Category Freedom 7

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]