Category Freedom 7

FROM THE LAND TO THE SEA

Wayne Koons was a farm boy from Rice County, Kansas. After leaving from high school he attended Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas, where he received degrees in physics and mathematics before electing to join the U. S. Marine Corps and then opting to become a helicopter pilot. He recalls one day in 1959 while stationed in MCAS New River, North Carolina, when a squadron clerk ran up to him and said the commanding officer wanted to see him urgently.

“I was literally apprehensive as I went over to the hangar. The skipper told me they had had an enquiry about using helicopters to retrieve astronauts and spacecraft from the ocean. And I kept thinking, ‘What do you mean – astronauts?’” The term was new to him [3]. He later learned that he had been chosen for this task because he was the only pilot of 250 possible candidates to have a technical degree. Helicopters had been selected for the sea recovery operation because NASA’s engineers were not overly confident in the seaworthiness of the Mercury capsules, while flight surgeons were not confident about the physical shape that a person might be in after making a flight in space. “They wanted to get the astronaut and the spacecraft out of the water quickly,” Koons explained [4].

Lt. Koons was assigned as Project Officer to the retrieval squadron of the Space Task Group, and used his experience and technical abilities to assist in developing recovery techniques and procedures for the yet-to-be-built Mercury spacecraft. His duties included training the squadron pilots. Another part of his assignment involved the design and testing of a special reinforced loop on top of the capsule to enable the helicopter’s copilot to snag it using a long pole with a curved attachment on the end known as the “shepherd’s hook.”

As Wayne Koons described the procedure to the author, “The shepherd’s hook was attached to the lower end of a steel cable, which was engaged in the spacecraft lifting loop by the copilot using a long pole. The upper end of the cable was locked into the helicopter’s cargo hook before the helicopter lifted off from the ship. Lifting the spacecraft was accomplished by raising the helicopter. Once the spacecraft was on the ship’s padded skid, the helicopter cargo hook was opened, thus releasing the cable which stayed with the spacecraft.” [5]

In order to get the procedure right, countless training test flights were conducted using full-size representations of the Mercury spacecraft. In one test, a “boilerplate” cap­sule was dropped from 1,000 feet over Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. Once it had parachuted

into the water, the capsule was retrieved by the crew of a twin-engine helicopter using a “shepherd’s hook” in what NASA later described as a “successful” drop.

The squadron’s commanding officer informed Koons of the decision to have him serve as the lead pilot for this mission. “He asked me if I had a particular choice in copilot, and I said, ‘I sure do,’ because at that point I had been working regularly for several months with a copilot named George Cox. George and I just really got along well. We were kind of like twins. You know, we didn’t have to say everything that we communicated. We thought alike, worked well together, and were comfort­able with each other. And George was really eager to do it, enjoyed working the mission. So that was the basic set up.”

Eventually Koons found out that the retrieval would take place using an aircraft carrier as the destination. “We did some flight training right after we got aboard, and the Air Boss had set the flight deck up and put the skid with the mattresses on it up close to the bow. So we went off, and one of our helicopters dropped the boilerplate into the water, and then we went and picked it up and delivered it back to the ship.” When this proved a difficult operation visually for the pilot, the Air Boss rearranged his flight deck, shifting airplanes around and placing the skid on the rear of the flight deck. “So then when we tried it that way, it was much better, because I had the island in my field of view, and out the front windshield I could see the front part of the flight deck. So it made it much easier, a lot easier to maintain a good visual refer­ence while I was setting the thing down.” [6]

Along with Capt. Allen K. Daniel, Jr., Koons recovered the MR-1A capsule from the Atlantic on 19 December 1960 and safely deposited it aboard the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge (CV-45).

Despite their intense training, the helicopter team often struggled with the payload capability of the aircraft balanced against the weight of the spacecraft. As Koons put it, “The dry weight of the spacecraft with astronaut was well over one ton. When the project started, the spacecraft weight was estimated to be about 1,800 pounds. As the design matured, the weight increased to the point that the complete retrieval weight for MR-3 approached 2,900 pounds. The helicopters were stripped of all unnecessary weight. The extra seats, the APU [auxiliary power unit], heater, some avionics, and the (only) life raft were removed for Mercury retrieval flights. Also, the fuel load was tailored. To explain: The downrange helicopters were tasked to go as far as 115 nauti­cal miles from the ship to retrieve a spacecraft. To accomplish this, the fuel load was normally set for a retrieval close aboard the ship. This reduced load gave the helicop­ter the lift margin needed to accomplish the capsule retrieval. If the spacecraft landed some distance from the ship, once the distance was known, the fuel load was adjusted to optimize the lift capability at the spacecraft, with adequate reserves for the return. The fuel calculations assumed the ship proceeded toward the spacecraft at its best speed after the launch of the helicopters.

