Category Freedom 7


Within a week, a new test flight had been scheduled and designated MR-1A. While a replacement Redstone rocket would be used, it was felt that since Spacecraft No. 2 was still in good condition, after a little renovation it could be reused on the MR-1A mission with an antenna fairing borrowed from another capsule and straddled by a replacement escape tower.

Although some damage had occurred to the Redstone booster’s tail assembly, engi­neers agreed that it could be refurbished. It was therefore crated up and shipped off to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, where it was held in reserve until the conclusion of the Mercury-Redstone program. However, the MR-1 rocket would never actually be used and was placed on display at Space Orientation Center there.

On 8 December 1960, Spacecraft No. 2 was hoisted upward for a second mating with a Redstone launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral. It was essentially the same 2,400- pound capsule, apart from a few replacement parts and some minor modifications in areas such as the launch escape tower and the parachute deployment system.

As before, the pre-flight testing proceeded very smoothly and, with everything in order, the launch was set for 19 December. Early that morning, strong winds gusting to 150 knots aloft obliged a 40-minute hold. Next, a leak in a high-pressure nitrogen peroxide solenoid valve in the capsule caused another delay of 3 hours 15 minutes [11].

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A schematic drawing of the Mercury-Redstone launch vehicle. (Photo: NASA)

Spacecraft No. 2 at the Lewis Research Center prior to its move to Cape Canaveral. (Photo: NASA)



As on previous launches, the seven Mercury astronauts somewhat apprehensively looked on as the 83-foot stack of the escape tower, spacecraft, and booster lifted off from Pad 5 of Launch Complex 56 at 11.15 a. m. (EST). Two of the astronauts, Deke Slayton and Gus Grissom, were observing from the cockpits of their airborne F-106 jets, ready to follow the ground track of the Redstone for a short time and hopefully photograph the capsule descending on its parachute over the recovery area.

This time everything went smoothly; following the ignition command issued from the blockhouse, smoke billowed from beneath the rocket and MR-1A lifted slowly off its pedestal into a clear sky, accelerating as it climbed. A brilliant trail of flame traced the sleek Redstone’s course as it streaked up and tilted toward the southeast, out over the Atlantic Missile Range. Seconds later, Slayton and Grissom ripped over the Cape in their F-106s, flying in the same direction at nearly twice the speed of sound. Observers at the Cape could just make out the booster shutdown and capsule separa­tion 143 seconds after launch.

Throughout the capsule’s flight all of the systems functioned well, although the booster’s velocity was 260 feet per second faster than expected at around 4,200 miles an hour, causing it to ascend seven miles higher than the predicted 128 miles. This, and high tail winds of almost 100 m. p.h., caused the separated spacecraft to travel 15 miles further downrange than expected. NASA said the bell-shaped capsule floated down by parachute into the ocean about 16 minutes after liftoff. It was first spotted approximately 90 miles northeast of Grand Bahama Island and eight miles from the prime recovery vessel, the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge (CV-45).

The helicopter recovery pilots were Lt. Wayne Koons of Lyons, Kansas and Capt. Allen Daniel, Jr., of Greenwood, Mississippi. Both were members of Marine Air Group 252, which was based at Jacksonville, North Carolina. Their H-34 left the Valley Forge and flew over to the floating capsule, hooked on to its recovery loop, and hoisted it from the sea at 11.46 a. m., 31 minutes after it was launched. They flew back to the ship with their precious cargo and carefully deposited it on the carrier’s flight deck at 12.03 p. m.

Following the successful recovery operation, the Valley Forge steamed to a point off Cape Canaveral within several hundred yards of the test center, then Koons and Daniel lifted the capsule and delivered it to the test center. It would later be taken to Langley Field, Virginia to be studied by technicians, engineers and scientists.

A preliminary examination revealed only minor damage to the spacecraft. The painted letters “United States” on the side had been slightly scorched by the 600-degree heat of reentry. One of the three thicknesses of glass on a small side porthole was broken, but a NASA official suggested to reporters that this could have occurred dur­ing the recovery operation. As if to demonstrate it was still functioning well after its flight into space, a bright flashing light designed to aid recovery still winked atop the nine-foot capsule.

The Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Wernher von Braun, was delighted by the successful flight, and said that “everything was right on the money.” Meanwhile Robert Gilruth, in charge of the Space Task Group, called the launch an “unqualified success.” However, he cautioned that it did not indicate an immediate


A successful launch begins the MR-1A mission. (Photo: NASA)


After a successful recovery, the unmanned MR-1A capsule is safely deposited on the deck of the USS Valley Forge. (Photo: Associated Press)



On 19 December 1960 U. S. Marine helicopter crew Capt. Allen K. Daniel, Jr. (left) and 1st. Lt. Wayne Koons plucked the unmanned MR-1A capsule from the Atlantic after a successful 16-minute ballistic test of its systems. (Photo: Associated Press)

readiness to send a man into space. He said more flights would be needed to qualify the reliability and operation of the system, and that the next launch, expected within a month or two, might carry a chimpanzee [12].

The performance required of the Redstone rocket for the first phase of the manned space flight program had been established. It had demonstrated both the reliability and the performance needed to place the Mercury spacecraft safely into a suborbital tra­jectory. However, as McDonnell Pad Leader Guenter Wendt pointed out, even as their proficiency and confidence grew in safely launching rockets, there remained a great many lessons to be learned.

