Category Freedom 7


At 11:55 on the morning of 31 January 1961, chimpanzee Ham was launched on the suborbital MR-2 flight. The Redstone climbed steeply and then headed downrange over the Atlantic Missile Range to where a fleet of Navy vessels was stationed in the target zone some 290 miles from the Cape. Due to the spacecraft overshooting its intended splashdown area and Ham experiencing a rough reentry that exposed him to a hefty load of 18 g’s, there were fears that the chimpanzee might not have survived. However, after the capsule was recovered, the attending veterinarian, Maj. Richard Benson, pronounced Ham to be “healthy and happy.”

While there was relief that Ham’s flight had ended well, Shepard was unshakable in his belief that a human astronaut should have occupied that capsule.

“I reviewed the telemetry tapes and records of the Great Chimp Adventure. I knew I could’ve survived that trip, but I also knew immediately that my own planned flight was in deep trouble. If only the damn chimp’s ride had been on the mark, I’d have launched in March.

“But Ham’s flight had not been on the mark, and in Huntsville, Alabama, Dr. Wernher von Braun, developer of the Redstone and director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, was showing signs of a new conservatism as responsibility for men’s lives was factored into his decisions. ‘We require another unmanned Mercury-Redstone flight,’ he said. Working with the engineers, I confirmed that the problem with Ham’s Redstone had been nothing more than a minor electrical relay. The fix was quick and easy, and the Redstone was back in perfect shape. ‘For God’s sake, let’s fly. Now!’ I begged NASA officials, but Dr. von Braun stood fast: ‘Another test flight.’ I stalked off


Redstone rocket No. MR7 that was to boost Freedom 7 into space is prepared for transporta­tion to Cape Canaveral. (Photo: NASA)


The MR-3 Redstone booster being raised onto the launch pedestal. (Photo: NASA)

steaming to the office of Flight Director Chris Kraft. ‘Look, Chris, we’re pilots,’ I said. ‘When there’s a failure, dammit, we fix it.’

“‘I know, Alan,’ he said.

“‘Well, what about it? It’s an established fact that the relay was the problem, and it’s fixed.’


“‘So why don’t we go ahead? Why don’t we man the next one?’

“‘Why waste time, right?’ Kraft smiled.


‘“Because when it comes to rockets’ – the flight director shook his head – ‘Wernher is king.’



Freedom 7 is hoisted up to be mated to Redstone rocket No. MR7 in preparation for the first flight by an American astronaut. (Photo: NASA)



“‘Forget it, right?’


“So I walked away, brooding. The March 24 Redstone flight was an absolute beauty. I could’ve killed. I should’ve been on that flight. I could’ve led the world into space. I should’ve been floating up there, while the Russians were still wrestling with a balky rocket booster.”

By the time Shepard’s flight was ready to go, Yuri Gagarin had already been there and back.


A publicity photo of Alan Shepard holding a model of a Mercury spacecraft and its escape tower. (Photo: NASA)

“So that was that,” Shepard pointed out ruefully. “Nearly four years after Sputnik started the Space Race and two years after I and my six colleagues – Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil (‘Gus’) Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton – were presented in a Washington, D. C., ceremony as the Mercury Project team that would represent America in space, we’d been beaten to the punch. We had them by the short hairs, and we gave it away.” [34]

As Guenter Wendt reflected, “As we busied ourselves incorporating the latest changes into the spacecraft, Glenn, Grissom and Shepard stayed busy in the simula­tor in Hangar S. The three prime candidates for the first Mercury flight spent 50 to 60 hours a week working on procedures in the simulator. During that period, Shepard made about 120 simulated flights, some in the sim[ulator] and some in the altitude chamber. In spite of the fact that Gagarin had orbited the Earth, and our first flight would only be suborbital, our Mercury was much more sophisticated than their Vostok. Of course we didn’t know it at the time, but the lead we had in spacecraft systems was one that we would never relinquish.” [35]


From the outset, the Freedom 7 spacecraft was never intended to serve any practical purpose after its history-making flight, let alone fly into space again. Instead, it was gifted to the American people by NASA, to be preserved in a museum environment and openly exhibited for everyone to visit.

Sadly, the Soviet Union was not quite as kind to its flown manned spacecraft. In one instance the Vostok 2 capsule, flown by Gherman Titov in making history’s first day-long space flight, was converted and used as a training vessel for the upcoming Voskhod human space flight program. During a failed test for a new soft-landing para­chute system, the capsule struck the ground so hard that it was crushed beyond repair. There would appear to be no indication of what happened to the remains, but there are lingering fears that it may have been unceremoniously scrapped.

Unlike his pioneering spacecraft, Alan Shepard would eventually fly into space a second time. In 1971 he commanded the Apollo 14 mission, fulfilling his long-held dream of walking on the surface of the Moon.

More than five decades on, the smaller spacecraft and the man who flew in it have both entered the history books for what they accomplished on 5 May 1961.


Following its return by helicopter to Cape Canaveral, the Freedom 7 spacecraft was subjected to several days of minute examination by engineers and technicians. It was then released for a pre-scheduled tour abroad, ahead of being placed on permanent display in the United States. On 25 May, just three weeks after it had been recovered from the Atlantic, Freedom 7 went on display at the 24th International Aeronautical Show in Paris, France. By the end of the show on 4 June, some 650,000 fascinated attendees had taken the opportunity to view the spacecraft up close.