“This scenario happened on the MR-2 flight. Range to the spacecraft was about 100 nautical miles. A big problem arose when the ship lost boiler power and went dead in the water after the launch of the helicopters, and we were ‘running on fumes’ by the time we actually got back to the ship with the spacecraft.” [7]

FROM THE LAND TO THE SEA

Alan Shepard discusses recovery procedures with Wayne Koons and George Cox. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Koons)

A FAMILY’S HISTORY

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.

THE SKIPPER AND A TIGHT SQUEEZE

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.

THE SKIPPER AND A TIGHT SQUEEZE

THE SKIPPER AND A TIGHT SQUEEZE

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

 

THE SKIPPER AND A TIGHT SQUEEZE

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.”

THE SKIPPER AND A TIGHT SQUEEZE

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

THE SKIPPER AND A TIGHT SQUEEZE

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.”

THE SKIPPER AND A TIGHT SQUEEZE

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.”

Prologue

On 25 September 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave an impassioned address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, during which he presented proposals for a new disarmament program as well as warning of “the smoldering coals of war in Southeast Asia.” He also called for peaceful cooperation in the new frontier of outer space.

“The cold reaches of the universe,” Kennedy implored, “must not become the new arena of an even colder war.” Earlier that year, in both his Inaugural and first State of the Union addresses, he had called for East-West cooperation “to invoke the wonders of sci­ence instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars.”

With a smug arrogance, the hierarchy of the Soviet Union dismissed Kennedy’s sug­gestion of cooperation in space exploration. They had very little incentive to join forces or feed information to an American space program that was then deemed to be lagging well behind theirs. Back then, they possessed an array of powerful boosters – designed to deliver massive nuclear weapons – which could insert huge payloads into orbit. Four years earlier, in October 1957, they had launched the first artificial satellite, followed weeks later by the first living creature to be sent into orbit – a dog named Laika. These would not be the only major “firsts” the Soviet Union achieved in what became universally known as the “Space Race” – a mammoth and incredibly expensive undertaking of resources and technological advances in order to gain the ascendancy in space exploration.

The previous Eisenhower administration, in spite of the best efforts of Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson to incite some measure of positive response, and despite the establish­ment of NASA as the nation’s civilian space agency, had been accused of excessive tardi­ness in getting a viable American space program up and running. Additionally, that administration was accused of treating Soviet space efforts with skepticism and almost disdain. Even Republican officials had admonished Dwight Eisenhower over the Soviet Union’s seemingly superior space program and what it might mean.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Senator John Kennedy had come down hard on what he perceived to be the mounting “gap” in space technology. To him, Eisenhower’s inaction symbolized the nation’s lack of initiative, ingenuity, and vitality under Republican rule. Furthermore, he was convinced that Americans did not yet grasp the world-wide political and psychological impact of the Space Race, and that the dramatic Soviet efforts were helping to build a dangerous impression of unchallenged global leadership generally, and scientific pre-eminence particularly.

Kennedy narrowly won the election, and during the transition he appointed a task force under Science Advisor Jerome B. Wiesner to advise him on the national space program and recommend policies for the future. On 10 January 1961 the Wiesner Committee submitted its preliminary report, advising that without immediate action the United States could not possibly win a race to place the first human into space, even though the nation’s first astro­nauts had already been selected and were deep into training for the first missions.

Wiesner was himself a strong advocate for utilizing unmanned probes rather than risk­ing human lives in exploring space, but he also realized the imperative for setting immedi­ate goals in space and achieving those goals. The committee’s report stated that the United States was seriously lagging behind the Soviet Union in missile and space technology, attributing this to duplication of effort and a lack of coordination among NASA, the Department of Defense and the three military services, with each of those services com­peting to create its own independent space programs.

Before his first hundred days in the White House were over, President Kennedy’s con­cern was dramatically proven correct. On 12 April 1961, a 27-year-old Soviet Air Force lieutenant named Yuri Gagarin was launched into a single orbit of the planet, becoming history’s first human space explorer. This largely unexpected feat had a profound impact on a nation which had been looking forward with confidence to the imminent first flight of an American astronaut, albeit only a 15-minute ballistic or suborbital mission.

America’s man-in-space program, which came to be called Project Mercury, had its origins during the middle years of the 1950s as a basic research initiative of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). By the late summer of 1958 the momen­tum within NACA for a manned space program had increased to the point where it became a strong and viable discussion topic before various committees in Congress while the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 was under serious consideration.

Prior to the passing of the Space Act on 29 July 1958, it had become evident that NACA would undergo a radical evolutionary change by becoming the nucleus of a proposed civil­ian space agency to be known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which would be assigned responsibility for carrying out the nation’s manned space flight program.