“All the rules changed quite a bit. At the same time, there was a lot of stuff we just plain didn’t know. No one had done it before. For example, we had an escape rocket on top of the capsule. It was neatly protected with plastic that we had wrapped around it. It was great to keep the rain out. Then one day we had some Air Force people who had a satellite in a spin test facility – they spun the satellite while it was wrapped in plastic, then upwrapped it – and the satellite blew up. Static electricity. The Air Force told us the kind of plastic they’d used. It was the same kind I used on the escape rocket. Whoops! This is when you learn the hard way.” [13]


In his youth, Shepard developed a fascination with flying. One momentous day the family flew to Boston from Grenier Field, an Army Air Force base in Manchester. From then on he began haunting the airfield, about eight miles from home, watching airplanes take off and land, and later doing small helpful jobs around the hangars. He made dozens of model planes and read every book on flying that he could find, his favorite being a well-thumbed copy of Charles Lindbergh’s epic, We.

“He loved science, too,” his mother recalls. “Oh, and he had a boy-like interest in Buck Rogers and some of the science fiction. But in school he developed a serious interest in the subject and worked hard at it. He did extremely well in mathematics, and this helped him immensely.” [7]

After junior high, Shepard went on to get his secondary education at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, where he would complete grades 9-12. Ivan Hackler, who taught Shepard, recalled that his student had a keen interest in science as a youngster. “A good student and a boy extremely well-liked,” Hackler said. “He was a good athlete, particularly in baseball and football.” [8]


A recent photo of Pinkerton Academy. (Photo courtesy of Brian Chirichiello)

Outside of school hours, Shepard would deliver newspapers on his bicycle and attend Sunday school at the East Derry church, where his father was the organist.

“I was raised, if not exactly in an atmosphere of aviation, at least in the midst of mechanical things,” he revealed in the Mercury astronauts’ book, We Seven. “I had a five-horsepower outboard motor which I used to take apart and put back together again. And I often helped my father when he had things to tinker with – as you usually do in a small farming town. When I was in high school, a friend of mine and I used to cycle out to the airport… and do odd jobs around the hangar in exchange for a chance to take rides in an airplane now and then.” [9]

From East Derry he went to school for the next year at the Admiral Farragut Academy in Toms River, New Jersey, specifically to help prepare for enrollment at the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He took with him a letter from his Pinkerton his­tory teacher which spoke of his “good abilities” and “qualities of leadership.” The Farragut records reveal that Shepard had a genius level IQ of 145, as proved by his solid marks in geometry and mathematics, but he did tend to lag a little in English. Noting this, his father wrote to the academy, suggesting he would appreciate it if a little more pressure could be placed on his son to do more studying. This obviously


Alan Shepard second from left in back row, taken at Pinkerton Academy in 1938. (Photo: Shepard family)

worked, as Shepard passed the entrance exam the following year at Annapolis with a 3.7 in math and a 3.3 in English out of possible perfect scores of 4. The Farragut Academy year-book recorded of him, “he speaks words of truth and soberness.” [10]

He entered the Naval Academy as a 17-year-old “plebe” in 1941 and was whisked through the school at the wartime-accelerated pace, graduating with his bachelor of science degree a year earlier than the normal four-year term in 1944. The Academy’s Professor George Beneze remembers Shepard for having a keen interest in aviation, pursuing associated subjects such as internal combustion and thermodynamics with zeal. “He asked a lot of questions, and was interested in what was going on in the laboratory,” Beneze said. “You could depend on him.” Classmates of Shepard at the Academy recall him as being energetic and aggressive. Among other activities, he rowed on the varsity crew in the bow seat. The story is that the coaches wanted to move him from that position because he was too light, but Shepard refused to move, declaring, ‘I want to be first.’” [11]

On 3 March 1945 he married Louise Brewer, whom he had met while attending the Naval Academy. They would eventually have two daughters Laura and Julie, and also raise a niece, Alice, as part of their family.

“The Navy had a rule that even prospective flyers had to go to sea first,” Shepard reflected, “so I spent some time on a destroyer [USS Cogswell (DD-651)] in the Pacific during the closing days of World War II. I took flight training at the Navy schools at Corpus Christi and Pensacola, Florida. Then I served in a fighter squadron that was based at Norfolk and made two cruises aboard carriers in the Mediterranean during 1948 and 1949.

“My flying career really got going in 1950 when I was still a lieutenant, junior grade, and was lucky enough to be chosen to attend the Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River. This was a real plum, especially for a junior officer.” [12]


Alan Shepard as a U. S. Naval Academy “plebe.” (Photo: USNA)

His parents were delighted with their son’s latest achievement, as his mother Renza declared in a 1962 interview. “After Alan went on to the Naval Academy and took up the career of his dreams – being a pilot – he still missed his lovely New Hampshire. Many times he’d fly home, if only for a day. Sometimes he wouldn’t be able to stop and see us, but he would buzz the house in his Navy fighter and we’d know who it was!” [13]

After graduating from Test Pilot School, Shepard stayed on at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station for a further two years, testing and aiding in the development of a number of highly powered Navy aircraft, such as the F-3H Demon, F-8U Crusader, F-4D Skyray, and F-11F Tigercat. A skilled pilot, he took over as Project Test Pilot on the F-5D Skylancer.

