Category Liberty Bell 7


The following month the new program had been given a name. On 3 January 1962 NASA announced the two-man spacecraft would be called Gemini, the Latin word for “twins.” This followed a suggestion by Alex P. Nagy from NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight at the agency’s Washington Headquarters, who not only had the distinc­tion of naming the nation’s new space program but also of receiving the associated prize of a bottle of scotch whiskey. Appropriately enough, Gemini was the name given to the third constellation of the zodiac (the sign in astrology that is controlled by Mercury) and comprised of two stars called Castor and Pollux. The Gemini spacecraft


Dr. Robert Gilruth of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. (Photo: NASA)


In preparation for future Apollo lunar missions, all eligible astronauts including Gus Grissom underwent geology training, and he is shown here in the Grand Canyon in 1964. (Photo: NASA)


Part of the fun of astronaut geology training in the Grand Canyon was riding out on mules. (Photo: NASA)

was the same high-drag shape as the Mercury capsule, but with around 50 percent greater interior room.

The first test flight (GLV-1) of a Gemini spacecraft atop a Titan II took place on 8 April 1964, using Launch Complex 19 at Cape Canaveral, and it was a complete suc­cess. The second stage of the Titan II and the attached, uninhabited spacecraft orbited the Earth 64 times, although the official part of the mission ended after only three orbits. As there were no plans to retrieve the spacecraft, the entire assembly of the spacecraft and the upper stage of the booster reentered the atmosphere four days later and burned up over the South Atlantic. All the major mission objectives had been met, principally that of testing the structural integrity of the spacecraft and the modified Titan II booster and proving that the spacecraft was capable of carrying a crew.


Liftoff of the first Gemini-Titan II flight (GLV-1) on 8 April 1964. (Photo: NASA)

As history records, Alan Shepard was actually the original choice to command the first Gemini orbital test flight with co-pilot Tom Stafford, but to his consternation he fell victim to a debilitating inner ear ailment (later diagnosed as Meniere’s disease) which caused him to be medically disqualified from flying in October 1963.

Early in 1964 Missiles and Rockets magazine made a surprise claim. “There are unconfirmed reports that the first Gemini astronaut team will be made up of Virgil (‘Gus’) Grissom and Neal [sic] Armstrong. Grissom is the member of the original Mercury astronaut team who has worked most closely with McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in design and development of the spacecraft. Armstrong has chalked up many flight hours during the X-15 program. Official announcement of the first pilot team is expected around May 1.”2

Grissom had been penciled in to command the fourth manned Gemini flight and the grounding of Shepard caused Deke Slayton (who had himself been grounded before he could make a Mercury flight and, as the newly named deputy director of Flight Crew Operations, was in charge of crew assignments) to promote Gus to the first manned mission, the three-orbit test flight designated Gemini 3. Now a suitable co­pilot was needed to partner him, and Slayton wanted to give flight experience to the nine newly selected astronauts. He subsequently paired them in the first Gemini flights with an experienced astronaut from the Mercury program.

At first the Gemini 3 mission was scheduled for launch in December 1964. Air Force Capt. Frank Borman had recently finished his astronaut training and, like the other eight pilots of the second astronaut group, was wondering when he might be assigned to a Gemini mission and which one it would be. Everyone knew that the Mercury astronauts who would fly as mission commanders on Gemini would have the power to veto any decision that Slayton might make regarding their co-pilot in order to avoid any potential clashes of personality.

It came as an unexpected but welcome surprise when Borman received a phone call one day from Grissom, who told him (although it was yet to be made official) that he, Grissom, had been named by Slayton to command the first manned Gemini mission and Borman had been tentatively assigned as his co-pilot. Grissom wanted to talk over the mission and its requirements before the final crewing decision was made. The two men arranged to meet at his house, and Borman could not get there soon enough. They spent an hour or so deep in conversation and not long after that Borman was informed of a change of crewing that meant Grissom would fly with another member of the Group 2 astronauts.

“I haven’t the slightest idea what went wrong,” Borman later pointed out in his autobiography, “but he apparently wasn’t too impressed with me. The next thing I knew, I had been replaced by John Young, who didn’t try very hard to conceal his delight, for which I couldn’t blame him.”3

To soften Borman’s disappointment at the news, Slayton told him that he would instead be assigned as backup commander of the second mission, with co-pilot Jim Lovell.