When NASA officially came into existence on 1 October 1958, the agency’s first administrator Dr. T. Keith Glennan approved the setting up of Project Mercury and autho­rized the establishment of the Space Task Group (STG) to implement and oversee the project. Created on 5 November 1958, the STG was based at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. As its director, Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, would later state:

“The methods by which Project Mercury was planned to be implemented were to use the simplest and most reliable approaches known and to depend, to the greatest extent practicable, on existing technology. To this end, existing ballistic missiles (the Atlas and

Redstone) were selected as the primary propulsion systems; it was planned to use a drag reentry vehicle with the entry initiated by retrorockets, with the final descent to be made with parachutes, and to plan on a water landing. As the Atlas and Redstone weren’t designed originally for manned flight operation, it was necessary to provide automatic escape systems which would sense impending launch-vehicle malfunctions and separate the spacecraft from the launch vehicle in the event of such malfunction.

“Man had never before flown in space and thus it was felt desirable to include animal flights in the program to provide early biomedical data and to prove out, realistically, the operation of the life-support systems. It was considered wise to monitor the performance of the spacecraft, its systems, and its occupant, whether animal or man, almost continu­ously. To this end, a world-wide network of tracking, telemetry, and communications sta­tions has been established.

“Since a new era of flight was being approached, it was planned to use a build-up type of flight-test program, in which each component or system would be flown to successively more severe conditions in order first to prove the concept, then to qualify the actual design, and finally to prove, through repeated use, the reliability of the system.”

In the wake of the shock announcement that Yuri Gagarin had completed a single orbit barely weeks before an American astronaut was due to fly a suborbital mission, the real­ization that the Cold War enemy had beaten them onto the “high ground” of space came as a disturbing development to the American people. This was a country that had endured in the previous three-and-a-half weeks not only the Soviet space triumph, but also the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Deeply troubled, many Americans believed that the Soviet Union had demonstrated a so-far unrivaled ascendancy in breaching and exploring the new domain of space.

On 5 May 1961, at the start of a decade that began the practice of making people famous for fifteen minutes, a renewed sense of confidence arose and national pride was restored across America when a 37-year-old U. S. Navy commander was hurled into space atop a Redstone rocket. To many, this achievement fell somewhat short of a solid response to Gagarin’s circuit of the globe, but that flight, in a tiny spacecraft named Freedom 7, ushered in America’s participation in the gathering thrust of the Space Race.

As a scientific and historical fact, the first venture of an American astronaut into space deservedly stands on its own – it requires no embellishment. In the context of disastrous events troubling the United States, however, it had a special importance for everyday citi­zens with an urgent need of success. The embarrassing misadventure in Cuba, the apparent loss of Laos, and the shattering announcement by the Soviet Union of its own space achieve­ment were wounds that hurt. The flight of Freedom 7 gave America that “can do” sense of success once again, and reinvigorated a much-needed groundswell of national pride.

History will record that while the Soviet Union continued for a time to outdo the United States’ efforts in human space exploration, NASA’s achievements in human space flight and technology would soon outstrip those of the Soviet space chiefs as America pursued a new national goal set by President Kennedy, of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade and returning him safely to the Earth.

One of those NASA astronauts who proudly walked on the Moon during Project Apollo was also the man who set America on its audacious path towards that goal. He was U. S. Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr.

A DAY FOR HISTORY

It was 1:10 a. m. when flight surgeon Bill Douglas gently woke Shepard. “Come on, Al,” he said. “They’re filling the tanks.”

Shepard had only been asleep for three hours, but was instantly awake and alert. “I’m ready,” he replied. “Is John awake?” Douglas saw that John Glenn was already clambering out of his bed, ready for whatever the day would bring.

“John’s awake,” Douglas confirmed. “We’re all awake. Did you sleep well?”

Shepard said that he had slept soundly and had no recollection of any dreams. He added that upon awakening around midnight he had peeped out through the window to see if it was still raining. “The stars were out and I went back to sleep,” he pointed out with a slight smile. The weather, he was told, was indeed looking good.

Whistling quietly to himself, Shepard walked to the bathroom where he shaved and showered, then in company with Dr. Douglas and Glenn polished off a breakfast of filet mignon, eggs, orange juice, and tea. “I left the breakfast table to place myself at the mercy of the doctors,” he subsequently recorded, “who did their usual poking, prodding, and measuring, and then attached a battery of sensors to me.” [11] While Douglas and Grissom remained with Shepard, Glenn dressed and went to the launch pad to once again check out the spacecraft.

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Dietician Capt. Jean McKay serves a launch-day breakfast to Shepard and Glenn. (Photo: NASA)

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Astronaut physician Lt. Col. Dr. William Douglas inspects Shepard’s ears. (Photo: NASA)

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Shepard undergoing a thorough physical examination. (Photo: NASA)

Altogether, the medical and psychiatric assessments took a little under two hours, but they showed that Shepard was in excellent physical and mental shape for the flight. He had a slight sunburn on his shoulders from staying out in the Sun too long at a swimming pool, and a blackened toenail from Grissom accidentally stepping on his foot a few days before. Most importantly, his respiration and blood pressure were good, while his pulse rate was measured at 75 beats per minute.

