Category Freedom 7


The Redstone’s association with Project Mercury began as the result of a January 1958 meeting of top military personnel at the ABMA. The Department of the Army had proposed a joint Army, Navy, and Air Force program to send a man into space and back, under the project working title of “Man Very High.” In April, however, the Air Force decided that it did not wish to participate, and the Navy was becoming increas­ingly lukewarm on the joint service venture. As a result, the Army decided to push on with the project alone. Now redesignated “Project Adam,” a formal proposal for the military space venture was submitted to the Office of the Chief of Research and Development on 17 April 1958.

As outlined in the proposal, the intention of Project Adam was to send a man on a bal­listic flight to an altitude of around 170 to 200 miles in a recoverable capsule atop a Redstone missile. It was pointed out that much of the supporting research for such a space venture had already been carried out at the ABMA in Huntsville. In turn, the Secretary of the Army, Wilber M. Brucker, forwarded the Project Adam proposal to the Department of Defense’s recently created Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) the following month, along with a recommendation that the agency consider funding the project. But this was rejected in a memorandum to the Secretary of the Army dated 11 July 1958, in which Roy W. Johnson, the first director of the ARPA, indicated that Project Adam was not considered integral to the agency’s own man-in-space program.


A Redstone missile on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, 16 May 1958. (Photo: NASA)

On 8 August 1958 President Eisenhower appointed 52-year-old Dr. Thomas Keith Glennan, president of the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, to serve as the first administrator of NASA. For continuity his deputy would be 60-year-old Hugh L. Dryden, who had been in charge of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). NASA came into official existence on 1 October. Just two weeks later, Glennan was in conflict with the Secretary of the Army about a proposal that the Army transfer to NASA the 2,100 scientists and engineers at the ABMA and all of its facilities and personnel at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. In the end, on 3 December, President Eisenhower ordered a compromise which involved transferring JPL to NASA, but under the direction of the California Institute of Technology. The president allowed the Army to retain its ABMA and the people under von Braun, but granted NASA the right to make use of the Huntsville capabilities on a fully cooperative basis. Glennan later announced that an increasing proportion of the work undertaken at Huntsville would be shifted to his agency in future contracts.

When NASA subsequently sought discussions on the possible use of the Army’s Redstone or Jupiter rockets in support of the civilian manned space program, the Army, now without a manned space program due to the decision to abandon Project Adam, decided to cooperate. As a result, NASA issued a request to the ABMA for eight Redstone missiles to be used by Project Mercury. By arrangement with NASA, these rockets were to be assembled by the Chrysler Corporation and shipped to the Redstone Arsenal for final checkout by the ABMA.

At the time of the Redstone’s selection for the Mercury program in January 1959, there were two very different versions of the rocket. The first, designated Block II, was an advanced version of the tactical missile design incorporating an improved engine, the Rocketdyne A-7, which used a combination of alcohol and liquid oxygen (LOX) as its propellants. However, there were concerns that this propellant mixture would almost – but not entirely – achieve the thrust necessary to boost a one-ton spacecraft into space. North American Aviation set its Rocketdyne Division the task of increas­ing the thrust by about 5 percent with the proviso that there could not be any changes to the existing propellant systems. They finally came up with a toxic mixture of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and diethylenetriamine, to which the military gave the name Hydyne. When combined with LOX, this would provide the required addi­tional thrust. The Hydyne/LOX propellant was successfully utilized by the second modified version of the Redstone. Designated the Jupiter-C, this was a multistage rocket with larger tanks and Rocketdyne’s A-5 engine. It was a four-stage version of the Jupiter-C with small solid-fuel rockets for the upper stages that placed America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit around the Earth on 31 January 1958.

On 1 July 1960, a section of the Redstone Arsenal was transferred to NASA and a few weeks later President Eisenhower and NASA Administrator Glennan attended the rededication ceremony that made it the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, which rapidly became known by the acronym MSFC. It was here that a number of Redstone rockets would be produced and tested for the civilian space agency by the Development Operations Division of the ABMA in collaboration with the project management of the Space Task Group (STG). Cooperative panels were established between Marshall, the STG, and the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis,


The seven Mercury astronauts visit the Fabrication Laboratory of the Development Operations Division at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (which was renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center) in Huntsville. From left: Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, and Dr. Wernher von Braun. (Photo: NASA, MFSC)

Missouri, which was manufacturing the Mercury spacecraft, in order to implement standards, to coordinate design and operational goals between the three agencies, and to seamlessly integrate any changes into the overall program.

The Redstone configuration selected to meet the performance requirements of the Mercury program coupled the A-7 engine and propellants of the Block II model with the enlarged tankage of the Jupiter-C. In order to support the objectives of Project Mercury, some 800 modifications were made to the rocket’s existing characteristics and performance. This included the elongation of the 70-inch diameter tank unit by six feet to hold the fuel required for an additional 20 seconds of engine burn time. A new instrument compartment and adapter section was manufactured to mate with the spacecraft, along with an abort system developed by MSFC to protect the capsule and, eventually, its human occupant. With the capsule and escape power mounted on top, the Mercury-modified Redstone now stood at an overall length of 83 feet. The total liftoff weight at launch would be 66,000 pounds.


