Category Freedom 7


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)

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.


The Redstone roared into the sky on what started out as the planned trajectory, but flight telemetry indicators soon began to show problems. A faulty valve was causing the fuel pump to inject too much liquid oxygen into the engine, inducing it to deliver an excess of thrust and accelerate faster than expected. As a result, the Redstone did more than was expected of it and, by burning its fuel faster than expected, triggered a chain of events which added several miles to the intended peak altitude and tacked 130 miles on to the range. Meanwhile, Ham was calmly pulling away at the levers as he had been trained to do.

When the booster exhausted its fuel supply, the Mercury spacecraft was meant to sequentially separate and coast to a peak altitude of 115 miles before falling into the Atlantic some 298 miles downrange, where a flotilla of eight ships were waiting to retrieve it. But the anomaly had caused a “thrust decay” when the rocket’s fuel was depleted. That caused the spacecraft’s emergency escape system to trigger an abort sequence. By then, the spacecraft was traveling at around 4,000 miles an hour. The emergency escape rocket reacted as it was meant to do, hauling the spacecraft away from the booster. In doing so, it accelerated to a speed of more than 5,000 miles an hour. Ham was suddenly subjected to a gravitational force of around 17 g’s, driving him hard into his couch and making him temporarily forget his psychomotor duties. As the spacecraft finally entered a state of weightlessness a couple of small electrical jolts through the soles of his feet reminded a bewildered Ham of his responsibilities and he resumed tugging at the levers. But there were still more dangers to overcome.


Still images from a film taken of Ham during his space flight. (Photos: NASA)

As Flight Director Chris Kraft and his Mercury Control Center team continued to monitor the progress of MR-2, he was informed that the fuel problem and resultant over-acceleration might carry the spacecraft an extra 42 miles higher and about 124 miles further downrange, adding two more minutes of weightlessness to the mission. Of more immediate concern to Kraft was the fact that a faulty relief valve had caused the spacecraft’s pressure to suddenly drop from 5.5 to 1 psi. Fortunately, this would not affect the occupant, as Ham was sealed in a pressurized container with his own air supply. Added to this was the unhappy fact that the retro-pack had prematurely jetti­soned when the spent escape tower was jettisoned. Consequently, the spacecraft would reenter excessively fast and splash down even further downrange.

William Augerson, a physician on duty in the Cape blockhouse, was monitoring Ham’s physiological progress. He reported that despite all the onboard dramas, Ham was performing his tasks just as he had been trained. Weightless for more than six minutes, he only received two small electric shocks throughout the entire journey for neglecting to push the correct levers on time. In this respect, it was an almost perfect rehearsal for a manned mission, proving that a human would easily be able to carry out maneuvering tasks even if things did not go according to plan during the flight.

As MR-2 plunged backwards toward the sea, Ham began to experience a crushing 14.7 g’s. Then, at 21,000 feet, a six-foot drogue chute automatically deployed, which in turn dragged the 63-foot main parachute from its stowage at 10,000 feet, rapidly slowing the spacecraft’s rate of descent. A search and rescue and homing (SARAH) beacon had been activated earlier, when the escape tower pulled the capsule off the spent booster. Tracking aircraft monitored this signal and steered the ships of Task Force 140 to the predicted point of impact, around 416 statute miles downrange – an error of some 127 miles.

Seventeen minutes after lifting off, the capsule smacked down hard in rough seas beyond the far end of the Atlantic Missile Range. As intended, the landing bag had deployed and this helped to minimize the shock of striking the water. Immediately after splashdown the main parachute was automatically jettisoned, fluorescent green dye was released in order to aid visual sighting, and a high-intensity light on top of the capsule began to flash.

On impact with the water, a rim of the lowered heat shield had snapped back so violently onto the hull that it breached the titanium pressure bulkhead in two places, enabling sea water to penetrate the spacecraft. A cabin relief valve had also jammed open, allowing even more water to seep in. Then, just to compound matters, the heat shield tore loose from the bottom of the landing bag and sank. MR-2 slowly began to tilt and settle ever deeper into the tumultuous seas.

Shortly after splashdown, NASA was reporting that the floating capsule would be recovered within three hours. Although telemetry indicated that Ham was alive as the capsule approached splashdown, the radio telemetry circuits were disabled on impact so no one knew how he was doing. A subsequent NASA bulletin stated, “The Mercury spacecraft in today’s test reached a velocity of more than 5,000 miles an hour, a peak altitude of about 155 statute miles, and landed some 420 statute miles downrange. Higher than normal booster thrust produced the extra velocity, altitude, and range.

The capsule has been sighted in the water by an aircraft. A recovery ship should reach the spacecraft within three hours. Telemetry received during the flight indicates the chimp performed satisfactorily.” [9]


Despite the ominous weather, flight preparation work continued at Pad 5. As backup pilot, John Glenn realized that there was no immediate prospect of replacing a fit and ready Shepard on the flight, even if the storm abated. He eluded the waiting press and headed off to the pad to assist in preparing Freedom 7.

