Category Freedom 7


On 24 March 1961 the weather conditions at Cape Canaveral were favorable for a liftoff that day from Launch Complex 5. The launch procedures had been arranged in a four-hour countdown that began at around 8:30 a. m. (EST). Liftoff had originally


Rhesus monkey Miss Sam flew on the LJ-1B abort test flight from Wallops Island. (Photo: NASA)

been scheduled for 1:00 p. m., but this was advanced by half an hour at the request of the Atlantic Missile Range. The countdown would only involve procedures relative to the MR-5 Redstone booster, as the research and development capsule mounted on top was inert. Everything went smoothly, and the loading of the liquid oxygen began two hours prior to the scheduled launch time.

Including the spacecraft and its escape tower, the MR-BD vehicle stood 83.1 feet tall, and would have a total weight of 66,156 pounds at liftoff. Given the elongated fuel tank and enhanced performance of this Redstone variant, the more powerful but toxic Hydyne fuel was replaced by a mix of 75 percent ethyl alcohol and 25 percent water that would be combined, as previously, with liquid oxygen.

At 12:29:58 p. m. the MR-BD rocket lifted off the launch pad and booster cutoff occurred 141.7 seconds later. No thrust difficulties were encountered as the Redstone climbed to an altitude of 115 miles, attaining a maximum velocity of 5,123 miles an hour. After a flight lasting 8 minutes 23 seconds the entire assembly plunged into the Atlantic 311 miles downrange – almost exactly as planned. The area of impact was only 1.7 miles longer than planned, and less than 3 miles to the right of the envisaged


The Mercury-Redstone Booster Development (MR-BD) test that was launched on 24 March 1961. (Photo: NASA)


site. As the structure sank swiftly to the floor of the ocean, a SOFAR (sound fixing and ranging) bomb attached to the interior of the capsule automatically detonated at 3,500 feet. This device had been inserted at the request of the Navy for a checkout of its Broad Ocean Area (BOA) Missile Impact System.

All of the test objectives of the MR-BD mission were achieved, and a preliminary analysis of the flight data showed only slight deviations from the ideal performance. All systems functioned as planned and no problem areas were revealed.

“The engine performed perfectly,” Dr. Kurt Debus, NASA’s director of launch operations later explained. “It burned its prescribed time and did not cut off too soon, as on the previous launching.” Debus announced that if a careful analysis of all the post-flight data demonstrated that the Redstone had functioned smoothly, no further tests would be required and that an astronaut would be able to be launched within six weeks to fly approximately the same 15-minute course as had been traveled that day. “However,” he cautioned, “a close look at the tapes might reveal a slight flaw which could necessitate another test Redstone launching.” [15]

Other NASA officials warned against an over-optimistic timetable, emphasizing that a manned flight depended on several other factors. Mercury Operations Director Walter Williams, pointed out that, in particular, the capsule had to undergo further helicopter drop and flotation tests before an astronaut could ride it.


Within an hour of arriving on board the carrier, Shepard received a radiotelephone call from President Kennedy in the White House, who wanted to extend his personal congratulations:

Подпись: Kennedy: Shepard: Kennedy: Shepard: Kennedy: Shepard:


Hello, Commander.

Yes, sir.

I want to congratulate you very much.

Thank you very much, Mr. President.

We watched you on TV of course [at launch] and we are awfully pleased and proud of what you did.

Well, thank-you, sir. As you know by now, everything worked just about perfectly and it was a very rewarding experience for me and the people who made it possible.

We are looking forward to seeing you up here, Commander.

Подпись:Thank-you very much. I am looking forward to it, I assure you.

The members of the National Security Council are meeting on another mat­ter this morning and they all want me to give you their congratulations. Thank-you very much, sir, and I’m looking forward to meeting you in the near future.

Подпись: Alan Shepard talking to President Kennedy. (Photo courtesy of Dean Conger/NASA)

Thank-you, Commander, and good luck.

At a press conference earlier that day, about 20 minutes after the safe recovery of Alan Shepard, the president issued a statement:

“All America rejoices in this successful flight of astronaut Shepard. This is an historic milestone in our own exploration into space. But America still needs to work with the utmost speed and vigor in the further development of our space program. Today’s flight should provide incentive to everyone in our nation con­cerned with this program to redouble their efforts in this vital field. Important scientific material has been obtained during this flight and this will be made available to the world’s scientific community.