The psychiatric examination lasted around an hour, at the end of which the psychiatrist reported, “He realized the dangers he was about to face, but showed no fear. Never seen a man so calm. I tried to get him to talk about other things than the flight, about his family, for example, to see whether this would make him anxious, but I didn’t succeed. All his mind, every nerve, was concentrated on the flight: nothing else interested him. Even while on his way to the suit room he was already a part of the spacecraft.” [12]

Shepard was then assisted in donning his space suit. Dee O’Hara had already been busy that morning assisting Bill Douglas with his medical checks and procedures, and she vividly recalls the suiting-up time for Shepard. “I remember when he walked into the suit room to get suited up, it was just… everything became dead silent, just became very quiet, and Deke was there, and everybody just sort of milled around, and not much was said. There was hardly any conversation. Joe Schmitt did his checks, and

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Sensors were taped to predetermined positions on Shepard’s body. (Photo: NASA)

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Suit technician Joe Schmitt makes final adjustments to Shepard’s gloves. (Photo: NASA)

Alan was getting into his boots and, you know, whatever… but it was just dead quiet that day.” [13]

Observing this lengthy process, Bill Douglas was mentally drawing comparisons with an earlier event. “I don’t quite know why,” he reflected, “but it reminded me of the dressing of the matador before the corrida. An astronaut and a matador have noth­ing in common, but once I was in Spain and I was present at the dressing of a matador and the atmosphere was the same: a solemn anxiety, a religious silence, a lot of people around him. And over everything a vague smell of death.” [14]

Once Shepard was clad in his suit and helmet, a pressure check was carried out by technician Joe Schmitt. Once its integrity had been verified, the suit was deflated; it would not be reinflated until just prior to launch.

At 3:55 a. m., carrying his portable air-conditioning unit, Shepard began to make his way downstairs. Footage from the ABC network television coverage shows Dee O’Hara in a window above the exit. She accompanied him as far as the hall, where he turned to her and said, “Well, Dee, here I go.” Then he followed Joe Schmitt out through the hangar door.

“I was very, very frightened,” O’Hara revealed to the author. “Particularly when he left and went downstairs to get to get in the van. I didn’t know if I was going to see him again, and I just… I straightened up the area.” [15]

Immediately that the hangar door was opened, flashbulbs began to pop and TV cameras followed the astronaut in his silvery suit as he walked behind Schmitt to the small transfer van and cautiously stepped in. They were joined by Bill Douglas, Gus Grissom, and several technicians. Joe Schmitt was there to assist Shepard into his restraint harness once he had been inserted into the capsule.

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Suit technician Joe Schmitt checks the pressurization of Shepard’s space suit, with Dr. Douglas (with Station 2 headset) observing the procedure. (Photo: NASA)

Forty minutes later, the van pulled up alongside the launch gantry, essentially a modified oil derrick. It was the same launch pad from where America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, was launched into orbit some three years earlier. There was still some time to kill before he could enter the capsule. Gordon Cooper entered the van to give Shepard a final update on the weather and on the positions of the recovery ships. “He said the weathermen were predicting three-foot waves and 8-to-10-knot winds in the landing area, which was within our limits,” Shepard later recorded. “We had a device in the van to check on the sensors, and everything was working fine. I rested my weight in a reclining chair while all this was going on.” [16]

In order to ease some of the nervous anticipation felt by all in the van, Al and Gus spontaneously broke into their favorite Bill Dana routine, with Shepard playing the role of the reluctant astronaut, Jose Jimenez. Part of the well-known routine involved Jose listing all of the qualities an astronaut ought to have, such as courage, perfect vision, and low blood pressure. Then he finished with, “And you got to have four legs.” Grissom, playing the straight man, asked, “Why four legs?” Shepard grinned widely, and in his best Jose imitation responded, “They really wanted to send a dog, but they thought that would be too cruel!” It did the job, and Shepard was in a good mood when he was informed that it was time to leave the van [17].

The door was opened, and Shepard carefully climbed down four steps onto solid concrete. Above him the sky was still dark, with a thin sliver of Moon peeping out from small dark clouds. Bright searchlight beams cut back and forth, while arc lights vividly lit the area. But he only had eyes for one thing that morning. He took in the

A DAY FOR HISTORY

The moment everyone had been anticipating, as Alan Shepard departs Hangar S for the launch pad. (Photo: NASA)

 

As Grissom (left) looks on inside the transfer van, Gordon Cooper briefs Shepard on the prevailing weather conditions. (Photo: NASA)

 

A DAY FOR HISTORY

gleaming Redstone emblazoned in the brilliant glare of the searchlights, rimmed with frost and ice and gently issuing swirling vapors of liquid oxygen. Around the foot of the rocket, moving through the clouds of vapor, dozens of engineers and technicians were engaged in final preparations, wearing construction hard hats of various colors to denote their work.

