More than five decades have passed since the United States launched its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space. His 15-minute flight was ‘suborbital’ – it rose from Cape Canaveral in Florida and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, 160 km north of the Bahamas – and for a relieved America it was a tremendous success…though it was distinctly overshadowed by Yuri Gagarin’s orbital mission, a few weeks earlier. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev lambasted Shepard’s flight as a “flea hop” and, in a sense, he was right, but the bravery exhibited by America on 5 May 1961 cannot be underestimated. Its rockets averaged only a 60-percent success rate in this period and Shepard’s mission brought intense political relief, too. President John Kennedy had been in office for a matter of months and his administration had already been battered by a failed attempt to depose Fidel Castro at the ‘Bay of Pigs’. Whilst the Soviets could crow loudly about their ‘peaceful’ accomplishment of putting a man into orbit, America – the leader of ‘The Free World’ – was presented as little more than a warmonger. In the words of journalist Julian Scheer, Shepard’s flight changed that perception and “bailed out the ego of the American people”.
Shepard rode into space aboard a cone-shaped Mercury craft, whose cramped nature once prompted McDonnell launch pad leader Guenter Wendt to quip that astronauts climbed aboard “with a shoehorn” and disembarked “with a can opener”. Named in honour of the fleet-footed messenger-god of the ancient Roman pantheon, Mercury was one of the most complex machines ever built and ‘Spacecraft No. 7’ – the craft destined to fly Shepard – arrived at Cape Canaveral from its contractor, McDonnell Aircraft, in December 1960. The astronaut should have flown in March of the following year, but technical problems and the unfortunate experience of the chimpanzee, Ham, prompted lengthy delays…and a failure to beat the Soviets into space. Moreover, the single-stage Redstone rocket (a direct descendent of Nazi Germany’s infamous V-2 missile) could accelerate only to 3,500 km/h and thus lacked the impulse to deliver Shepard directly into orbit.
The marriage between Mercury and Redstone had proven both successful and embarrassing, in equal measure. The first unmanned test, in November 1960, seemed to go well at first: the booster’s engine ignited, but as it made to leave the launch pad a shutdown signal was transmitted. The Redstone’s thrust was enough to cause it to rise a few centimetres and settle back onto its pedestal. Unfortunately, the shutdown command caused the Mercury capsule’s escape tower to fire, producing vast clouds of smoke, which momentarily hid the entire vehicle from view. Watching from the control centre was Flight Director Chris Kraft. Thinking that he was seeing the actual liftoff, he was amazed by the rapid acceleration. When the smoke cleared, Kraft later recalled, the control team were depressed to see that the rocket was still firmly shackled to the pad! It was “a memorable day,” according to astronaut Wally Schirra, “especially for someone who likes sick jokes!”
The Redstone swayed a little, but remained upright and did not explode. Worryingly, the escape tower – which shot 1.2 km high and landed a few hundred metres away – had not pulled the Mercury capsule clear. As Kraft and his depressed team watched, the drogue parachute popped out of the capsule’s nose, followed by the main canopy and, lastly, accompanied by a smudge of green marker dye, the auxiliary chute. All three fluttered, pathetically, down onto the pad. “The press had a field day,” wrote Kraft. “It wasn’t just a funny scene on the pad. It was tragic and America’s space programme took another beating in the newspapers and in Congress.” Time magazine berated “Lead-Footed Mercury” and others ridiculed NASA’s efforts to downplay the fiasco.
Investigators later traced the cause to a pair of electrical connectors in the Redstone’s two-pronged tail plug, which separated in the wrong order. The failure of the capsule to separate with the escape tower was attributed to a sensor problem. Ordinarily, after an engine cutoff, a ten-second timer started and when it expired the capsule would separate, with the escape tower, if accelerations were less than 0.25 G. Unfortunately, the Redstone settled back onto the pad before the timer expired and, sensing 1 G of acceleration, the sensor blocked the separation signal. Barostats, meanwhile, properly sensed that the rocket’s altitude was less than 3 km and triggered the parachutes to deploy from the nose of the capsule. It became clear, recalled John Glenn, that the capsule had actually “made the best of a confusing situation and had gone on to perform its duties just as it would have on a normal flight”. With this in mind, he concluded, “we were rather proud of it!”
