Fifty years ago, America launched its first man into orbit around the Earth. John Glenn spent five hours aloft, completed three circuits of the globe and earned worldwide renown both for his own time and undoubtedly in the decades and centuries to come. Today, with star-studded careers as a Marine Corps aviator, United States Senator and astronaut behind him, Glenn remains a figure who commands enormous – and well-deserved – respect and this was acknowledged in May 2012 when President Barack Obama honoured him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At Cape Canaveral, the place from which Glenn struck his indelible mark on the history of American space exploration is today a silent place. It throbbed to its last roar of rocket engines more than four decades ago and today a haunting monument – an enormous titanium symbol of the Mercury Seven – harkens back to an era in which humanity departed the cradle of its civilisation and took its first faltering steps into the fathomless black beyond.
Three months after Glenn’s mission, in May 1962, his backup, Scott Carpenter, steeled himself for his own journey into orbit. The flight had been postponed since April, due to problems checking out its Atlas booster and Carpenter’s Aurora 7 capsule. An initial launch attempt on 19 May was foiled when irregularities were detected in a temperature control device in the rocket’s flight control system heater. Five days later, the astronaut was aboard his craft by 5:00 am EST and enjoyed one of the smoothest countdowns ever experienced in Project Mercury, with only persistent ground fog, cloud and camera-coverage issues complicating affairs. During a 45-minute delay past the original 7:00 am launch time, he sipped cold tea from his squeeze bottle and chatted to his family over the radio.
In fact, Carpenter’s wife, Rene, and their four children, represented the first astronaut family to travel to the Cape to watch the launch in person. To avoid media attention, a neighbour had provided a private flight to Florida and a non-descript car, which Rene drove to the astronauts’ hideaway, nicknamed ‘The Life House’, near Pad 14, wearing huge sunglasses, a kerchief over her conspicuous blonde coif and her two daughters hidden under a blanket. The media, anticipating the arrival of a blonde mother of four, instead saw only a well-disguised mother of two…
Sixteen seconds after 7:45 am, the Atlas’ engines ignited, prompting all four Carpenter children to abandon the television set and rush out onto the beach to watch their father hurtle spaceward from Pad 14. Elsewhere, at the Cape and across the nation, an estimated 40 million viewers watched as America launched its second man into orbit. Carpenter himself would later describe “surprisingly little vibration, although the engines made a big racket” and the swaying of the rocket during the early stages of ascent was definitely noticeable. In his autobiography, For Spacious Skies, he would express surprise, after so many years of flying aircraft and ‘levelling-out’ after an initial climb, to see the capsule’s altimeter climbing continuously as the Atlas shot straight up.
As Carpenter made history, so too did Pad 14. In the wake of Aurora 7, two more astronauts would also ride their Atlas boosters into orbit from the same complex. Wally Schirra’s mission, which he nicknamed ‘Sigma 7’, was postponed from late September 1962, due to complications surrounding a fuel leak, but in the small hours of 3 October he was awakened and sat down to breakfast with Deke Slayton, newly-appointed Co-ordinator of Astronaut Activities. Steak and eggs – a traditional, low-residue breakfast fare – was on the menu…together with an unexpected addition: bluefish.
The previous evening, Schirra and Slayton had gone fishing. The Cape had been long renowned for its excellent surf fishing, especially in the spring and autumn, and the two men hooked several bluefish. They were “in the five-pound range,” wrote Schirra in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space, “but they fought free by severing our leaders with their razor-sharp teeth. I managed to land one by slinging it on the beach and pouncing on it before it could wriggle back to the surf”. The bluefish, it seemed, was not the only individual with a shock in store. The two astronauts were aware of a Thor-Delta rocket on the nearby Pad 17A…but they did not know how close it was to launch.
“It wasn’t until we heard a roar that we realised the Thor-Delta was lifting off,” wrote Schirra. “We were looking right up the tailpipe of its monster engine and we knew right away that we were in the danger zone. Had there been an abort, it would have been a bad day for Mercury, with the chief astronaut and the pilot of MA-8 incinerated like the legendary rattlesnakes.” Fortunately, he added, the rocket rose perfectly, delivering NASA’s Explorer 14 scientific satellite into orbit. Equally perfectly, the bluefish for breakfast on the following morning, 3 October, was delicious.
Schirra’s drive to Pad 14 and his waiting Atlas rocket was uneventful, with the exception that the astronaut fell asleep. Several months later, Gordon Cooper would actually doze off whilst atop the Atlas itself, waiting out a hold in the countdown. It was testament, Schirra explained, “to our training, and it shows the confidence we had in the people who supported us, both from NASA and the contractors. We could ask questions of technicians at the pad or construction guys and we’d get straight answers. We could call the executives, like Mr Mac of McDonnell, and they too would level with us. That’s one reason we completed Mercury with seven healthy astronauts”.
By 4:40 am, Schirra, assisted by Cooper and Pad 14 leader Guenter Wendt, was aboard Sigma 7. The countdown proceeded with exceptional smoothness, the only minor problem being a radar malfunction at the Canary Islands tracking station, and the United States’ third orbital mission set off at 7:15:11 am. In his post-flight debriefing, later that day, aboard the destroyer USS Kearsarge, Schirra would describe the ascent as “disappointingly short”, with all of his training to handle unexpected emergencies rewarded with a perfectly nominal climb into orbit. “I still believe that the amount of practice we had prior to [orbital] insertion is important,” he debriefed, “in that you must be prepared for reaction to an emergency, rather than thinking one cut.”