“We extend special congratulations to astronaut Shepard and best wishes to his family who lived through this most difficult time with him. Our thanks also go to the other astronauts who worked so hard as a team in this project.” [46]

The president said at his press conference that a substantially larger effort would be made in the space program, and that Congress would be asked for an additional appro­priation. The request at that time was for 1.23 billion dollars, but he had earlier been advised that it would cost between 20 and 40 billion dollars to put a man on the Moon.

Whilst it should have been a joyous day for the president, with the first American astronaut safely back from space, he seemed to be anything but joyous at his press conference. He assured his audience that clearly he was happy about what had taken place, but he cited the tremendous courage and the accomplishment of Yuri Gagarin, and said that the United States was still a long way behind. Nevertheless, Shepard’s flight was just the tonic that America – and its leader – needed in order to overcome earlier disappointments and the frustrations that had been mounting since the Soviet orbiting of Gagarin and the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco the previous month, which was still causing immense grief and humiliation for the young, newly installed president.

Alexander Wiley of the Senate Aeronautical and Space Science Committee, was openly ecstatic, declaring, “I’m on a sort of emotional drunk.” Senator Karl Mundt, added that Alan Shepard ought to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, say­ing that there were not enough words of praise for the bravery of the astronaut [47]. This, however, would have required a special act of Congress, so it was later decided to award him instead with NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal.[3]

Freedom 7

Duane E. Graveline, M. D., is a former U. S. Air Force flight surgeon, aerospace

medical research scientist, and analyst of Soviet bioastronautics. He was selected as one of six scientist-astronauts by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1965. These days, he is a prolific writer on medical issues and science fiction subjects.

In the dark jungles of Cameroon the female chimpanzee hardly appeared to feel the sting of the dart – it appeared no more than the sting of a hornet. But within seconds her vision dimmed, her muscles became strangely unresponsive, and she plummeted to the ground. A native dragged her unconscious body to the center of a large net spread across the jungle floor. Soon her two offspring slowly made their way to her body and the trap was sprung. The two young chimps then began their long trip to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico where they joined a group of chimp trainees. The year was 1959. Their training for space was soon to start. One of them, designated No. 65 during the training program, would be called “Ham” after the Holloman Aviation Medical Center upon suc­cessful completion of his space flight.

On 31 January 1961, Ham’s welcoming handshake after his 16 minute 39 second space flight became known to the world. Three months later (but unfortunately three weeks after the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin), Alan Shepard was to make his historic space flight.

We in America, in seeking some means to erase the shame of being second in manned space flight, would say that Gagarin had no option for manual control, whereas Shepard was allowed some control of his vehicle, thereby giving us some justification for the claim to have been the first to demonstrate normal extremity function during weightlessness. But even here, there is some room for debate. Ham had full use of his extremities in his responses to blinking test lights during the MR-2 mission, demonstrating that use of extremities would be normal during zero gravity. So few doubts remained.

I had selected zero gravity deconditioning as my primary area of research, and I recall with amusement the dire predictions of other scientists who made headlines back then with their warnings of physiological malfunctions that would result from even short-term zero gravity exposure. To me the critical factor was time, and you could go to the literature on bed rest to get the lions’ share of it – muscle weakness, bone demineralization and orthostatic intolerance. I even had a personal introduction to the deconditioning effects at the age of 10 years while sliding out of bed following nine days of bed rest for an appen­dectomy. After reassuring the nurse that I was fine, I would’ve slid to the floor had it not been for her support. Imagine, at age 10 years I had an introduction to the effects of zero gravity, my future research subject. Eighty per cent of astronauts returning from the space station would show a similar response to standing upright on Earth the first time.

But I was not concerned with deconditioning as a result of such short exposures to weightlessness as Ham’s ballistic flight, or even that of Alan Shepard. Zero gravity decon­ditioning as a medical concern would come; but it would come much later.

You need to remember that in the Cold War climate of those days, one could be criti­cized for saying anything good about Soviet accomplishments. One of my senior offi­cers was critical to the point of being caustic about my reports of Soviet progress in bioastronautics. I was assigned the role of intelligence analyst during this period. Calling me anti-American was one of the milder comments I would attract in those days, simply by reporting the truth. Prior to the Gemini 3 mission, by which time we had accrued a total of 34 orbits of manned space flight, the last thing that our team wanted to be told was that the Soviets had already achieved 292 manned orbits, and that their bioinstru­mentation was surprisingly sophisticated. During this entire period we were gleaning what we could from Soviet data. Analyzing that data was my job. I will summarize the mission of Yuri Gagarin next, owing to its obvious implications for what soon followed in the United States.