Since the Mercury capsule was undamaged, it was reflown, four weeks later, and on 19 December a success could be declared. The Redstone boosted the capsule a little higher than its target 205 km and splashdown occurred a few dozen kilometres further downrange than intended, but a few minor adjustments cleared the way for the flight of the chimpanzee, Ham, in January 1961. The problems encountered on Ham’s flight – an over-thrust of the Redstone, an early engine shutdown, a high-G re-entry and puncturing to the pressure bulkhead upon splashdown, which almost drowned the chimp – led directly to a decision to postpone the manned mission with Alan Shepard from early March until at least the end of April. Still, the craft’s habitability and controllability were good and predictions estimated the reliability of the Mercury-Redstone at 88 percent, with a 98-percent chance that the astronaut would survive the flight. A final test on 24 March confirmed these assurances, but by now Shepard’s mission had been postponed…with fateful consequences.
On the morning of 12 April, the electrifying news spread like wildfire, around the world: the Soviet Union had successfully launched a man into space. In fact, the news hit America like the double blow of a sledgehammer: for Yuri Gagarin had not only flown into space, but he had completed a full orbit around Earth.
There was little that could be done but proceed towards the manned suborbital flight, which was now rescheduled for no earlier than 2 May. Shepard and his backup, John Glenn, spent much of their time rehearsing procedures, spending up to 60 hours per week in the spacecraft simulator alone, and countless more reviewing checklists and plans. Daily, they were instrumented in biosensors and outfitted in their silver space suits for test after test. Shepard named his spacecraft ‘Freedom 7’; not, as some observers hinted, in honour of the ‘Original Seven’ Mercury astronauts, but actually reflective of its status as the seventh capsule off the McDonnell production line. (On later missions, each member of the Seven would suffix their own craft with the number as a good-luck charm.)
With launch set for 7:00 am Eastern Standard Time on the 2nd, preparations ramped into high gear. A full dress-rehearsal, with fellow astronaut Gordon Cooper standing in for Shepard, brought a measure of levity to the proceedings. As he rode the transport van out to Pad 5, he jokingly bawled: “I don’t wanna go! Please don’t send me!” Many journalists did not appreciate Cooper’s humour and some newspapers even went so far as to criticise NASA for such inappropriate horseplay at a tense time. In the meantime, Alan Shepard checkout of a Holiday Inn, where he had been staying with his wife, Louise, dropped her at the airport and drove to the astronaut quarters at the Cape. Although he had known since January that he would be the first American in space, the official announcement was that three astronauts were training for the mission, including Glenn and Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom. To promulgate the fallacy that any of them might make the flight, the three men shared the same air-conditioned crew quarters.
Rain overshadowed the 2 May launch attempt, even as Shepard, Glenn and Grissom sat down to a breakfast of bacon-wrapped filet mignon and scrambled eggs, washed down with orange juice and coffee. Since defecation in the spacecraft was, at best, rather irksome, these ‘low-residue’ launch-day breakfasts had been enforced by NASA. Leo D’Orsey, the astronauts’ lawyer, was amazed when he learned from Shepard about the diets.
“No shit?” he exclaimed.
“Exactly,” grinned Shepard in response.
Some NASA officials wanted to bring all three men out of their quarters, wearing hoods, to keep the charade alive of which would be aboard the spacecraft…until one of them boarded the elevator at Pad 5. According to Shepard’s biographer, Neal Thompson, the astronauts opposed such lunacy. Shepard instead emerged from the quarters in his space suit and walked through a teeming crowd of journalists. It made little difference on 2 May, for the torrential rain scrubbed the launch attempt. In fact, even the second attempt on the 4th also fell foul of the weather. However, at 8:30 that night, the two-part, ten-hour-long countdown began in anticipation of a launch early on the 5th. The stunted countdown enabled technicians and launch pad engineers to be adequately rested and prepared. With the weather showing signs of improvement, it seemed that 5 May 1961 would prove to be America’s date with destiny and forever to be enshrined in history.
That historic day began with all the drama associated with events whose outcome could not be clearly predicted. NASA spokesman John ‘Shorty’ Powers had already prepared three statements for the press, to the effect that ‘Astronaut Shepard has perished today in the service of his country’, all tailored slightly to take into account the instant at which tragedy struck: during launch, whilst in space or during re-entry. President Kennedy himself had sought assurances from NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden that no unwarranted risks were being taken, but several senators, including John J. Williams of Delaware and J.W. Fulbright of Arkansas, wanted the flight postponed or carried out in secret to hedge against the negative publicity of a failure. NASA’s response? “Why postpone a success?” The attempts were vetoed by most members of Congress…for good reason. The Soviets had received much international criticism for staging Gagarin’s mission under such ridiculous secrecy (at first, some even doubted that he had flown at all) and America’s tradition dictated that the press should have free access to cover such a historic event. That event would begin with an uncomfortable, three-hour wait for launch and an untimely call of nature, but would end with Alan Shepard honoured as America’s newest hero.
The second part of this three-part article will appear tomorrow.