Meanwhile, Shepard, remaining in Hangar S, was informed that two ten-minute pauses had occurred in the lengthy countdown in order to assess weather reports. On the nominal schedule, he was to make the three-mile-long journey by transfer van to the pad at 4:00 a. m., but that time came and went, and soon he was watching the first pink tendrils of dawn tinting the gray clouds in the eastern sky. With no word from the weather people, Shepard was coming to the realization that the squall line, which lay ahead of a cold front stretching from Virginia to the Gulf coast, would probably pre­vent a launch that day.

“I frankly didn’t think we would go that morning. I wasn’t trying to second-guess anyone, but the weather did not look good at all. I was sure we wouldn’t get the results we needed, even if we did go. But the crews were ahead on the countdown, and if we didn’t try that morning we would have to go through a long 48-hour delay before we could refuel the Redstone and try again.” [3]


A fully suited Alan Shepard bides his time, waiting to fly. (Photo: NASA)

Outside, a small group of authorized reporters and photographers representing the vast media army gathered at the Cape were also checking their watches, anxious for something to happen. For some, their main objectives were to photograph or film the space-suited astronaut leaving the hangar for the transfer bus, and the reporters were eager to communicate every move back to their editors. What everyone wanted to know, was which one of the three nominated astronauts was going to fly? NASA had still not announced whether it would be Glenn, Grissom, or Shepard, but the betting was on the affable Marine, John Glenn.

Then, suddenly, it was all over for that day; two storm fronts were converging on the Cape and down along the 290 miles of the Atlantic Missile Range over which the Redstone would fly. As the decision came, Shepard was standing just inside the door


The public could only speculate on which of the three main candidates would fly the MR-3 mission. (Photo: NASA)

of the hangar, seconds away from going out to the transfer van. He was disheartened by the news, but not surprised. The launch had been postponed for at least two days. NASA needed clear visibility for the mission, especially in the critical first minutes, because the flight controllers would require good visual tracking in order to be ready to trigger Shepard’s escape mechanism at the first hint of trouble. That, they decided, was not going to be the case.

At 7:40 a. m., just 2 hours 20 minutes before the planned liftoff, an announcement came over loudspeakers that the shot had been postponed. “No new launch date has been set, but the minimum recycle time is 48 hours. The pilot will remain in the crew quarters in the Mercury hangar here.”


NASA’s Chief of Public Information, John (‘Jack’) King officially informs media representa­tives that the MR-3 flight has been scrubbed. (Photo: Associated Press)

After Shepard had doffed his spacesuit, he was given a small glass of brandy to help him over his disappointment. “He didn’t really need it,” according to Lt. Col. John (‘Shorty’) Powers, NASA’s Public Affairs Officer. “There were about nine of us there who needed it more than he did. He just joined us.” [4]


Normally, the helicopter carried three crewmembers including a crew chief, but due to the expectedly high weight of the spacecraft the crew had been reduced to just the pilot and copilot. Wayne Koons revealed he could hear Shepard’s transmissions from about the time Freedom 7 reached 85,000 feet, when the astronaut came within range of their receiver. “And then we were actually talking with him after he had struck the water and was waiting to be picked up. We were right on the spot. We were waiting for [the capsule] to hit. We were circling the parachute as it came down.” [16]

At the time of splashdown, George Cox was at the flight controls with Koons. All seemed to go as expected once the capsule was in the water, so Cox left his cockpit seat and shinnied down below to make ready for the task of retrieving the astronaut and his vessel. First they had to verify that the parachute had been released from the bobbing craft by Shepard and had sunk beneath the surface, which, as Koons stated, was “something we always had to watch out for, because if there was any part of that chute above water, you ran the chance of the rotor wash picking it up and inflating it again. So we had to be sure it was off and sunk in the water so that it wasn’t going to come up.” [17]

Koons and Cox kept waiting for the spacecraft’s long HF antenna to pop up, but when they couldn’t see it Koons moved into position above Freedom 7. Ordinarily, one of Cox’s immediate duties would have been to lower a tool that had a bolt-cutter with explosive squibs at its end to sever the antenna to prevent it interfering with the raising of the astronaut into the helicopter. To his surprise, he found that the squibs were absent, but since the antenna had not deployed he re-stowed the antenna cutter. While Koons skillfully hovered above Freedom 7, Cox used the “shepherd’s hook” to snag the recovery loop on top of the spacecraft. At that point, without warning, the HF antenna telescoped upwards and its tip struck the helicopter’s fuselage.