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin made the world’s first manned orbital flight. Its total duration from launch to landing was 108 minutes. His bioinstrumentation was the same as that of all the other cosmonauts who followed in the Vostok program: a respiratory moni­tor, two leads of electrocardiograms, blood pressure, precordial vibrocardiogram and gal­vanic skin response (GSR). The orbital plane was inclined at 64 degrees to the equator, and the initial altitudes were selected to guarantee natural orbital decay within the lifetime of the available consumables. The cabin atmosphere was of a composition and pressure equivalent to that at sea level.

The U. S. accessed Soviet biodata in real time, giving our space scientists relevant biodata throughout the mission. Lacking a frame of reference, we had no means of utilizing the precordial vibrocardiogram information or that of the GSR. But we did have electrocardiographic data throughout the flight, and this banished doubts about whether the human body could adjust to the new environment of zero gravity. In the jargon of the space age, Gagarin’s heart rate and rhythm were nominal (expected) all the way. He displayed a normal sinus rhythm throughout (the electrical activity of each heart beat originated from the usual spot near the atrial sinus), with a relative tachycar­dia (faster) in the launch and pre-deorbit phases of the mission. The mission plan was to descend by parachute, so useful biotelemetry terminated at retrofire. We physiolo­gists and doctors needed to hold our breath no longer. Our amazing bodies were able to adapt to zero gravity.

And the flight of Freedom 7 on 5 May proved to be no different in its effect on Alan Shepard. His electrocardiogram was to show normal sinus rhythm all the way with nominal rates. The non-medical reader might wonder about my use of the term “normal sinus rhythm,” and this is because the origin of our heart beat can vary considerably. The usual origin of our pacemaker is the wall of the right atrium. From there the electrical activity spreads across the atria to the nodal tissue at the junction of the atria and the ventricles. The pacemaker of the heart can be normal sinus, atrial, or nodal, or indeed any spot in between. Needless to say, had Gagarin or Shepard’s pacemaker shifted to any spot in the heart other than the sinus, physiologists would have been concerned. It did not, so everyone was happy. On the basis of Gagarin’s data we had no concerns about Shepard’s ability to adapt to zero gravity, and he took his five minutes of weight­lessness in his stride.

Alan Shepard: On 11 November 1923 in the mountains of Derry, New Hampshire was born a man who was to pee in his pants to an audience of spacecraft designers and launch personnel, and later hit golf balls on the Moon. A naval aviator of almost unsurpassed tal­ent and cool daring prior to his selection as a Mercury astronaut, he had more flight hours than anyone else. In a community of the bold and bright, he stood out like a beacon. It seemed to me that on those gravel roads so common to space launch facilities, every bend in the road was a challenge to throw gravel with his Corvette. One time, NASA tracking brought us together at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. He may have trusted me to read the medical console, but he never trusted me to take the wheel of his prize automo­bile. It was generally a pleasure to be with him except for the telephone calls. It seemed as if the whole world wanted to meet him and shake his hand. Since I was the one who sat with him at the restaurant, I was the one they called. I asked him how to handle them. He said they just want to talk, and I learned what it meant to have been in space – to be an astronaut.

Alan Shepard had the grin of a rascal and when, in 1961, a few months after his flight, I showed him a small photo which just begged to be sketched in charcoal, without hesita­tion he wrote across the bottom of the blank sketch paper, “That’s the cleanest joke I know.” I spent months working on that charcoal sketch.

Sometime in the 1990s, having had that sketch hanging in my home in northern Vermont for a couple of decades with only my guests to see it, I finally decided to drive down to Derry and turn it in. Having spent years absorbing all that was known of Gagarin, I was surprised at the twists and turns involved in trying to find where space memorabilia relat­ing to Alan Shepard might be stored.

Most people on the main street of Derry just looked at me questioningly. Finally, one told me that he knew of some space papers stored in a room over the firehouse. Needless to say, I was astonished. There was no marker, no discernible memories – nothing to tell the world that this was the birthplace of Alan Shepard. Having just completed my ten years with the U. S. Air Force and my special assignment as an analyst of Soviet bioastro­nautics, the cosmonauts and astronauts were like a family to me. There could hardly be a child in the Soviet Union who didn’t worship Yuri Gagarin. His name was everywhere and is still revered. Yet here was his American counterpart in some shelves over the

Freedom 7

Duane (‘Doc’) Graveline with the pre-autographed sketch he drew of his astronaut colleague Alan Shepard. (Photo courtesy of Duane Graveline)

firehouse with no markers visible to the public three decades after his historic flight. The Soviets named their entire space complex after Yuri Gagarin, and to me these New Hampshire folks appeared to have almost forgotten their one-time favorite son. They were waiting to build a suitable structure, I was told. But thirty years? I would like to think that my visit, with my sketch and a few e-mails in hand, played a role in helping them finally to start building a suitable structure.