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Shepard steps down from the transfer van. (Photo: NASA)

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Gazing up at the Redstone, Shepard pauses on his way to the gantry elevator. (Photo: NASA)

“I stepped out into a strange world of glaring floodlights and banshee wails from a breeze blowing across supercold fuel lines,” Shepard would later recall. “I looked up, for the moment overwhelmed by the gleaming blue-white lights. Then I began the final walk toward the gantry elevator. ‘Up’ was six stories above me.” [18]

Then Shepard paused at the gantry base, along with Grissom and Dr. Douglas. He shaded his eyes with his left hand and looked up, taking in the sight of the rocket that he would soon ride into the heavens.

“I sort of wanted to kick the tires – the way you do with a new car or an airplane. I real­ized that I would probably never see that missile again. I really enjoy looking at a bird that is ready to go. It’s a lovely sight. The Redstone with the Mercury capsule and escape tower on top of it is a particularly good-looking combination, long and slender. And this one had a decided air of expectancy about it. It stood there full of LOX, venting white clouds and rolling frost down the side. In the glow of the searchlight it was really beautiful.” [19]

After boarding the elevator at 5:15 a. m., Shepard turned and waved at the launch team, who were cheering loudly and applauding. He had meant to stop and express his thanks, but the emotion of the moment got to him. As they ascended the 70 feet to the level known as “Surfside 5” where he would ingress Freedom 7, Bill Douglas unexpect­edly handed Shepard a small gift from a good friend, NASA engineer Sam Beddingfield. It was a box of crayons. They’d once shared a joke about an astronaut about to start a long mission who had taken along a coloring book to help him pass the time, but refused to fly when he found that he had forgotten his Crayolas. “Just so you’ll have something to do up there,” Douglas said with a wide smile. Shepard laughed as he handed the cray­ons back, saying he might just be a little too busy to use them.

They exited the elevator and made their way into the green-colored gantry room (curiously known as the “White Room”) where the spacecraft stood ready for him to climb in through the two-foot square hatchway and prepare to make history. Shepard

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Shepard, Douglas, and Grissom board the gantry elevator (Photo: NASA)

walked around a little, talking briefly with Glenn and Grissom, thanking them for all their hard work, especially Glenn – now wearing a pristine white coat and cap – who had served as his backup pilot. As he moved over to the hatch, he looked once again at the unadorned name boldly painted on the side of his spacecraft. “My choice,” he would explain. “Freedom because it was patriotic. Seven because it was the seventh Mercury capsule produced. It also represented the seven Mercury astronauts.” [20]

At 5:18 a. m., after Glenn had made a final visual check of the spacecraft interior, Shepard gripped his hand in a hearty handshake, and then began the delicate task of inserting himself into the cramped confines of the capsule. McDonnell engineers first assisted the astronaut in removing his protective overshoes, then he lowered the visor of his helmet and wormed feet-first in through the hatch.

“My new boots were so slippery on the bottom that my right foot slipped off the right elbow of the couch support and on down into the torso section, causing some superficial damage to the sponge rubber insert – nothing of any great consequence, however. From this point on, insertion proceeded as we had practiced. I was able to get my right leg up over the couch calf support and part way across prior to actually get­ting the upper torso in. The left leg went in with very little difficulty… I think I had a little trouble getting my left arm in, and I’m not quite sure why. I think it’s mainly because I tried to wait too long before putting my left arm in. Outside of that, getting into the capsule and the couch went just about on schedule, and we picked up the count

A DAY FOR HISTORY

A grinning John Glenn welcomes Shepard to the White Room. (Photo: NASA)

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Shepard offers a last thank-you to Gus Grissom. (Photo: NASA)

for the hooking up of the face plate seal, for the hooking up of the biomed connector, com­munications, and placing of the lip mic[rophone]. Everything went normally.” [21]

Joe Schmitt had one final role to play during Shepard’s insertion into Freedom 7, and it all went as planned. “I had been training with him for so long. I mean that’s all we had been doing…. My job was not only to suit them and take care of the suits, but also to put them in the spacecraft and hook up their communications, their hoses, and also their restraint straps.” [22]

Part of the ingress procedure required Schmitt to first remove an instrument panel, allow­ing Shepard enough room to slide in and nestle into his contour couch before Schmitt replaced the panel and attended to the restraint straps and his other pre-flight tasks.

After being physically connected with his capsule, Shepard noticed a stray slip of paper amongst his instruments which read, in the handwriting of John Glenn, “Ball games forbidden in this area.” He laughed at this little bit of levity and handed it out to the smiling Marine, who then set off to the Mercury Control Center.

Already strapped in position on a small ledge inside the spacecraft was something Shepard hoped he would not have to use – a parachute chest pack. It was there in the event of a serious problem with the main parachute prior to landing. If necessary, he

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Having removed his protective overshoes, Shepard is eased into Freedom 7 with the assis­tance of backup pilot John Glenn. (Photo: NASA)

 

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Shepard entering Freedom 7. (Photo: NASA)

was to clip it on, manually operate and discard the mechanically actuated side hatch, then squeeze out of the rapidly descending capsule. But Shepard knew it would be an extremely difficult task extracting himself from the couch, opening the hatch, and scrambling out in time, so even though he took note of it in his checks, he quickly dismissed its presence and purpose from his mind. Although the bulk of the personal parachute made the interior of the capsule even more cramped than necessary, the planners nevertheless loaded it on this flight and the subsequent MR-4 mission.