Sigma 7’s rise was not, however, entirely nominal. Ten seconds after liftoff, it became clear that the clockwise roll rate of the Atlas was greater than planned, giving flight controllers cause for concern. “My course was being plotted against an overlay grid called a ‘harp’, since it’s shaped like the musical instrument,” Schirra recalled in his autobiography. “Green lines in the middle of the grid designate the ‘safe’ zone and on the outer limits the lines go from yellow to red. I was headed into the yellow area. If I had reached the red, there was a likelihood that the Atlas would impact on land, possibly in a populated area.” Such a dire eventuality would have forced the Cape’s range safety officer to abort the mission, ejecting Sigma 7 and destroying the rocket. Indeed, the primary and secondary sensors within the Atlas had registered a ‘rifling’ roll only 20 percent short of an abort condition. Pad 14 had seen its third manned launch and had revealed that the dividing line between success and failure was a decidedly thin one.
Seven months after Schirra’s nine-hour, six-orbit voyage, the final space explorer of Project Mercury was ready for his own mission into space. Gordon Cooper would spend a full day in orbit aboard the vehicle he had named ‘Faith 7’. Originally scheduled for launch on 14 May, he entered his capsule, to be greeted by a ‘gift’ from his backup, Al Shepard. It was a small suction-cup pump on the seat, labelled with the legend ‘Remove before launch’, in honour of the new urine-collection device aboard the spacecraft. Cooper would become the first Mercury astronaut who would be able to urinate in a manner other than ‘in his suit’.
Bad weather clouded the chances of an on-time launch, but a malfunctioning radar at the secondary control station in Bermuda cast a serious shadow of threat. Shortly after this had been rectified, at 8:00 am, with an hour remaining before the scheduled launch, a simple 275-horsepower diesel engine, responsible for moving the gantry away from the Atlas, stubbornly refused to work. More than two hours were wasted in efforts to repair a fouled fuel injection pump on the engine and the count resumed around noon. The gantry was successfully retracted, but the failure of a computer convertor in Bermuda – crucial for a ‘Go/No-Go’ launch decision to be made – caused the attempt to be scrubbed.
Cooper, after six hours on his back inside Faith 7, remained upbeat and summoned a forced grin. “I was just getting to the real fun part,” he said. “It was a very real simulation.” He spent part of the afternoon fishing, while checkout crews prepared the Atlas for launch the following morning. Arriving at Pad 14 for the second time, he greeted Guenter Wendt, with mock formality, reporting as “Private Fifth Class Cooper”, to which the pad fuehrer responded in kind. The roots of their joke came two years earlier, when Cooper had stood in for Al Shepard in a launch-day practice run prior to Freedom 7. Upon arriving at the pad, Cooper had expressed mock terror, begging Wendt not to make him go. Some of the assembled media were amused, but NASA’s public affairs people were not and one even suggested that Cooper be “busted to Private Fifth Class”. Ironically, the astronaut and Wendt liked the idea and ran with it.
This time, his wait inside the spacecraft lasted barely two and a half hours. The countdown ran smoothly until T-11 minutes and 30 seconds, when a problem developed in the rocket’s guidance equipment and a brief hold was called. In fact, so smooth was the countdown that flight surgeons were astonished to note that Cooper’s heart rate and breathing had fallen to just 12 beats per minute and he had dozed off. It took Wally Schirra, the capcom at Cape Canaveral that day, to bellow his name over the communications link to awaken him. Agonisingly, another halt came just 19 seconds before liftoff to allow launch controllers to ascertain that the Atlas’ systems had assumed their automatic sequence as planned. Thirteen seconds after 8:00 am on the morning of 15 May, the Atlas rumbled off its launch pad in what Cooper would later recall as a smooth but definite push.
That push served not only to insert Cooper into orbit for a 34-hour, 22-orbit mission, but also pushed America’s space aspirations forward. Already, NASA was planning an ambitious series of flights to perform orbital rendezvous, spacewalking and eventually expeditions to plant human bootprints on the Moon before the decade’s end. Gordon Cooper’s launch was the final manned mission to originate from Pad 14…but the complex’s involvement in NASA’s unfolding dream was not yet over. During 1965 and 1966, it served as the launching place for the Atlas-Agena – a combination of an Atlas booster, mated to a slender, pencil-like rendezvous target for Project Gemini – and in doing so Pad 14 played an enormously important role in making America’s first footprints on the Moon possible. The Atlas-Agena launches from Pad 14 will form part of a subsequent History article.
Today, five decades since Glenn’s pioneering mission into orbit, Pad 14 is long-silent, but far from forgotten. Beneath the titanium bulk of its Mercury Seven symbol is buried a time capsule – not to be opened until the year 2464, a full five centuries since Project Mercury officially ended – which contains much technical and other documentation pertaining to those handful of dramatic missions. From Pad 14, John Glenn rose to orbit in a rocket which had been scornfully described as “built by the lowest bidder”. Wernher von Braun believed that Glenn deserved a medal simply for his bravery in climbing aboard the rocket, let alone launching into space on it. As for the others, Carpenter’s nonchalant sipping of tea whilst aboard Aurora 7 and Schirra’s nap during the journey to the launch site and Cooper’s doze whilst lying on hundreds of gallons of volatile propellants underline one fundamental truth: that Pad 14 itself, and the four astronauts who flew from it, were all endowed with the Right Stuff.
This is part of a series of History articles which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus upon Pad 34, the launch complex upon which the lives of the Apollo 1 crew were claimed in January 1967 and from which Apollo 7 rose from the ashes of despair in October 1968.