Among his many achievements as a Navy test pilot, Shepard says he “helped to develop the Navy’s in-flight refueling system and was involved in testing the first angled deck on a U. S. Navy carrier… I was operations officer for a while in a night – fighter squadron that operated off the West Coast, and served aboard a carrier in the Pacific from 1953 to 1956.” [14]

In 1958, following more flight-test and instruction work at Patuxent River, he was assigned to the Naval War College of Newport, Rhode Island in order to brush up on a number of academic subjects. Next, Shepard joined the staff of the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, as aircraft readiness officer.

The following year, an opportunity came his way that he found hard to resist. He had read articles on NASA’s space program in newspapers and knew that the space agency would soon be recruiting a cadre of test pilots that they had begun calling “astronauts”, meaning voyagers to the stars. Shepard knew that aviation was coming to an inevitable crossroad and space flight was the way of the future. He felt it would give him the chance not only to be regarded as a top pilot, but also as a space pilot, or astronaut. He was certainly qualified from all that he had read, and was ready to be called.

“I assumed they’d probably be looking me up and asking me if I was interested. As it turned out, they were doing just that. But the orders got misplaced somewhere – they wound up on someone else’s desk for a few days – and I was beginning to wonder if I had been overlooked or disqualified. The orders finally came asking me to report for the first briefings, and I was delighted. I had a long talk with my wife that night, dis­cussing what I should do if I were selected. Finally, Louise said, ‘Why are you asking me? You know you will do it, anyway.’ Louise had always been in complete support of what I had done, and I knew she was behind me now.” [15]


As Shepard headed to a splashdown in the Atlantic, there were still many things that had to occur, and his concentration was now on the parachute system. As he recalled in the book, We Seven:

The periscope jutted out again at about 21,000 feet, and the first thing I saw against the sky as I looked through it was the little drogue chute which had popped out to stabilize my fall. So far, so good. Then, at 15,000 feet, a ventila­tion valve opened up on schedule to let cool fresh air come into the capsule. The next thing I had to sweat out was the big 63-foot chute, which was due to break out at 10,000 feet. If it failed to show up on schedule I could switch to a reserve chute of the same size by pulling a ring near the instrument panel. I must admit that my finger was poised right on that ring as we passed through the 10,000- foot mark. But I did not have to pull it. Looking through the periscope, I could see the antenna canister blow free on top of the capsule. Then the drogue chute went floating away, pulling the canister behind it. The canister, in turn, pulled out the bag which held the main chute and pulled it free. And then, all of a sud­den, after this beautiful sequence, there it was – the main chute stretching out long and thin – it had not opened up yet – against the sky. But four seconds later the reefing broke free and the large orange and white canopy blossomed out above me.

It looked wonderful right from the beginning. I stared at it hard through the periscope for any signs of trouble. But it was drawing perfectly, and a glance at my rate-of-descent indicator on the panel showed that I had a good chute. It was letting me down at just the right speed, and I felt very much relieved. I’d have a nice, easy landing [24].


This photograph records the release of Freedom 7’s drogue chute, with the antenna canister dangling below. (Photo: NASA)

At 1,000 feet up, Shepard could see the water clearly below. The heat shield had dropped four feet as planned, to deploy the collapsible accordion-like landing bag that was stowed between it and the capsule. This perforated bag skirt of rubberized glass fiber filled with air to help to cushion the impact with the water. It provided an additional measure of shock absorption for the astronaut. Immediately after landing the parachute would be automatically disconnected, and the capsule had sufficient buoyancy to float. The landing bag and heat shield were designed to act together like a sea anchor and keep the capsule upright.


This map, prepared by Associated Press Wirephoto, shows the trajectory and ocean splash down point for the Freedom 7 capsule. (Drawing: AP Wirephoto)


With seconds to go before Freedom 7 splashed in the relatively calm green water of the Atlantic, Alan Shepard braced himself for impact.


Deke Slayton had also flown in ahead of Shepard’s arrival, and he waited patiently alongside Grissom as the TF1 taxied in at the auxiliary air base. The two men were in high spirits after a day of high drama. Once Shepard had stepped down from the airplane they clapped him on the shoulder and knuckle-rubbed his crew-cut hair. For his part, Shepard playfully punched each man in the chest. The three grinned broadly and skipped around like small boys unable to contain their excitement. Slayton was heard to say that the flight had been “perfect – it couldn’t have been any better. You pulled it off real good.”

“Everything went fine,” Shepard replied within earshot of reporters. He waved, but no interviews were permitted.

