Category Escaping the Bonds of Earth


The situation within Mission Control, Deke Slayton recounted, was far from fine. Slayton had been stationed throughout Aurora 7’s flight at the capcom’s mike at the Muchea tracking site in Australia, which he described as ‘‘a good place to be, all things considered’’. Flight Director Chris Kraft and many other mission controllers were furious, accusing Carpenter of having recklessly endangered himself during a botched re-entry. Their anger was exacerbated when, aboard the recovery ship, the astronaut off-handedly remarked that ‘‘I didn’t know where I was… and they didn’t know where I was, either’’. Retrofire controller John Llewelyn is said to have retorted: ‘‘Bullshit! That son-of-a-bitch is damned lucky to be alive!’’

Kraft, apparently, was considerably more caustic. In his autobiography, he wrote of Carpenter’s ‘‘cavalier dismissal of a life-threatening problem’’ – the failure of the spacecraft’s navigational instruments – and troublesome re-entry and swore that the astronaut would never fly again. Carpenter was never assigned another mission, not even in a backup role. After a month-long tour in the Navy’s Sealab-II underwater habitat, off the coast of La Jolla, California, he would resign from NASA early in 1967. Some have seen Carpenter’s mistakes and omissions and his forgetting to do certain critical tasks as evidence that the early Mercury flights were simply too overloaded with experiments and manoeuvres and, further, that Mission Control was at least partly to blame for failing to identify the pitch horizon scanner malfunction for what it was. Tom Wolfe, for his part, later wrote that any speculation that Carpenter had panicked made no sense “in light of the telemetred data concerning his heart rate and his respiratory rate”.

Psychologist Bob Voas weighed in with his own judgement: “The astronaut’s eye on the horizon was the only adequate check of the automated gyro system,’’ he told Carpenter and Kris Stoever. “With its malfunctioning gyros, the spacecraft could not have maintained adequate control during retrofire. Mercury Control may have viewed the manually controlled re-entry as sloppy, but the spacecraft came back in one piece and the world accepted the flight for what it was: another success.’’

Aurora 7, though harrowing, was certainly viewed as a success by Carpenter’s family and hundreds of thousands of residents of his home state, Colorado. In Denver, a 300,000-strong crowd cheered the nation’s newest astronaut son in their own ticker-tape parade. The city of Boulder declared 29 May as ‘Scott Carpenter Day’, sponsored its biggest-ever celebration and the University of Colorado named the astronaut its most accomplished graduate. Years earlier, Carpenter’s own father, a research chemist, had achieved the same accolade from the same institution. In the case of the younger Carpenter, however, it also came with the formal conferring of his engineering degree, which he completed in 1949, save for a final examination in thermodynamics. The university granted the degree on the grounds that his “subsequent training as an astronaut has more than made up for the deficiency in the subject of heat transfer’’.

Carpenter’s flight brought Project Mercury to another crossroads. In August 1961, the question had been whether to eliminate further Redstone missions in favour of moving towards the Atlas. Now, nine months later, discussion within NASA centred on whether enough had been learned from the three-orbit flights of Friendship 7 and Aurora 7 to justify a still-longer venture. Speaking before the Exchange Club in Hampton, Virginia, NASA engineer Joe Dodson pointed out that the lessons derived from Glenn and Carpenter were pleasing and speculation arose that a day-long mission, to rival that of Gherman Titov in Vostok 2, could be attempted as early as 1963. Indeed, many congressional observers supported a flight to surpass Titov. The debate ended on 27 June, barely five weeks after Carpenter’s re-entry, when NASA Headquarters announced that Wally Schirra would fly Mercury-Atlas 8, possibly as early as September, and attempt up to six circuits of the globe.

Perhaps in reference to the same engineering influence with which Slayton’s Delta 7 had been named, Schirra chose to call his capsule ‘Sigma 7’. ‘‘Sigma, a Greek symbol for the sum of the element of an equation,’’ wrote Schirra in his 1988 autobiography, ‘‘stands for engineering excellence. That was my goal – engineering excellence. I would not settle for less.’’ Nor, indeed, would the ground team, who prepared Sigma 7 for launch with such tenacity and engineering precision. . . and even humorously placed a car key on the capsule’s control stick and stowed a carefully-wrapped steak sandwich in Schirra’s ditty bag. The astronaut sought to honour them, too, during his mission. ‘‘All these little things do really help to make you realise that there are a lot of other people interested in what you’re doing,” he said later. “We know this inherently, but these visible examples of it do mean a lot.’’ The mission would double the number of orbits achieved by Glenn and Carpenter, lasting around nine hours, and as a consequence the Sigma 7 capsule required 20 modifications to provide more consumables. “I think probably the best part of my Mercury mission,’’ Schirra wrote later, “was naming it Sigma 7. Naming it the sum of engineering effort, I wanted to prove that it was a team of people working together to make this vehicle go. That’s why I talk so wildly about knowing the engineers, how they were brothers and buddies… and all of them were! That’s what I saw as the ultimate on that mission, was that [it was] an engineering test flight, where we weren’t going to look around for fireflies. We weren’t going to look for the lights of Perth. We weren’t going to give prayers to the peasants below. We were going to make this thing work like a vehicle!’’


The vehicle which Grissom and Young would fly, and which would demonstrate many of the techniques needed for missions to the Moon, represented a stopgap effort to bridge the gulf between Projects Mercury and Apollo. On 7 December 1961, Bob Gilruth announced in Houston the approval of a $530 million project to use a large Mercury capsule for a series of two-man flights, launched atop the Air Force’s Titan II rocket, to practice rendezvous and spacewalking. It was originally dubbed ‘Mercury Mark II’ or ‘Advanced Mercury’, but the project name ‘Gemini’, with its nod toward ‘the twins’ of classical Greek lore, was suggested by Alex Nagy of NASA Headquarters. Nagy won a bottle of scotch for his trouble and the name was officially announced on 3 January 1962.

Until that time, Project Mercury remained the United States’ only approved manned spacecraft, although plans were afoot to develop it further, and two concepts in particular emerged: one for a temporary orbital station, housing two or more men for several weeks or months, and another for a manoeuvrable vehicle with sufficient aerodynamic ‘lift’ to adjust its flight in the atmosphere. In its 1960 budget request to Congress, NASA asked for $300,000 to study ways of transforming Mercury into a long-duration laboratory, a million dollars to explore methods of making it manoeuvrable and a further three million to investigate rendezvous techniques. ‘‘These modest sums,’’ wrote Barton Hacker and James Grimwood in their 1977 tome ‘On the Shoulders of Titans’, ‘‘signalled no great commitment. When NASA ran into budget problems, this effort was simply shelved and the money diverted to more pressing needs.’’

Still, the Space Task Group was interested in novel ways of controlling the landing of manned capsules and their attention was drawn to a technique devised by NACA engineer Francis Rogallo more than a decade earlier. He had worked on a flexible ‘kite’, with a lifting surface draped from an inflated fabric frame, which had the effect of producing more lift than drag; not as much, admittedly, as a conventional rigid wing, but it had the benefit of being foldable and lightweight. Early in 1959, Rogallo explained his concept to Gilruth, who was sufficiently impressed to implement further study of a follow-on, manoeuvrable Mercury spacecraft which could touch down precisely on land, thereby saving the cost of a naval recovery force. Other suggestions included a two-man Mercury capable of remaining aloft for three days, the addition of a 3 m cylinder at the back of the capsule to support two-week missions or even installing cabling to link the spacecraft to the booster, rotating them and providing experimental artificial gravity.

Unfortunately, with initial steps to develop Project Apollo, plans for advanced Mercury capsules were turned down by NASA Administrator Keith Glennan’s budget analysis team in May I960. Plans at the time amounted to achieving manned suborbital flight before the year’s end and an orbital mission thereafter. These would be followed by an unmanned flight to Venus or Mars by 1962, a controlled robotic landing on the Moon, an unmanned circumlunar mission around 1964 and eventually crewed space stations and circumlunar flights by 1967. Manned landings on the Moon, it was expected, would be a longer-term goal for the Seventies. Of course, this plan would change dramatically with John Kennedy’s speech to Congress in May 1961, but was limited at the time by the weight-lifting capacity of existing rockets and the widely-held assumption that lunar missions would be launched directly from Earth atop very large boosters.

The shift in climate from flying circumlunar missions to actual Moon landings began early in 1961, when George Low, head of manned spaceflight in NASA’s Office of Space Flight Programs, advocated Earth-orbit and lunar-orbit rendezvous techniques at the quarterly meeting of the Space Exploration Program Council. In February, he submitted a report to Bob Seamans, NASA’s newly-appointed associate administrator, stressing that orbital operations and large boosters would be needed, but that developing rendezvous techniques “could allow us to develop a capability for the manned lunar mission in less time than by any other means’’. By the end of that month, NASA Headquarters had taken greater notice and the possibilities of orbital rendezvous assumed centre stage in congressional hearings for the agency’s budget. The House Committee on Science and Astronautics also expressed an interest, scheduling a special hearing on the subject for May and recommending that NASA be awarded the full $8 million it had requested for rendezvous research. The Bureau of the Budget had previously cut this rendezvous spending down to just $2 million, but the committee’s inputs eventually led to NASA getting the funding it needed.

Elsewhere, Jim Chamberlin, an aeronautical engineer working for Toronto-based AVRO Aircraft Inc., joined the Space Task Group and was assigned by Bob Gilruth to oversee the development of an advanced Mercury capsule. Chamberlin seized the opportunity to effectively design a completely new spacecraft, retaining only the proven aerodynamic bell-like shape. In March 1961, at a weekend retreat in Wallops Island, Virginia, he described his plans to Gilruth and NASA’s head of spaceflight programs, Abe Silverstein, sketching out an ambitious machine with its equipment located outside the crew compartment in a self-contained module that would be far easier to install and test. One of Chamberlin’s suggestions was that the advanced

Mercury could be enlisted for circumlunar missions. Although Silverstein dismissed this lunar possibility, he and Gilruth expressed interest in the design itself and on 14 April the Space Task Group and McDonnell signed an amendment to the original Mercury contract, which provided for the procurement of long-lead-time items for six additional capsules. These items would then be used in support of what was now being dubbed ‘Mercury Mark II’.