Preparing a Mercury test capsule and escape system for a Redstone test circa 1960 at the Marshall Space Flight Center. (Photo: NASA/MSFC)



A close view of the test capsule and escape system. (Photo: NASA/MSFC)

Dr. Joachim Kuttner was one of Wernher von Braun’s team of German scientists, and he said at the time that a great deal of care was taken in the production of each Redstone booster. “As these thin sheets of aluminum are curved and welded, each seam is minutely inspected by X-ray to make sure there are no invisible flaws that might give way under the extreme stresses of flight. Every component we use bears a special seal representing the winged god Mercury. This symbol constantly reminds assembly-line workers that a man’s life depends on the product.” [4]


A comparative illustration of the Redstone, Jupiter-C, and Mercury-Redstone launch vehicles. (Photo: NASA, MSFC)


Alan Shepard was an eighth-generation New Englander who could trace his roots back to the Mayflower as a celebrated descendant of Richard Warren (c.1580-1628), one of the first sea-weary passengers to set foot upon the snow-encrusted shores of what is now called Cape Cod following the ship’s arrival on 11 November 1620. Ten years previously, he had married Elizabeth Walker in Hertfordshire in England, but in seeking a better life for his struggling family he had traveled alone by ship to the New World. Once he had established himself on a parcel of land in Plymouth, his wife and children Mary, Ann, and Sarah sailed on the ship Anne to join him. He and Elizabeth would go on to have two sons named Nathaniel and Joseph.

Remarkably for the time, their children survived to adulthood, were married, and had large families. Consequently, a vast numbers of Americans can today trace their ancestry back to Richard Warren and the settlement of America. In addition to Alan Shepard, Warren’s descendants include such notables as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and even the Wright brothers [4].

Shepard’s middle name comes from his grandmother, Annie Bartlett, who in 1887 married Frederick J. Shepard in her home town of Nottingham, New Hampshire. The couple built a large home on farmland in East Derry and had three sons: Frederick, Alan, and Henry. Born in 1891, Alan, who was better known as Bart, was the father of future astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, Jr.


In the book, We Seven, Shepard related his observations of the planet passing below:

My exclamation back to Deke about the “beautiful sight” was completely spontaneous. It was breath-taking. To the south I could see where the cloud


One of a small number of Earth observation photos taken by Shepard during his brief flight. (Photo: NASA)

cover stopped at about Fort Lauderdale, and that the weather was clear all the way down past the Florida Keys. To the north I could see up the coast of the Carolinas to where the clouds just obscured Cape Hatteras. Across Florida to the west I could spot Lake Okeechobee, Tampa Bay, and even Pensacola. Because there were some scattered clouds far beneath me I was not able to see some of the Bahama Islands that I had been briefed to look for. So I shifted to an open area and identified Andros Island and Bimini. The colors around these ocean islands were brilliantly clear, and I could see sharp variations between the blue of blue water and the light green of the shoal areas near the reefs. It was really stunning.

But I did not just admire the view. I found that I could actually use it to help keep the capsule in the proper attitude. By looking through the periscope and

focusing down on Cape Canaveral as the zero reference point for the yaw con­trol axis, I discovered that this system would provide a fine backup in case the instruments and the autopilot happened to go out together on some future flight.

It was good to know that we could count on handling the capsule this extra way – provided, of course, that we had a clear view and knew exactly what we were looking at. Fortunately, I could look back and see the Cape very clearly. It was a fine reference [15].

Years later, Wally Schirra told interviewer Francis French that Shepard’s remarks on his “beautiful view” were exaggerated due to his problems with the periscope. As Schirra explained, all the early astronauts felt they had some sort of obligation to say something nice about the view from space for public and press consumption. “It was just the game that people play. I’ll never forget alan Shepard, on the first manned American flight, saying something to the effect of ‘What a beautiful view.’ I asked him later, did you see anything at all? He said ‘I couldn’t see a damn thing through that periscope – but I had to say something nice!’” [16]

At 5 minutes 11 seconds into the flight, Freedom 7 reached the highest point of its ballistic arc at 115.696 miles. It now began its downward curve on a trajectory that was calculated to end with a splashdown somewhere near the naval recovery ships standing by in the waters near Grand Bahama Island, southeast of the Cape.

Deke Slayton began to recite the countdown for the retro-fire maneuver. Shepard used the manual control stick to point the spacecraft’s blunt end 34 degrees below the horizon in pitch and set both the yaw and roll angles to zero.