C. Burgess, Freedom 7: The Historic Flight of Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Springer Praxis Books, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-01156-1_8, © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014


Crowds flocked to see Freedom 7 on display at the Paris Air Show in1961. (Photo: University of Central Florida)


From Paris Freedom 7 was shipped to Italy, where it was on display from 13-25 June at the Rassegna International Electronic and Nuclear Fair in Rome. Amazingly, it drew more visitors than in Paris, with around 750,000 people lining up to inspect it. The spacecraft was then returned to the United States to undergo intensive study at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. After that it was returned to its maker, the McDonnell Aircraft Company in St. Louis, Missouri, to be taken apart, inspected, reconstructed, and prepared for public exhibition in the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.

Four months later, on 23 October 1961, Freedom 7 was officially presented to the Smithsonian by NASA Administrator James Webb. In his presentation speech, Webb declared, “To Americans seeking answers, proof that man can survive in the hostile realms of space is not enough. A solid and meaningful foundation for public support and the basis for our Apollo man-in-space effort is that U. S. astronauts are going into space to do useful work in the cause of all their fellow men.” [1] Freedom 7 was placed on public display in the Quonset Hut – or Air Museum Building – in the South Yard Restrictions of the National Air and Space Museum.

East met West in May 1962 when Vostok 2 cosmonaut Gherman Titov paid an offi­cial visit to the United States. Accompanied by Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who had by then accomplished America’s first manned orbital flight, and a veritable caval­cade of official vehicles and press photographers, Titov was shown some of the sights around the nation’s capital, one highlight being a brief visit to the National Air and Space Museum where the cosmonaut inspected the Freedom 7 spacecraft.

In 1965, due to keen interest abroad and through the courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, the Freedom 7 spacecraft was temporarily loaned to the Science Museum in Kensington, London, for a five-month exhibition. It was shipped from New York to London on the Cunard-Anchor liner Sidonia and delivered amid great fanfare on 17 September. The exhibition (which was advertised as lasting from 5 October 1965 to 28 February 1966) proved to be extremely popular. By the end of February it had been visited by 110,000 people. Among the visitors were Her Majesty the Queen and H. R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, who viewed Freedom 7 on 10 November [2].

Within the spacecraft was a lifelike model of Alan Shepard lying on his back as if preparing for liftoff, his left hand grasping the abort handle ready to fire the escape tower in the event of a mishap.

Due to great public interest, the Smithsonian agreed to an extension of the loan, allowing the exhibition to remain open until 1 May 1966. Eventually, the spacecraft was viewed by 356,000 visitors. On 18 May it was transferred to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, where it was exhibited for several weeks in conjunction with a public talk by John Glenn on 3 June. After the exhibit was closed on 11 September, the spacecraft remained in the museum out of public view for a further three weeks to accommodate a visiting Smithsonian dignitary. Overall, the Edinburgh exhibition was seen by in excess of 200,000 visitors, this number having been collected by the “elec­tric eye” of the museum [3].

Following its overseas sojourn, Freedom 7 was returned to the United States and placed back on public display at the Smithsonian, where it would remain for the next 32 years.

In December 1998 the spacecraft was out on lengthy loan once again, this time to the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The exhibition had been mounted


Alan Shepard peers into Freedom 7 at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)



America’s first manned spacecraft held a great fascination for young and old alike. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

to honor the memory of pilot Alan Shepard, who died earlier that year. Shepard had graduated from the Academy in 1945. Freedom 7 would remain on public display at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center for 14 years, honored with a place in the rotunda leading to the exhibit area. During this time, it was encased in acrylic Plexiglas and had its periscope deployed.

On 18 January 2012 the Naval Academy announced that Freedom 7 would soon be moved from Maryland to Massachusetts and placed on temporary exhibition until December 2015 in a space gallery at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Columbus Point, Boston. The spacecraft’s public debut on 12 September 2012 was to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the “We choose to go to the Moon” speech that Kennedy famously delivered at Rice University in Houston in 1962.

Prior to the spacecraft taking up temporary residence in Boston, there was a major problem to resolve. This fell to experts at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, which, in consultation with the Smithsonian, developed and


Alan Shepard and John Glenn with cosmonaut Gherman Titov at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D. C. (Photo: United Press International)

built a special cradle for exhibiting Freedom 7 in Boston. The cradle was constructed using steel that had been washed and sandblasted in order to remove any corrosion. It was then covered with a clear protectant and painted with rubber padding where it would support the spacecraft. Jim Remar, president and chief operating officer at the Cosmosphere, said the discarded acrylic cover had been a less than ideal means of preserving the historic artifact. “The acrylic prevented the spacecraft from breathing. As materials deteriorate, they emit gas. The acrylic trapped the off-gassing in the spacecraft and [this] could accelerate or increase the rate of deterioration. With the removal of the acrylic, it is now able to breathe and the off-gas is exhausted out.” [4] However, Freedom 7’sjourney will not end there. In 2016 the Smithsonian plans to display it as part of a major, brand new Apollo-themed gallery that tells through dis­plays the monumental story of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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

About the author

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

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

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

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

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

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