USAF Capt. Frank Borman, Group 2 astronaut. (Photo: NASA)


“We are building and designing the capsules at the same time,” Edward (‘Bud’) Flesh commented at the time. Flesh was the McDonnell engineer in charge of the project. “The design is not complete until we turn out a capsule, and each capsule will be slightly different from the one before, depending on whether it will be a test model or will carry an animal or an astronaut.”21

The capsules were assembled in rooms that could have rivaled hospital wards for clean­liness. Technicians and engineers wore white clothing made of dust-free nylon, and shoes of white nylon. The rooms, also white, were air-filtered and temperature-controlled.


McDonnell technicians working on a Mercury capsule, 1960. (Photo: NASA)

Psychologists, physiologists and engineers were all taking part in the design process, according to Fred Willis, one of the project engineers. “It would be silly, for example, to put a red warning light more than 50 degrees to the left or right of the man’s line of sight. Only the cones of our eyes see color, and the cones are not there for peripheral vision. A red light at the edge of our vision would not be recognized instantly as a danger signal. Maybe it seems a small point, but attention to detail like this makes the space ship as safe as a living room.”

One sticking point in the development of the first Mercury capsules was the subject of fitting viewing windows. Bud Flesh said it was a design problem that they had over­come. “As pilots, the astronauts are used to having a windshield,” he pointed out, “and even though it is probably more a psychological than a physical matter, we of course gave it to them.”22

Max Faget agreed on the subject of a viewing window – it was one of the design changes that had been unanimously demanded by the astronauts. “Oh, there was a big beef about that,” Faget told interviewer Jim Slade. “We had two little portholes about that big around; six-inch round quartz windows, one down here and one over here, and it wasn’t very good. And another thing we had is, in order to navigate, we had essentially – it was like a periscope, only actually it was optics to show them a virtual image here of the ground passing underneath them. We thought that was very important, that they see the ground so they could line it up with a reticule in there to make sure the vehicle wasn’t yawed. If they could see a piece of ground going right down along the center line, well they knew that they were headed right so when they fired the retro[rocket] off, they would be properly aligned. Actually, the [attitude] could be misaligned some fifteen or twenty degrees and it wouldn’t make that much difference. It would move the landing point further down range, but that’s about all. We had more than enough capacity [to retrieve the capsule]”.23


Astronaut John Glenn shows his wife Annie a replica of the Mercury spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)


The U. S. Navy human centrifuge at Johnsville, Pennsylvania. The radius of the arm is 50 feet and the gimbal at the end of the arm changes positions as the centrifuge arm turns, by com­puter or by manual pilot control in the gondola at the end of the arm. The gondola and astro­naut may be pressurized or depressurized for altitude as the accelerations are provided. (Photo: U. S. Navy)

All seven astronauts visited the McDonnell plant in May 1959, where each man was assigned an appropriate systems engineer to provide individual presentations on the status of the different systems – their own particular part in them – and acquaint them with the people at McDonnell and the plant’s layout. After that they visited the Cape Canaveral launch site and trained at a number of military and medical facilities in accordance with the training program prepared for them by the STG. That August, for example, they were involved in human centrifuge tests at the Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, Pennsylvania, learning to cope with excessive g-forces and the accelerations associated with their flights into space and back. They were unanimous that the centrifuge, which they referred to as “The Wheel,” was the hardest part of their training to that time.

As Alan Shepard explained, “This thing – the centrifuge – puts you in what pilots call the ‘eyeballs-out’ position. It is like an oversize cream separator that flings you around the room, that sort of thing. If you fight it, it’s murder. You can easily black out and remain unconscious. When I come off that monster at Johnsville, every bone in my body aches.”

Scott Carpenter agreed with Shepard. “It’s important to master these g-forces because we fully expect to be operating the capsule controls during part of the flight. So far, we have all shown this capability under 9 Gs. But that’s assuming everything goes according to plan. If it doesn’t… well, let’s not talk about that.”

“Just say it is a real personal challenge,” added Shepard.24

In September the Mercury astronauts returned to the McDonnell plant to check on progress with the spacecraft that they hoped they would soon fly. As Luge Luetjen recalls, “During this and subsequent visits, we developed lasting first-name friend­ships and a mutual respect for each other’s role in the ‘great adventure.’ Their sugges­tions and recommendations throughout the program were timely, well thought out, and were of great help in the design, construction, and testing of the machine.”25


When asked how it was communicated to him onboard the Randolph that the MR-4 launch had taken place, Jim Lewis vividly recalled the facts.