A host of technical and medical personnel were also present to greet the astronaut, including Bill Douglas and nurse Dee O’Hara, who has told the author that her joy in knowing that Shepard splashed down safely was “overwhelming… I was so relieved to see him.” [2] Still joking and laughing, Slayton and Grissom accompanied Shepard to an Air Force station wagon belonging to Capt. Hugh May, the commander of the island missile tracking station. When they finally pulled up at the aluminum portable

C. Burgess, Freedom 7: The Historic Flight of Alan B. Shepard, Jr, Springer Praxis Books, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-01156-1_7, © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014


Deke Slayton and Gus Grissom welcome Shepard to Grand Bahama Island. (Photo courtesy of Dean Conger/NASA)

medical facility where Shepard was to undergo an extensive medical and psychiatric evaluation he was ushered inside, despite reporters shouting questions in an effort to get him to say a few precious words. Within the hour, a brief but heavy rainstorm had beat a tattoo on the white roof of the specially erected hospital.

Shepard called his wife Louise by radio telephone after he had settled in on the island and they spoke for a while, but the connection was bad and only a few phrases came through clearly. He told her that he was pleased with the way the flight went and asked about their family. She told him that the family was just fine, they were all proud of him, and had watched the launch on television.

John Glenn had been asked to sleep in Shepard’s hospital room that night, as the psychologists had suggested that as a precautionary measure the returned astronaut should not be in a room by himself. It was obviously an over-reaction on their part, but nobody really minded. This was all new stuff to everyone. However, the whole eve­ning lay ahead of America’s newest hero. When later asked for his feelings on the events of the day, Grissom told reporters, “I have to admit I’m a little jealous. I think I’ve a fair chance of being on the next launch. I do want to be on the next one. I wanted to be on this one.” Slayton chimed in, “I wished I’d been up there, too.” [3]


Grissom accompanies Shepard to the special medical facility. (Photo courtesy of Dean Conger/NASA)


Lt. Col. John (‘Shorty’) Powers, NASA’s spokesmen for the astronauts, said he had never seen Shepard more cool and calm. He said Shepard’s schedule for the first 24 hours would comprise of an extensive physical checkup lasting at least two full hours by Dr. Col. William Douglas, the astronauts’ physician, and Dr. Maj. Carmault Jackson, an internist. Then Shepard would have a free half hour before a full hour of free dictation into a tape recorder recounting his experiences because, as Powers put it, “We want to make sure we don’t lead him on his thoughts.” Next, two engineers were to go over details with Shepard of the performance of the Redstone booster and of the Mercury spacecraft. On Saturday morning, following a good night’s sleep, he would be interviewed by psychologists concerning his feelings and sensations [4].

Astronauts Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn and Schirra flew in later that day so that the entire group could hear Shepard give an account of his experiences and indicate what they might expect when making their own missions. Project Mercury engineers were also bringing data tapes recorded during his flight so that they could discuss different aspects of the mission from an engineering viewpoint.

That night the Air Force base personnel were invited to what was known tongue – in-cheek as the “Grand Bahama Yacht Club” to celebrate the successful space shot. It was only a bare-bones club with a bar, and none of the personnel actually owned a yacht, but there was a dartboard and card games to amuse everyone as they enjoyed their drinks. The members of the press gathered at the front gate of the base were not allowed in to take pictures or conduct interviews.

When Alan Shepard and his astronaut colleagues walked in through the front door of the club in the early evening, the general noise and laughter instantly turned into a standing ovation. Shepard joined Bill Douglas, Dee O’Hara, and other base officials at their table.

Dee O’Hara has a lingering memory of the occasion, “That evening, I remember, we were relaxing in an island bar with a little TV sitting on a plank in a corner. Alan, Bill Douglas and I were able to sit back and finally watch all the news of his flight. Alan was in such a good mood – it had been quite a day!

“It seemed so unreal, sitting there watching TV with Al, and the reporters were saying how the astronaut was now on Grand Bahama Island, and probably enjoying a glass of iced tea. And there we were, knocking down a quiet glass of Scotch and water! I used to smoke back then, and when I lit one up Al leaned over and said, ‘Ah, could I have a puff of your cigarette, Dee?’ He also smoked back in those days, and he hadn’t had a cigarette since before his flight, so I said ‘Sure!’ He took one puff, had a swig of my Scotch and water, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh public – if you only knew!’” [5]

Dee O’Hara was correct; newspapers the following day reported that Shepard had dined that evening on a huge shrimp cocktail, a roast beef sandwich, and iced tea.

As arranged, John Glenn slept in the same room as Shepard that night. “Being backup meant you virtually lived with the person,” Glenn later reflected. “While his flight had gone perfectly, uncertainties remained. The doctors preferred not to leave the astronaut completely on his own, even after the flight. Nobody knew what the delayed action might be.

“Al’s reaction was exuberance and satisfaction. He talked about his five minutes of weightlessness as [being] painless and pleasant. He’d had no unusual sensations, was elated at being able to control the capsule’s attitude, and was only sorry that the flight hadn’t lasted longer.” [6]

On Saturday morning, relaxing in a sports shirt and slacks, Shepard sat down for breakfast just before 8:30 a. m. and enjoyed a hearty meal of scrambled eggs, toast, jelly, and orange juice. Ahead of him lay a busy day filled with more medical checks and a host of interviews. In all, some thirty-two specialists would participate in the debriefing, including physicians, program managers, operations engineers, public relations personnel and official photographers. In addition to receiving a full medical from Bill Douglas and his team, he would be asked about his in-flight activities and performance, and about the performance of the vehicle systems.

