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Celebrations to mark 60 years since second suborbital spaceflight

The launch of Virgil "Gus" Grissom on NASA's Mercury-Redstone 4 suborbital mission from Cape Canaveral on July 21, 1961.
The launch of Virgil "Gus" Grissom on NASA's Mercury-Redstone 4 suborbital mission from Cape Canaveral on July 21, 1961. (Image credit: NASA)

As private spaceflight companies stand poised to launch their first crewed suborbital flights, celebrations are marking 60 years since the second U.S. astronaut made the short hop into space.

Coinciding with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic following in his footsteps, museums in Indiana and Kansas have scheduled events for the 60th anniversary of Virgil "Gus" Grissom's Mercury-Redstone 4 (opens in new tab) (MR-4) mission. On July 21, 1961, Grissom lifted off on an arching trajectory that reached 118 miles (190 km) above Earth before splashing down.

Grissom's 15-minute and 37-second flight aboard the Mercury capsule "Liberty Bell 7" was just the second time a NASA astronaut had flown into space (following Alan Shepard two months earlier).

Related: Photos from Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 spaceflight

"We are proud the Liberty Bell 7 is in our collection and eager to celebrate its place in history," said Mimi Meredith, senior vice president of communication and chief development officer at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. "There is much to be learned from LB7 and those who had the skills and tenacity to be early space explorers."

Grissom's successful mission ended with the hatch to his Mercury spacecraft malfunctioning and blowing early, letting ocean water flood into the capsule and almost costing him his life. Grissom survived, but the Liberty Bell 7 sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, where it remained for 38 years until a Cosmosphere-led expedition raised it off the seafloor.

Cosmosphere president and CEO Jim Remar will dive into the risks revealed by the Liberty Bell 7 mission, along with insights into the Mercury program goals and objectives, during a free presentation at the museum on July 15. His talk, "The Peril and Promise of Space Exploration," marks the in-person return of "Coffee at the Cosmo," a quarterly speaker series that includes hot drinks and pastries.

Astronaut Gus Grissom's Mercury capsule, Liberty Bell 7, on display at the Cosmosphere space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. (Image credit: Cosmosphere)

The hour-long event will be streamed live on the Cosmosphere's Facebook page beginning at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT).

Remar will also discuss Liberty Bell 7 on the same day as the 60th anniversary of its flight (July 21) as part of "Mercury to Artemis: Celebrating the Past and Future of Space Travel," a free presentation for museum visitors that will include a virtual appearance by a NASA representative. The Cosmosphere's conservators restored the spacecraft after its four decades underwater.

The 12:30 p.m. (CDT) talk is part of a day-long celebration (opens in new tab), which will also offer a free artifact scavenger hunt and limited edition Liberty Bell 7 60th anniversary t-shirts and patches for purchase.

mercury-redstone-4-grissom-60th-events02 — The Cosmosphere space museum in Kansas will offer limited edition Liberty Bell 7 shirts and patches on the 60th anniversary of the July 21, 1961 suborbital spaceflight. (Image credit: Cosmosphere via collectSPACE.com)

In addition to the Cosmosphere's activities, Grissom's flight will be remembered in his hometown of Mitchell, Indiana. Spring Mill State Park, which includes the astronaut's memorial, has scheduled a "Gus Grissom Weekend (opens in new tab)" for Saturday, July 17 and Sunday, July 18.

"Celebrate our hometown hero, astronaut Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom with us," the park announced on its website.

Dedicated in 1971, the memorial displays the Gemini 3 capsule flown by Grissom in 1963, as well as items from his personal and professional life. For the weekend celebration, "hidden artifacts" rarely seen by the public will be added to the exhibit.

Other activities scheduled for the two-day event include a talk by Ray Boomhower, author of the 2004 book, "Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut" (opens in new tab); a chance to sample space food; stargazing; and model rocket launches.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
Robert Z. Pearlman

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.