Now a well-marked sign off Interstate 93 directs traffic to Derry, the home town of Alan Shepard. Regardless of how large is the sign or the museum, they will be insufficient to encompass the memories of the man I remember.

Duane E. Graveline, M. D.,

Merritt Island, Florida, 2013

Countdown to launch

At 12:30 a. m. on 2 May 1961 the countdown for MR-3 began, but the prospects of a launch were never very good. In spite of being late spring, violent thunderstorms had rumbled over the Cape that evening; it was raining heavily and occasional lightning flashes danced up and down the Florida coastline. Lining the beaches were people determined to see the launch, shivering under raincoats and ponchos, praying for the filthy weather to clear. The loading of liquid oxygen into the Redstone went ahead, but as the minutes ticked by the odds against flying steadily increased.


Following the unexpected orbital mission of Yuri Gagarin and the nation’s growing eagerness for an American to be launched into space, NASA had decided that as they were a civilian space agency and Mercury was an open program – unlike that of the Soviet Union – they would permit each flight to be televised live. On being assured about the abort system’s capabilities, the thoroughness of the training, the readiness of the astronaut, and the integrity of the hardware involved, President Kennedy had agreed that the world should see the launch live. Nevertheless, he and his advisors remained concerned about a catastrophe in which the astronaut was lost as the world looked on. The television coverage was scheduled to commence at T-2 minutes and, around the nation, families settled in front of their television sets in a state of nervous excitement.

As arranged, flight surgeon Bill Douglas stole into crew quarters at 1:00 a. m. and gently roused the sleeping astronaut along with his backup, John Glenn. In response to Shepard’s mumbled query, Douglas informed him the weather was quite bad at the moment, but a decision had been made to begin fueling the rocket. They were to proceed with the medical examination and suiting-up in the hope the weather would clear. After a shower and shave, Shepard donned his dressing gown and then joined Grissom and Glenn for an early morning high-protein breakfast of orange juice, filet mignon wrapped in bacon, and scrambled eggs, although the others opted instead for poached eggs.

C. Burgess, Freedom 7: The Historic Flight of Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Springer Praxis Books, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-01156-1_4, © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Then, ready to face whatever lay in store for him that morning, it was time to undergo the pre-flight physical and psychiatric examinations.

Medical tests established that Shepard was still in the same perfect health he had previously enjoyed; his eyesight was normal, there were no respiratory ailments, his ear canals were clear, his thyroid was smooth and without any tenderness, his heart rhythm was regular and his blood pressure gave no discernible hint of the challenges he might soon face.

Then a lengthy interview with the NASA psychiatrist confirmed the astronaut’s mental preparedness. The psychiatrist’s report stated, in part, that Shepard “appeared relaxed and cheerful. He was alert and had abundant energy and enthusiasm. [His manner] was appropriate. He discussed potential hazards of the flight realistically and expressed slight apprehension concerning them. However, he dealt with such feelings by repetitive consideration of how each possible eventuality could be managed. Thinking was almost totally directed to the flight. No disturbances in thought or intel­lectual functions were observed.” [1]

The next phase of the pre-launch operations for Shepard entailed having an array of medical sensors attached to his body. Clad only in the bottom half of his specially padded and ventilated long-johns, he stood patiently while the doctors positioned the

Countdown to launch

Conditions at the Cape on 2 May 1961 were never conducive for a launch. (Photo: NASA)

six sensors which would monitor and transmit his physiological state to the Mission Control Center. In this procedure, doctors glued a non-conducting cup containing a non-irritating paste to his skin, and used this paste as the lead-off from the skin. A shielded wire attached to a stainless steel mesh was buried within the paste, but not touching the skin. Four of these sensors went in predetermined spots under the right armpit, on the upper and lower chest, and on the lower left side of his body. Another was inserted into Shepard’s rectum to record his anal temperature, and the last went below the nostrils to monitor his respiration. The six sensor wires were then bunched together in the common terminal that would later be plugged into a socket located adjacent to his right knee in the spacecraft.

