Liberty Bell Rings for Discovery

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Discovery Channel does a top-notch job of weaving a tale of
two Mercury missions in In Search of Liberty Bell 7.

By now, dramatic undersea explorations are nothing new on
Discovery. And this one is seeking a piece of hardware that's just three decades old,
rather than centuries-old treasures like the statuary shown in the recent Cleopatra's
Palace
.

Still, executive producer/director Peter Schnall forms a
compelling narrative by flashing back periodically to 1961 and forward 38 years to 1999,
rather than recounting developments in a chronological straight line.

The commanding voice of James Earl Jones as narrator adds
considerably to the drama as the expedition unfolds.

And co-producer and writer Don Campbell piques interest
with such down-to-earth observations as noting that the explorers use sonar to "mow
the lawn" -- to find possible targets three miles down within a 24-square-mile box.

The Mercury capsule is far more difficult to find
than the Titanic, since it's "not much larger than a deck chair on the Titanic,"
Jones points out.

Luckily, the explorers' first target is the right one. As
their deep-sea vehicle moves along the barren seabed, its camera catches an eerie shadow
that turns out to be the capsule, standing upright and partly encrusted in barnacles.

From 1961, there's dramatic footage of Virgil (Gus) Grissom
being snatched by a Marine recovery helicopter as a second chopper drops the capsule.
Flooded once the hatch blew open, the capsule weighed a ton, nearly causing the chopper's
engine to fail.

The producers also flesh out a moving profile of Grissom,
the most reserved of the seven original astronauts. We learn that he christened the
capsule, even painting "a crack" on it to resemble that on the original Liberty
Bell, and that he won such capsule improvements as its panorama window and a new safety
hatch.

We also get a glimpse of his sense of humor in naming his
1965 Gemini capsule "Unsinkable Molly Brown," after the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration vetoed "Titanic."

Strangely enough, Grissom -- plagued for years by
speculation that he had triggered the Mercury hatch too soon -- lost his life due
to another escape hatch. During an Apollo I capsule test in 1967, a flash fire
engulfed him and two crewmates. Once pressurized, "It would've taken a herd of
elephants to open that hatch," astronaut Scott Carpenter observes.

Grissom had seemed destined to be the first man on the
moon, says astronaut Wally Schirra. NASA flight director Christopher Kraft feels that the
tragedy forced Apollo redesigns, without which the United States might not have
reached the moon.

"We didn't solve any mysteries" about the hatch,
expedition leader Curt Newport concludes. Still, this was an adventure worth taking.

The two-hour In Search of Liberty Bell 7 bowed on
Discovery Dec. 12 at 9 p.m., with six reruns due Dec. 15 through 20.

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