McDonnell’s early efforts involved making no alterations to the shape of the spacecraft or its thermal protection system, but simply moving retrorockets and recovery equipment into modular subassemblies and, in Chamberlin’s words, creating ‘‘a more reliable, more workable, more practical capsule’’. It would transform, effectively, from an experimental machine into an operational one. By June 1961, when Chamberlin revealed his Mercury Mark II design, some members of the Space Task Group were taken aback: not only did it fulfil the key requirements of extending the spacecraft’s orbital lifetime and making it easier to test, but it essentially involved the repackaging and relocation of virtually every subsystem. This was needed, Chamberlin reasoned, because most of Mercury’s components were inside the cabin, meaning that equipment had to be disturbed in order to reach and fix one malfunctioning device. As it stood, Mercury could do its job, but was far from being a convenient and serviceable spacecraft. Chamberlin’s design allowed for any malfunctioning unit to be removed and tended, without the need to tamper with anything else. ‘‘If one system goes haywire,’’ said Gus Grissom, ‘‘you take it out and plug in a new one.’’

It also tackled the problem of Mercury’s sequencing system, in which many of its operations were automated for safety, by relying for the first time on pilot control; this, too, contributed to a far simpler machine. Chamberlin also advocated the inclusion of an ejection seat and eliminated the need for a Mercury-type escape tower, which he felt contributed hundreds of kilograms of weight to the capsule and argued that its extreme complexity made it inherently dangerous. Moreover, Mercury abort modes were automated, which could terminate a mission in some circumstances where such action may not be necessary. Flying an advanced Mercury with an ejection seat eliminated the option of using the Atlas – the seat could not push the pilots to safety quickly enough in the event that the rocket’s volatile liquid oxygen and RP-1 hydrocarbon mixture exploded. In its stead, Chamberlin suggested the Titan II, which the Martin Company had been developing for the Air Force as an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Martin had already proposed the Titan II as a candidate for lunar missions and, although both Seamans and Silverstein doubted its usefulness, they were sufficiently interested to ask Gilruth to explore ways in which it could be used for other manned projects. Two and a half times more powerful than the Atlas, the Titan seemed, to Chamberlin, perfect for lofting a correspondingly heavier Mercury capsule. The rocket was fed by hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine, together with an oxidiser of nitrogen tetroxide. In a catastrophic failure, an ejection seat would be able to outrun the fireball of these less-explosive chemicals. This combination of ‘hypergolics’, capable of spontaneously igniting upon contact, meant that the Titan needed no ignition system and, since they could be held at normal temperatures,


A Gemini-Titan launch. Note the absence of an escape tower; Gemini crews, aboard their conspicuous black-and-white spacecraft, relied instead upon an ejection system. Privately, many astronauts doubted its usefulness.

required no cryogenic storage or special handling facilities. Self-igniting propellants were intrinsically safer and easier to control than the violently-reactive cryogen used by the Atlas.

In any case, Chamberlin reasoned that because the Titan II was two and a half times more powerful than the Atlas, it would be possible to relax the constraints on the spacecraft’s weight. His decision to incorporate an enlarged overhead mechanical hatch in his modified Mercury, primarily as a means of emergency escape, soon expanded to fill another important requirement for lunar missions: the ability to conduct extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalking. Meanwhile, efforts to develop Francis Rogallo’s paraglider as a recovery system were gathering pace. The Space Task Group, however, which met with Rogallo and his team in the early months of 1961, felt that too much work had still to be completed before such an experimental device could be committed to a manned spacecraft. Questions were posed over its deployment characteristics, how it was to be packaged and whether the pilot’s view would be good enough to fly and land with it. They advised gathering at least six months’ worth of data before making a decision on whether or not to award actual development contracts. In May 1961, three $100,000 studies were authorised to design an effective paraglider and identify its problems.

Despite the changes to the launch vehicle, the escape system, the hatch, the packaging of components and the recovery operations, Chamberlin’s new spacecraft still resembled the bell-like Mercury capsule and, in its earliest form, was not expected to remain aloft for much longer than a day. Little interest was shown towards developing it further. Then, in July, the Space Task Group began looking at a so-called ‘Hermes Plan’, which envisaged a greatly expanded Mercury Mark II along the lines of that proposed by Chamberlin and, that same month, McDonnell’s Walter Burke outlined three possible forms of an advanced spacecraft. The first simply cut hatches in the side of the capsule to improve access to components, the second – valued at $91.3 million – adhered closely to Chamberlin’s proposal, whilst a third, $103.5 million suggestion envisaged a Mercury carrying not one pilot, but two.

This was not an entirely novel idea, having been brought to the table and quickly rejected in January 1959, but returned to the fore now that the capsule seemed likely to be extensively redesigned. ‘‘If we’re going to go to all this trouble to redesign Mercury,’’ said Max Faget, father of the spacecraft, ‘‘why not make it a multi-place spacecraft in the process?’’ In truth, Faget had already approached McDonnell several months earlier with a similar suggestion. Late in July 1961, Silverstein, Gilruth and several astronauts visited St Louis to view quarter-scale models of four basic spacecraft configurations, together with a full-size, wood-and-plastic mockup of a two-man Mercury, which Wally Schirra clambered inside. His first comment: ‘‘You finally found a place for a left-handed astronaut!’’

Humour aside, the visit proved pivotal, convincing Silverstein that Mercury should be extensively upgraded into a two-man machine. This decision was accompanied by President Kennedy’s commitment to a lunar landing before 1970, which prompted significant changes: the Space Task Group, based at the Langley Research Center in Virginia and originally devoted exclusively to Project Mercury, would be superseded by a Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), to be situated near

Houston, Texas, as part of a much wider, far more complex and infinitely more expensive effort to land a man on the Moon. Rendezvous provided a means of achieving this goal far sooner than a direct-ascent method and the growing conviction throughout the summer and autumn of 1961 that rendezvous needed to be utilised in some form would provide a framework for what would become Project Gemini.

With the approval of the new project came more emphasis on the Titan II as its launch vehicle. Even though the contract with the Air Force to build the rocket had been signed scarcely a year earlier, Martin’s James Decker proposed that NASA purchase nine Titans for a bargain price of $48 million, the first of which could be ready to fly by early 1963. Among the modifications needed to make it suitable for the Mercury Mark II were lengthened second-stage propellant tanks to increase its payload by 300 kg. Also, the risk of first-stage ‘hardover’ – a malfunction in its guidance system which could drive the gimballed engines to their extreme positions, thereby subjecting the Titan to massive dynamic overloads – could lead to the rocket breaking up before the astronauts could react. A second first-stage guidance system was added to erase this risk.

At the same time, if rendezvous was on the agenda, a rendezvous target was needed and, in August 1961, Chamberlin made his first contact with the Lockheed Missile and Space Company in Sunnyvale, California, with a view to using its highly – successful Agena-B rocket stage. Like the Titan, the Agena ran on storable hypergolics – unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine with an oxidiser of inhibiting red fuming nitric acid – and had a ‘dual-burn’ capability; in effect, it could be fired, shut down, then fired again. It also had the potential for the Mercury Mark II, after docking with it, to demonstrate advanced manoeuvres.

The growing importance of rendezvous, docking and manoeuvring was such that the new spacecraft was beginning to change into a new project in its own right and another question that it would be pressed to answer would be the effect of long-term missions on the human body. A journey across the 400,000 km gulf to the Moon and back was expected to require a flight lasting almost two weeks and Mercury Mark II might not only be able to demonstrate that such missions were survivable, but also could evaluate advanced technologies such as electricity-generating fuel cells and more stable attitude-control propellants than hydrogen peroxide. The astronauts, too, would need their own ‘modifications’, in the form of improved space suits to support longer missions.

Ten Mercury Mark II flights, the first in March 1963 and the last in September 1964, would be launched every two months to fly men for up to seven days and animal passengers for as long as two weeks. Investigation of the Van Allen radiation belts around Earth was a second major objective and, indeed, the first flight would be an unmanned test to ensure that the Titan and Mark II were compatible and to boost the capsule to an apogee of 1,400 km. Controlled landings would be the third goal, to be accomplished on each manned mission, most likely with the aid of a paraglider, and rendezvous and docking stood fourth. Later flights would require dual launches of the Titan II and the Agena-B, such that the Mark II could rendezvous and dock. The hope was also there that, if the spacecraft achieved all of its objectives without problems, particularly the long-duration aspect, a Mark II could be launched to dock with a liquid hydrogen-fuelled Centaur stage and boosted onto a circumlunar trajectory. Some short-lived plans even envisaged a manned around-the-Moon mission as early as May 1964. Although they did not get far beyond the drawing boards, one of Chamberlin’s ideas included launching a Mark II atop a Saturn C-3 rocket and placing a manned craft on the lunar surface. Such a landing could, he suggested, be achieved late in 1966.

By the end of October 1961, however, greater emphasis had been placed on developing rendezvous techniques and flying long-duration sorties; Van Allen studies, animal flights and lunar missions were gone. There would be a dozen Mark IIs: an unmanned precursor, followed by an 18-orbit manned mission, a series of extended-duration flights of up to 14 days and, later, rendezvous and docking exercises. Two weeks after NASA formally announced its intention to proceed with Mercury Mark II, on 22 December 1961, James McDonnell signed the contract for its development, agreeing that his company would provide full-scale spacecraft mockups within six months and a mockup of the Agena-B target adaptor by October 1962. By the following March, read the provisions of the contract, McDonnell would supply the first flightworthy spacecraft, with others to follow at 60-day intervals until 12 had been delivered. In effect, this contract replaced the earlier one to procure long-lead-time items for extra Mercury capsules.

It was shortly after the awarding of the main contract that McDonnell began to subcontract out several systems which would prove instrumental in demonstrating the capabilities of the new spacecraft, by now known as ‘Gemini’. One of these was the Orbit Attitude and Manoeuvring System (OAMS), which not only allowed the astronauts to ‘steer’ their spacecraft, but also helped them to station-keep and push away from the second stage of the Titan II. It comprised 16 small engines, fed by hypergolic mixtures of monomethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. Each engine was mounted in a fixed position and ran at a fixed thrust level. Eight of them were rated at 11 kg of thrust and provided attitude control. These fired in pairs, permitting the Gemini to roll, pitch and yaw. The remaining eight were ‘translational’ thrusters, each capable of 45 kg of thrust, and were oriented in pairs to fire forward, backward, up/down and left/right. This would form the ‘manoeuvring’ component of the system, although the thrust level of the two forward-firing engines was reduced to 38 kg in July 1962. The re-entry controls, developed by the same subcontractor, North American Aviation’s Rocketdyne Division of Canoga Park, California, consisted of two independent rings of eight 11 kg thrusters located in the nose of the Gemini, forward of the crew cabin. After the main manoeuvring system had effected retrofire, either ring could control the attitude of the spacecraft during re-entry. By the end of May, all major subcontractors had been selected to begin work.