Countdown to launch

Suit technician Joe Schmitt adjusts the sensor wire socket incorporated into the leg of Shepard’s suit. (Photo: NASA)

Next, Shepard made his way into the dressing room where NASA suit technician Joe Schmitt was waiting to assist in the awkward procedure of donning his $10,000 pressure suit and helmet. The first item of clothing was long cotton underwear with ribbed sections on the arms, legs, and back to facilitate the circulation of air. Next came the custom-made, 20-pound silvery space suit itself, which was comprised of an inner layer of rubber and an outer layer of aluminized nylon. The suit was sealed by means of airtight zippers, laces, and straps, and encircling the neck area was a soft rubber cone that would make the suit waterproof when the helmet had been removed for egress. Although the suit was inflatable, this safeguarding measure would only be taken if there was a loss of air pressure inside the capsule, and it would allow the astronaut 90 valuable minutes of protection. Once inflated, the suit became almost rigid, although the gloves were designed with curved fingers to allow the astronaut to grip the controls, albeit with the exception of a single finger on the left glove, which remained straight for the purpose of pushing buttons.

Shepard took a seat, and after both legs of the suit had been inserted one at a time, the bundled sensor wires were carefully threaded through a hole in the thigh area. He then stood up and slipped his arms one at a time into the sleeves of the suit, which was zippered across his chest and middle. After pulling boots over his white socks and securing them, Shepard pulled on his gloves and zipped them to each sleeve. He also slipped on a pair of plastic overshoes which he would remove prior to insertion into the spacecraft. These were to prevent dirt picked up on the way to the hatch of Freedom 7 from entering the capsule. Finally, Joe Schmitt lowered Shepard’s helmet over his head, securing it in place with a ring lock.

An air tightness test was then conducted on the space suit. To accomplish this, Shepard reclined in a contour couch and closed his helmet’s faceplate. Schmitt then inflated the suit to 5 psi and checked it for leaks. Finding none, the suit was deflated again and a portable air-conditioning unit was connected to the suit. Shepard would carry this in his hand from that moment until he was ready to plug himself into the spacecraft’s air-conditioning system.

The preparations complete, Shepard then sat in Hangar S awaiting the go/no-go decision, his suit cooled by the air-conditioning unit.

“The signs were not propitious,” he later explained. “And at 3:30 a. m., with the liquid oxygen already loaded aboard the booster, the technicians took a look at the lightning and declared a ‘hold.’ They started working again at 3:50, with the count at T minus 290 minutes.” [2]


Inevitably, there are times in a nation’s history when its hopes, fears and confidence in its own destiny appear to hinge on the fate of a single person. One such moment occurred on the Sun-drenched Florida spring morning of 5 May 1961, when a


Freedom 7 being delivered to the Science Museum in London, starting a year-long visit to the United Kingdom. (Photo: Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library)



The spacecraft attracts curious onlookers outside the museum doors. (Photo: Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library)

37-year-old test pilot squeezed into the tiny Mercury capsule named Freedom 7, ready to ride a rocket into the beckoning skies. Navy Cdr. Alan Shepard was trained to the hilt and fully ready to become the first American into space.

Since his selection as one of the seven Mercury astronauts in 1959, Shepard had relentlessly pursued the honor of being first. Despite this, a hollow feeling pervaded his excitement. Whatever accolades he might receive later that day, they would never make up for what he deemed to be an even greater glory. Renowned for his cocksure determination and his wicked sense of humor, he had pressed himself to the limit to be the first person to fly into space, but to his chagrin he fell just 23 days short of this prized niche in history because it went to a beaming Soviet cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin.

Despite his Mercury flight, Alan Shepard felt somewhat relegated in history, not only as the second person to fly into space, but because his had been an all-too-brief 15-minute ballistic flight. The pioneering Mercury astronaut was demonstratively far from satis­fied with the acclaim heaped on him as the first American to fly into space. He wanted something more: he wanted to fly into space again, and if determination counted for anything, then one day Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. would proudly stand on the Moon.


Freedom 7 on display in the museum. (Photo: Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library)


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]


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.


The very next day, 25 March, the Soviet Union overshadowed the Redstone test by launching into orbit and recovering by parachute the Korabl-Sputnik 5 spacecraft, which not only carried a small dog named Zvezdochka (“Little Star”) but also a full­sized space-suited mannequin cosmonaut which had been gleefully nicknamed “Ivan Ivanovich.”