Dr. George Ruff, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Robert Voas, a NASA psychologist and training officer, were present to conduct extensive interviews with Shepard. His reflexes were also checked by Dr. Carmault Jackson, and his general well-being assessed by Dr. Phillip Cox. There would be another chest X-ray and more blood samples taken. Later that day, they agreed that the astronaut was in excellent health and good spirits. “He’s just like he was before the flight, only he’s happier, of course,” reported Bill Douglas, who said the tape records of Shepard’s flight “showed he performed remarkably well the complex tasks required of him. Five minutes of weight­lessness apparently posed no problem, nor did the increased gravity pull of reentry.” [7]

About the author

Australian author Colin Burgess grew up in Sydney’s southern suburbs. Initially working in the wages department of a major Sydney afternoon newspaper (where he first picked up his writing bug) and as a sales representative for a precious metals company, he subse­quently joined Qantas Airways as a passenger handling agent in 1970 and two years later transferred to the airline’s cabin crew. He would retire from Qantas as an onboard Customer Service Manager in 2002, after 32 years’ service. During those flying years several of his books on the Australian prisoner-of-war experience and the first of his biographical books on space explorers such as Australian payload special Dr. Paul Scully-Power and teacher – in-space Christa McAuliffe had already been published. He has also written extensively on spaceflight subjects for astronomy and space-related magazines in Australia, the United Kingdom and the Unites States.

In 2003 the University of Nebraska Press appointed him series editor for the ongoing Outward Odyssey series of 12 books detailing the entire social history of space explora­tion, and he was involved in co-writing three of these volumes. His first Springer-Praxis book, NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, co-authored with British-based space historian David J. Shayler, was released in 2007. Freedom 7 will be his sixth title with Springer-Praxis, for whom he is currently researching two further books for future publication. He regularly attends astronaut functions in the United States and is well known to many of the pioneer­ing space explorers, allowing him to conduct personal interviews for these books.

Colin and his wife Patricia still live just south of Sydney. They have two grown sons, two grandsons and a granddaughter.

[1] For a full description of the selection and candidate testing process, see the author’s earlier pub­lication, Selecting the Mercury Seven: The Search for America’s First Astronauts (Springer – Praxis, 2011).

[2] The “island” of a carrier includes the command center for flight deck operations, captain’s bridge, admiral’s bridge, and the navigation, meteorology and signal bridges.

[3] Shepard and his fellow astronauts were later awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor that was authorized by the U. S. Congress in 1969. Shepard received his from President Jimmy Carter in 1978.


Alex McCool began working on the Redstone engine program at Huntsville in 1954, and six years later he joined NASA in order to continue working with Dr. von Braun on the development of larger launch vehicles, including the mighty Saturn rockets. In later years he became manager of the Space Shuttle Projects Office at Marshall, and in a 2003 interview for the Huntsville Times to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first Redstone rocket, McCool was asked to reflect on the early days of the rocket known as “Old Reliable.”

“Really, that rocket, and the propulsion work that went into it, was the beginning of space for us here,” said McCool. “There wouldn’t have been a space program, or a Space Shuttle or a trip to the Moon without the Redstone. It’s the foundation of what we do today. It was the beginning of the space program for America.

“The Germans had been working on other advanced rockets after they developed the V-2, and the Redstone used a lot of that work. They brought a lot of that material with them. They had been working successfully on rockets throughout the war.

“Early on, von Braun had thought about going into space,” McCool reflected. “He talked about it in public all the time, and the Germans had been working on rocket designs for it. He had worked out plans to modify the Redstone to carry a man early on, in the mid-1950s, while still working for the Army. They’d talked about putting somebody up in space even then.” [14]


On 2 April 1958, in response to Soviet space efforts that were proving demoralizing to the American public, President Eisenhower had sent a bill to Congress calling for the immediate establishment of a civilian aeronautics and space agency. Congress passed the Space Act on 29 July, resulting in the creation of NASA, which officially came into existence on 1 October.

A Space Task Group was formed at the Air Force’s Langley Research Center, Virginia, on 5 November, with Robert Gilruth appointed as director. On behalf of NASA, this task group was given four major objectives: to prepare specifications for a manned spacecraft; to plan and build a world-wide tracking network; to select and develop a suitable launch vehicle; and to select and train potential space pilots who would undergo a two-year training program.

With no precedents or government procedures to follow, NASA had to decide where the best candidates could be found, how many were required, and how they should be tested. What they did know was that the astronaut selection process would hinge on three crucial factors: physical, psychological, and technical.

In the final week of 1958, after several meetings between NASA Administrator Keith Glennan and his deputy Hugh Dryden, Robert Gilruth, and other upper-level representatives of NASA and the Space Task Group, a consensus was reached. For speed and facility in arriving at the selections, it was decided to restrict the search to the ranks of military test pilots. There were several reasons for this: test pilots were familiar with the rigors of service life, they were available at short notice, and their full service and medical records were on file for scrutiny.

It was decided to carry out the medical testing at an independent medical facility in New Mexico called the Lovelace Clinic, and to conduct further stress testing and psychological evaluations at the Wright Air Development Center in Ohio, which had already been involved in evaluation testing of space candidates for other poten­tial service programs.