“I worked the controls to the proper angle to test fire the three retro rockets. They weren’t necessary for descent on this suborbital, up-and-down mission, but they had to be proven for orbital flights to follow, when they would be critical to decelerate Mercury spaceships from orbital speed to initiate their return to Earth.

“‘Retro one.’ The first rocket fired and shoved me back against my couch. ‘Very smooth.’ “‘Roger, roger,’ from Deke.

“‘Retro two.’ Another blast of fire, another shove.

“‘Retro three. All three retro have fired.’

“‘All fired on the button,’ Deke said with satisfaction.” [17]

Each retrorocket was to burn for approximately 10 seconds, and they were fired in sequence at five-second intervals. “There was just a small, upsetting motion as our speed was slowed and I was pushed back into the couch a bit. But, as the rockets fired in sequence, each pushing the capsule somewhat off its proper angle, I brought it back. Perhaps the most encouraging product of the trip was the way I was able to stay on top of the flight by using manual controls.” [18]

One minute after the last rocket fired, the package, its job done, blew off at T+6 minutes 14 seconds. Shepard felt the package jettison, and as he watched through the periscope he saw the straps that had held it in place begin to fall away. A green lamp was meant to illuminate on the instrument panel to indicate a successful jettison, but


As shown in this 1960 photo taken during testing at the Lewis Research Center, the spacecraft had a six-rocket retro-package affixed to the heat shield on its base. Three were posigrade rockets used to separate the capsule from the booster, and three were larger retrograde rockets to slow the capsule for reentry into the atmosphere. (Photo: NASA)

it failed to come on – the only signal failure of the entire mission. Knowing that the package had jettisoned, Shepard punched an override button and the light instantly illuminated.

Shepard verified Freedom 7’s HF radio, and then at T+6 minutes 20 seconds he orientated the vehicle into the reentry attitude with its blunt end 40 degrees below the local horizontal. Twenty-four seconds later the periscope retracted automatically.





























helium – bOTTLES







The autopilot control function now allowed Shepard the freedom to conduct other flight-related functions. This included looking out through both portholes in the hope of gaining a general look at any stars or planets that might be visible, in addition to oblique views of the horizon. However, due to the Sun angle and light levels he was unable to see any celestial bodies.



Back on the USS Lake Champlain the spacecraft had been transferred below to the hangar bay, where Capt. Weymouth and his Executive Officer Cdr. Doner conferred briefly with Charles Tynan, NASA’s senior representative. Weymouth then climbed into Freedom 7 to get a feel for the cockpit, which he found was a little too small for him. He exited the hatch with the assistance of Cdr. Doner, who then took his turn to squeeze himself into the spacecraft.



A beaming Alan Shepard jokes with fellow passengers on the way to GBI. (Photo: Dean Conger/NASA)



Astronaut meets photographer: Alan Shepard shakes hands with Dean Conger. (Photo cour­tesy of Dean Conger/NASA)

After the ship had closed to within about eight miles of Florida during the night, Wayne Koons lifted off in Marine Corps helicopter #44 and as he hovered directly over Freedom 7 George Cox attached the harness to the spacecraft so that it could be ferried back to Cape Canaveral.

“The helicopter had to get very close to the capsule to connect the harness with the shepherd’s hook,” Ed Killian recalled. “Although that day one should really have renamed that apparatus a ‘Shepard’s hook.’ Anyway, the helo hovered, while the ten­sion on the sling was taken up. The helo then moved to starboard over the capsule and lifted it clear of the platform. Helo and capsule were vectored toward the beach, accom­panied by an escort. The platform that had held the capsule was then moved below as the helo and its package swung off into the distance. The capsule would be displayed for a period of time at Cape Canaveral.”


Capt. Weymouth exits the spacecraft with the assistance of Cdr. Landis Doner while Charles Tynan busies himself at left. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)


Pilot Wayne Koons eases Freedom 7 off the landing pad ahead of the delivery flight across to Cape Canaveral. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

As Wayne Koons points out, “I don’t remember exactly where we set it down, but that’s when the news coverage came in earnest. There were print reporters and TV crews. At that time they did everything on sixteen-millimeter cameras. So they’d get us out with these cameras, and we did lots of interviews. It was a heady time.” [52] Despite Freedom 7 being the most celebrated piece of hardware in the world that day, its arrival at the Cape passed almost unheralded. Millions of television viewers had watched it ride atop the Redstone booster carrying Alan Shepard into space, but only 35 people – newsmen, engineers, guards – were on hand for its return. Set down just two miles from the launch pad that it had left the previous morning, Freedom 7 was given a brief examination and then hauled off to a hangar where, in the weeks to come, the engineers and technicians would go over it inch by inch.

For Ed Killian and the USS Lake Champlain, things quickly returned to normal. “That ended our participation in the first U. S. manned space flight and we headed home. It had been a long cruise, but we’d been a part of something truly historic.”