Now suitably armed with a launch date for the first American astronaut, whose name had not yet been publicly revealed, the Soviet Union pressed ahead in an effort to completely upstage and diminish America’s space plans.


1. Telephone interview conducted by Colin Burgess with Edward C. Dittmer, 21 June 2005

2. The Airman: The Official Magazine of the U. S. Air Force, published by Defense Media Activity, USAF Office of Public Affairs, Washington, DC, issue April 1962

3. Burgess, Colin and Chris Dubbs, Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle, Springer-Praxis Publishing Ltd., Chichester, UK, 2007

4. Telephone interview conducted by Colin Burgess with Edward C. Dittmer, 21 June 2005

5. White, Stanley C., M. D., Richard S. Johnston and Gerard J. Pesman, Review of Biomedical Systems for MR-3 Flight, extract from Proceedings of a Conference on Results of the First U. S. Manned Suborbital Space Flight, combined NASA/National

Institutes of Health/National Academy of Sciences report, Washington, D. C., 6 June 1961

6. Stingely, Norman E., John D. Mosely, DVM, and Charles D. Wheelwright, Part 3, MR-2 Operations from Results of the Project Mercury Ballistic and Orbital Chimpanzee Flights, NASA SP-39, Washington, DC, 1963

7. Lodi News-Sentinel (California) newspaper article, “Chimpanzee May Go Into Orbit,” Tuesday, 28 January 1961, pg. 9

8. Telephone interview conducted by Colin Burgess with Edward C. Dittmer, 21 June 2005

9. The Dispatch (Lexington, NC) newspaper article “Chimp Given Rocket Ride Over Atlantic,” issue Tuesday, 31 January 1961, pg. 1

10. The Norwalk Hour (Connecticut) newspaper, article “Famous Space Chimpanzee Plays Ham After Thrilling Rescue, issue Friday, 3 February 1961, pg. 4

11. Ibid

12. Burgess, Colin and Chris Dubbs, Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle, Springer-Praxis Publishing Ltd., Chichester, UK, 2007

13. Swenson, Loyd S., James M. Grimwood and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, NASA SP-4201, Washington, DC, 1989

14. Memorandum on Mercury-Redstone Booster Development Flight (MR-BD), Space Task Group, Patrick AFB, FL. 26 March 1961

15. The Schenectady Gazette (New York) newspaper article, “Space Man Eyed After Rocket Shot Succeeds,” issue Saturday, 25 March 1961, Pg. 1


NASA’s first space pilot “All of the first seven astronauts were real national heroes; not only to young people growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s but to our folks as well.” Lifelong Derry, New Hampshire resident David Barka was circumspect in looking back over several decades and recalling those times. “I would be hard pressed to equate their special status to any national figure living today. Keep in mind that the enthusiasm over the first space flights was fueled by the Cold War with the Soviet Union that had school children hiding under their desks during periodic air raid drills. The Soviets had been first in space and the Space Race took on almost a life and death feel.”

David Barka grew up in the small farming and factory mill town which would one day gain an enviable reputation as America struggled to send a human into space for the first time. Named after Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Derry was first settled by Scottish-Irish immigrants in 1719. Some 50 miles from Boston, Massachusetts up Route 93 (now named the Alan B. Shepard Highway), the town has been home to several notable identities, including Matthew Thornton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. For a time, the acclaimed poet Robert Lee Frost farmed and taught there while he wrote some of his epic works. In 1961, however, the town of Derry became forever identified with the supremely confident naval aviation officer, test pilot and NASA astronaut, Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., whose name is immortalized in our history books as America’s first man in space.

“At some point I learned that Alan Shepard, born and raised in Derry, had been chosen to be America’s first man in space,” Barka reflected. “His folks still lived in the same house about a mile from where I grew up. I was nine years old then, and I couldn’t have been more proud and excited. We were all aware of the great danger these men faced in going into space, especially Shepard, who would be first, and we were also aware that several rockets had blown up on the launch pads during test flights. On the day of the launch, Mrs. Blunt, who was the first-through-third-grade teacher at the Derry Village School, wheeled a television set into our classroom – something reserved only for special events – and we watched with great excitement the successful 15-minute flight of the first American in space.