The Space Task Group determined that any candidate had to possess a university degree; be a graduate of a test pilot school; have around 1,500 jet hours; be in superb condition, both mentally and physically; be no taller than 5 feet 11 inches – a height dictated by the confines of the Mercury spacecraft – and be less than 40 years of age at the time of selection.

The first task for those involved in the initial selection phase, or Phase One of the operation, was a trip to the Pentagon where they pulled and evaluated the records of 508 pilots against broad selection criteria, checked their medical records and reports by superior officers, verified that they had the minimum amount of jet flying hours, and assessed the type of flying involved. Out of 225 Air Force records screened, only 58 met the minimum requirements. Of 225 Navy records screened, only 47 made the grade. Of 23 Marine Corps records screened, only five met the minimum standards. Thirty-five Army records were screened, but none met the requirement of being a graduate from a test pilot school. Women were excluded from consideration as there were no female military test pilots. Hence out of the 508 records screened, 110 met the minimum standards.

Each of the 110 candidates was then ranked in terms of his overall qualifications and the reviews were then placed in ranking order, from the most promising to least promising. These men were to be brought to Washington under secret orders and in civilian clothing in order to be briefed at the Pentagon by a senior officer from their respective service, as well as NASA officials. The first two groups would each have 35 men, with the remaining 40 men forming the third group. The groups were to be briefed in successive weeks during Phase Two of the operation.

The first group of 35 candidates turned up at the Pentagon on Monday, 2 February 1959, where the Air Force candidates were initially briefed on Project Mercury and what it might mean for their service careers by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Thomas White, while the Navy and Marine candidates were simultaneously briefed in another room by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke. Prior to this, the men knew very little of Project Mercury or what it entailed. After the service briefings, the men were gathered together in one room for a more spe­cific NASA briefing and an outline of Project Mercury by Charles Donlan, the asso­ciate director of the STG, Warren North, a NASA test pilot and engineer, and Lt. Robert Voas, a Navy psychologist. The men were then told that if they wished to opt out of consideration at that stage it would not be held against them or noted in their service records.

Those candidates that were willing to continue to the next phase were subjected to a preliminary suitability interview by psychologists Dr. George Ruff and Dr. Edwin Levy, then they sat through a review of their medical history. Some men proved to be taller than the limit, and were eliminated from the process. After the second round of briefings the following week, a total of 69 men had been pro­cessed. Faced with a higher than expected volunteer rate, Donlan canceled the third group, since he had more than enough applicants to fill the intended twelve positions. Eventually, six of the 69 candidates were found to be too tall and 16 declined to continue, leaving 47. Further checks and testing by NASA eliminated another 15 candidates, bringing the number down to 32.


Mercury astronaut candidate Scott Carpenter undergoes reaction testing at the Wright Aeromedical Laboratory. (Photo: USAF)

All 32 men endured a meticulous, demeaning, and in some ways brutal week-long medical examination at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico. This was followed by another torturous week at the Wright Aeromedical Laboratory in Ohio, where they were subjected to extreme fitness and physiological testing, the purpose of which was to sort out the supermen from the near-supermen. Or to quote author Tom Wolfe on the subject, the selectors were seeking a group of men with “The Right Stuff.”[1] In the process, one (James Lovell) was excluded for health reasons.

Then the results were compiled and considered, and the remaining 31 candidates were slotted into the following four categories:

Outstanding without reservations: 7

Outstanding with reservations: 3

Highly recommended: 13

Not recommended: 8 [16]

Early in March 1959 the results were forwarded to a panel at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D. C., for the final decisions to be made. It had been decided to halve the number required from twelve to six, but it proved impossible to decide between the final pair and so they were both accepted. Those chosen were notified on 2 April. A week later, on 9 April, seven test pilots were introduced to the waiting news media as the nation’s first astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil (‘Gus’) Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald (‘Deke’) Slayton. They were about to be trained for a task beyond all others for a pilot – a flight into space with Project Mercury.

Giving his reason for wanting to become an astronaut, Shepard said, “I thought it was definitely a chance to serve my country. And I guess everyone feels an urge to do something no one else has ever done – the urge to pioneer and accept a challenge and try to meet it. I realized what it would mean to the Nation in prestige and morale. And I felt that I’d like to contribute whatever ability and maturity I had achieved. It would also, of course, be a big boost to my own self-confidence to know that I had done well in my chosen field. Every man needs that.” [17]


It was April 1961 and 20-year-old Air Controlman 3/c (Third Class) Ed Killian from Texas had been serving aboard the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain (CVS-39) for eighteen months. During that time “The Champ” – as she was fondly known to her crewmembers – had mostly been engaged in an anti-submarine patrol rotation out of NAS Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Towards the end of the month the ship finished a three-week sweep northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, and her exhausted crew were eagerly anticipating some shore leave.

Killian, days away from his 21st birthday, was looking forward to celebrating this milestone in his life in New York City. But then Capt. Ralph Weymouth, the ship’s commanding officer, made an announcement over the ship’s loudspeakers that left Killian’s liberty plans in tatters. Unbeknownst to the crew at the time, however, this change in their schedule would give every man on board the chance to participate in, and be an eyewitness to, an historic event. The ship was to set a new course for the Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville, Florida. Once there, and after a couple of days, they were to join other units in an area to the east of nearby Cape Canaveral for what was vaguely described as some “special ops.”