“The preparations of the capsule and its interior were indeed excellent,” Shepard would observe in the MR-3 post-launch report. “Switch positions were completely in keeping with the gantry check lists. The gantry crew had prepared the suit circuit purge properly. Everything was ready to go when I arrived, so, as will be noted else­where, there was no time lost in the insertion. Insertion was started as before.

“After suit purge, the suit-pressure check showed no gross leaks; the suit circuit was determined to be intact, and we proceeded with the final inspection of the capsule interior and the removal of the safety pins. I must admit that it was indeed a moving moment to have the individuals with whom I’ve been working so closely shake my hand and wish me bon voyage at this time.”

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Shepard prior to hatch closure. (Photo: NASA)

A DAY FOR HISTORY

A final glimpse of the astronaut as the capsule’s hatch is closed. (Photo: NASA)

At 6:10 a. m., the pad technicians began the task of installing the spacecraft hatch, which was held in place by 70 bolts. The ensuing cabin leak check was completed to everyone’s satisfaction. Shepard’s training now kicked in as he began industriously working through his checklists, ensuring once again that everything was exactly as it should be, and that all the switches were at the correct settings.

Shepard later reported, “The point at which the hatch itself was actually put on seemed to cause no concern, but it seemed to me that my metabolic rate increased slightly here. Of course, I didn’t know the quantitative analysis, but it appeared as though my heart beat quickened just a little bit as the hatch went on. I noticed that my heart beat, or pulse rate, came back to normal again shortly thereafter with the execu­tion of normal sequences. The installation of the hatch, the cabin purge, all proceeded very well, I thought. As a matter of fact, there were very few points in the capsule count that caused me any concern.” [23]

Every so often Shepard glanced into the periscope to monitor the outside activity, and would smile to himself whenever the wide-angle-lens-distorted grinning face of Grissom filled the small screen. As the White Room crew went about their business, little did Shepard realize that he would spend the next four hours on his back in the form-fitting couch, as delay after delay threatened the increasingly irritated astronaut with yet another launch scrub.

A DAY FOR HISTORY

A cheeky Grissom peers into the capsule’s periscope. (Photo: NASA)

A DAY FOR HISTORY

Physician Bill Douglas gives Shepard a final “okay” sign in front of the periscope. (Photo: NASA)

Then the voice of CapCom Deke Slayton came through. “Jose? Do you read me, Jose?”

“I read you loud and clear, Deke,” Shepard replied.

“Don’t cry too much,” Deke said as part of the Bill Dana routine.

“All right,” came the more sober response.

At 6:34 a. m., some 24 minutes after Shepard had been sealed into Freedom 7, the enclosing service structure slowly began to roll away from the Redstone, leaving the impressive white-and-black painted rocket poised pencil-like on the launch pedestal, pointed ambitiously towards the rapidly lightening dawn sky, ready to lunge free on command.

There was now an air of hope and expectation among the delay-weary hordes of reporters and members of the public who were again on the beaches and every other vantage point, listening to bulletins on their transistor radios. They had endured three frustrating and exhausting days of storms sweeping up and down the coast, thunder and lightning, and the dispiriting announcements of continued postponements. Now, as they assembled beneath a relatively cloudless dawn sky, they began to believe that this might, finally, be the day on which Alan Shepard would make history.

A SPACE FLIGHT LEGEND REMEMBERED

In the wake of his Apollo mission Alan Shepard was promoted to the rank of rear admiral, becoming the first astronaut to achieve such status. He resigned from both NASA and the Navy in 1974. After his Mercury flight in 1961 he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, and with his resignation from the Navy he also added with pride the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Post-NASA, Shepard followed in his father’s footsteps by venturing into banking, real estate and investments, and other private business, in the process making himself a considerable fortune. He also dabbled on the fringe of politics by joining the board of the right-wing Freedom Forum in 1993.

In 1984, he joined with the other five surviving Mercury astronauts in setting up the Mercury 7 Foundation, a science and engineering scholarship fund for college stu­dents, and served as its founding president. Today, under the revised name of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, it pursues the same goals.

Once, in an interview for the Hall of Science and Exploration, Shepard was asked for his proudest accomplishment, which he said was being chosen to make the first manned American flight into space. “That was competition at its best,” he explained, with his usual unapologetic candor. “Not because of the fame or the recognition that went with it, but because of the fact that America’s best test pilots went through this selection process down to seven guys, and of those seven, I was the first one to go. That will always be the most satisfying thing for me.

