

The Cosmosphere restored Liberty Bell 7, which is part of its permanent collection.

"Every one of the approximately 25,000 parts was removed, disassembled, cleaned and then put back together," according to the exhibit's accompanying history.

bell091606 Dale Capps, right, of Spaceworks' restoration team, unveils the Liberty Bell 7 in the Oz Gallery building Friday at the Kansas State Fair. The capsule will be displayed at the fair until Sunday. It will then reside permanently at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.Photo Travis Morisse

After restoration, the encased Liberty Bell 7 embarked in 2000 on a six-year tour that included stops in Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Phoenix, Denver, Oakland, Hutchinson and Oklahoma City. It was displayed twice at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., including immediately prior to its shipping via truck back to Kansas.

With the aid of a forklift, the case was moved Friday morning into the Oz Gallery's west entrance.

"We just read a story this week about space," said Morgan Elementary School second-grade teacher Sarah Nicks, pleased that a student field trip Friday coincided with the capsule's arrival.

"This is special to us because we did preserve it," said Jim Franko, retail development manager at the Cosmosphere and part of the preservation crew in 1999.

"We'll probably do another case," he said, because the well-traveled case is "showing its wear."

The new case, Franko said, probably would have more glass than frame.

The fair ends Sunday and on Monday morning, weather permitting; a crane is scheduled to lower Liberty Bell 7 into the Cosmosphere.

"For us, that's going to be a big day, a big milestone," said Cosmosphere president Jeff Ollenburger.

"We'll get the case apart and do an inspection."

Officially, public display of the returned Liberty Bell 7 starts Tuesday, but Monday afternoon visitors to the Cosmosphere very likely will see the capsule.

About four or five trucks carrying the rest of the Liberty Bell 7 exhibit will arrive in Hutchinson later in the week, Ollenburger said.