“This news of extending the cruise didn’t sit well with the crew in general, and there was a lot of grousing about it,” Killian reflected. “The scuttlebutt was that we were going to do another anti-submarine demonstration for some bigwigs, like the one we had done the previous summer for the Latin American generalissimos and admi­rals in the Caribbean. Later, while we finished polishing the brass fittings on Pri-Fly’s windows [the control tower for flight operations, known as Primary Flight Control], Cdr. Howard Skidmore, the ship’s Air Officer, known aboard as the ‘Air Boss,’ came in with a big excited grin on his face and told us that the ship was to be the recovery vessel for a space shot from Cape Canaveral. We had heard about the chimpanzee Ham’s flight and recovery in January, and being a recovery vessel for another ‘monkey flight’ held no excitement for us. Such an event was viewed as a poor trade-off for missing liberty in Quonset Point.” [1]


The USS Lake Champlain in 1960. (Photo: U. S. Navy Naval Historical Center)


The crew’s puzzlement grew in Mayport the day after their arrival, with dozens of civilians boarding the carrier. Killian recalls “about fifty NASA and government offi­cials, photographers by the dozen, and boxes of equipment by the hundreds.” Frustration grew amongst the crewmembers, already annoyed at not returning to Quonset Point, who now found their normal routines delayed by these civilians, while the mess hall, already small, was becoming jammed with extra bodies at meal times. Often the line for food wrapped around several frames of the third deck space, creat­ing much grumbling and dissention.

Eventually, Cdr. Skidmore gave his small group of six air controllers in Pri-Fly additional details about the special operation for which the USS Lake Champlain had been selected. As the ship and her crew had performed well in fleet-wide operational competitions, she had been selected as the prime spacecraft recovery vessel for the United States’ first manned space shot, then scheduled for 2 May.

The recovery task force was actually comprised of several task groups, each under an individual commander, dispersed along the projected track of the spacecraft. The task


Ed Killian on board the USS Lake Champlain before liberty in Charlotte Amalie, U. S. Virgin Islands, in February 1961. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

group in the predicted landing area was commanded by R/Adm George P. Koch, Commander, Carrier Division 18, flying his flag aboard the USS Lake Champlain. A crucial element of the recovery task force was a flotilla of destroyers commanded by R/Adm Frederick V. H. Hilles. In cooperation with fellow flag officer Koch aboard the USS Lake Champlain, Hilles would exercise his command of the destroyers from the

Recovery Control Room located at NASA’s Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral. The units of this group were:




Aircraft carrier

USS Lake Champlain


Capt. R. Weymouth


USS Decatur


Cdr. A. W. McLane

USS Wadleigh


LCdr. D. W. Kiley

USS Rooks


Cdr. W. H. Patillo

USS The Sullivans


Cdr. F. H.S. Hall

USS Abbot


Cdr. R. J. Norman

USS Newman K. Perry


Cdr. O. A. Roberts


USS Ability


LCdr. Larry LaRue Hawkins

USS Notable


Lt. Freeland

Salvage and recovery

USS Recovery


LCdr. Robert Henry Taylor

Tracking ship

USAF Coastal Sentry


Two of the six destroyers were positioned 100 miles or more from the USS Lake Champlain, between Cape Canaveral and the projected recovery area, but the others remained in close contact with “The Champ.”

As planned, the aircraft carrier departed Mayport and sailed into position for the recovery operation about 300 miles east-southeast of the Cape. However, inclement weather forced the launch to be delayed, and there was a further delay two days later before the countdown finally picked up again on the morning of Friday, 5 May.

Because of their advantageous view from Pri-Fly, Cdr. Skidmore had arranged for those who worked there to pool their film with NASA photographer Dean Conger. A well-respected photographer for the National Geographic magazine, Conger was “on loan” to NASA as one of the official photographers to record the recovery operation. Appreciating the historic nature of Alan Shepard’s flight, Skidmore set up extensive photographic coverage by positioning volunteer officers and enlisted men at different vantage points on the ship so that the recovery could be recorded on film. When this innovation was combined with the work of the NASA photographers, it resulted in a magnificent, sweeping coverage of the occasion.

After discussing the expected capsule retrieval with senior crewmembers of ships in the recovery Task Force, NASA Space Task Group representatives Martin Byrnes, Robert Thompson, and Charles Tynan determined that the ship’s crewmen assigned to handle the spacecraft were not fully trained in the specifics of what was expected of them, so they initiated a brief education program for the crew. This included the provi­sion of printed information sheets and screening a film on the recovery of the capsule containing chimpanzee Ham earlier that year. According to This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, published by NASA, “Tynan also carefully briefed each man charged with capsule-handling duties on his particular role.” [2] The carrier’s


NASA Recovery Team Leader Charles I. Tynan, Jr. (seated), briefs the USS Lake Champlain’s recovery team officers on spacecraft retrieval. Standing with his hands on his hips is Richard Mittauer, a NASA Headquarters Public Affairs Officer. The Executive Officer of the ship, Cdr. Landis Doner, is at center rear. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

recovery team consisted primarily of enlisted crewmembers led by the Flight Deck Officer and a number of enlisted Chief Petty Officers of the Air Department; none of whom were at the Tynan briefing. Those in attendance were senior officers who then gave orders and instructions to the carrier’s recovery team. Strangely, not even the Air Officer who led the Air Department was invited to the Tynan briefing.