A recent photo of Ed and Kath Killian. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

Frank Yaquiant of Baltimore, Maryland agrees. He joined the carrier in May 1960 as a member of the V-4 division, responsible for the aviation fuel the planes used. “I was very happy to have been on ‘The Champ’ that day. My shipmates and I were witnesses to something truly special. It’s been almost 52 years since that memorable day, and the science of space travel has advanced far beyond that available during the flight of Freedom 7. The achievements of those past 50-plus years may make the events of May 5, 1961 seem rather modest to the uninformed [today]. But this was America’s first venture into manned space travel, and those of us aboard the USS Lake Champlain that day have the pride and satisfaction of knowing we were there at the beginning.” [53]

As a footnote to the story, about ten years after Shepard’s flight, Ed Killian was dining with his family at Vargo’s restaurant in Houston when he became aware that Alan Shepard had just walked in. As Shepard was talking to a party of people who had greeted him at the door, Killian decided to introduce himself and strolled over. “As I drew near, the crowd began to break up. I offered my hand and said, ‘Admiral, I’m Ed Killian, and we haven’t met, but you may remember ‘Mercury, Mercury, this is Nighthawk. Do you read?’ He smiled and said ‘How could I forget?’ Then his eyes narrowed as if remembering more of the details. ‘That was you?’ I nodded, smiling. ‘Hmmm,’ he said, ‘I was pretty excited, wasn’t I?’ He tilted his head and raised his eye­brows, as if to ask a further question. I sensed that he was making an oblique reference to the private conversation we had had. ‘You had a right to be excited. So did we all,’ I observed. Satisfied with my response, he said, ‘Well, very nice to meet you,’ nodding and shaking my hand. He then turned back to his party and they were ushered to his table. I knew there was a wild world of differences between us, but I also knew the two of us shared a secret.”

Freedom 7 spacecraft pre-launch activities

Mercury Spacecraft #7, which became known as Freedom 7, was delivered from the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation plant in St. Louis, Missouri to Hangar S at Cape Canaveral on 9 December 1960. Upon delivery, the instrumentation system and selected items of the communication system were removed from the capsule to be bench treated. During this bench-test period, the capsule underwent rework which included the cleaning up of dis­crepancy items deferred from St. Louis and making changes to the capsule that were required to be made prior to beginning systems tests.

Systems test were begun as soon as all instrumentation and communications compo­nents were reinstalled in the capsule. These tests required a total of 46 days. During this period the electrical, sequential, instrumentation, communication, environmental, reaction control, and stabilization and control systems were individually tested. Included in the test of the environmental system were two runs in an altitude chamber with an astronaut installed in the capsule.

At the completion of systems tests, another work period was scheduled in which the landing bag system was installed on the capsule. Following this work period, a simulated flight test was performed, followed by the installation of pyrotechnics and parachutes. The capsule was then weighed, balanced, and delivered to the launching pad to be mated with the Redstone booster. Nineteen days were spent on the launching pad, prior to launch, test­ing the booster and capsule systems, both separately, and as a unit. Also, practice inser­tions of an astronaut into the capsule were performed during this period.

Simulated flight 1 with the booster was accomplished at the completion of systems tests on the launching pad. A change was then required in the booster circuitry which necessi­tated another simulated flight test (simulated flight 2). The capsule-booster combination was then ready for flight. The flight was postponed several days due to weather; however, this allowed time for replacing instrumentation components which were malfunctioning. A final simulated flight was then run (simulated flight 3). The capsule was launched two days after this final test.


During capsule systems tests and work periods, both in Hangar S and on the launching pad, modifications were made to the capsule as a result of either a capsule malfunction or an additional requirement placed on the capsule. The most significant modifications made to Spacecraft 7 while at Cape Canaveral were as follows:

(a) Manual sensitivity control and a power cut-off switch were added to the VOX (Voice – Operated Transmitter) relay.

(b) A check valve was installed between the vacuum relief valve and the snorkel inflow valve.

(c) The cabin pressure relief valve was replaced with one which would not open until it experienced an equivalent head of 15 inches of water.

(d) Screens were added at the heat barriers upstream of the thrust chambers (downstream of the solenoid valves).

(e) The high-thrust pitch and yaw thrusters were welded at the juncture between the thrust chambers and the heat barriers.

(f) The cables to the horizon scanners in the antenna canister were wrapped with reflective tape to minimize radio-frequency (RF) interference from capsule commu­nications components.

(g) The retro-interlock circuit was bypassed by installing a jumper plug in the amplifier-calibrator.

(h) Permission relays were installed to both the capsule-adapter ring limit switches and the capsule-tower ring limit switches.

(i) Capacitors were installed in the circuits to the orbit attitude, retro-jettison, and impact inertia arm time delay relays.

(j) Capsule wiring was changed to extend the periscope at 21,000 feet.

(k) The potting on the capsule adapter umbilical connectors was extended 0.75 inches from both connector ends and the connector was wrapped with asbestos and heat reflective tape. Also, the fairings over these connectors were cut away and a cover was added which provided more clearance between the fairings and the connectors.