Meanwhile, efforts to secure the Titan II and Agena required Bob Seamans and Assistant Secretary of Defense John Rubel to agree that the Air Force would act in the capacity of a contractor to NASA, whilst at the same time allowing the former ‘‘to acquire useful design, development and operational experience”. The Los Angeles-based Space Systems Division of the Air Force Systems Command would handle the development of the Titan and Agena for Mark II operations and, early in January 1962, NASA issued formal instructions for work on the rockets to begin. Adapting the Titan to handle the spacecraft proved more complex than originally expected, since it required new or modified systems to ensure the astronauts’ safety during the countdown and ascent. By the beginning of March, Lockheed had also started work on the development of a more advanced Agena-D, with an engine capable of being fired more than twice, which would be boosted into orbit atop an Atlas. Unlike the Agena-B, this new version boasted a radar transponder, a forward docking adaptor and an improved attitude-control system. At this time, the first – unmanned – launch of Gemini had slipped from May to August 1963, although the three inaugural flights would be spaced out at just six-week intervals.

Elsewhere, the contract for the paraglider, intended to guide Gemini to a touchdown on land, was awarded to North American on 20 November 1961, but its real future seemed less assured. Chamberlin had defended it vigorously, but Max Faget’s engineering directorate within the newly-established MSC in Houston was cool to the idea, considering its reliability as lower than having main and backup parachutes. Faget instead advocated a steerable parachute, together with landing rockets to cushion the touchdown. Others, including Chris Kraft, felt that neither the paraglider nor the ejection seats were reliable and posed enormous practical obstacles to safety. The paraglider was not aided by North American’s slow progress on its development, which had been unavoidable as Gemini grew from little more than a modified Mercury into an entirely new – and bigger – spacecraft. North American planned free flights of a half-size paraglider for May 1962, although this was delayed because backup parachutes were needed to avoid losing the costly test vehicle. Initial plans called for the first unmanned Gemini to land with ordinary parachutes and the second (manned) flight to utilise the paraglider, although by mid – June it became clear that it would not be available until the third mission. Still, a maiden launch in August 1963 did not seem unreasonable.

However, as 1962 wore on, it was apparent that project costs would be far higher than anticipated. Modification of the Titan II, for example, had climbed from $113 million to $164 million, owing to a multitude of changes to ‘man-rate’ it. These included a fully redundant malfunction-detection system, backup flight controls, an electrical network with backup circuits for guidance, engine shutdown and staging and new launch tracking hardware. Costs of developing the Agena-D similarly increased from $88 million to $106 million and the Gemini spacecraft itself ballooned from $240.5 million to $391.6 million. This cost hike came as a huge surprise, yet it encompassed McDonnell’s enlarged view of what should be included in the project: from ‘realistic’ flight simulators and trainers in Houston and at Cape Canaveral to structural mockups for static and dynamic tests and even the development of an extra spacecraft and docking adaptor for an extended series of unmanned orbital missions (dubbed ‘Project Orbit’) ‘‘to investigate potential problems and to evaluate engineering changes’’. When the Office of Space Flight submitted its Project Gemini review to Administrator Jim Webb in May 1962, the cost of the overall programme had climbed markedly from $529 million to $744 million – and continued to grow.

The half-size emergency parachute experienced difficulties of its own. In a series


A model of the Gemini paraglider under test.

of drop tests at the Naval Parachute Facility in El Centro, California, between May and July, four failures led to an extensive redesign and placed it and the paraglider two months behind schedule. Its full-size counterpart also suffered problems and, despite some successes, all three parachutes failed during a November 1962 test and the test vehicle was destroyed when it hit the ground. Although these woes did not directly affect its potential performance, they did introduce worries. Early tests of a half-sized paraglider at Edwards Air Force Base in mid-August had failed to deploy properly after being towed to altitude by helicopter and in two subsequent attempts it was released too soon and landed too hard. A fourth try failed to deploy and a short circuit cancelled a fifth. By the end of September, even Jim Chamberlin was losing patience and ordered North American to halt all tests until it could spell out how it intended to correct the problematic electronics and pyrotechnics. After rework, the half-scale paraglider was shipped back to Edwards and, on 23 October, sailed through a perfect flight, finally demonstrating its stability.

Even the development of the Titan II rocket presented problems. In its first flight on 16 March 1962, it began to experience longitudinal vibrations, occurring 11 times per second for about half a minute. Although these did not pose a problem for the Titan, they would pose a risk for the astronauts, who would be exposed to two and a half times normal gravity and might not be able to react properly to an emergency. The vibrations, nicknamed ‘pogo’, partially disappeared thanks to higher pressure in the rocket’s first-stage fuel tank – perhaps, engineers speculated, it was caused by oscillating pressure in propellant lines – and Martin suggested installing a surge – suppression standpipe in the oxidiser line of later Titan IIs.

Escalating costs and a spending cap limited to $660 million for 1963 eventually led to the realisation that Gemini could only go ahead with the cancellation of the paraglider, Agena and perhaps all rendezvous hardware. Surprisingly, in the subsequent rescoping of the project to take account of budget limitations, the paraglider survived almost untouched and the spacecraft itself retained most of its original features, although the Titan II testing programme was drastically reduced and the decision as to whether the Agena had a role in the project remained fluid for some months. These difficulties conspired to delay the first unmanned mission to December 1963, followed by a piloted flight three months later.

Meanwhile, development of the paraglider continued to be mired with problems. After its October 1962 success, North American refitted the half-scale test vehicle and shipped it back to Edwards for a late November flight. Minor electrical problems postponed the attempt and, when it eventually flew on 10 December, its performance was disappointing: the capsule tumbled from the helicopter, fouled the stabilising drogue parachute and the inflation of the paraglider wing only made matters worse. When the capsule spun down past 1,600 m – the minimum recovery altitude – a radio command detached the wing and allowed it to descend on its emergency parachute. Another try a few weeks later was worse still: it did not tumble this time, but the paraglider storage can was late in separating. The capsule was falling too fast when the wing started to inflate and its membrane tore. Moreover, a faulty squib switch meant the main parachute failed to deploy and the capsule crashed. Despite reporting that five distinct failures had been identified and repaired,

North American’s paraglider was about to breathe its last. Chamberlin gave the project a final chance, but another attempt to deploy a half-scale wing on 11 March

1963 concluded dismally when the storage can failed to separate. The emergency parachute then failed and the paraglider, figuratively and literally, ended its days as a heap of smouldering wreckage.

For the Titan II, the key problem was overcoming its ‘pogo’ oscillations and Martin duly installed a surge-suppression standpipe. However, a test flight on 6 December 1962 actually worsened the pogo effect and, indeed, induced such violent shaking that the first-stage engines shut down too early. Two weeks later, another rocket with no standpipes and increased fuel-tank pressures launched successfully and exhibited lessened pogo levels. A third launch on 10 January 1963 produced similarly encouraging results and the G forces to which it would have exposed a human crew were only slightly higher than those tolerated by Mercury pilots. On the other hand, in this case, the Titan’s second-stage thrust was half of what it should have been, suggesting that its engines had difficulty reaching a steady burn after the shock of ignition. This ‘combustion instability’ proved somewhat more complex than the pogo obstacle and led to a decision in March 1963 to increase the number of unmanned tests and reduce the total of manned flights to ten. To make matters worse, on 8 March, Gemini project cost estimates topped a billion dollars. Days later, Bob Gilruth relieved Chamberlin of his duties and replaced him with Charles Mathews.

Among Mathews’ earliest moves was to insert an unmanned mission in place of one of the manned flights, largely in response to the ongoing Titan II problems. Scheduled for December 1963, the new mission would demonstrate the Titan as Gemini’s launch vehicle. After the upper stage had achieved orbit, a ‘boilerplate’ spacecraft would remain attached and the entire assembly would be left to fall back into the atmosphere. An unmanned suborbital flight with a real spacecraft in July

1964 would then show the ability of the spacecraft to support manned missions. On this plan, the first manned mission, Gemini 3, would come in October 1964. Originally intended as a day-long, 18-orbit mission, Gemini 3 would be reduced by nervous managers to around three orbits – or five hours – and would test the spacecraft’s systems. Earlier plans to fly a Rendezvous Evaluation Pod (REP) on the first manned mission were rescheduled for Gemini IV, which would run for seven days in January 1965. The new schedule implemented three-month gaps between each manned mission, in response to concerns that equipment checkouts and astronaut training required more time. Gemini V would then conduct the first rendezvous and Gemini VI would attempt a 14-day mission, to mimic the length of a full-duration lunar landing expedition. Subsequent flights would last three days apiece, each consolidating and extending rendezvous and spacewalking expertise.

Interestingly, Mathews’ plan did not entirely omit the paraglider, but pushed its maiden flight back to Gemini VII, with parachutes supporting earlier missions. The plan was approved at the end of April 1963. Although paraglider tests in May and June satisfactorily proved its stabilising parachutes, a final drop on 30 July suffered a total failure and crashed. By the year’s end, the paraglider was itself being challenged by the concept of the ‘parasail’, a flexible gliding parachute which offered a quick

and relatively cheap device to achieve a touchdown on land. It could be ready, McDonnell told NASA Headquarters in September 1963, in time for Gemini VII and at a cost of just $15.7 million. It was ruled out, partly due to lack of funds, but chiefly because the paraglider’s vocal supporters objected to giving up on an effort that had already consumed much time and work and was almost ready for flight testing. However, the paraglider itself was on the wane: its landing system programme was stripped of all objectives, save that it would prove the ‘technical feasibility’ of the concept. Parachutes would support most of the Gemini missions, with the paraglider possibly used for the last three. Although Bob Gilruth insisted that it might still fly on Gemini if its tests were successful, the first mutterings of cancellation had reared their heads.

Meanwhile, the Titan Il’s woes continued. A launch on 29 May 1963, carrying pogo-suppression devices for both oxidiser and fuel, burst into flames during liftoff, pitched over and broke up. Although the pogo devices themselves were absolved from blame in the incident, the flight was too brief for their effectiveness to be judged. Three weeks later, a military test of the missile from a silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, although trouble-free during first-stage ascent, with pogo levels within acceptable limits, exhibited faltering second-stage thrust. Had a Gemini crew been aboard, it would have been an abortive mission. The Air Force now shifted its focus to ensuring that the Titan worked as a missile, first, before committing it as a Gemini launch vehicle, and some within NASA even came to doubt that it was the right rocket for the job.