“My log book shows that we flew two missions that day,” he stated, “the first being a checkout flight of just over a half hour. As I recall, our plan was to lift off the carrier at the same time the booster lifted off from Cape Canaveral. We were waiting in the cockpit with engines running and received word that the launch occurred via ship-to – aircraft radio. All that remained was to engage rotors and take off once clearance was granted from flight control.

“Once MR-4 had lifted off, we had about fifteen minutes to get there and begin recovery operations, and I believe the carrier was standing about five miles off the impact area. We flew at about ninety knots, so getting into the primary recovery area quickly was no problem.

“I was initially occupied with observing the sky above, searching for the Liberty Bell 7 parachute. Beyond that, I was intent on executing the mission procedures and plan. I finally saw the spacecraft on its chutes. I couldn’t say what altitude, but it wasn’t very high.” 3

With Liberty Bell 7 now heading towards an ocean splashdown, gently swinging and slowly rotating beneath its main parachute, Grissom heard from the crew of the radio relay airplane call-signed Card File 23.

“We are heading directly toward you,” the pilot announced, as he observed the bell­shaped spacecraft floating downwards past 3,000 feet. At this time, Jim Lewis aboard rescue helicopter Hunt Club 1 also established radio communications with Grissom, letting him know that he was positioned about two miles southwest of the projected splashdown site.

As Grissom prepared for splashdown, the protective heat shield at the base of the capsule detached on schedule with an audible “clunk” and dropped about three feet below the spacecraft. This action in the landing sequence also revealed the attached perforated landing bag, which would absorb much of the shock of impact when the spacecraft smacked down on the water. Following splashdown, the bag’s next job was to help stabilize the craft by filling up with seawater. It would then act like a sea anchor, to keep the spacecraft upright until it could be hauled out of the water by the recovery helicopter. Salt water would then drain out through air holes in the skirt of the bag.

In the Mercury Control Center, Flight Director Chris Kraft was wary of proclaim­ing the space flight a success, but as he later wrote he was entirely pleased with the way the MR-4 mission had gone. “Grissom was good,” he observed. “He handled the maneuvers to perfection, using the three systems of automatic, manual, and rate com­mand, a combination of the two.

“His Earth observations were cogent, and his call-outs during reentry were on time and worry-free. Then he splashed down.

“The radio link between the low-flying aircraft, the helicopters, and mission con­trol was touchy. We only heard part of it. Gus was down and safe… Then next we heard excited voices, too garbled to understand clearly.”4


Curt Newport’s team set sail on a two-week voyage on Monday, 19 April 1999. This time the Discovery Channel was paying for the entire expedition as well as filming the venture for a documentary to be broadcast in the fall. Everyone was hoping for a suc­cessful conclusion. The ship, the MV Needham Tide, was equipped with the very lat­est in side-scan sonar unit, although in reality the ship was barely suitable for a sonar search because of its propulsion system; it didn’t even have variable pitch propellers. The only way they could operate it sufficiently slowly to tow at 1.5 knots was to put one screw ahead and one astern, which they did for a whole week.

“We have a pretty good idea where to look for it,” Newport said prior to sailing. “To say I’m cautiously optimistic is probably the right term … this is a full-fledged, dedi­cated mission to go out and locate and recover this thing. We have a lot more time, we have a better sonar, we can examine a much larger area of the ocean at one time. Consequently, our chances are better. Outside of Challenger, this is the only one we haven’t gotten back. It’s the right thing to do. It’s patriotic. It was one of ours.”13


The Ocean Explorer 6000 side-scan sonar which was dragged over the bottom of the Atlantic in the target area and identified 88 sonar contacts. (Photo courtesy of Curt Newport)


Curt Newport (left) reviews the 88 target sheets generated by the sonar search for likely contacts. (Photo: Discovery Channel, courtesy of Curt Newport)

Misfortunate quickly set in when the side-scan sonar broke down, but once fixed it identified 88 possible targets scattered across the 24 square mile area that Newport had pinpointed based on 14 years of studying NASA charts and interviewing people who were there when Liberty Bell 7 went down, such as helicopter pilot Jim Lewis.


Launching the Magellan 725 ROV. (Photo courtesy of Curt Newport)

On Saturday evening, 1 May, on Day 14 of the expedition, something bizarre hap­pened. At 7:20 p. m., on the very first attempt and to everyone’s amazement, a vaguely familiar shape – a veritable ghostly apparition – emerged from the murky terrain as they stared at the video screen. Newport would not allow himself to get carried away; his first reaction was that it might be more large pieces of aircraft wreckage. After all, Target #71 was the very first object the Magellan Rover had closed in on. But as it drew nearer there was no mistaking the bell-shaped object with its rough exterior; it was the Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7. Everyone, and especially Newport, was stunned at hitting the target first time.