“During the actual process of flying aircraft, or flying the Spirit of St. Louis, one doesn’t think of oneself as being a hero or historical figure. One does it because the

A SPACE FLIGHT LEGEND REMEMBERED

At the Pentagon on 26 August 1971, a proud Alan Shepard is awarded the shoulder boards of a rear admiral’s rank by Navy Secretary John L. H. Chafee (left) and Adm. Ralph W. Cousins, Vice Chief of Naval Operations. (Photo: Associated Press)

challenge is there, and one feels reasonably qualified to accomplish it.” After a pause he added, “I must admit, maybe I am a piece of history after all.” [7]

On Tuesday, 21 July 1998, the world lost America’s first astronaut in space to the insidious disease leukemia. He had fought a typically stoic and mostly private two – year battle against this cancer, but it was a fight even he could not win. R/Adm Alan Shepard, an authentic twentieth-century hero, passed away peacefully in his sleep at the Monterey Community Hospital in California. He was 74 years old.

Biographer Neal Thompson says Shepard’s whole life was about competition. “Whether it was in sports as a youth, or competing among other naval aviators when he was a carrier pilot, and then it just sort of ramped up at each stage of his career, becoming a test pilot where he competed with some of the best aviators on the planet and then to be selected among this extremely elite group of Mercury 7 astronauts and then to compete against them for that first ride. But I think he thrived on that and it was fun to explore what that meant in the scope of the space program.” [8]

On 25 August, barely a month after the loss of her husband, Louise Shepard died of a heart attack while on a flight from San Francisco to her home in Monterey. She was returning from Colorado after visiting one of her daughters.

Alan and Louise Shepard were cremated and their ashes committed to the sea in Stillwater Cove near Pebble Beach, California. A small memorial stone for both was placed in the Forest Hill Cemetery in Derry, New Hampshire. They are survived by daughters Alice Wackermann, Julie Jenkins, and Laura Churchley, plus their six grandchildren.

Подпись: Alan B. Shepard, Jr., the first American in space and Apollo 14 moonwalker. (Photo: NASA)

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Подпись: The memorial stone for Alan and Louise Shepard. (Photo courtesy of David Lee Tiller)

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TRAINING FOR SPACE

After the chimpanzees had become familiar with sitting in the steel chairs, Dittmer’s team began securing them in individually molded aluminum couches. These were smaller versions of contour couches that the astronauts would one day occupy in the Mercury spacecraft. Next, the animals were introduced to a device mounted across their lap that was called a psychomotor, a small machine specifically designed to test their reflexes and responses.

Apart from participating in tests of the spacecraft’s life support systems, one of the main tasks that the MR-2 chimpanzees had to master was pushing levers on the psychomotor in sequence throughout a brief suborbital flight, in order to prove that astronauts would be able to perform similar tasks satisfactorily.

There were three lights, with three levers directly below them on the device. One light was a red “continuous avoidance” signal which glowed all the time. Another was a white light that would illuminate when the test animal pushed the lever below. If they didn’t do this every twenty seconds a mild electric shock flowed through metal plates attached to the soles of their feet. The third light was blue, and it would glow for five seconds at irregular periods every two minutes. The lever beneath this had to be pushed before the light went out or the chimp would receive a light shock. On an actual mission, this test was set up to begin at liftoff and continue through the flight, transcending periods of high g-loads and acceleration, weightlessness, and reentry.

In the post-flight Review of Biomedical Systems for MR-3 Flight, it was noted by Stanley C. White, M. D., Chief of the Life Systems Division, Richard S. Johnston, his assistant, and Gerard J. Pesman of the Crew Equipment Branch of the Life Systems Division, that the chimpanzee program was designed to parallel that of the human program.

“Its primary goal was the qualification of the man support systems,” the report said. “Through this approach, the objective of flying first unmanned, followed by an animal flight, would give the logical sequence for the qualification of the spacecraft for manned flight.

TRAINING FOR SPACE

Dressed for space, Ham demonstrates to his handler that he is ready to be considered for the MR-2 mission. (Photo: NASA)

TRAINING FOR SPACE

Flight training for the chimpanzees involved learning to push levers in sequence with cueing illumination. (Photo: USAF)

TRAINING FOR SPACE

Ham, strapped into his couch and fully enclosed within his space container. Note the psycho­motor panel and levers in front of him. (Photo: NASA)

“The chimpanzees considered for the Redstone program were thoroughly trained using the calculated flight dynamics. The centrifuge and heat chambers were used. The physiological training was incorporated with the psychomotor tasks to be done by the chimpanzee during flight. It was found that early in the training program the chim­panzee would cease working during the accelerative periods, and assume his normal

TRAINING FOR SPACE

The MR-2 psychomotor panel. (Photo: NASA)

trained pattern promptly after the forces were released. However, subsequent training indicated that the chimpanzee could accept these new stresses and continue perfor­mance at a high level through all normal stress loads.” [5]

Throughout the chimpanzees’ training, a corps of veterinarians closely monitored their health and well-being, tracking their skeletal development with periodic exams and X-rays, as well as ensuring that they were free of any parasites. The animals also received regular checkups of their heart and muscular reflexes. Diet and dietary supplements were an important aspect of these tests, so the animals were fed small doses of antibiotics stirred into their favorite treat – liquid raspberry gelatin. In fact some of the primates enjoyed the diet and attention so much that they began to pack on excess weight, eventually washing them out of the program when they exceeded the specified limit of fifty pounds.