In fact, concerns were so high that the space agency even considered adding yet another unmanned Gemini flight to test the Titan, pushing the total number of missions to 13. Designated ‘Gemini 1A’, it would be slotted in, sometime around April 1964, between the first and second unmanned launches and, like Gemini 1, would consist of a ‘boilerplate’ capsule equipped with instrumentation to examine the performance of the rocket. It would only fly, however, if the unmanned Gemini 1 failed to meet all of its objectives. Although the Gemini 1A hardware was delivered in September 1963, the extra mission had been cancelled by February of the following year, thanks to improved prospects for the Titan II. Despite the fact that two launches in August and September 1963 had gone wrong due to short circuits and guidance malfunctions and the effects of pogo were higher than expected, circumstances improved as the year drew to a close. A Titan launch on 1 November, equipped with standpipes for its oxidiser lines and mechanical accumulators on its fuel lines, reduced pogo effects well below the limit demanded by NASA. Moreover, in the next five months, the rocket would score an impressive and unbroken chain of successes, enough to ‘man-rate’ it in time for Gemini 1.

For all of these problems, the development of the spacecraft itself was going relatively well. Key problem areas remained the fuel cells, propulsion and the ejection seats. McDonnell had already subcontracted to General Electric to build the cells and the first serious development problem of preventing oxygen leakage through its ion-exchange membrane was soon resolved. However, resolution of this problem produced another: test units working over long periods showed degraded performance, apparently due to contamination of the membrane by metal ions from the fibreglass wicks responsible for removing water from the cell. Leakages in the tubes which fed hydrogen to the cells created another obstacle. General Electric replaced the fibreglass wicks with Dacron cloth and an alloy of titanium-palladium replaced the pure titanium tubing, although these developmental headaches pushed the project further behind schedule. NASA was sufficiently concerned to request McDonnell to conduct an evaluation of batteries to be used on Gemini 3, the first manned mission in October 1964, with fuel cells aboard, but only used for flight qualification purposes.

Ongoing problems with the fuel cells, it was realised, could restrict Gemini missions to only a few days under battery power alone. In November 1963, Charles Mathews issued instructions to adapt the electrical system to house batteries or fuel cells and, within weeks, the decision to fly Gemini 3 on batteries was official. Nonetheless, the unmanned Gemini 2 would be equipped with both systems to qualify them. A month later, Mathews decided that Gemini IV – the proposed seven – day mission – should also utilise batteries, which would have a corresponding impact on its duration, shortening it by almost half. Eventually, it would be Gemini V that would first demonstrate the use of fuel cells in space on a week-long flight, with mixed success.

The ejection seats were another concern; so much so, in fact, that the MSC even considered replacing them with an escape tower, akin to that used during Project Mercury. Simulated ‘off-the-pad ejection’, or ‘sope’, tests had been suspended late in 1962 until all components were ready. During one test, the overhead hatch failed to open and the seat shot straight through the 5 cm-thick hull, prompting John Young to remark: ‘‘That’s one hell of a headache… but a short one!’’

Ultimately, the escape system involved a balloon-parachute hybrid, known as a ‘ballute’, which would prevent the astronaut from spinning during freefall if he had to eject from an altitude higher than the 2,000 m at which his personal parachute was supposed to open. The first tests in February 1963 were disappointing: the ballutes failed to inflate and the personal parachute did not deploy correctly, although managers felt that the problem was a dynamic one, caused by the relationship between the rocket motor’s thrust vector and the shifting centre of gravity of the man-seat combination. By May, sope testing resumed and met with greater success and, the following month, dual-seat ejections were demonstrated. Nonetheless, rising costs and unending technical problems, involving the spacecraft, the Titan, the paraglider and even the Agena-D, had conspired to delay the first unmanned Gemini launch until the spring of 1964.

For the paraglider, which experienced yet more failures in December 1963 and February 1964, the end was in sight. Indeed, NASA’s public stance was now that a land touchdown was riskier than an already-proven ocean splashdown, although the Air Force, which was planning its own version of Gemini in conjunction with an orbital laboratory, kept the concept alive for a time. However, the military was not keen to commit funding to the paraglider until it had first been satisfactorily demonstrated by NASA. After yet another test failure on 22 April 1964, William Schneider, Gemini’s project chief at NASA Headquarters, officially announced that no more money would be spent on the paraglider. Ironically, its cancellation was actually followed by several wing-deployment successes. North American even invested its own cash in further development work and, in December, a pilot flew with the helicopter-towed vehicle and guided it to a safe landing. It was, however, too late for it to be reinstated into Gemini.

Of course, the design of the capsule itself had long since been finalised. In fact, the re-entry capsule was comparable in size to the Mercury spacecraft. A broad conical adaptor at its base, which would be shed following retrofire, held the propulsion and long-term power and life-support systems. The capsule, wrote Neal Thompson in his biography of Al Shepard, was “like a snug little sports car”. The white-coloured adaptor was 2.28 m high and 3 m wide at its base and was itself split in two: an equipment section for fuel and propulsion and a retrorocket to support re-entry. Both segments were isolated from each other by means of a fibreglass honeycomb blast shield. The crew cabin, meanwhile, was a truncated, titanium – and-nickel-alloy cone, measuring 2.28 m wide at its base and 98.2 cm at its apex and topped by a short cylinder for re-entry controls and parachutes. In total, the cabin was 3.45 m high and, when mounted on the adaptor, the full Gemini stood 5.73 m tall. Inside, conditions were cramped. The Gemini’s total pressurised volume was little more than 2.25 m3 – “like sitting sideways in a phone booth,’’ John Young said years later – and its outward-opening hatches were positioned directly above each astronaut’s head. Each man was provided with a small, forward-facing window. The spacecraft was equipped with horizon sensors and an inertial reference system and the command pilot flew using a pair of hand – controllers, one for translation, the other for orientation, whilst referring to an ‘artificial horizon’ display.

Key to its manoeuvrability were the 16 OAMS thrusters, spaced around the capsule, and power, at least before the first demonstration of fuel cells, came from three silver-zinc batteries. During preparations for re-entry, the equipment section of the adaptor would be jettisoned, exposing the retrorocket package, whose four motors would initiate the Gemini’s return to Earth. After retrofire, the package would itself be released, leaving the crew cabin, protected by an ablative heatshield and radiative shingles, to withstand the intense heat of re-entry. The centre of mass was deliberately offset to generate aerodynamic lift during re-entry and rolling the capsule using the thrusters on the nose enabled the trajectory to be controlled to aim for a specific geographic position. A parachute-aided descent would finally bring the capsule gently into the Atlantic or Pacific.


Titov’s long-hidden wrist injury may not have been detected, but almost immediately after reaching orbit another condition would become readily apparent. He would secure the unenviable record of becoming the first person to suffer from Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS) – ‘space sickness’ – which is today known to affect around half of all space travellers. Research over the past five decades has generally concluded that it is a nauseous malaise, somewhat akin to motion sickness, which typically lasts no more than two or three days of a mission. In Titov’s case, it manifested itself in sensations of disorientation and discomfort, coupled with feelings of dizziness and recurrent headaches. ‘‘As soon as the [R-7’s] third stage split, I felt turned upside down,’’ he recounted years later. ‘‘I couldn’t understand why I felt this way. Then I saw the Earth begin to turn slower in my eyes. Three or four minutes later, this feeling of being in the upside-down position went away.’’ He managed ‘lunch’ at 9:30 am and supper at 2:00 pm, consuming puree, bread, pate, green peas and meat and washing it down with blackcurrant juice, but when he tried to eat again during his sixth orbit, he vomited.

Sleep brought mixed blessings. Around ten and a half hours into the mission, and roughly an hour after bidding goodnight to flight controllers, his pulse rate dropped significantly from around 88 beats per minute to as low as 53. At about the same time, he awoke and was surprised to find his arms floating in midair, due to the absence of gravity. He tucked them under a security belt. ‘‘Once you have your arms and legs arranged properly,’’ he recalled in his state-sanctioned autobiography, ‘‘space sleep is fine. I slept like a baby.’’ Actually, Titov overslept by some 35 minutes, waking at 2:37 am, still feeling unwell, but recovering towards the end of his 12th orbit to eat breakfast. He would describe the food, including sausages and cold coffee with milk, which he had also been obliged to eat on the ground as a familiarisation exercise, as ‘‘joyless’’. On Earth, however, flight controllers were sufficiently concerned to scrub future Vostok missions until an explanation for Titov’s strange reaction to weightlessness could be found.

Even today, five decades later, explanations and countermeasures for the condition remain imprecise. It appears to be aggravated by the subject’s ability to move around freely in the microgravity environment, with over 60 per cent of Space Shuttle astronauts reporting the complaint, and appears to be more prevalent in ‘larger’ spacecraft. The cramped nature of the Vostok, Voskhod, Mercury and Gemini capsules made the sickness virtually unknown in the early Sixties and Titov’s unexpected response, together with other factors, may have prompted the decision not to fly him in space again. Indeed, following his mandatory appearance at Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow after the mission, he was quietly whisked away to hospital for tests to determine if he was sick.

Modern thinking postulates that the influence of weightlessness on the vestibular apparatus – the workings of the inner ear, which control balance – could present a possible root cause. This disorientation arises, it is theorised, when sensations from the eyes and other areas of the body conflict with those from the vestibular apparatus and with information stored in the brain as a result of a lifetime spent in ‘normal’ terrestrial gravity. Over a few days, a ‘repatterning’ of the central memory network occurs, such that unfamiliar sensations from eyes and ears begin to be correctly interpreted and adjustment to the new environment can commence. Today, motion sickness medicines have been shown to help counter it, but are rarely used, with most space fliers expressing preference to adapt naturally over a few days in orbit, rather than risk starting their missions in a drowsy state.

Of course, at the time of Titov’s flight, this was unknown. A one-day mission, with little opportunity to fully adapt to weightlessness, complicated his reaction to the environment still further. In the wake of Vostok 2, Nikolai Kamanin and others would notice the cosmonaut’s increasingly hyperactive and undisciplined behaviour – his love of women, excessive drinking and fast cars got Titov into hot water with his superiors on many occasions – and led to mutterings that it could have been triggered by his exposure to weightlessness. Kamanin penned his concerns in a July 1964 diary entry, although he was later assured that other Vostok fliers, some of whom spent as many as five days in orbit, exhibited no such personality changes.