“Everyone said that we simply got lucky. But it was not luck that we were looking in that area. Target 71 was one of a cluster of five hard contacts centered near my wind-corrected GBI FPS-16 radar location. That target was the first we looked at because it made sense from the operational standpoint, that is, from the positioning and navigational standpoints. In reality, the first target we found was a trail of LB7’s decomposed heat shield, which was scattered down a small rise from the capsule. We had no idea what we were looking at. I thought that it was aircraft debris. The next thing I knew, we were seeing this tall thing in the darkness up the hill.”14

From what they could see, the spacecraft appeared to be intact and the words Liberty Bell 7 could be clearly discerned on the side of the craft. And so could the false, painted crack. As Newport later pointed out, the spacecraft could easily have been obscured from the sonar and they might not have seen it in the gloom. Good fortune was certainly riding with them that day since it was a very small object in a massive area of ocean floor. “What we did find was something in water half a mile deeper than the Titanic and it’s smaller than one of the Titanic’s boilers.”15

Sadly, the team’s elation would not last long. At four minutes to midnight the cable to the remotely operated Magellan 725 ROV snapped in the rough seas and the rover


After five hours probing the depths, the Magellan ROV located some mysterious glistening chunks of white material Newport described as “space age bread crumbs” which led the team to Liberty Bell 7. (Discovery Channel image courtesy of Curt Newport)


The first ghostly images of Liberty Bell 7 captured in Magellan’s powerful lights. (Discovery Channel image courtesy of Curt Newport)

was lost, sinking to the sea floor 15,800 feet below the Needham Tide. It meant the team would have to abandon the operation and return to Port Canaveral to replace the rover, which would set them back a few weeks. But now they knew precisely where the capsule was. Despite the loss of an expensive ROV, Newport maintained a sense of optimism in a call he made from the ship. “It looks to be in beautiful condition,” he reported of the spacecraft, “and certainly capable of being recovered.”

The lost ROV would not remain on the ocean floor for long. “The Magellan 725 was later recovered about a week after we returned to the Cape with the capsule. I personally believe that Oceaneering would’ve left it there except for the expensive camera we had leased from WHOI. Woods Hole wanted that camera back, which was the same one we’d used to image the Titanic the previous year. They left the depressor and several thousand feet of armored optical fiber cable on the bottom simply by cut­ting the soft tether and lifting the ROV.”16

It would take Oceaneering International five weeks to construct another ROV, this time named Ocean Discovery. The expedition team sailed again on 4 July on a differ­ent ship, the Ocean Project. They stopped briefly at Fort Lauderdale to pick up a few people, including Jim Lewis, the helicopter pilot who had unsuccessfully attempted to rescue the sinking capsule in 1961, and Guenter Wendt, McDonnell’s former launch pad leader. Two bomb experts from UXB International were also on board to deacti­vate the explosive SOFAR navigation device which had apparently failed to detonate when the spacecraft sank.


Following his graduation from Test Pilot School, Grissom, now bearing the rank of captain, returned to Wright-Patterson AFB in May 1957 as a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch.


An exultant Grissom after completing his 100th combat mission during the Korean war. (Photo: World Book Science Service)

One day in 1958, an adjutant handed Capt. Grissom an official teletype message marked “Top Secret,” instructing him to report to an address in Washington, D. C., and to wear civilian clothing. There were no other details, but he knew there was a challenge in there somewhere. As it turned out, he was one of 110 carefully selected candidates who had met the general qualifications for astronaut training. They would undergo initial briefings and medical screening in the quest to find America’s first astronauts for NASA.

After attending the briefing, in which the attendees were given information about Project Mercury, they were offered a crucial choice. If they decided to volunteer for the chance to become what NASA referred to as an “astronaut”, they would move onto the next phase of the selection process. If not, then they could return without prejudice to their present service. Some turned down the chance to be involved


Gus Grissom at the U. S. Air Force Test Pilot School, California. (Photo: U. S. Air Force)

in this new venture. There were too many unknowns and they preferred to continue with the work they were already involved in. Grissom now had to think seriously about his own future.