(l) The lower pressure bulkhead was protected from puncture damage that might result from heat sink recontact. Aluminum honeycomb was added, bolts reversed, and brackets with sharp protrusions were potted solidly with RTV-90 and plates between the brackets and the bulkhead.

(m) Pitch indicator markings were changed from -43 to -34 degrees for retro-attitude indication


Mercury-Redstone 1 (MR-1) was to be the first qualifying flight of an unmanned Mercury capsule mated with a Redstone rocket. The launch, set to take place from Pad 5 of Cape Canaveral’s Air Force Launch Complex 56, was to be a full test of the spacecraft’s automated flight controls, as well as the launch, tracking and recovery operations on the ground. It was also intended to provide a test of the Mercury – Redstone’s automatic in-flight abort sensing system, which would be operating in an “open loop” mode. Basically, this meant that because it was an unmanned test of the system and there were no real safety issues, an abort signal would simply be ignored in order to prevent a false signal from terminating the flight needlessly.

On 22 July 1960, after the capsule systems tests in St. Louis, Missouri, Mercury Capsule No. 2 was shipped to Huntsville, where the one-ton capsule was mated with its Redstone. Both then underwent a series of checks to ensure their compatibility. Next, the total assembly, now some 83 feet long, was shipped to Cape Canaveral, arriving on 24 July. The escape tower was then prepared, and hangar activities such as the installation of parachutes and pyrotechnics were completed in time to transport the spacecraft to the launch pad on 26 September, where the rocket, enclosed by the ser­vice structure gantry, was waiting.

The first launch attempt was set for 7 November, with the intent of hurling the cap­sule about 220 miles over the Atlantic into a target area northwest of Grand Bahama Island. Things went smoothly until a problem caused the test to be canceled 22 minutes prior to the planned time of liftoff. According to ‘Luge’ Luetjen from the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, who was then serving as the company’s Redstone Mission Capsule Controller, “It was noted that the helium pressure in the spacecraft control systems had dropped below the acceptable level. A leak in the system, unfortunately under the heat shield, was obvious, and as a result the launch was scrubbed. The spacecraft was removed from the booster and the heat shield dropped to expose the culprit, a leaky relief valve. It, and a toroidal hydrogen peroxide tank were replaced, plus a minor wiring change was made as the result of an earlier test at Wallops Island, Virginia. The spacecraft was reassembled, remated to the booster, and appropriate tests rerun in order to confirm the spacecraft’s integrity and that the problem had indeed been fixed.” [5]

A second launch attempt was scheduled for 21 November. Two days after the 7 November launch scrub, Senator John F. Kennedy narrowly beat Richard M. Nixon, the incumbent vice president, in the election to become the 35th President of the United States. It would prove a momentous victory in terms of space flight history.

On hand to observe the second attempt to launch MR-1 – as indeed for the first – were the seven Mercury astronauts. That morning there was only a minor one-hour delay to enable technicians to fix a leak in the capsule’s hydrogen peroxide system, which slipped the time of liftoff to 9.00 a. m. (EST). There were no further delays. Right on the hour the firing command was issued from the Mercury Control Center. The booster ignited, then one second later the Rocketdyne A-7 engine unexpectedly shut down. During that interval, the booster had actually lifted a little less than four inches off its pedestal. After the engine cut off, the vehicle settled back down onto its


The “clean room” at the McDonnell Aircraft plant in St. Louis, Missouri, where the Mercury capsules took shape. Extreme precautions were taken to prevent dust and metal particles infiltrating sensitive areas. In the upper photo, Spacecraft No. 2 is to the fore; it would be utilized on two Mercury-Redstone flights. (Photo: McDonnell Aircraft Corporation).


Spacecraft No. 2 is hoisted prior to being mated with the waiting Redstone rocket in Huntsville. (Photo: NASA)




On 21 November 1960 preparations continue for launching the MR-1 mission from Cape Canaveral. (Photo: NASA)
fins, slightly deforming their frames. Incredulous controllers in the blockhouse could only watch as the Redstone wobbled after the set-down impact, still venting liquid oxygen. Fortunately the 66,000-pound assembly managed to remain upright and did not explode.

Compounding the problem, the engine cutoff had initiated the emergency escape system, which activated the escape tower and recovery sequence. The escape tower’s engine suddenly ignited, releasing it from the Mercury capsule and sending it soaring over 4,000 feet into the air. Eventually, it crashed down on a beach 400 yards from the pad. As stated by NASA in This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, three seconds after the escape rocket separated, “the drogue parachute shot upward, and then the main chute spurted out of the top of the capsule, followed by the reserve, and both fluttered down alongside the Redstone.” [6] The radio antenna fairing was also ejected in the process.

Clearly, the only thing that would launch that day was the escape tower. One can only imagine the feelings of the astronauts as they witnessed the entire mishap.