To be fair, it would appear that Titov and a few other cosmonauts – Yuri Gagarin included – had gotten themselves into trouble purely by exploiting the fame which had suddenly befallen them and which was completely at odds with their previous restricted lives under Soviet communism. Titov was reprimanded repeatedly within the first year after Vostok 2: riding a motorcycle during a parade in Romania, consorting with prostitutes, an ‘incident’ with his female chauffeur, speeding, drunkenness, leaving a satchel of highly-classified papers in his unattended car and a hit-and-run traffic accident. His arrogance, too, was a constant concern, with demands for his own jet, involvement in decision-making processes and wanting to take his wife with him on foreign tours. It would be embarrassing to publicly disgrace him, but as the Sixties wore on it became increasingly unlikely that Titov would fly again. The original plan to hire pilots in their twenties to develop them as ‘career’ cosmonauts seemed to have partially backfired. In his diary, Kamanin revealed his frustrations and admitted that the public role of the cosmonaut was far larger than had been envisaged; more academic training was needed and Titov, Gagarin and others were enrolled into university before commencing further mission preparations.

Naturally, official Tass communiques yielded no indication of any sickness whilst in orbit. Titov’s pulse rate during his second orbital pass was given as 88 beats per minute and he was quoted during his fourth and fifth circuits as feeling ‘‘fine’’, ‘‘completely comfortable” and enduring weightlessness ‘‘in an excellent manner’’. When the cosmonaut’s relaxed, smiling face was broadcast to a Soviet television audience during his fifth orbit it revealed little of the discomfort he was experiencing. By the end of his tenth orbit, having covered a distance of over 410,000 km, the communiques boasted that he had travelled ‘‘more than the distance to the Moon’’. Aside from space sickness, Titov’s mission was almost a complete success, with the exception of a malfunctioning heater, which allowed the cabin temperature to drop to a chilly 6.1 °С. During his very first orbit, he took the manual controls of his capsule and checked out its systems, relayed greetings to the United States and received a congratulatory call from Khrushchev, who promoted him from captain to major and upgraded his status in the Communist Party from that of a candidate to a full member.

Gazing Earthward through the Vzor orientation device, Titov recalled how small his home planet appeared, even though he had regularly flown MiG fighters at high altitude, and was amazed at how quickly a circuit of the globe was completed. Travelling at some 28,000 km/h, his day-long mission orbited 17 times, during which he recorded ten minutes of film with a professional-quality Konvas movie camera and took photographs with hand-held Zritel cameras. “Flying over North America, I sent my greetings… and, 80 minutes later, I sent my greetings to the people of the Soviet Union, so it takes an hour and a half to circle the Earth,” he said later. “It’s very impressive. That was the brightest impression. I had the feeling that our Earth is a sand particle in the Universe, comparable to a particle of sand on the shore of the ocean. Here we live, and used to threaten each other with nuclear bombs, and I thought that no matter to what society you belong and what your relation is, you have to understand that we are all spacemen and the Earth is our spacecraft and we have to work here like spacemen do.’’ The sentiment among many in the United States, however, was still one of fear of the capabilities of this unknown communist empire. “It makes me sick to the stomach’’, one American military officer growled to a Time magazine writer.

Although Titov’s feelings were undoubtedly sincere, the distrust of Khrushchev’s regime was not helped by its excessive secrecy. Even the appearance of Vostok itself remained unknown: not for four more years would the shape of the spacecraft be unveiled to the world and Soviet misinformation gained yet more notoriety in October 1961 when the propaganda film To The Stars Again was aired about Titov’s mission. In it, the orbital motion of Vostok 2 was illustrated by a model fitted with stubby wings! According to a Soviet source quoted in the 18 December issue of the magazine ‘Missiles and Rockets’, the wings were “connected… with manoeuvres Major Gherman Titov reportedly carried out during the last orbits of his 17-orbit flight, when he was in the denser regions of the atmosphere’’. The wings led to a plethora of rumours in the west: was Vostok being developed as a military spacecraft, observers wondered, or perhaps as a platform to manoeuvre in space and conduct orbital rendezvous exercises? Later images, published in July 1962, even showed Mercury-style heat shielding and retrorockets attached to the spacecraft.

Titov’s retrofire occurred automatically at 9:41 am on 7 August, high above south-western Africa, and he was able to observe ‘‘with great interest,’’ he told the packed auditorium at Moscow State University a few days later, ‘‘the bright illumination of the air, which enveloped the spaceship during its re-entry into the denser layers of the atmosphere”. Vostok 2’s return was not perfect, though, since its capsule and instrument section also remained attached together and were only separated by aerodynamic heating. It would also become apparent that Titov landed dangerously close to a railway line, which led to the inclusion of representatives of the Soviet rail authorities on future State Commissions before launches. Half an hour after retrofire, the cosmonaut ejected and descended, like Gagarin, by parachute. He landed at 10:18 am, in a ploughed field near Krasniy Kut in the Saratov district, not far from his predecessor’s own touchdown site. The mission had lasted 25 hours and 18 minutes and Titov had travelled more than 700,000 km. Despite his sickness in orbit, he was described as exhibiting “a fit of euphoria’’ after landing and on his return flight to Kuibishev for debriefing, he alarmed the medical staff by opening and downing a beer in complete violation of the rules.

Suspiciously, Titov would later recount that it was his choice to either ride his Vostok to the ground or parachute out when he had descended to a sufficiently low altitude. “As already reported,’’ he told the Moscow State University audience, “the structure of the cosmic ship and its systems for landing provided the following two landing methods: landing by remaining inside the spaceship or by means of ejection of the pilot’s seat from the spaceship and descent by parachute. I was permitted to select my own way of landing. Contrary to Gagarin’s method of landing the ship, I decided to try out the second method.’’ Clearly, Titov’s need to reinforce to the world that Gagarin had landed with his ship and had not ejected highlighted doubts in the west that were still prevalent over precisely how the first two cosmonauts returned to Earth. As a result of admitting not landing in his ship, which Nikolai Kamanin later confirmed when he filled in the FAI paperwork in March 1962, Titov’s one-day flight would not hold the official record for spaceflight duration. That would go instead to American astronaut John Glenn, who had completed a five-hour orbital voyage in February of that year.

For Nikita Khrushchev’s regime, which just a few days later would prove instrumental in the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Vostok 2 flight represented yet another tangible example of communist superiority over the capitalist west. Titov and his young wife, Tamara, were paraded through Moscow to Red Square, where the Second Cosmonaut saluted atop Lenin’s Tomb and helicopters rained tiny, multi-coloured pictures of him into the streets. As he embarked on the public appearances circuit, he began to divulge the first minor details that weightlessness, although it “does not interfere with man’s capacity for work’’, did leave him with uneasy sensations in his inner ear. Psychological unease posed another obstacle, through homesickness, although this would be the only ‘sickness’ to which Titov would officially admit. ‘‘I knew that there was something in the nature of homesickness called nostalgia,’’ he said, ‘‘but, up there, I found there is also homesickness for the Earth. I don’t know what it should be called, but it does exist.’’


At 1:30 am on 5 May, the prime and backup astronauts, clad in bathrobes, met again at breakfast, before parting. Glenn headed out to the pad to check Freedom 7, while Shepard underwent his pre-flight examination, conducted by physician Bill Douglas. He was instrumented with biosensors – four electrocardiograph pads, glued to his chest, then a respirometer taped to his neck and a rectal thermometer to gauge deep body temperatures – before being helped into a set of long underwear with built-in spongy pads to aid air circulation. He would confess later to “some butterflies” in anticipation of the impending flight and began the 15-minute effort to squeeze into his silver pressure suit, securing zips and connectors and ensuring that the rubber and aluminium-coated nylon garment and his portable, briefcase-like air-condition­ing unit were ready. The latter proved essential: by the time he had donned his suit, wrote Time magazine, Shepard was sweating profusely and breathing hard.

The suit had been designed and built by the B. F. Goodrich Company, under a $98,000 contract awarded by NASA in July 1959, and followed similar principles to the Mark IV pressure garments worn by Navy fighter pilots. The company already had a long history in the field. Indeed, Goodrich engineer Russell Colley, who led the Mercury suit effort, had designed the pressurised ensemble worn by the legendary Thirties aviation pioneer Wiley Post. However, unlike the military Mark IV, which was hampered by problems of weight and mobility, the Mercury suit employed elastic cording, which arrested its tendency to ‘balloon’. Moreover, at just 9.97 kg, it was the lightest military pressure suit yet built. Its other key features included a ‘closed-loop’ system, which eliminated a rubber diaphragm around the pilot’s face; oxygen instead entered the suit through a hose at its waist, circulated to provide cooling and exited either through a hose on the right-hand side of the helmet or through the visor, if it was open. A small bottle, connected by a hose next to the astronaut’s left jaw, was used to pressurise a pneumatic seal when the Plexiglas visor was closed. During flight, the suit would provide and maintain a 0.38-bar atmosphere to keep Shepard alive in the event that Freedom 7 lost cabin pressure.

Elsewhere, the dark-grey nylon outer shell of the military Mark IV was replaced with one of silvery aluminium-coated nylon for improved thermal control – additionally, black boots were substituted for white-coloured leather ones (and, later, by aluminium-coated nylon leather) for the same purpose – and straps and zips provided a snug, though uncomfortable fit. However, the gloves on Shepard’s suit were zipped onto the sleeves, which prevented him from easily rotating his wrists to use the hand controllers. Post-flight modifications, implemented in time for Gus Grissom’s suborbital mission in July 1961, would incorporate wrist bearings and ring locks for greater dexterity. The fingers of the gloves were curved to permit the astronaut to grasp controls and a ‘straight’ middle finger allowed him to better push buttons and flip toggle switches. Each member of the Mercury Seven was supplied with three individually-tailored suits: one for training, another for flight and a third as a spare, costing some $20,000 overall. Body moulds were taken by dressing the men in long underwear, covering them with brown paper tape and cutting the


Clad in his silvery space suit, A1 Shepard prepares to clamber aboard Freedom 7. With him is Gus Grissom and in the background, clad in white cap and clean room garb, is John Glenn.

resultant mould to remove it when dry. So complex was the suit, Wally Schirra told Life magazine, that it required “more alterations than a bridal gown”.

Its intense discomfort was caused by the fact that, when inflated, it took only one shape. Any change in this shape, perhaps by the astronaut trying to walk or sit, reduced the suit’s volume and forced its wearer to exert himself to overcome the increased pressure. Simply walking left Shepard rapidly out of breath and, indeed, not until the Apollo missions would suits be built with ‘constant-volume’ joints to permit movement in the legs and arms without changing the pressure.