“It was a big decision for me to make. I figured that I had one of the best jobs in the Air Force, and I was working with fine people. I was stationed at the flight test center at Wright-Patterson, and I was flying a wide range of airplanes and giving them a lot of different tests. It was a job that I thoroughly enjoyed. A lot of people, including me, thought the [Mercury] project sounded a little too much like a stunt than a serious research program. It looked, from a distance, as if the man they were searching for was only going to be a passenger. I didn’t want to be just that. I liked flying too much. The more I learned about Project Mercury, however, the more I felt I might be able to help and I figured that I had enough flying experience to handle myself on any kind of shoot-the-chute they wanted to put me on. In fact, I knew darn well I could.”7

Afterwards, when he told Betty about Project Mercury and the chance that was being presented to him, she said that he would have her full support in whatever he decided to do. After a lot of thought, Grissom decided to volunteer, following which he was subjected to intense physical and psychological testing through early 1959. At one stage he came close to being disqualified when doctors discovered that he suffered from hay fever, and he had to convince them that it would not bother him in space. He argued that he would be sealed in a pressurized spacecraft, with no pollen present. It must have been a close call, as there was a tremendous emphasis on physical fitness. With his usual determination he won his case.

On Thursday evening, 2 April 1959, Gus Grissom received the phone call that would change his life forever. On the other end of the line was NASA’s assistant man­ager for the project, Charles Donlan, who officially informed him that he had been selected as one of the space agency’s seven Mercury astronauts.

“After I had made the grade, I would lie in bed once in a while at night and think of the capsule and the booster and ask myself, ‘Now what in hell do you want to get up on that thing for?’ I wondered about this especially when I thought about Betty and the two boys. But I knew the answer: We all like to be respected in our fields. I hap­pened to be a career officer in the military – and, I think, a deeply patriotic one. If my country decided that I was one of the better qualified people for this new mission, then I was proud and happy to help out. I guess there was also a spirit of pioneering and adventure involved in the decision. As I told a friend of mine once who asked me why I joined Mercury, I think if I had been alive 150 years ago I might have wanted to go out and help open up the West.”8

Following the announcement of the names of the seven Mercury astronauts in Washington on 9 April 1959, they became instant celebrities – something that caught them (and NASA) completely unawares. “It happened without us doing a damn thing,” Deke Slayton later mused. “We show up for a news conference… and now we’re the bravest men in the country. Talk about crazy!”9


In a proclamation signed and dated 21 July 1961, Indiana Governor Matthew E. Welsh declared that throughout Indiana the day would be called “Gus Grissom Day.” The proclamation read: “The citizens of Indiana are justly proud of their native son, who showed the exceptional courage and technical skill required to venture into the unknown, and Capt. Grissom’s name and daring exploits are now a part of the his­tory of man’s pioneering efforts to probe into space. Capt. Grissom has thereby brought honor and renown to his home town of Mitchell, Indiana, and to the state of Indiana.”5

Only a few hours after the United States had sent its second man into space, President Kennedy signed a bill authorizing vastly expanded space projects, including a start toward sending a man to the Moon. He took note of Grissom’s flight as he put his signature to the bill, which authorized the space agency to spend $1,784,300.00 in the year ahead. The amount was every cent Kennedy had asked for.

In a brief statement, the president said it was significant that the bill was signed on the day that America’s second astronaut made his flight before the eyes of the watch­ing world and with all the hazard that this entailed.

“It is also significant that once again we have demonstrated the technological excel­lence of this country,” the President said, adding, “As our space program continues… it will continue to be this nation’s policy to use space for the advancement of all man­kind and to make free release of all scientific and technological results.”

The bill had been passed only the day before by the House and Senate.6

Creating a Mercury capsule

On Sunday, 16 July 1939, noted scientist Albert Einstein famously sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to explore nuclear weaponry and, as a result, established the United States on the road to the creation of the first atomic weapons ever used to devastating effect in a military conflict.

That very same day an industrial giant was also created when the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was founded by James Smith McDonnell. Based in St. Louis, Missouri with a startup work force of just thirteen, including McDonnell, it eventually became a leading American aerospace company best known for developing and build­ing some of the finest and most potent fighter jets ever to take to the skies, including the legendary and long-serving F4 Phantom. To those early workers, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation became more simply known to them by the acronym MAC, and its founder – understandably, and fondly – as Mr. Mac.

Many years later, when McDonnell Douglas merged with the Boeing Company, a new advertising motto was adopted: “Forever New Frontiers.” Those three words not only envisaged an exciting future in aviation, but reflected back most appropriately to the glory days of the McDonnell organization.