Securing the slightly wrinkled booster and the still firmly attached capsule had to be carried out with the utmost caution, as the booster’s destruct system could not be disarmed until the battery that powered it had fully depleted, which was not until the next morning. Also, the spacecraft was still on internal power and its pyrotechnics – including the posigrade and retrograde rockets – were still armed. Furthermore, it was not possible to open the vent valves and undertake the defueling process. It was there­fore necessary to wait until the Redstone’s liquid oxygen had fully evaporated, which would take 24 hours. The other worrying safety issue was the main parachute, which was dangling from the top of the capsule. Any strong gust of wind could cause the canopy to billow and topple the vehicle off its pedestal. Fortunately, the weather remained calm.

The following day, Walter F. Burke of McDonnell volunteered to lead a squad of men to disarm the pyrotechnics and other immediate problems [7]. The liquid oxygen tank was vented, as were the high-pressure nitrogen spheres in the pneumatic system of the engine. The fuel and hydrogen peroxide tanks were then emptied. All circuits were deactivated, the service structure was rolled back in, and finally the booster and capsule disarming was finished. The next afternoon NASA’s Chief of Manned Space Flight, George M. Low, said that the MR-1 failure was believed to have been caused by the premature disconnection of a booster tail plug.

According to The Mercury-Redstone Project issued by the Marshall Space Flight Center in September 1961:

The investigation which followed found the cause of the engine shutdown to be due to a “sneak” circuit created when the two electrical connectors in Fin II disconnected in the reverse order. Normally the 60-pin control connector separates before the 4-pin power connector. However, during vehicle erection and alignment on the launch pedestal, a tactical Redstone control cable was substituted for the specially shortened Mercury cable. The cable clamping block was then adjusted, but apparently not enough to fully compensate for the longer Redstone cable.


As the booster umbilical continues to fall away, the Redstone’s engine suddenly cuts off, triggering the solid-rocket jettison of the launch tower. (Photo: NASA)



The escape tower plowed into beach sand some 400 yards from the pad. (Photo: NASA)

Because of the improper mechanical adjustments, the power plug disconnected 29 milliseconds prior to the control plug. This permitted part of a three-amp current, which would have normally returned to ground through the power plug, to pass through the “normal cutoff’ relay and its ground diode. The cutoff terminated thrust and jettisoned the escape tower [8].

Project Mercury Director Robert R. Gilruth added that a faulty electrical circuit between the ground apparatus and the booster had simulated a normal booster cutoff signal. Ordinarily, this would be given in flight, after the booster had been taken to its designed speed and altitude of about 40 miles. The normal sequence was then for the escape-rocket tower to separate; the recovery devices such as parachutes to be armed ready for deployment; and, when the booster’s thrust tailed off, the booster/capsule securing ring to be released. The separation of the escape tower took place normally, but the sea level atmospheric pressure led to the deployment of the drogue and main parachutes, and the weight of the capsule on the booster prevented its separation [9].

The late Guenter Wendt was a German-American engineer who had emigrated to the United States in 1949. He found ready employment with the McDonnell Aircraft

Corporation, and later became well known for his work in America’s space program. As the man in charge of the spacecraft close-out crew on the pad, he soon gained the respect of the astronauts. To the company his title was Pad Leader, but the astronauts jokingly (and affectionately) enjoyed referring to him as their “Pad Fuhrer,” and he fell in with their humor. Wendt had been at the Cape for the failed MR-1 launch, and described the follow-on events as he saw them during a 2001 interview with Francis French.

“When we started off, we had one Redstone that lifted off about four inches and set back down. It had a little kink in it, and we could not depressurize the tank – the tank was building up pressure. I go back to the blockhouse, and the next thing I hear are [Kurt] Debus and John Yardley discussing it. Debus tells the pad safety officer to call the base and get some guns, [because] he is going to shoot holes in the oxygen tank to relieve the pressure! John Yardley says, ‘Like hell you do! I have a perfect, safe spacecraft out there, it’s the only one I have right now. If you shoot holes, the thing is going to blow up and I’ll have no spacecraft!’

“So, what do we do? We get our engineers together to see what we could do to disarm the rocket. The first thing is, we have to get rid of the pressure in the oxygen tank. How can we do that? One of the ways is to send a mechanic out there, into the tail end of the rocket, to hook up a quarter-inch nitrogen line, then open up a hand valve. However, we don’t know what will happen, so when we open it, we run like hell back to the blockhouse! A guy by the name of Sonny came, he went out, opened it, ran like hell, and just about hit the blockhouse when a big stream of gas, tens of feet long, came out. But nothing blew up.

“Next, Yardley called me and said, ‘We’ve determined that, due to the sequencing – the main chute came out, the tower had left – the sequencer is looking at a half-G switch. When that thing activates, it will fire the retrorockets into the oxygen tank!’ So now, we are looking for someone to go out there and deactivate the circuitry. However, since the periscope had retracted, you have to drill out a bunch of rivets and open the periscope door, because the electrical umbilical plug is under it. Then four jumper wires have to be plugged in. So we were looking for people with no dependents to volunteer. If the retrorocket had fired, that would be it.