At 3:55 am, Grissom accompanied the fully-suited Shepard in the white transport van to Pad 5, after which technician Joe Schmitt fitted his gloves and Gordo Cooper briefed him on the countdown status. Meanwhile, at the top of the gantry, clad in white overalls and cap, John Glenn had spent the last two hours checking that every switch and instrument inside Freedom 7 was ready. At around 5:15 am, Shepard ascended the elevator to a green-walled room at the 20 m level – nicknamed ‘the greenhouse’ – which surrounded the capsule’s hatch. Glenn and Schmitt helped him inside, an effort made all the more difficult by his bulky parachute. America’s first spaceman, though, had an unexpected opportunity for a chuckle when he saw a girlie pin-up and a placard, put there by Glenn, which read ‘No Handball Playing In This Area’. A grinning Glenn, normally considered a straight-arrow and no prankster, quickly pulled it down. Presumably, wrote Neal Thompson, he had second thoughts and did not want to risk the automatic cameras inside Freedom 7, soon to begin rolling, accidentally recording his joke for posterity.

For more than an hour, Shepard lay in his custom-contoured couch and was secured by straps across his shoulders, chest, lap, knees – ‘‘the only time we used knee caps,’’ remembered Joe Schmitt in a 1997 interview, ‘‘because we didn’t know what was going to happen when he went up’’ – and even caps over his toes. Meanwhile, other personnel fitted sensors and adjusted straps before Glenn reached in, shook his gloved hand and wished him luck. The hatch clanged shut at 6:10 am, at which point Shepard’s heart rate quickened. Less than half an hour later, he began a ‘denitrogenation’ procedure, breathing pure oxygen to prevent aeroembolism – ‘decompression sickness’; a pilot’s equivalent of the bends – before sitting tight for liftoff, set for 7:00 am. This, however, was repeatedly postponed, first as banks of clouds rolled over Florida’s south-eastern seaboard, then when one of the 400 hz power inverters to the Redstone experienced regulation difficulties.

The countdown was recycled to the T-35 minute mark and picked up again 86 minutes later, after the inverter had been removed and replaced. Next, an error surfaced in one of the IBM 7090 computers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, responsible for processing Freedom 7’s flight data. By the time engineers had solved this problem, in which they had to completely rerun the computers, Shepard had been on his back inside the capsule for over three hours. Adrenaline pumping, he checked and rechecked the switches and dials on his instrument panel, then peered through the periscope at the throng of spectators lining Cape Canaveral’s beaches. Then, another, more personal, issue arose.

In addition to the discomfort brought about by lying in the cramped spacecraft for three hours, he found that he needed to urinate; the consequence, obviously, of too much orange juice and coffee consumed with Glenn earlier that morning. He eventually radioed ‘‘Man, I gotta pee’’ to Gordo Cooper, stationed in the nearby control blockhouse, and asked if Freedom 7’s hatch could be opened.

Cooper, taken aback, passed Shepard’s request up the chain of command, as far as Wernher von Braun, who emphatically declared that, no, ‘‘ze astronaut shall stay in ze nosecone’’. Exasperated, and in a tirade that was ultimately removed from the official transcript, Shepard warned that he would be forced to urinate in his suit if he was not allowed outside. Immediately, mission managers panicked – could the urine short-circuit the medical wiring attached to his body and the electrical thermometer in his rectum, they wondered – until the astronaut suggested that they switch off the spacecraft’s power until he had ‘been’. Eventually, agreement was received, Cooper confirmed ‘‘Power’s off” and heard shortly thereafter a long, contented ‘‘Ahhhh’’ from Shepard over the radio. ‘‘I’m a wetback now,’’ he told Cooper, as the warm fluid worked its way around his suit and pooled in the small of his back. . .

‘‘It caused some consternation,’’ Shepard admitted in his tape-recorded debriefing of the flight an hour after landing. “My suit inlet temperature changed and it may possibly have affected the left lower chest sensor… [but] my general comfort after this point seemed to be good.” Still, the issue led to the inclusion of a proper, though hastily-engineered, urine-collection device in time for Gus Grissom’s own suborbital mission 11 weeks later.

Fortunately, the urine was absorbed by his long cotton underwear and evaporated in the 100 per cent pure oxygen atmosphere of the capsule and Shepard, thankfully, received no electrical shocks. NASA was spared, wrote Neal Thompson, of the embarrassment of having to report that America’s first spaceman had been electrocuted by his own piss. Humour aside, there remained a very real chance that 5 May 1961 might have ended with a dead astronaut. In such a dire eventuality, press spokesman John ‘Shorty’ Powers had readied statements to the effect that ‘Astronaut Shepard has perished today in the service of his country’, all adjusted slightly to take into account the point at which disaster struck: during launch, whilst in space or during re-entry. President Kennedy, too, was nervous, even though he had been assured by NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden back in March that no unwarranted risks would be taken. As late as a few weeks before launch, some senators, including Republican John J. Williams of Delaware and Democrat J. W. Fulbright of Arkansas, felt that it should be delayed and run in secret to avoid a much-publicised failure.

Such attempts were vetoed by most members of Congress. The Soviets, it was pointed out, had received much international criticism for staging Vostok 1 under such ridiculous secrecy – to such an extent that some observers doubted Gagarin had flown at all – and felt tradition dictated that the press should have free access to cover an event of such historic magnitude. Moreover, said Ed Welsh, secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, ‘‘why postpone a success?’’ Still, even on 5 May, Kennedy questioned the need to televise the event live, even pressing NASA Administrator Jim Webb to play down the feverish publicity. Webb’s assurance that the Redstone’s LES tower would yank Freedom 7 and Shepard to safety in the event of a malfunction had little impact and Kennedy’s fears continued throughout the mission. Only minutes before the television networks picked up the countdown, NASA public relations officer Paul Haney was forced to reassure Kennedy’s press secretary Pierre Salinger that the escape tower would indeed save Shepard in an emergency. Salinger promised to pass this information to the president.

The decision to televise the launch in front of the media would also offer a poke in the eye for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, whose regime had insisted on cloaking Gagarin’s flight in secrecy until success could be confirmed. In many minds, America’s ‘bravery’ at accomplishing the feat in front of the world placed it on a par with, or even above, the Vostok achievement. Khrushchev would publicly ridicule Freedom 7 as a ‘‘flea hop’’ in comparison to the Soviet triumph and, in truth, he was right, but on 5 May 1961 America won the moral high ground. A few days later, the Istanbul newspaper Millyet reported that Turkish journalists had asked the Soviet consul-general why his nation had not revealed the full story of Gagarin’s mission. In response, a Tass correspondent was quoted as explaining, somewhat lamely, that Russia was ‘‘mainly interested in the people’s excitement and reaction’’.

Shortly before 9:00 am, yet another halt was called when pressures inside the Redstone’s liquid oxygen tanks climbed to unacceptable levels. Instead of resetting the pressure valves, which would have meant scrubbing the attempt for the day, it was decided to bleed off some of the pressure by remote control. After cycling the vent valves several times, pressures returned to normal. The decision to do this was aided, at least partly, by an irritable Shepard, who, after almost four hours on his back and now lying in his dried-up urine, snapped “I’m cooler than you are! Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?’’ The words, like Gagarin’s “Poyekhali!” three weeks earlier, have since achieved immortality and truly epitomise the ‘right stuff which Shepard and everyone associated with Project Mercury had in shovelfuls. With two minutes to go, as the television networks started broadcasting live, the voice of Cooper in the blockhouse was replaced by that of Deke Slayton, serving as the first ‘capsule communicator’ – ‘capcom’ – from the Mercury Control Center at the Cape. Thirty seconds before launch, an umbilical cable, supplying electricity, communications and liquid oxygen, separated from the rocket as planned.

As the final seconds ticked away, Shepard’s biosensors would testify that his pulse rose from 80 to 126 beats per minute; privately praying that he would not screw up, his hand tightened around the abort handle. Already described by the physicians as the calmest man on the Cape that morning, his pulse rate was comparable to that of a driver moving from a service road onto a freeway. In total, he had been lying supine for four hours and 14 minutes – the delays alone had cost more than three and a half hours, enough time for a dozen Freedom 7 missions – and the jolt he expected at the instant of liftoff was instead replaced by what he would describe as something ‘‘extremely smooth… a subtle, gentle, gradual rise off the ground’’.

At 9:34 am, with 45 million Americans watching or listening in person, on television, on the radio or over loudspeakers, the Redstone roared to life, prompting Shepard, who had just activated the on-board timer, to confirm ‘‘Roger… liftoff and the clock is started!’’ Slayton, with a nod to comedian Bill Dana’s astronaut character Jose Jimenez, replied ‘‘You’re on your way, Jose!’’ So significant was the next quarter of an hour that it brought much of the United States to a standstill. A Philadelphia appeals court judge interrupted proceedings to make an announcement, free champagne flowed in taverns, traffic slowed on Californian freeways and people danced and sang in Times Square. President Kennedy broke up a National Security Council meeting, walked into his secretary’s office and stood, dumbstruck, hands in his pockets, watching Freedom 7’s rise to the heavens.

‘‘I remember hearing [the] firing command,’’ Shepard recalled less than an hour later aboard the Lake Champlain recovery ship, ‘‘but it may very well be that, although Deke was giving me other sequences. . . prior to main stage and liftoff, I did not hear them. I may have been just a little bit too excited. I do remember being fairly calm at T-0 and getting my hand up to start the watch when I received the liftoff from the control centre. I must say the liftoff was a whole lot smoother than I expected. I really expected to have to use full volume control to be able to receive. . . [but] all my transmissions over UHF were immediately acknowledged, without any repeats being requested.’’

Shepard had little time to sit still and do nothing. He had already agreed with Project Mercury’s operations director, Walt Williams, that he would talk as much as possible throughout the mission, to keep everyone updated on even the tiniest details. As the Redstone speared higher and higher, his voice crackled out the data – “This is Freedom 7,’’ he exulted, “the fuel is go; 1.2 G; cabin is 14 psi; oxygen is go; all systems are go’’ – and, 16 seconds after launch, the rocket commenced a pitchover manoeuvre of two degrees per second, from 90 to 45 degrees, a procedure that was complete some 40 seconds into the flight. He had anticipated around 6 G during ascent, even though he had trained and endured more than twice as much in the centrifuge and the MASTIF. Although the liftoff was smooth, his ride turned bumpy and caught him off-guard when he reached the turbulent transition between the edge of the ‘sensible’ atmosphere and space. Eighty-eight seconds after launch, Freedom 7 began shuddering violently and Shepard’s head, wrote Neal Thompson, was “jackhammering so hard against the headrest that he could no longer see the dials and gauges clearly enough to read the data’’. As a result, he waited until the vibrations had calmed before transmitting any more status updates to Slayton.