A comprehensive report on the pre-flight and post-flight medical condition of Alan Shepard was prepared by:

• Carmault B. Jackson, Jr., M. D. Aerospace Medical Branch

• William K. Douglas, M. D., Astronaut Flight Surgeon

• James F. Culver, M. D., USAF Aerospace Medical Center, Brooks AFB, Texas

• George Ruff, M. D., University of Pennsylvania

• Edward C. Knoblock, Ph. D., Walter Reed Army Medical Center

• Ashton Graybiel, M. D., USN School of Aviation Medicine, Pensacola, Florida

and in part, their report reads:

The first post-flight physical examination was performed aboard the aircraft car­rier Lake Champlain. Blood and urine specimens were collected and the pilot was asked to begin debriefing in the form of free dictation. Three hours from liftoff, Astronaut Shepard was taken to Grand Bahama Island by aircraft from the carrier. On arrival at this remote island site, he seemed quietly elated and offered no complaints. His own statement of general fitness included “a wonder­ful flight,” “everything went well,” “I feel fine.”

The psychiatrist at the time of his interview, which actually took place after the next physical examination, believed that the “subject felt calm and self-pos­sessed. Some degree of excitement and exhilaration was noted. He was unusu­ally cheerful and expressed delight that his performance during the flight had actually been better than he expected. It became apparent that he looked upon the flight as a difficult task about which he was confident, but could not be sure, of success. He was more concerned about performing effectively than about external dangers. He reported moderate apprehension during the pre-flight period, which was consciously controlled by focusing his thoughts on technical details of his job. As a result, he felt very little anxiety during the immediate pre-flight period. After launch, he was preoccupied with his duties and felt con­cern only when he fell behind on one of his tasks. There were no unusual sensa­tions regarding weightlessness, isolation, or separation from Earth. Again, no abnormalities of thought or impairment of intellectual functions were noted.”

In physical terms, the physicians identified only minor fluctuations between the examinations given pre-flight, post-flight, and on Grand Bahama Island. One part of their reports reads:

Mild dehydration and early signs of heat exhaustion were also evident when an individual in an impermeable Mercury pressure suit was not adequately ven­tilated. With Redstone training profiles, there has been no nystagmus as a result of high noise levels; there has been no vibration injury …. From the material obtained, it is obvious that a brief sortie has been made into a new environment. Similarities between this sortie and a previous training experience were noted.

No conclusions have been drawn except that in this flight the pilot appears to have paid a very small physiologic price for his journey [8].


Alan Shepard relaxing on Grand Bahama Island. (Photo: United Press International)

The Mercury flight of chimpanzee Ham

By 31 January 1961, the United States was a nation undergoing radical cultural and ethical upheaval. Changes were swirling in the wind. On that day James Meredith, an African-American, applied for admission to the all-white University of Mississippi, known as “Ole Miss,” and so began a hard-fought legal action that would end in the desegregation of the university and the post-graduation shooting and wounding of Meredith by a white supremacist. That same day, a federal district court ordered the admission of two black students into Georgia University, and the State of Georgia repealed its long-standing laws which segregated the races in its public schools. The university was subsequently desegregated.

Also on that memorable date in American history, space science was on the verge of taking a huge leap forward as a Redstone rocket stood fully fueled on launch pad LC-5 at Cape Canaveral. All was in readiness for the launch of a suborbital mission designated Mercury-Redstone 2 (MR-2). It was hoped that this flight would provide the first major test of several new designs in the Mercury spacecraft, including the environmental control system (ECS), as well as a pneumatic landing bag intended to absorb much of the impact shock when a returning capsule hit the water.

But this time, as America prepared to send a man into space, there was a fully trained passenger on board the spacecraft, namely a 37^-pound chimpanzee. NASA has always had qualms about giving personable names to animals involved in space research missions lest there be fatal accidents, so during the flight training process – as with his fellow chimps – this one was only supposed to be identified as “Subject 65.” He had been allocated this number instead of the mildly offensive “Chop Chop Chang” by which he had been known early in his training, but to his handlers he was unoffi­cially called Ham.

Immediately after his safe recovery, the chimpanzee would be publicly identified in the agency’s press releases not by his subject number, but as Ham. According to popular history, this name was derived from the acronym for the Holloman Aero Medical Research Laboratory, but as his chief handler, M/Sgt. Edward C. Dittmer,

The Mercury flight of chimpanzee Ham

The MR-2 capsule undergoing finishing work at the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: McDonnell Douglas Corporation)


The Mercury flight of chimpanzee Ham

“Subject 65,” also known as Ham. (Photo: NASA)

wryly pointed out to the author, “Our lab commander at that time was a Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton Blackshear, whose friends called him Ham, so there may have been a dual purpose behind that particular name.”

Dittmer also revealed that he enjoyed a great relationship with Ham. “He was won­derful: he performed so well and was a remarkably easy chimp to handle. I’d hold him and he was just like a little kid. He’d put his arm around me and he’d play… he was a well-tempered chimp.” [1]