“After a long discussion, some of us volunteered to go out and do it. Before we did, we had Pad Safety set up a movie camera next to the blockhouse. If it blew, at least we’d know where the pieces went! We went up there. On the Mercury capsule, the hatch was bolted down with screws – you could move the washer, but the screws had to be tight. They had to be just matched. They needed to expand on the outside, because of the heat. I had a guy who had meticulously matched each screw to a perfect hole, and stored them on foam. We got up there, got the screws out and pitched them behind us. I will never forget that. We thought, he will kill us when he finds out what happened to his matched screws! We got the hatch open, found the two switches: click, click, and we were safe. We saved the spacecraft, though we needed a new booster.

“The people who made the decisions were right there, and they made the decisions. That’s what we got paid for!” [10]


McDonnell Aircraft Corporation’s Pad Leader, Guenter Wendt. (Photo: NASA)


The man who would become the first American to venture into space was born on the upper floor of the family home in East Derry, on what he described many years later as the “bright autumn day” of 18 November 1923.

Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., was the first child born to Renza and Alan Shepard, Sr. While his mother had been born in Mobile, Alabama as Pauline Renza Emerson, she always preferred to be known by her middle name. Similarly, two years later, they named their new baby daughter Pauline, although everyone called her Polly.

Alan grew up on what was then a sprawling, picturesque small-town family farm. Even at an early age he knew the meaning of discipline. He and his sister had certain chores to perform, and their parents insisted that they be done at the prescribed time, ahead of any leisure time. Renza Shepard would later state that pursuing an orderly schedule of work and play helped Alan to develop a sense of duty.

“Our family did so much together that one member of the family could always depend on the cooperation of the rest,” Renza stressed. “A sense of patriotism was also important in our family, and it was instilled in our children at early ages. Our house was always full of Alan’s friends,” she added. “He was a happy-go-lucky boy, very easy to explain things to, and very cooperative. Oh, he got in the usual amount of mischief, I suppose, but never anything serious. But my, how active he was!” [5]

His father had been commissioned a first lieutenant in the Army and was based at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, later serving in France during the First World War. He was recalled to active duty in the Army during 1940, and became a colonel in the Army Reserves. Alan Shepard Sr. was a treasurer of the Derry Savings Bank, owned the Bartlett and Shepard Insurance Company, and served as an incorporator at the Amoskeag Savings Bank in nearby Manchester. For many years, he was a treasurer and trustee for the Pinkerton Academy and a member of the First Parish Church of Derry, where for many years he fulfilled the role of treasurer as well as being their long-time organist. Having begun playing the original pump organ there at the age of fourteen, he served as church organist for the next 60 years.

Young Alan obtained his early education at the nearby Adams public elementary school, formerly the Adams Female Academy, where even as a small boy he began to excel in mathematics. In an interview with the Academy of Achievement in 1991 he spoke with fondness about his first teacher, Bertha Wiggins, and the influence she had on him.

“She was about nine feet tall as I recall, and a very tough disciplinarian. Always had the ruler ready to whack the knuckles if somebody got out of hand. She ran a well – disciplined group. I think most of the youngsters responded to that. There were one or two that couldn’t handle it, and obviously they dropped by the wayside. But that still sticks in my mind. That’s the lady that taught me how to study, and really provided that kind of discipline, which is essentially still with me.” [6]

Shepard once skipped a grade because he was doing so well and Bertha Wiggins decided he needed to have more of a scholastic challenge. Although he often found it difficult, he rose to that challenge. “He was a little less bouncy in the classroom after that,” his mother reflected. After completing five years of study at Adams School, Shepard attended junior high at Derry’s Oak Street School.


At 230,000 feet, as Freedom 7 began to penetrate the fringes of the atmosphere, a relay was actuated in response to the onset of 0.05 g. As Shepard later explained, this indicated that the reentry phase had truly begun:

I had planned to be on manual control when this happened and run off a few more tests with my hand controls before we penetrated too deeply into the atmo­sphere. But the g-forces had built up before I was ready for them, and I was a



few seconds behind. I was fairly busy for a moment running around the cockpit with my hands, changing from the autopilot to manual controls, and I managed to get in only a few more corrections in attitude. Then the pressure of the air we were coming into began to overcome the force of the control jets and it was no longer possible to make the capsule respond. Fortunately, we were in good shape, and I had nothing to worry about so far as the capsule’s attitude was concerned. I knew, however, that the ride down was not one most people would want to try in an amusement park [19].