Lack of visibility, in fact, had been one of the fundamental medical effects that physicians had most feared: could the astronauts see properly in and around their capsules? Such questions seem trivial today, but aerospace scientists had for years written quite seriously about the possible impact of weightlessness on the muscle structure around and beneath the eyes and the possibility that it might change shape over several hours, permanently ruining their vision. John Glenn was assigned to investigate this possibility on his Friendship 7 mission, the first American orbital flight, in February 1962. ‘‘On the instrument panel,’’ he told an interviewer in 1997, ‘‘is a little Snellen chart like the eye chart they use in doctors’ offices, miniaturised for the distance from my eyes to the panel, and I was to read the smallest line I could read every 20 minutes during flight and report what that was, so if my eyes were changing shape or vision was changing, I would be able to report this.’’

Uncontrollable nausea and vertigo, triggered by the random movement of fluids in the inner ear, was another possibility and, although other astronauts have since been known to suffer ‘space sickness’, the irony of Project Mercury was that the capsules were too small and cramped to give their pilots an opportunity to move around and become disorientated. There were other concerns. ‘‘They didn’t know whether you could swallow properly,’’ explained Glenn and, added Gordo Cooper, ‘‘There were a lot of these medical experts who said that the cardiovascular system would not be able to function under zero gravity’’. The simple, yet vital, work done by the Mercury astronauts and their Vostok counterparts exemplified how little was known about how human beings could function in the weightless environment, high above their home planet, at the dawn of the Sixties. They were pioneers, taking the first steps into a strange new environment.

Even before he reached space, Shepard had satisfied one of the physicians’ main worries: by proving that he could indeed survive the rigours of a rocket launch. Yet it was only after passing through ‘Max Q’ – a period of maximum aerodynamic turbulence; the phase at which Freedom 7, by now accelerating through the sound barrier and into the rarefied air of the high atmosphere, was subjected to massive loads – did he finally grunt to Slayton that the ride was “a lot smoother now”. Then, 141.8 seconds after launch, the Redstone’s engine finally burned out, followed, a second later, by the jettisoning of the LES tower. Although the latter should have been automatic, it was actually performed manually, but Shepard would not recall ever pulling the manual ‘JETT TOWER’ override ring. The Redstone burnout triggered the initiation of small explosive charges, which, 38 seconds later, severed the link with Freedom 7 and three posigrade rockets on the capsule pushed the pair apart at 4.6 m/sec. By now, Shepard’s pulse had climbed to 132 beats per minute, but calmed dramatically when he saw and reported to Slayton that the green ‘CAP SEP’ indicator light confirmed the capsule had indeed successfully separated from the rocket.

Now flying free of the Redstone, Shepard’s tasks – to prove that, unlike Gagarin, he was able to actively control his ship – got underway. Firstly, the attitude-control system moved the capsule into a heat shield-forward position for the rest of the flight, introducing momentary oscillations which were quickly damped out by a five – second firing of the automatic thrusters. He switched Freedom 7 from automatic to manual control about three minutes after launch and, using a MASTIF-like stick, tilted the capsule through pitch, yaw and roll exercises, ‘controlling’ his spacecraft for the first time, whilst travelling at 8,200 km/h – nearly eight times the speed of sound and almost three times faster than any American in history. Shepard found that he was able to exercise control crisply and Freedom 7 responded very much like the simulator, although his ability to hear the spurting hydrogen peroxide jets was virtually drowned out by the crackling of the radio. He actually operated his spacecraft by three means – fully automatic, manual and a ‘fly-by-wire’ combination of the two. He reported that the manual mode responded well, although the capsule tended to roll slightly clockwise. Post-flight inspections uncovered a piece of debris lodged in the hydrogen peroxide tubing, which probably caused their jets to leak a tiny increment of thrust.

At 9:38 am, four minutes after launch, Shepard experienced weightlessness for the first time, as his body gently floated from his couch and against his shoulder harnesses. Flecks of dust drifted past his face, together with a stray washer, which quickly vanished from view. As he neared the apex of his arc into space, he made an attempt to observe the world beneath him through Freedom 7’s periscope. Unfortunately, during the morning’s lengthy delays, to minimise the blinding sunlight, he had flicked a switch that covered the lens with a grey filter and had forgotten to remove it before launch. Now he was greeted only with a grey-coloured blob on the screen before him. When he tried to reach across the cabin to flick off the filter, his wrist hit the abort handle and he thought it best to leave well alone.

Shepard’s dramatic description of Earth – ‘‘What a beautiful view!’’ – was surely sincere, but was certainly not accompanied by glorious colour. Still, he later told NASA officials, the vista was ‘‘remarkable’’ and he was able to see Lake Okeechobee, on the northern edge of Florida’s Everglades, together with Andros Island, shoals off Bimini and some cloud cover over the Bahamas. Although he would later tell a Life journalist of the ‘‘brilliantly clear’’ colours around Bimini, he would privately admit that the grey filter ‘‘obliterated most of the colours’’. When questioned by Wally Schirra, his response was “shit, I had to say something for the people!”

At the top of the long arc over the Atlantic – rising, at apogee, to almost 188 km – the periscope automatically retracted and Shepard was obliged to strain to look for stars and planets through the two small, awkwardly-placed portholes, one to his upper-left side and the other to his lower-right. He wanted the chance to see what Yuri Gagarin had claimed to have seen, but in fact could see nothing, no matter which way he twisted or turned. Looking for stars and planets placed him slightly behind schedule. Although the entire mission would span only 15 minutes, and barely a fraction of that would be spent ‘in space’, NASA had overloaded him with tasks, lasting a minute here or two minutes there. To catch up, Shepard feverishly put Freedom 7 through its paces, before eventually radioing to Slayton that the three retrorockets had successfully fired at their prescribed five-second intervals and his spacecraft was positioned in its proper re-entry attitude.

Six minutes and 13 seconds after launch, as the tiny capsule began its plummet towards the ocean, the now-spent retrorocket package automatically separated. Even though his time in weightlessness had been so brief, he would later remark aboard the recovery ship Lake Champlain, ‘‘there is no question about it: when those retros go, your transition from zero-G to essentially 0.05 G is noticeable”. Flying with its base facing in the direction of travel, such that it could properly absorb the intense heat caused by friction with the upper atmosphere, Shepard was shoved into his couch with 11 times the force of normal terrestrial gravity. This part of the ride, he knew, was among the most physically demanding and ‘‘not one most people would want to try in an amusement park’’. In less than 30 seconds, Freedom 7 slowed from its 8,200 km/h suborbital velocity to around 800 km/h. During this time, the astronaut could scarcely speak, so high were the G forces, and could barely manage a series of grunted ‘‘okays’’ to Slayton. Then, from an altitude of 24 km down to 12 km, the frictional heating raised temperatures at the base of the capsule to a blistering 1,200°C; within, however, conditions held steady at 38°C and, inside his pressure suit, Shepard experienced a balmy, but relatively comfortable, 28°C. It was, he said, ‘‘like being in a closed van on a warm summer day’’.

As the descent continued, the automatic stabilisation and control system detected the onset of re-entry and initiated a roll of ten degrees per second to keep Freedom 7 on track. Six and a half kilometres above the Atlantic, and still barely nine minutes after launch, Shepard felt relief as the drogue parachute popped from the spacecraft’s nose, followed, seconds later, by the jettisoning of the antenna capsule and deployment of the 19.2 m-diameter orange and white main canopy. This blossomed open, arresting the capsule with ‘‘a reassuring kick in the butt’’. A snorkel valve opened to equalise cabin pressure with the outside air, after which the heat shield dropped 1.2 m and the landing bag was extended. Shepard would later describe the deployment of the main chute, not surprisingly, as the most beautiful sight of the whole mission. It slowed the capsule to a stately 30 km/h and even the splashdown itself, some 490 km east of Cape Canaveral and 160 km north of the Bahamas, felt no worse than the shove he used to experience from the catapults aboard naval aircraft carriers.

His precise landing co-ordinates were 75 degrees 53 minutes West longitude and 27 degrees 13.7 minutes North latitude. Freedom 7 initially listed over to its right side, about 60 degrees from an upright position, but righted itself within a minute or so. The parachutes cast loose to prevent dragging the capsule and a patch of fluorescent green marker dye spread across the water, although recovery forces had already been monitoring Shepard’s descent for several minutes and were closing in. America’s first manned spaceflight had lasted 15 minutes and 28 seconds.

Shortly thereafter, Wayne Koons, the pilot of one of the five Marine Air Group 26 rescue helicopters despatched from the Lake Champlain, was hovering overhead and his co-pilot George Cox had snagged Freedom 7 with hook and line (though not before the spacecraft’s high-frequency antenna had pronged upwards and dented the base of the chopper). Shepard, still midway through removing his helmet and releasing his restraints, asked the impatient Koons to lift the capsule slightly above the waterline. Eventually, America’s first astronaut popped open the hatch and leaned out to grab the ‘horse’s collar’ – a padded harness that Cox had lowered – then pulled it towards him and looped it over his head and under his arm. He gave a thumbs-up and was pulled to the helicopter. Koons’ crew had trained for more than a year for this moment and had established themselves as experts at hovering above Mercury capsules, hooking them and getting astronauts out. Indeed, Cox had successfully fished Ham out of the drink just a few months earlier.

Even now, it was a nervous time for Shepard. Only hours before, he had read a disturbing report of the harrowing experience of fellow naval aviators Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather. On 4 May, only hours after the Freedom 7 countdown had begun, the pair had ascended 34.6 km above the Gulf of Mexico in a balloon gondola, part of the Navy’s Stratolab high-altitude research effort. During their nine-hour ascent, the two pressure-suited men had been subjected to temperatures as low as -70°C and, since their weights were doubled by their equipment, they had found it virtually impossible to move within the gondola. Their mission to the very edge of space was successful and satisfactorily evaluated the performance of their pressure suits, but, after landing, Prather, mistakenly thinking himself to be out of danger, opened his helmet visor. As he clambered up the ladder to the rescue helicopter, he slipped, fell and drowned when his suit filled with water. Prather’s tragic death would surely have reinforced to Shepard that, even home from space, he would not be truly ‘safe’ until he was standing on the deck of the recovery ship. Indeed, his weight on the end of the winch actually caused Koons’ helicopter to drop slightly and the astronaut’s splayed legs splashed briefly back into the Atlantic, before finally being pulled clear.