The door knocker on the front of the house was part of the fittings when the house was first built, and is still in use today. (Photo: David & Debi Barka)

“Alan Shepard returned to his home town about a year later to a huge parade and celebration. The Derry News said 100,000 people watched the parade, an enormous event for a town of six to seven thousand people. I still have pictures. My family owned the Barka Oil Company and my father proudly had pennants made which had ‘Spacetown U. S.A.’ under the company name.” [1]


A recent Christmas photo of the snow-covered Shepard house in East Derry. (Photo: Upper Village Hall, Derry)


Shepard, meanwhile, was preparing to depart the USS Lake Champlain for Grand Bahama Island, where he would undergo a far more intense medical examination and debriefing.

Most of the NASA personnel were escorted to the COD, a Grumman TF1 Trader, by a beaming R/Adm George Koch, with Capt. Weymouth in attendance. Then the astronaut made his appearance, climbing up the deck-edge ladder from the admiral’s cabin. The crew saw he had discarded his silver space suit, although he still wore his silver flight boots, and was now wearing a more comfortable orange flight suit with a leather patch on the left breast which said ALAN SHEPARD, ASTRONAUT, USA. The flight suit and the name tag had been somewhat hastily made aboard ship. Since Shepard had urinated in his space suit during the extended pre-launch delay, it was a welcome change of clothing for him.

Still curious about the condition of his spacecraft, Shepard made a diversion over to where Freedom 7 rested on its platform and shook hands with Charles Tynan, as Admiral Koch and Capt. Weymouth looked on. The astronaut and technician spoke briefly, then both men mounted the platform for a closer inspection of the spacecraft.

As Tynan informed the author, everything was not exactly as it may have seemed. “Since Shepard was the first U. S. astronaut we were told not to speak to him because they did not want anyone to ‘cloud his mind’ with thoughts other than the flight. I had finished getting in the capsule to record all switch positions and gauge readings, and I was standing near the capsule when Shepard appeared. He had finished with the doc­tors and wanted to examine the capsule before leaving the ship. He started a long conversation with me, telling me how wonderful the ‘too short’ flight was and that he was pleased that he came down within sight of the carrier. He said he rejoiced when the main parachute deployed.”


Capt. Weymouth shakes the hands of Richard Mittauer from NASA’s Public Affairs Office as Admiral Koch (rear, center) looks on. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)


Shepard talking to NASA Recovery Team Leader Charles Tynan. Capt. Weymouth stands at the rear. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

Tynan said a later TV report on the flight mentioned that he and Shepard seemed to have been engaged in a very technical discussion. “Far from the truth: he wanted me to take the 8-day clock out of the capsule, bring it back to the Cape and give it to him. I was hesitant to start taking parts out of the first space flight capsule, resisting his request, and that is why our discussion lasted so long. Because the clock had no significant value to the flight, I removed a few screws and it was in my briefcase in no time. I gave it to Shepard a few days later in Hangar S. I understand that the seven astronauts had the clock mounted in a piece of walnut for their attorney’s desk, who wasn’t charging them for his work. I believe his name was something like [D’Orsay] who owned a small interest in the Washington Redskins football team.” [48]


Shepard and Tynan peer into the spacecraft’s interior. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

Soon after, Ed Killian gained a prized memento of the day as Dean Conger took photographs from below of Shepard standing on the platform. “At the same time, those of us in Pri-Fly were snapping photos from above. Conger’s photo of Shepard leaning into the capsule shows Pri-Fly just above the capsule. We moved back along the 05 level catwalk on the island and snapped a couple of pictures of Shepard at the capsule. Conger snapped a picture as he turned away from the capsule; this picture captured the Assistant Air Boss Tom Cooper, Air Controlman Russ Duncan and Air Controlman Ed Killian taking pictures from the catwalk just outside Pri-Fly and above Shepard.”


Camera-bearing crew members can be seen on the catwalk taking their photographs. (Photo courtesy of Dean Conger/NASA)


This photograph, taken from the catwalk, shows a happy Alan Shepard after he had concluded his “business” with Charles Tynan. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

Before leaving, Shepard found time to have a brief conversation with the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Weymouth. “He told me that four or five years from now we may look back on this as a pretty crude thing,” Weymouth later revealed, “but at this moment it seemed a tremendous event.” [49]

The ship’s Executive Officer, Cdr. Landis E. Doner, R/Adm Koch, and his Chief of Staff then presented Shepard with records of his flight and its recovery.

Finally, having completed his inspection of Freedom 7, Shepard walked aft to the airplane that would take him to GBI for a battery of medical tests to be carried out in a special one-man “hospital”. Two of the three HMR(L)-262 Marine helicopters and one S2F Tracker from VS-32 were to accompany Shepard’s TF1 to Grand Bahama Auxiliary Air Force Base, about 75 miles southwest of the recovery site.