Three days before the planned MR-4 launch, Grissom participated in a mission dry run on Launch Pad 5. By this time he had moved out of the Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach and was staying full-time in crew quarters at Hangar S. The simulated flight involved securing the side hatch, purging the crew cabin with oxygen, and rolling the launch gantry away.

“I showed up early at Pad 5 for the simulated flight which would be the final prac­tice mission in the capsule before the launch,” he recalled. “It went fairly well, but I was kept so busy handling communications checks that I fell slightly behind in the count. All of the sequences in the countdown took place in the right order, but some of them came off a little late. Then the second of the three retro-rockets, which are programmed to fire at 5-second intervals, went off two and a half seconds early. So we had to check into that.”19


Joe Schmitt suits up Grissom for the simulated flight on 16 July. (Photo: NASA)

Apart from these problems, the test was successfully completed and everything seemed to be in order for the actual launch.

On Sunday, 16 July – a day described by Grissom as “a fairly lazy day” – he and Glenn entered the final phase of preparation for Tuesday morning’s expected space shot. For the three days before the planned launch date they both lived in the crew quarters of Hangar S, where they had a comfortable bed, a television set and radio, reading material and complete privacy. It also provided them with isolation from any possible carriers of infectious disease organisms.


Grissom relaxes in the astronauts’ crew quarters in Hangar S. (Photo: NASA)

The previous day, the two astronauts had begun a low-residue, high-energy diet to reduce the possibility of excretion and provide quick-burning reserve strength during the flight. They ate in a special ready room at the Cape, their meals being made by a personal chef whose sole duty during that time was to prepare their food. According to the astronauts’ flight surgeon Dr. William Douglas, the menu was prepared “by Miss Beatrice Finklestein of the Aeromedical Medical Laboratory, Aeronautical Systems Division, U. S. Air Force Systems Command.” As Dr. Douglas recorded, the chef prepared identical meals at each feeding; two went to the pilot and backup pilot, while several were given to other people “so that an epidemiological study can be facilitated if necessary.” An extra serving was kept in a refrigerator for 24 hours “for study in the event that the pilot develops a gastrointestinal illness during this period or subsequently.” Furthermore, no coffee was permitted during the 24-hour period pre­ceding either suborbital flight because of its tendency to inhibit sleep, and none was permitted for breakfast on launch day because of its diuretic properties.20

For Grissom and Glenn, breakfast consisted of four ounces of strained orange juice, half a cup of cooked Cream of Wheat hot cereal, two or three slices of crisp Canadian bacon, two scrambled or boiled eggs, white toast, butter and strawberry jelly. For lunch they had broiled chicken, baby-food type peas, bread without crust, cottage cheese salad, ice tea, and sugar cookies. Dinner was broiled potato without skin, baby food vegetable and sherbet.

On Sunday afternoon the two astronauts traveled to nearby Patrick AFB to begin their final preflight physical examinations, following which Grissom relaxed with a little surf casting on the beach of the Cape missile center.


The Pad 5 blockhouse at Cape Canaveral. (Photo: NASA)


A rocket stands ready to fly. (Photo: NASA)

On Monday, 17 July, NASA announced that everything – including the weather – appeared to be set for the space shot. Lt. Col. John A. (‘Shorty’) Powers of NASA’s Public Affairs Office informed newsmen, “As of this time all elements are ‘A-OK’ for this mission.” The first use of the term ‘A-OK’ was once mistakenly accredited to Alan Shepard but it was actually Powers who introduced the phrase to the public, using it during his live broadcast of Shepard’s flight. Powers was a decorated former transport pilot who flew in World War II and Korea before serving as an information officer for the Air Research Development Command. He became the public face of NASA and the Mercury program and quickly earned for himself the sobriquet “the voice of the astronauts.” He knew that NASA engineers used the ‘A-OK’ term in radio transmissions tests because the sharper sound of the letter A cut through static better than the letter O. Liking the military snap of the phrase, Powers borrowed it for his mission broadcasts.

Powers also confirmed before an audience of 200 newspaper, radio and television reporters that Grissom remained the prime pilot for the MR-4 flight, with Glenn as his backup. He added that Shepard would be CapCom for the flight, backed up by Scott Carpenter. Slayton would be at the communications post in the blockhouse, maintain­ing radio contact with Grissom in the capsule before the launch. Schirra would be Slayton’s backup for this role. Gordon Cooper would observe the launch while flying high over the Cape in an F-106 jet.