According to the post-flight report which NASA declassified in June 1973, “The explosively actuated telescoping HF recovery antenna [was] erected after helicopter hook-onto the capsule but prior to pilot egress. The activation time was normal; the helicopter moved into recovery position earlier than planned. The helicopter pilot observed only a 10-foot length of the antenna rather than the normal 16 feet. Later inspection showed the last 6 feet had probably been blown off at erection. There was no evidence of this section striking the helicopter. The remaining 10-foot section was not cut off by the helicopter crew, and caused no difficulty in recovery.” [18]

Koons would later say that the recovery was otherwise a fairly routine operation. “The only anomaly we had, was that that antenna did pop up sometime. I’m not sure when it did, but we found a dent in the bottom of our helicopter…. But I never knew when that happened, when it finally decided to go.” [19]


Marine helicopter #44 moves into position low above Freedom 7. Seconds later the HF antenna deployed, striking the hovering craft’s fuselage. (Photo: U. S. Navy)


Charles Tynan, the senior NASA representative present, told the author about the missing explosive squibs. “The squibs were for the tool the helicopter crewman was to use to cut off the HF antenna, because it was long enough to contact the helicopter rotors. The Marine helicopter mechanic’s tool box was broken into the night before the recovery and all the pyrotechnic squibs were stolen. There was plenty of time for more squibs to be flown out to the carrier from the Cape, but the Captain would not let this happen because he didn’t want the bad publicity for his command.” [20]

When everything was ready, Cox prepared to hoist Shepard up into the helicopter. “I was in the belly of the aircraft and operated the hoist [which] took him from the cap­sule up to the cabin of the helicopter. [We] hooked onto the capsule and started pulling it up to steady it upright in the water. We told Commander Shepard we were ready for him to come out and recover him, and he asked us to raise the capsule a little bit higher.” [21] Shepard later said this was because he could still see water out of a porthole and wanted to avoid getting any of it inside the spacecraft. “I’m not sure he heard me at first, but I was able to get through to him that I’d be coming out as soon as he lifted the door [hatch] clear of the water.” For this first flight of the Mercury spacecraft, Freedom 7 possessed a mechanical hatch which was fitted with latches that were to be actuated by a handle that Shepard would crank. But first Shepard had to attach a metal cable to the hatch in order to prevent it from being lost once free. “I called the helo and told him I was ready to come out, and he verified that he was pulling me up. I told him I was powering down and disconnecting communications.” [22]

Koons obliged the request by raising the capsule a foot or two higher. “We were all very aware that the spacecraft hatch was normally partially below the waterline,” he says. “We knew for sure that opening the hatch too soon would result in flooding the spacecraft, so Shepard’s request to raise the spacecraft higher was redundant in that we were in the process of doing just that.” [23]

Shepard now said he would be out in about 30 seconds. By pre-arrangement, if he had decided at this point not to exit the capsule then Koons would have hoisted it out of the water and transported him to the carrier inside the spacecraft. Having opted to egress, all Shepard had to do was to rotate the locking handle so that the hatch would detach and then scramble out.

“The door was ready to go off. I disconnected the biomedical packs. I undid my lap belt, disconnected the communications lead, and opened the door.” As the hatch opened Shepard allowed it to fall away. Unfortunately, even though he had properly affixed the hatch to the capsule by the cable, the crimped metal clip on the lower end of the cable had been closed over the plastic sheath instead of over the cable, and this allowed the cable to pull out. The unrestrained hatch plunged into the water and sank to the ocean floor.

As Shepard later said, he climbed out “and very easily worked my way up into a sitting position on the door sill. Just prior to doing this, I took my helmet off and laid it over in the position in the… as a matter of fact, I put it over the hand controller.” [24] He began looking upwards for the “horse collar” recovery harness, which Cox was in the process of lowering to him.

“It went like another practice run,” Cox pointed out later. “In just a moment we began the hoist. He was giving me a big grin all the way up, and a big thumbs-up. He looked like the same Commander Shepard that I’d known before and worked with,


Lt. George Cox winches Alan Shepard into the helicopter. (Photos courtesy of Dean Conger/ NASA)

except a little happier than before.” [25] As he ascended, Shepard brushed up against the truncated antenna, but it was flexible and no harm was done.

As requested, Koons had reminded Cox to turn on photographer Dean Conger’s camera before hoisting the astronaut, and received confirmation this had been done. “Well, that’s what wound up on the cover of Life magazine,” he would later reflect. “You can see the back of George Cox’s head and Shepard coming. You can’t really tell whether he’s smiling or not, but he was almost in the helicopter and was pretty happy about that.” [26]

Perched precariously on the sill of the capsule’s hatch, Shepard had waited a few moments before grabbing the “horse collar,” which dunked in the water before being lifted clear. “I grabbed it and got into it with very little difficulty. Shortly thereafter I was lifted directly from a sitting position out of the capsule up toward the chopper. The only thing that gave me any problem at all, and it was only a minor one, was that I banged into the HF antenna, but of course it is so flexible it didn’t give me any trouble.” [27] Koons later reflected that the calm sea was ideal for the recovery, which went just as in training. “Within two minutes of the time [Freedom 7] hit the water we had the commander out of his capsule and in our craft.” [28]

As Dean Conger recalls, the remarkable photographs of Shepard’s retrieval which would grace many magazine covers almost didn’t happen. “The antenna was broken off either before or after [ocean] impact. So the prepared plan was ditched and in the excitement of the event the copilot forgot about the switch for the camera and they began all the other recovery procedures. Fortunately, he remembered at the very last minute.