It was never widely reported, but there was a little high-drama occurring at that time away from Freedom 7. As revealed by Shepard in an interview with American Heritage Magazine in 1994, it began when Slayton cautiously asked Shepard if he could see the Redstone rocket. Some engineers had expressed concern that when he fired the retrorockets and slowed the spacecraft, the tumbling booster might actually catch up. He responded in the negative, but reasoned that the booster ought, by then, to be well below his altitude. And this was indeed the case. As the booster penetrated into the atmosphere it began to disintegrate. However, as Shepard related, there was an unex­pected near-miss. As the charred remains hurtled towards the ocean, sending violent shock waves through the air, this caused mounting terror for the crew of a freighter who saw a long object falling towards them. As they watched, the Redstone passed high over the ship and smashed heavily into the Atlantic just a few miles east of their posi­tion. The ship’s radio operator sent out an urgent distress call, the crew suspecting they might have witnessed the death plunge of an airplane. Fortunately, a radio engineer from NBC was on Grand Bahama Island that day, heard their call, and reassured the freighter’s crew that instead of a tragedy, they had witnessed the final moments of the rocket which carried America’s first astronaut into space [20].

Aboard Freedom 7, the build-up of gravity came swiftly as the spacecraft plunged through the atmosphere. Pressed ever harder into his contour couch, Shepard noted three, then six, then nine times the force of gravity. The load peaked at 11 g’s, which meant in Earth terms that he weighed close to a ton. “But I’d pulled eleven-g loads in the centrifuge, and I knew I could keep on working now.” [21]

Shepard never reached the point – as he often had during grueling hours spent on the Johnsville centrifuge – of having to exert the maximum effort simply to speak or even to breathe:

All the way down, as the altimeter spun through mile after mile of descent, I kept grunting out ‘O. K., O. K., O. K.,’ just to show them back in the Control Center how I was doing. The periscope had come back in automatically before the reen­try started. And there was nothing for me to do now but just wait for the final act to begin.

All through this period of falling, the capsule rolled around very slowly in a counterclockwise direction, spinning at a rate of about 10 degrees per second around its long axis. This was programmed to even out the heat and it did not bother me. Neither did the sudden rise in temperature as the friction of the air began to build up outside the capsule. The temperature climbed to 1,230 degrees Fahrenheit on the outer walls. But it never went above 100 degrees in the cabin or above 82 degrees in my suit [22].

Then, as the g-forces began to diminish at around 80,000 feet, Shepard switched from fly-by-wire mode back to autopilot. The altimeter was rapidly winding down, and showing 31,000 feet when Slayton’s voice assured Shepard that his impact site would be right on the money.

“Great news,” Shepard would later recall. “Flight computations were as close to perfect as could be, and so were the performances of the Redstone and the space­craft…. The Cape lay 300 miles to the northwest and with the diminishing altitude would soon be out of radio contact. I signed off with Deke, telling him I was going to the new frequency.

“‘Roger, Seven, read you switching to GBI [Grand Bahama Island].’

“He was eager to get the hell out of Mercury Control Center as fast as he could. I knew Gus would be right there with him, and the two of them would clamber into a NASA jet and burn sky to GBI so they could be on the ground waiting when I was delivered by helicopter from the recovery vessel.” [23]

A nation celebrates

Alan Shepard’s colleague Gus Grissom had monitored the liftoff of Freedom 7 from inside the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral. As prearranged, once Grissom knew that the mission was underway he left the building to make a short flight across to Grand Bahama Island. Once there, and while everyone waited for Shepard to also reach the island, Grissom was asked by reporters to comment on how he felt seeing his buddy launched into space, and when he thought his own chance might come. “I’m very happy,” he said in reply. “You can underline that. I wanted to be the one chosen for this shot and I certainly want to be chosen the next time. Everything went per­fectly, just like we practiced it a thousand times.” [1]

Freedom 7 events and trajectory

The sequence of events on the MR-3 mission occurred according to plan, while the actual trajectory flown was very close to the nominal calculated trajectory.

In the first table below, the sequence of major events show the planned and actual times at which they occurred. The second table lists actual and planned trajectory parameters.


Planned Time

Actual Time

Booster Cut-Off



Tower Release



Tower Escape Rocket Fire



Capsule Separation



Time of Retro-fire Sequence



Retro-attitude Comm. Relay



Retro #1 Fire



Retro #2 Fire



Retro #3 Fire



Retro-package Jettison



.05 g Relay



Drogue Chute Deploy



Main Chute Deploy



Antenna Fairing Release



Main Chute Disconnect



Note: With the exception of Redstone booster cutoff, all events on the MR-3 flight were determined from commutated data. Thus the events could vary from the above times by as much as +0 to -0.8 seconds.




Range (N. M)



Maximum Altitude (N. M.)



Maximum Exit Dynamic Pressure lb/sq ft



Maximum Exit Longitudinal Load Factor, g



Maximum Reentry Dynamic Pressure lb/sq ft



Maximum Reentry Longitudinal Load Factor, g



Period of Weightlessness (Min:Sec)



Note: N. M. = nautical miles