Grissom and Glenn were asked to go to bed early on the evening before launch, but only as a suggestion, not a strict recommendation. As well, and unlike Shepard, Grissom would optimize his launch morning routine by shaving and bathing before retiring. By 5:00 p. m. on Monday afternoon he was fast asleep in crew quarters. At 10:30 he was woken by Bill Douglas and informed that the launch had been called off owing to low-hanging clouds spawned by a Caribbean weather front. Grissom, whose ability to relax under pressure helped him win MR-4, accepted this news with a yawn and went back to sleep.

Fortunately the Redstone rocket had not been loaded with liquid oxygen. This meant officials could reset the shot for the same time Wednesday without having to purge out the rocket. According to a NASA spokesman, it also meant that the first seg­ment of the 12 hour-long countdown, which was completed Monday, would not have to be repeated. “It’s locked up,” the spokesman said, adding that the remaining hours of the countdown procedure would be picked up starting about 11:30 that evening.


Prior to the first manned Gemini mission, plans were accelerated for the suborbital flight of Gemini 2, which was to test the spacecraft’s heat shield and splash into the South Atlantic carrying two instrument boxes substituting for astronauts. Unlike the GLV-1 mission, this one was jinxed. In addition to a succession delays for technical reasons, it fell prey to severe weather patterns over the Cape. On 20 August 1964 a violent electric storm hit the area and a bolt of lightning struck the Titan II, which had been erected in its gantry the previous month. Many of the delicate instruments were damaged, and the vehicle had to be dismantled in order to check thousands of vital components and revalidate its systems. A second launch attempt was aborted when the rocket had to be removed from the pad again to protect it from the fierce winds of the rapidly developing Hurricane Cleo. Soon after the rocket had returned to the pad, the prospect of a battering by Hurricane Dora caused it to be removed a third time on 11 September. And then on 9 December the Titan II suffered a launch pad shutdown due to a malfunction in the booster’s hydraulic system. The mission was rescheduled for 19 January 1965. This time the launch was successful, and the spacecraft splashed down 25 miles from the recovery force. The spacecraft and heat shield were found to have performed as required, and NASA gave the go-ahead for the first manned launch.

Unlike the cramped Mercury, the Gemini spacecraft was fitted with powerful ejec­tion seats that either astronaut could activate to escape a launch pad explosion. The seats ejected with such a tremendous thrust that the astronauts hoped never to find themselves in situation where they would have to eject. Tests were carried out using mannequins, and one of the final tests occurred on 16 January with Grissom and Young looking on as ground controllers sent the firing signal to the spacecraft. In mil­liseconds, powerful solid rocket motors hurled the dummy astronauts along with their seats and parachutes through the simultaneously opened hatch exits. At least, that was the plan. Both Grissom and Young winced visibly when one of the hatches failed to open and the seated mannequin was propelled straight through it. “That would give you one hell of a headache,” the laconic Young later observed, “but a short one.”


In the event of a launch pad explosion, the Gemini spacecraft was equipped with ejection seats to blast the astronauts 800 feet from the pad. To test the ejection and parachute systems, boilerplate capsules were mounted in launch attitude on top of a high tower and the seats carrying mannequin astronauts were fired across the desert. (Photo: NASA)

The test served only to reinforce in the astronauts their mistrust of the system, and gave Grissom another reason to dislike the word “hatch.” Although a further test two weeks later worked perfectly, somewhat restoring their faith in the escape apparatus, they still hoped they would never have to use it.


Another of the problems that needed to be addressed by Langley’s Flight Research Division – prior even to the formation of the STG – had been the development of a reliable parachute system for a manned space program. Beginning in October 1958 a progressive series of air tests were carried out to assess the deployment, reliability and specifications of a number of different parachute systems.

The first air drops were conducted as a means of studying the free-fall stability of the spacecraft, parachute shock loads, and the operation of the capsule’s escape sys­tem. Initial tests were carried out by the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division at the High Speed Flight Station, Edwards AFB, California, in order to collect data on open­ing characteristics and shock loads associated with the drogue chute. Once this infor­mation had been gathered and collated, the test engineers’ attention turned to the size and performance characteristics of the main parachute. This had to be large enough so that the final impact velocity of the capsule might be kept at about 30 feet per second.


A D-shape capsule features in this sequence of photographs from a beach abort launch-to parachute test on 13 April 1959. (Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center)

In order to demonstrate the adequacy of the mechanical system in deploying the drogue and main parachutes, preliminary drops were made from NASA helicopters at West Point, Virginia. These utilized concrete-filled drums attached to the operating canister system. Following these tests, a Lockheed C-130A Hercules cargo aircraft was supplied by the Tactical Air Command for the continuation of tests, now involv­ing both high – altitude and low-altitude drops.