There were about 10 frames of Shepard coming up, and 230 frames of just the capsule and water after he was in the chopper! Doesn’t matter. It was enough. Marine Lt. George Cox should get much of the credit for the success of the photos. The same bracket was used on subsequent flights but never produced a publishable photograph.” [29]


In the top photograph, Shepard can be seen ascending to the hovering helicopter. At bottom, with the astronaut safely on board, the helicopter hoists Freedom 7 from the sea and water streams out of the deployed landing bag. (Photos: U. S. Navy)

Once on board the helicopter, Shepard shook Cox’s hand before being directed to a bucket seat. All members of the recovery crews had been given strict instructions not to speak to the astronaut unless he spoke to them first. Understandably, doctors and psy­chologists desired him to tell his story to them without it being colored by impressions conveyed to him during his return. “We were instructed not to direct our conversation to him,” Cox explains, “but if he spoke to us we could answer him and talk to him if he started it. I pointed him toward his seat, to sit down for the ride back to the carrier.” [30] Before he took his seat, however, Shepard looked out and said with consummate grati­tude, “What a beautiful day!” Meanwhile, Cox and Koons attended to retrieving Freedom 7 from the water.

As Shepard later recorded, “I sank into a bucket seat as soon as I reached the top, and on the way to the carrier I felt relieved and happy. I knew I’d done a pretty good job. The Mercury flight systems had worked out even better than we’d thought they would. And we’d put on a good demonstration of our capability right out in the open where the whole world could watch us taking our chances.” [31]


Prophetically, Shepard called his flight aboard Freedom 7 “just the first baby step aim­ing for bigger and better things,” but it always galled him that an overdose of caution had cost America (and him in particular) the opportunity to be first in space [5]. His suborbital flight might seem inconsequential when compared with today’s space flights, but at that time it galvanized and united Americans, giving them a renewed sense of pride and accomplishment. It also set in motion mankind’s most audacious scientific undertaking. Just twenty days after Shepard’s triumphant return to Earth, President Kennedy stood before Congress and challenged his nation to land a man on the Moon before the decade was out.

After fellow Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom had virtually replicated Shepard’s flight with a second ballistic flight in July, NASA decided to press on with orbital mis­sions. This was first achieved by John Glenn on board Friendship 7 in February 1962. After two further manned orbital flights by Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra, it was announced that Gordon Cooper would wrap up the Mercury project with a 22-orbit flight in May 1963.


Freedom 7 is shown here after its safe arrival at the Royal Scottish Museum. (Photo: The Scotsman Publications Ltd.)



In 1998, following the death of former graduate Alan Shepard, the spacecraft went on long­term display at the U. S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo: U. S. Naval Academy)


Following its arrival in Boston, Massachusetts in 2012, Freedom 7 was delivered to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum as a temporary exhibition. (Photo credit: Rick Friedman, JFK Library Foundation)


A smiling Alan Shepard in training for his MR-3 mission. (Photo: NASA)

However, Alan Shepard was keen to fly again, and if it meant using a little of his renowned tenacity then he was prepared to give it his best shot. He knew a spacecraft designated 15B had already been manifested to a possible final Mercury mission and it had been substantially upgraded, making it capable of operating a prolonged flight. Since he was Cooper’s backup and his colleagues were now engaged in assignments specifically related to the Gemini and Apollo projects, he would automatically be the prime pilot for an additional flight, if one were to occur. Shepard strenuously argued for such a mission, even renaming spacecraft 15B Freedom 7II, and having that logo painted on its exterior. As NASA was lukewarm to the idea, in a typically audacious move Shepard went around his bosses in the space agency and attempted to enlist the personal support of President Kennedy, who told him that the decision would rest with NASA Administrator James Webb.

Webb carefully weighed up all the options, and when he stood before the Senate Space Committee in June 1963 he began by stating, in part, “There will be no more Mercury shots.” He went on to explain that Project Mercury had now satisfactorily accomplished its goals, and there should be new priorities. All the energies of NASA and its contractors, he said, should now be fully employed in focusing on the Gemini and Apollo missions. As it turned out, even if Shepard had realized his goal of being assigned a second one – man flight, it was a mission he would never have been able to fly.

An early consolation came when Shepard was selected to fly the first Gemini two – man mission, with rookie astronaut Tom Stafford as his copilot. Shortly after starting preliminary training in the simulators in early 1964, Shepard was suddenly struck by an ailment which threatened to end not only his astronaut career, but also his days as a pilot. He awakened one morning feeling slightly giddy, and upon trying to stand up he collapsed. Thinking it to be an isolated incident, he was not overly concerned. But five days later he suffered a second sudden bout of dizziness, and this time began to


Capsule 15B, unofficially named Freedom 7 II, shown in its orbital configuration at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C. (Photo cour­tesy of Stephane Sebile)


The unofficial logo Freedom 7II painted on the side of Spacecraft 15B at the request of Alan Shepard. (Photo courtesy of Stephane Sebile)

vomit uncontrollably. This incident left him with a loud, recurring ringing in his left ear. After these attacks had struck him down several times, Shepard finally realized it was not something he could simply tough out, and made an appointment with the flight surgeons. After extensive tests, a panel of NASA doctors recommended he be removed immediately from his flight assignment.