As Shepard’s aircraft made a rolling takeoff from the USS Lake Champlain to the cheers of her crew, he had spent a mere 2 hours 25 minutes aboard the carrier. About 40 minutes later, another S2F from VS-22 flew off to deliver photographic film to Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral.

Author’s preface

I once had the privilege – the very memorable privilege – of meeting Rear Admiral Alan Shepard. Sadly enough, it would be the only occasion. In 1993, under gloomy skies, an air show was held at Avalon airport outside of Melbourne, Australia, and I was there in uni­form in my capacity as a Customer Service Manager with Qantas Airways to usher attend­ees through our 747 and 767 aircraft. I knew that special show guest Alan Shepard was to do a signing session outside of the Qantas VIP tent at a certain time, so I carefully orches­trated my break to be there 15 minutes ahead of that time.

As I’d assumed, Shepard was by himself in the private rear part of the VIP tent, sleeves rolled up and enjoying a quiet beer. I introduced myself, saying as we shook hands, “It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Rear Admiral. I’ve been waiting quite a while to meet you.” With that he looked at his watch and almost apologetically said, “Oh, how long have you been waiting?” At which I replied, “Since the fifth of May 1961.” He laughed out loud. I then enjoyed a couple of precious minutes chatting with the man before he was called to face the public and sign a whole bunch of prints – curiously of the Space Shuttle undergo­ing flight tests mounted atop a 747. I really felt that something far more appropriate could have been found, but as he signed one for me it’s a great souvenir of a wonderful day and an extraordinary person.

After he’d rolled down and buttoned his sleeves once again and walked out to the wait­ing line of autograph ‘customers’, I noticed Louise Shepard sitting quietly in a far corner of the tent, so for a few minutes we had a friendly, animated conversation about the places that she would dearly love to see in Australia.

The memories of that day came flooding back as I began work on this book, and I’ll always be grateful that the opportunity to meet Alan Shepard came my way. It made the writing of his flight story so much more personal.

The adulation that swept most of the world – and particularly the United States – in the wake of his suborbital flight was something quite new and largely unexpected, with the sheer scale of it taking many by surprise. Following his post-flight reception and being presented with a NASA medal by President Kennedy at the White House, the Shepards traveled as planned to the Capitol building in an open limousine along with Vice President Johnson. The other Mercury astronauts trailed behind in other vehicles. Amazingly, it had been decided by NASA officials in Washington, D. C. not to organize any sort of showy parade for the nation’s first astronaut. However, nobody had told the people of the nation’s capital, who turned out in their thousands to line the streets and cheer Alan Shepard and his colleagues as they drove by in a fleet of limousines. Several thousand more had gath­ered at the steps of the Capitol to catch a glimpse of America’s first astronaut, and he was obviously overwhelmed by the excitement and sheer patriotism displayed by the citizens of Washington, whom he acknowledged prior to eventually heading in to address a news conference. There was a further surprise in store when he made his way to the waiting microphones. All the news reporters and photographers stood and applauded as he fronted the gathered media – something almost without precedent.

By the time John Glenn orbited the Earth the following year, everyone knew what to expect post-flight, and true to predictions the nation exploded as the freckle-faced Marine enjoyed exultant parades throughout the country. He had become the latest, and one of the greatest, American heroes. The triumph of Shepard’s history-making Mercury suborbital flight had to take something of a back seat to the man who had once served as his backup and who now enjoyed a celebrity status the like of which had not been seen since the days of Charles Lindbergh.

In 2011 our attention was turned once again to Alan Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone flight, as we remembered the golden anniversary of sending America into space in a tiny capsule he had named Freedom 7. Sadly, he was no longer with us, having died of a linger­ing disease back in 1998.

As someone who has found fascination and enthrallment in the ongoing history of human space flight for the greater part of his life, I feel proud to be able to present this book on the flight that made Alan Shepard and Freedom 7 famous.

Of necessity there is some biographical material on the life of Alan Shepard, but as the name of the book suggests, I’ve principally focused on his historic flight. For those seek­ing information on the life and other achievements of Alan Shepard, there is one biogra­phy that covers his entire lifetime; Neal Thompson’s 2004 publication, Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard, America’s First Spaceman.

Just as I feel so privileged to have met the first American to fly into space (and Apollo moonwalker), I am also grateful that I happened to be around and historically aware in an era in which we took, in Shepard’s own words, “those first baby steps” into the astonishing wonderment and glory that is our universe.