Initially, low-level drops were carried out in the vicinity of Pope AFB, near Fort Bragg in North Carolina, to perfect the best means of extracting a full-scale capsule equipped with operating parachute systems from the open tail ramp of the C-130. Once these had been completed, the research and development program moved on to Wallops Island, Virginia, where further drops were carried out under the auspices of Langley’s Flight Research Division. The advanced tests were planned to study the stability of the Mercury capsule both during free flight and with parachute support, shock input into the capsule by the parachute, and retrieval operations. Four drops were completed from altitudes ranging up to 23,000 feet, with parachute openings at up to 15,000 feet. These successful tests demonstrated that with properly designed equipment, there was no impediment to recovery helicopters being utilized in the retrieval operation.

Subsequent air drop tests were completed at various altitudes to investigate the stability of the capsule using a 6-foot FIST (Flugtechnisches Institut Stuttgart) Ribbon drogue parachute in combination with a 67-foot extended skirt main chute. These indicated that a different type of main chute would offer greater reliability. Ring-sail parachutes were substituted, and the drop-test program continued. The results of these tests concluded that a ring-sail parachute would have the desired reliability.

Six succeeding drops using a 6-foot FIST drogue and the 63-foot ring-sail main canopy were all successful. It was decided that this parachute combination worked best and could be used throughout the Mercury program.


This blurred, long-distance image taken from film footage of a drop test shows a Mercury boilerplate being jettisoned from a C-130 airplane. (Image: NASA)


Alan Shepard demonstrates what an incredibly tight and difficult squeeze it was for an astro­naut to egress through the top of a Mercury capsule in his space suit. (Photo: NASA)

As Max Faget explained, “What happened was, the upper part of that capsule held the parachutes. There were two parachutes, the main parachute and the backup, which were identical – completely identical. Even the systems were all identical. They had their own drogue parachutes and pilot parachutes and everything else, but we never had to use the backup system. And there was a hatch up in front, up at the top. If you were sitting in the capsule on the pad – of course, it’s a cone around you like that – right up there would be this hatch, and that was nothing but a dish that was held in place, more or less, by the pressure, although it had a few latches, an inwardly opening door, which made it very light, and, of course, it was dish-shaped, so that it was just about as light as you could make it.

“So when the thing got on the water and [was] floating upright, you could unfasten this dish and push the containers for the parachute, just push them out; they’d fall overboard, and you could get out…. Well, the astronauts did not like the idea of being trapped in this thing, so they complained about it, and we put this explosive bolt device on the side there, which had to be [powered] on and then fired.

“The hatch that they went into was fastened with something like about fifty or sixty small bolts, so it really wasn’t a hatch, it was just a covering. So they were essentially sealed in the capsule.”26


John Glenn demonstrates the egress technique in a test tank. (Photo: NASA)

In fact, as revealed in NASA’s configuration specifications to McDonnell for the Mercury capsule, there were actually 70 bolts in the emergency egress hatch:

3.5.3 ENTRANCE AND EMERGENCY EGRESS HATCH – The entrance and emergency egress hatch, in accordance with Drawing No. 45-35003, located in the capsule conical section, shall be trapezoidal in shape as dictated by the cap­sule configuration. The hatch assembly shall be of a construction similar to the basic capsule structure, designed to permit entry into, and emergency egress from, the capsule. An explosive assembly, in accordance with Drawing No. 45-35701, shall be incorporated in the hatch assembly to serve as a means, when ignited, of breaking the seventy (70) hatch attachment bolts. The explosive assembly shall be mounted about the hatch perimeter and shall consist of a gas­ket type sill containing a continuous single strand of explosive charge to effect severance of the attachment bolts. The strand shall be ignited from both ends simultaneously to provide redundancy. A push-button initiator, located on the hatch interior to the astronaut’s upper right, shall, after removal of a safety cap and pin, ignite the explosive charge when pushed by the astronaut. A pull initia­tor assembly shall be provided for ground rescue utilization on the exterior of the hatch beneath the shingles. Function of the pull initiator assembly shall be the same as for the astronaut-actuated initiator. The hatch assembly shall be secured to the capsule structure by two wire springs, in accordance with Drawing No. 45-35058. These springs shall absorb the energy expended by the explosive charge and serve to prevent injury to personnel working in the hatch area during recovery operations.27






Diagram of the MR-4 hatch. (Illustration: NASA)