The ailment proved to be Meniere’s Syndrome. “The problem is not considered very significant for an Earth-bound person, but it sure can finish you as a pilot,” he said during a 1970 interview for Naval Aviator News. “I convinced myself it would eventually work itself out, but it didn’t. Tom Stafford had told me about Dr. House, out in Los Angeles, who could perform an operation on this particular kind of inner ear trouble. At first it sounded a little risky, but in 1968 I finally decided on having it done. With NASA’s permission I went out to California. In order to keep the whole business quiet, Dr. House and I agreed that I should check into the hospital under an assumed name. It was the doctor’s secretary who came up with it. So, as Victor Poulis, I had the operation, and six months later my ear was fine.” [6]


It is always pleasing once a book is in manuscript form to acknowledge in print the assistance and support of all those people whose enthusiasm and kindness helped to shape the end product. This is the case now, in presenting this record of America’s first human-tended flight into space. Brief though that mission was, it emphatically signaled the beginning of a grand enterprise embracing both science and exploration for the United States.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the bountiful help of some people who were either there as this historic mission evolved and was carried through to completion, or them­selves witnessed the amazing events of 5 May 1961. Many thanks, therefore, for their information, photographs and memories to Dean Conger, Philip Kempland, Ed Killian, Wayne Koons, Larry Kreitzberg, H. H. (‘Luge’) Luejten, Paul Molinski, Earl Robb, Joe Schmitt, Charles Tynan, Jr., and Frank Yaquiant.

Other assistance was freely given by Susan Alexander, David and Debi Barka, Reuben Barton, Kerry Black (of the Scotsman Publications Library), Lou Chinal, Dr. Bruce Clark, Rory Cook (Science Museums Group, London), Rick DeNatale, Ken Havekotte, Ed Hengeveld, Richard Kaszeta, Tacye Phillipson (National Museums Scotland), J. L. Pickering, Eddie Pugh, Stephane Sebile, Hart Sastrowardoyo, Norma Spencer, Julie Stanton, David Lee Tiller, and Charles Walker.

Special mention must also be made of the wonderfully supportive and ongoing help I received from Robert Pearlman and the space sleuths, experts, and enthusiasts who fre­quent his website, www. collectspace. com, on which no question ever passes unanswered and offers of assistance flow freely from people with a similar passion for all things to do with the history, present, and future of space exploration. For this Australian space enthu­siast, a day never passes without checking at least once – and often more – the latest posts on this truly amazing forum.

As always, I have to thank an old friend and writing collaborator, Francis French, who readily lends an expert eye by reading through my chapter drafts on his daily train com­mute home from San Diego, seeking overlooked typos, grammatical errors, or missed (or misinterpreted) facts. His suggestions for adding extra information or stories are also greatly appreciated.

Thanks yet again to Clive Horwood of the Praxis team in the United Kingdom for his continuing support of my ideas for books. Similar thanks go to Maury Solomon, Editor of Physics and Astronomy, and Assistant Editor Nora Rawn, both at Springer in New York. Thanks to Jim Wilkie for his brilliant cover artwork. And of course to the man who pro­vides that final polish to my work, the incomparable copyeditor and fellow space aficio­nado David M. Harland.

Thank you one and all for helping me to tell this truly amazing and inspiring story from the very beginning of the human space flight era.


Meanwhile the landing ship dock USS Donner (LSD-20), which had previously been involved in Mercury-Redstone recovery trials, was proceeding at flank speed to the reported landing area, together with Task Force destroyers USS Ellison, Borie, and Manley. Twenty-seven minutes after splashdown, airman technician Jerry Bilderback aboard a Navy P2V Neptune patrol plane became the first person to spot the capsule pitching around in white-capped seas. Unfortunately, the overshoot meant that the Donner was still some 60 miles away and it was almost an hour before the helicopter dispatched by the ship with pilots John Hellriegel and George Cox was able to reach the scene.

Once they were hovering overhead, the pilots alarmingly reported that the capsule was tilted on its side in a seven-foot swell, and it appeared to be sitting much deeper than expected in the water. By now, the destroyer USS Ellison had reached the site. With no time to spare, two trained frogmen quickly jumped out of the helicopter and attached cables to fixed points on the wallowing spacecraft to help keep it upright in the water. As the helicopter hovered, Cox reached down from the lower cabin with a shepherd’s hook and attached a towline from the aircraft to a loop on the capsule.

At 2:52 p. m. Hellriegel applied full power and slowly hoisted the MR-2 capsule, streaming seawater, into the air. The precious cargo was flown all the way back to the USS Donner and gently deposited onto the deck at 3:38 p. m., where willing hands soon secured it. This good news was relayed to Cape Canaveral nearly three hours after liftoff.

When it was safe to do so, the spacecraft’s steel hatch was removed, exposing the canister with Ham inside. The sailors involved also noticed a foot and a half of salt water sloshing around inside the capsule. It was later estimated the spacecraft had taken on about 800 pounds of sea water, but was otherwise in good shape. Happily, the water had not infiltrated Ham’s container. He was unaware of how close he had come to sinking ignominiously to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, doctors back at the Cape were deeply concerned that Ham might have been injured during the crushing forces of the flight, or through the hard splashdown. About 35 minutes after reaching the ship, Ham’s container was resting on the deck. One very confused chimpanzee could be heard squealing his discontent from within. The window was fogged over, but it cleared when oxygen was fed in through a small hatch, and Ham came into view.