Even though Ham/Subject 65 trained well and was fast becoming one of the top candidates for the MR-2 shot, there were many physical, stress and readiness factors involved in the final selection – which was to be made on the eve of the mission. In preparation for MR-2, six of the most promising candidates along with 20 Holloman scientists and technical personnel were flown to Cape Canaveral on 2 January 1961 in order to acclimatize the chimps to a change in environment and to undergo final prepa­ration for the flight, scheduled for the end of that month. Here they would be given 29 days of intense training under the supervision of Maj. Dan Mosely, DVM, in charge of Holloman’s vast Aeronautical Branch.

TRAINING FOR SPACE

Facilities at the Cape for quartering, training, and preparing the six chimpanzees consisted of seven specially designed trailers in a fenced-off enclosure adjacent to Hangar S, in which the astronauts’ quarters were situated. To prevent any possible spread of disease amongst the animals they were isolated in separate cages. One of the trailers was a combined clinical and surgical facility for physical examinations, clini­cal laboratory analysis, minor surgery, and treatment of illness or injury. It was also used for the installation of biosensors, donning the restraint garment, and the placement of each chimpanzee in its personalized couch.

According to a report on MR-2 operations compiled post-flight by Capt. Norman Stringely and Maj. Mosely of the Air Force, and Charles Wheelwright from NASA,

TRAINING FOR SPACE

A helmeted Ham in the lower section of his couch container. (Photo: NASA)

“Five practice countdowns were conducted by the medical preparation team for the MR-2 flight. They consisted of preparing the subject and couch, and proceeding up the gantry. The couch was either placed outside or inserted into the spacecraft and connected to the spacecraft environmental control system and electrical system. One countdown was for a telemetry check, one for a spacecraft-pressure check, one for a radio-frequency compatibility test, and two were simulated flights.” [6]

THE MAN WITH THE CAMERA

As the day of the space shot drew nearer, Koons and Cox had to confer with media people on the USS Lake Champlain in order to coordinate the best possible coverage of the retrieval of Alan Shepard and his spacecraft.

One person who impressed Koons was National Geographic photographer Dean Conger. “He was part of the pool. He had been out with us on one prior mission, I think. Dean showed up with a camera that he asked to clamp onto the side of the helicopter, where it would be looking down as we did the retrieval. It had a wide – angle lens. I can’t remember how many exposures he said it had. It must have been just a standard thirty-six-exposure roll. But he said it was automatic, and he could set it up to take just one shot per second … it was actually on one of the little struts that held the [personnel] hoist. And the other thing, if we could just remember to turn it on when we started doing the pickup.” [8]

THE MAN WITH THE CAMERA

On loan to NASA, National Geographic photographer Dean Conger attaches an automatic camera to Marine helicopter #44’s winch-hoist frame assisted by a Marine corporal from HMR(L)-262. (Photo courtesy of Ed Killian)

As Dean Conger recalled for the author, “Logically I wanted to be on the prime pickup chopper, but that was ruled out for weight reasons. They flew with only the pilot and copilot. When it came time to pick up the astronaut the copilot would leave the cockpit and go to the doorway to operate the winch.

“On another ship for an earlier flight [MR-2 with Ham] I talked with the Marine crew chief – unfortunately, I don’t remember his name – who was extremely helpful with my idea of placing a remote camera somewhere. He said that he could make a bracket. He welded together a bracket out of 2-inch strap iron which had a pocket to accept a Nikon fitted with a 250-exposure back, and we would run a cord down to a battery pack which was fastened to the side of the cabin door. I believe it was taped there. The Nikon battery pack only had a push button. The chief made a slip-on clip that the copilot would push in order to hold the button down for continuous shooting. It was all very crude, but it worked.

“The flight plan was as follows: When the capsule landed, a long antenna would deploy straight up. So the first maneuver was to fly in and the copilot, having left the cockpit, would snip off the antenna using an explosive bolt cutter on a long pole so that it wouldn’t interfere with the rotor blades. Then the chopper would circle back, stabilize the capsule, and lift the astronaut up. In testing, this had checked out to take about 10 minutes. In their flight plan, the copilot would push the camera switch as they approached to cut the antenna. The problem for me was that the film would run out in about 2.5 minutes. A technician on the ship said he would wire a resistor into the cord to slow down the camera. After the fact, Nikon said it ought not to have worked at all!” [9]

It was something of a gamble, but Dean Conger was an experienced, professional photographer determined that this particular day in history should be recorded for posterity with only the very best images.

EARLY INFLUENCES

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.

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]