“He’s alive,” reported a relieved Maj. Richard Benson, an Air Force veterinary doc­tor. “He’s talking to us.” The sailors then opened a small porthole to enable the veteri­narian to insert his hand. Ham cried steadily. “That could mean some anxiety,” Benson told the surrounding sailors. “He’s just vocalizing.”


Ham’s spacecraft (circled at top) with the recovery helicopter overhead. At bottom (also circled) are two men in a raft near the bow of the USS Ellison. Their task was to right the capsule and help to attach a tow line so that it could be hoisted out of the water. (Photo: U. S. Navy)


George Cox prepares to hook onto the wallowing spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)


Ham’s spacecraft arriving by helicopter above the USS Donner. (Photo: U. S. Navy)

One sailor who got a glimpse of the animal was asked, “How does he look?” “Fine,” replied the sailor. “He’s smiling at me.”

Ham was turning his head from side to side, watching the onlookers curiously and licking his pink chops. He reached a couple of the fingers of his right hand through the port to grasp the hand of Benson. Then he rubbed his face and eyes and yawned. When the Plexiglas lid had been fully removed from the container, he once again shook hands with Benson, burped, and folded his arms across his chest while the veterinarian checked his heart rate with a stethoscope. Benson then reached down to test the ani­mal’s diapers. “They’re damp,” he said with a smile.

Following the brief checkup, Benson happily announced, “On the basis of this preliminary examination I’d say he looks very good. It is very encouraging.” [10] Ham was carried to the ship’s battle dressing station and placed on a white table, where he was carefully unstrapped from his couch. Once again Benson checked the chimpanzee’s heart rate, as well as his temperature, respiration, and lung conditions, and looked for any evidence of broken bones. Unsurprisingly, Ham did display some signs of fatigue, a little wobbling and trembling of his legs when standing, and he had somehow sustained a slight abrasion to the bridge of his nose.

Apart from the facial abrasion everything was fine, and Ham’s reflexes were also found to be normal. Benson then produced a shiny red apple, at which Ham became excited, jumping and reaching out in anticipation. Benson cut the apple and fed it to him in slices as a post-flight treat, which he eagerly devoured. The flight had clearly


Pilot John Hellriegel gently lowers the MR-2 capsule onto a platform. (Photo: U. S. Navy)


Opening the hatch on Ham’s capsule. (Photo: NASA)

not affected Ham’s appetite. While he ate, Ham stood with his arm around the major, and later consumed half an orange along with a small wedge of lettuce.

Later, with Benson sleeping in an adjoining stateroom, Ham spent the night in the commodore’s quarters as the ship steamed across a moonlit ocean for Grand Bahama Island. It was not exactly a trip of luxury, because he was in a cage on the floor of the bathroom, lashed to the toilet and the safety rail that was designed to prevent one from slipping after a shower aboard a rolling, pitching ship. But these were merely safety precautions aimed at protecting precious government research property [11].


It was a frustrating time for the reporters and photographers, and for the public now deserting the Cape’s sodden beaches. They had all spent a wet and miserable night waiting for the eagerly anticipated launch shortly after sunrise.

But in the midst of the bad news, there was an unexpected revelation: NASA had decided to reveal the name of the first astronaut. The announcement stated that Cdr. Alan Shepard had been selected to pilot the flight that day, and this would probably remain so for the next attempt. “I was relieved when they made the announcement,” Shepard later revealed. “It was getting to be a strain keeping the secret.” [5] Ironically, just thirty minutes after the delay announcement, the Sun broke through the dense cloud layer.


Like everyone else, the news media could only watch and wait. (Photo: NASA)

Apart from some maintenance work on the vehicle, everything remained in a ‘go’ situation. However, the cold front that had stationed itself over the Florida peninsula continued to keep launch conditions below the required minimum. Over the next two days, technicians painstakingly purged the Redstone of its corrosive fuel, rechecked its circuitry, and carried out a repair to one of the liquid oxygen lines.

Meanwhile, apart from some simulator work, Shepard was able to relax; taking a nap, answering mail, running at a local beach, and going over the flight plan with his backup and roommate, John Glenn. The weather slowly began to improve, leading Col. Powers to inform a bevy of anxious reporters, “The weather man tells us that it looks like the weather will be clear enough for us to go… the chances are better than 50-50 in our book that we can get off the launching before the weather worsens.” [6] Shepard was a relieved man. “At the scheduled meeting Thursday morning we got pretty fair weather reports. The launch crews were picking up the count again at T minus 390 minutes, and I felt glad that I was going to be able to give it a whirl.” [7]


Pad 5 as seen from the blockhouse on 29 April during an emergency egress exercise. In a pad abort, Shepard would escape by operating the mechanically actuated side hatch, discarding it, and then scrambling into the basket of the articulated “cherry-picker” crane. (Photo: NASA)

The three-day delay actually proved beneficial to the waiting astronaut. “To my surprise, I felt the launch delay actually eased the tension that had been building up inside me. Before the May 2 [attempt] I’d been plagued with visions of rockets tum­bling out of control or blowing up in the air – after all, I’d seen this happen – but during those three days I was able to back off, regroup, and hit it again. I recognized I was experiencing normal apprehension and not fear. The entire reasoning process was old hat to a test pilot. I knew how to turn off this kind of stuff, and I felt calm as the new launch date of May 5 neared.” [8]

A pre-flight briefing was conducted at11:00 a. m. on 4 May in order to examine all the operational elements of the flight. “This briefing was helpful since it gave us a chance to look at weather, radar, camera, and recovery force status. We also had the opportunity to review the control procedures to be used during flight emergencies as well as any late inputs of an operational nature. This briefing was extremely valuable to me in correlating all of the details at the last minute.” [9]

That afternoon Shepard and Glenn took a leisurely walk along a nearby beach to catch crabs. They were ready to go.

“The night of May 4, however, the other astronauts and support teams brought their own tension onto the scene,” Shepard reflected. “Everyone but me was walking on eggshells. Despite the strong feelings about weather, rocket reliability, the escape sys­tem, anything and everything, no one dared broach those subjects. It all got so thick that I went into my bedroom and phoned my family in Virginia Beach.” [10]

Louise was delighted to hear from her husband. They discussed the weather and the prospects for a launch the next morning. He spoke briefly with Louise’s parents and his daughters before promising his wife he would take care of himself and that he loved her. Then he went to get some sleep.


George Cox remained on the Sikorsky’s lower deck with Shepard for the short flight back to the carrier. Within seven minutes of retrieving the spacecraft from the water, the helicopter was zeroing in on the USS Lake Champlain.

As Shepard later pointed out, “When we approached the ship, I could see sailors crowding the deck, applauding and cheering and waving their caps. I felt a real lump in my throat.” [32] He waved to the men as the pilots prepared to land.


The ship’s crew watched the entire recovery process with great excitement. (Photo courtesy of Larry Kreitzberg)

On board “The Champ,” there was outstanding reason to celebrate, as related by Scott Thompson from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. First, there had been the sight of Freedom 7’s splashdown. “We knew about where to watch. We saw this little speck coming down from the sky. Then we saw the parachute open and float down. When the capsule hit the water, there was a lot of steam because it was so hot.” Soon after, an announcement blared out over the ship’s loudspeakers reporting that Shepard was okay, giving rise to loud cheers. “Everybody went crazy because they were so happy. They knew it was an historic event – the first U. S. man in space. They could have heard us a long way off. We made a lot of noise.” [33]


As Wayne Koons prepares to lower Freedom 7 onto the waiting platform, a Navy helicopter shadows the Marine helicopter, taking photographs. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

As in rehearsals, Koons carefully lowered Freedom 7 onto the specially prepared platform that had been cushioned with mattresses. On Cox’s command, he released the carrying hook. “The cargo hook could only be released by the pilot,” Koons says. “The basic hook design, installed on all Marine HUS helicopters, had two methods of release. The first method was electrical, actuated by a button on the pilot’s cyclic stick. The second method of release was mechanical, actuated by a foot pedal on the floor near the pilot’s right heel. For Mercury retrievals, the electrical circuitry was discon­nected. A special latch was installed on the cargo hooks for Mercury retrieval work. This latch prevented opening the hook until it was released by a lever on the cyclic. After releasing the latch, the hook could be opened by the foot pedal.” [34]

Once the spacecraft had been safely situated on the platform and released, Koons set the helicopter down on the deck in front of 1,200 raucous sailors.

Freedom 7 had landed four nautical miles from where the USS Lake Champlain was stationed. The recorded departure time for the Marine helicopters that flew out to retrieve Shepard was 0927 (according to the OPNAV Part C record). Splashdown was at 0949, and the helicopter’s arrival back at the carrier was at 1000, a total of 33 minutes.

Koons has a particularly fond memory. “I was busy shutting the helicopter down and here Shepard in his silver suit minus the hard hat comes slithering up… through the space where George would have been if he were going to get up in his seat. He reached over and whacked me on the leg and [said], ‘Good boy.’ Then back down he went.” [35]

Another person on board that day, NASA representative Charles Tynan, also has a serendipitous recollection. Film cameras were able to document the flight of the helicopter which carried Shepard and Freedom 7 to a safe touchdown on the carrier, but “the Movietone News photographer later sent his movie film off the ship in a COD [cargo] aircraft and talked about possibly winning a Pulitzer Prize. I heard that shipboard personnel put a suicide watch on him when he found out his camera had malfunctioned and his film canister contained blank film.” [36] It was later rumored that the hapless fellow had filmed the entire operation but had failed to remove his lens cover.

NASA, meanwhile, had issued an updated press bulletin declaring, “Test No. 108 is terminated. This was the pioneer U. S. man-in-space flight. The Mercury spacecraft is on the deck of the aircraft carrier Lake Champlain and the helicopter is about to land. Shepard is about to come out of helicopter.” [37]

As the chopper was powered down, Navy physician Robert C. Laning and Army physician M. Jerome Strong approached and stood by the closed door. There was a moment or two of suspense before the door was suddenly flung open. George Cox climbed out, ready to assist the astronaut out of the helicopter, but he needn’t have bothered; Shepard jauntily leapt down to the deck. Only eleven minutes had elapsed since splashing into the ocean. Standing on the deck, Shepard shook hands with Cox and gave him a heartfelt, “Thank-you, very much.”

The magnitude of the welcome finally hit Shepard. “Until the moment I stepped out onto the flight deck of the carrier, I hadn’t realized the intensity of the emotions and feelings that so many people had for me, for the other astronauts, and the whole manned


As Shepard shakes hands with George Cox, the medical staff moves in to escort the astronaut to the admiral’s in-port cabin. (Photo courtesy of Dean Conger/NASA)

space program. This was the first sense I had of public response, of a public expression of thanks for what we were doing. I was very close to tears.” [38]

According to the tight schedule, it was time for a medical checkup and to record a free-dictation report whilst the flight was still fresh in his mind. The two physi­cians approached, eager to escort Shepard to the admiral’s cabin, but there was one last distraction for America’s first astronaut. “I started for the quarters where the doctors would give me a quick once-over before I flew on to Grand Bahama Island for a full debriefing. But first I went back to the capsule, which had been gently lowered onto a pile of mattresses on the carrier’s deck. I wanted to retrieve the hel­met that I’d left in the cockpit. And I wanted to take one more look at Freedom 7. I was pretty proud of the job that it had done too.” [39]


As the Navy helicopter hovers nearby, and much to the surprise of everyone present, Shepard returned briefly to Freedom 7 to fetch his helmet from the capsule. (Photos courtesy of Ed Killian)


Shepard, helmet in hand, is escorted below deck by Dr. Jerome Strong (partially obscured). (Photo courtesy of Dean Conger/NASA)


Dean Conger (right, with camera) records Shepard departing the flight deck. (Photo courtesy of Howard Skidmore)

Ed Buckbee, who would go on to become the first director of the U. S. Space and Rocket Center and the founder of Space Camp, both located in Huntsville, Alabama, was a public affairs officer for the space agency at the time of Shepard’s space shot. Some years later he asked the astronaut about climbing up and peering around the interior of his spacecraft. “Well, for one thing,” Shepard responded, “a fighter pilot never leaves his helmet in the cockpit, so I reached in to get my helmet. I also looked around the instrument panel to see if I turned everything off.” [40]

Shepard was then taken to the admiral’s in-port cabin, located just forward of the port side deck-edge elevator and accessed by a catwalk running along the edge of the flight deck. It was here that he would disrobe and have his biomedical leads removed prior to medical checks. “I don’t think you’re going to have much to do,” he told Dr. Laning with a wide grin as he consumed a refreshing glass of orange juice.

The priority task was to determine Shepard’s condition immediately after having undergone high acceleration forces at launch, weightlessness, and deceleration loads. It had been feared that even a few minutes of weightlessness might possibly cause a lingering disorientation and perhaps even affect an astronaut’s mind. But Shepard reported that he hardly realized when he had begun experiencing weightlessness, and his five minutes of zero-g proved to have left no trace of physiological or mental impairment. “It was painless,” he pointed out. “Just a pleasant ride.” He said the first real indication of being in a weightless state – he was tightly strapped in – was when a


As Shepard dictates his immediate reactions into a tape recorder, Dr. Laning and Dr. Strong assist him to remove his space suit and bio-med sensors. (Photos courtesy of Dean Conger/ NASA)

stray washer floated by his left ear. In his opinion, having taken direct control of his spacecraft, an astronaut was fully capable of functioning freely in a weightless condition.

After this brief examination, the two doctors had to concur with Shepard’s earlier remark that they wouldn’t have much to do. Although he had arrived in the admiral’s cabin perspiring and with a high pulse rate, that had soon settled once he was finally able to relax. He was in his usual superb physical condition. A more detailed medical examination was to be made when he arrived later that day at Grand Bahama Island. With the tests done, Shepard dictated his remaining impressions of the flight into a tape recorder.

Meanwhile, there were mixed feelings of pride, joy and relief for his wife at their ranch-style home in Virginia Beach. Once she had composed herself, Louise went out onto the front porch and the waiting crowd of news reporters and photographers swarmed in to capture her mood in their notebooks and cameras. “I don’t have to tell you how I feel,” she said, with a wide, happy smile on her face. “It’s just wonderful. It’s beautiful… just wonderful.” [41]


An excited Louise Shepard on the porch of their Virginia Beach home after hearing of her husband’s recovery. She is accompanied by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Russell Brewer, her niece Alice, and daughter Juliana. (Photo: Associated Press)


In East Derry, New Hampshire, Alan Shepard’s parents, his sister Polly, and her son David, 10, are all smiles after news of his safe return to Earth. (Photo: United Press International)

In Shepard’s hometown of East Derry, New Hampshire, the whole town exploded into a full-scale holiday. The streets were filled with rapturous people whooping and cheering and shaking hands with everyone they met, whilst church bells pealed out their glad tidings, fire engines wailed, and car horns added to the cacophony. There were calls for the town to be renamed “Spacetown, U. S.A.”