The efforts to ensure his safety had been nothing short of extraordinary. Fire trucks had been stationed close to Pad 5, ready to offer support in the event of a launch accident, whilst helicopters stood by with technicians, physicians and frogmen to recover Shepard if he landed unhappily. Waiting out at sea were naval speedboats, whilst other craft were prepared to fish Freedom 7 from the Banana River, a lagoon between Cape Canaveral and Merritt Island. Meanwhile, near the prime recovery zone in the Atlantic, the Lake Champlain bristled with its recovery helicopters and a flotilla of six destroyers was strung out along the tracking range.


An exhausted Shepard is welcomed aboard the Lake Champlain.

Elsewhere, at the Cape itself, radars and high-flying aircraft monitored the skies for virtually every second that the astronaut was aloft.

Declaring that it was truly “a beautiful day”, Shepard was flown back to the recovery ship, where 1,200 sailors covered the decks, cheering his success. Koons and Cox lowered Freedom 7 – soon to be exhibited at 1961’s Paris Air Show – onto a specially-made stack of mattresses, disconnected it and touched down in what Shepard would call “the most emotional carrier landing I ever made”. Barely 11 minutes after splashdown, he set foot on the carrier deck.

Similar emotions were being played out across the nation: Floridian crowds cheered, John Glenn jovially asked the recovery ships to remain in the Atlantic in the hope that NASA might set up another Redstone for him, New Hampshire’s governor visited East Derry, schools closed and military aircraft dropped confetti as Shepard’s proud parents and sister rode in an open-topped convertible. For the astronaut’s wife, Louise, the calm after the storm came when she received word from NASA that her husband was safely aboard the Lake Champlain. As she chatted to journalists outside her Virginia Beach home, a Navy jet spelled out the letter ‘S’ in the sky to honour the United States’ newest hero.

The hero himself, after guzzling orange juice in the quarters of the ship’s captain, was handed a tape recorder and asked to record his initial thoughts. He was then grilled by the physicians, as he relived every detail of the 15-minute flight – and the hours on the pad beforehand: no, he did not sleep, no, he did not defecate, yes, there was a noticeable odour in the cabin (urine) and so on. Midway through this debriefing, he received the first of many calls from his commander-in-chief, President Kennedy, who congratulated him. Privately, the administration could breathe a sigh of relief now that, 23 days after Gagarin’s mission and still smarting from the Bay of Pigs, the United States finally had something in which to take pride. That afternoon, the president announced that ‘‘this is an historic milestone in our own exploration of space’’. Added journalist Julian Scheer, later to become NASA’s public affairs officer: ‘‘Shepard bailed out the ego of the American people. As a nation, we desperately wanted a success and we got not only a success, but an instant hero’’.

An hour after his arrival aboard the Lake Champlain, the astronaut set off aboard a two-engined C-1 transport aircraft, which took him to Grand Bahama Island for three days of tests. He was greeted by Wally Schirra, who had watched his launch from the front seat of an F-106 aircraft that morning, together with Gus Grissom and capcom Deke Slayton. Thirty-two specialists debriefed him, with Carmault Jackson questioning his medical health, Bob Voas probing his performance as Freedom 7’s pilot and Harold Johnson and Sigurd Sjoberg focusing on the operation of the capsule’s systems. After downing a huge shrimp cocktail, a roast beef sandwich and iced tea, Shepard learned that he had lost 1.3 kg in weight since breakfast. Nonetheless, the doctors proclaimed him in good shape and jubilant spirits. His $400 million mission had cost each American taxpayer $2.25 and the astronaut himself was surely overjoyed to receive an extra $14.38 in naval flight pay.


Right from the start, Walter Marty Schirra Jr was known for his ‘gotchas’.

Born in Hackensack, New Jersey, on 12 March 1923, he was once described as having aviation in his blood; his parents having both engaged in ‘barnstorming’ and ‘wing-walking’ during the Twenties. As his father Walter, a veteran First World War fighter pilot and engineer, handled the controls of a Curtiss Jenny biplane, his mother Florence danced on the lowermost wing, using the struts for support. Spectators in Oradell, New Jersey, paid up to five dollars a time to witness the Schirras’ stunts. Fortunately, wrote the astronaut, his mother ‘‘gave up wing­walking when I was in the hangar!’’ Nevertheless, he would use his mother’s experience to his advantage: unlike the celebrated, faster-than-sound test pilots Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield, Schirra was flying even before he was born…

He graduated from Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1940 and attended the Newark College of Engineering, before being appointed to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. His disappointed father had wanted him to attend West Point as an Army officer, but in his autobiography Schirra would recall seeing a naval aviator during his boyhood, clad in ‘‘green uniform, the sharp gold wings above his left pocket and his polished brown shoes shiny. From that day on, I always wanted to go to Navy’’. Schirra underwent an abbreviated class, ‘‘a five – year programme… crammed into three’’, received his degree in 1945 and served two years at sea in the Pacific. Not only was his education abbreviated, but so too was his whirlwind romance with Jo Fraser, whom he met, courted for seven days and finally married whilst on leave in February 1946.

A tour of duty in China, attached to the staff of the commander of the Seventh Fleet as a briefing officer, meant that Schirra was a witness to the communist revolution sweeping across the most populous nation on Earth. ‘‘A high crime rate in the neighbourhood in which Jo and I lived,’’ he wrote, ‘‘practically a robbery a night, was an expression of revolutionary contempt for the American ‘imperialists’ . . . I knew when we left that China would never be the same again.’’ Shortly thereafter,


Wally Schirra (right) and Wernher von Braun.

and proving that aviation was truly in his blood, Schirra became the first member of his academy to be detailed for flight training, transferring to Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida and receiving his wings in June 1948. Like Scott Carpenter, he started off by soloing in a Yellow Peril biplane and then flew naval fighters for three years. Upon the outbreak of war in Korea, Schirra volunteered for active service as an exchange aviator with an Arkansas-based Air National Guard unit. He spent eight months in south-east Asia, flew 90 combat missions in the F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bomber and shot down two MiG-15s – “a tough little adversary” – for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Following Korea, Schirra served at the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, California, during which time he participated in the initial development of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and later served as chief test pilot for the F-7U Cutlass and FJ-3 Furyjet fighters at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. Although he praised the usefulness of the Cutlass in better understanding the aerodynamics of a delta-winged aircraft, Schirra would reject it on the basis that if it stalled with its leading-edge slats ‘in’, its motions became wild and random, with ejection the pilot’s sole option. The Cutlass would later be declared operational, much to the chagrin of Schirra and the other members of his flight-test group, who had seen a number of fatalities. Indeed, over a quarter of all Cutlasses built would be lost in accidents. Years later, he would refer to it darkly as a ‘‘widow-maker’’.

Schirra completed the Naval Air Safety School and a tour of the Far East aboard the Lexington, before being selected for and reporting to the Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland, in January 1958. ft was at this time, he wrote, that he learned to communicate effectively with engineers, ‘‘the most valuable asset that f took from test pilot school to the space programme”. For each test, Schirra was required to report in depth on tactical manoeuvres, power settings and data points. Within the next two years, he would be applying this expertise to the development of Project Mercury. Whilst at Pax River, Schirra met three other hotshot naval aviators, Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Jim Lovell, who would themselves later become astronauts. Graduating in late 1958, he assumed duties as a fully-fledged test pilot, transferring to the famed Edwards Air Force Base in California to help evaluate the F-4H Phantom-II long-range supersonic fighter-bomber.

Then, like more than a hundred other Navy, Air Force and Marine fliers across the United States, in the spring of 1959 Schirra received classified orders to attend a briefing in Washington, DC. Initially, he was reluctant to undergo the months of training for the much-lambasted ‘man-in-a-can’ effort to send an American into space. ‘‘I wanted to be cycled back to the fleet with the F-4H, get credit or take blame for its performance and put it through its paces as a tactical fighter,’’ he wrote. ‘‘I saw myself as the first commander of an F-4H squadron. The space programme to me was a career interruption.’’ Despite his reluctance, Schirra underwent the gruelling tests at Lovelace and Wright-Patterson, realising that as other hotshot pilots fell by the wayside, he was on the cusp of joining the most elite flying fraternity of all.

Undoubtedly, Schirra’s experience had placed him in mortal danger on many occasions, yet his lifetime motto remained: ‘‘Levity is the lubricant of a crisis’’. In fact, on the day the Mercury Seven were introduced to journalists in April 1959, Deke Slayton remembered Schirra telling a joke. It was not his first, nor would it be his last, and he would be in good company in the dark-humour stakes. All seven of them would dream up their own fiendish practical jokes – called ‘gotchas’ – which they inflicted on each other, on flight surgeons, on their nurse, Dee O’Hara, on Henri Landwirth and on an unfortunate Life photographer named Ralph Morse. The latter, who had succeeded in his own ‘gotcha’ by tracking them down on a desert-survival training exercise in Reno, Nevada, received his comeuppance at the hands of Schirra and Al Shepard. The pair planted a smoke flare in the exhaust pipe of Morse’s jeep and told him to move the vehicle, whereupon the unsuspecting photographer hit the starter and – boom! – was engulfed in a cloud of green smoke and dust. ‘‘The jeep had to be towed back to Reno,’’ Schirra recounted with glee, ‘‘and sold for scrap.’’

On other occasions, the Mercury Seven would coat the bottoms of each other’s metal ashtrays with thin films of gasoline, causing a flash fire whenever one of them inadvertently flicked hot ash. ‘‘Fiendish, but fun,’’ Schirra wrote. Henri Landwirth, who frequently played host to the astronauts at his Holiday Inn, once found a live alligator in his pool, cunningly secreted there by Al Shepard. Flight surgeon Stan White, who had purchased a new sports car, liked to brag about its high efficiency. ‘‘So we plotted his comeuppance,’’ wrote Schirra. ‘‘For a week, we added gasoline to his tank, a pint a day, and he raved about the great mileage he was getting. The following week, we siphoned off a pint a day and he went berserk. White never did figure it out.’’

Schirra’s humour would form an essential part of astronaut morale over the

coming years, under the respective shadows of both triumph and tragedy. Only weeks before his first spaceflight aboard Sigma 7, Dee O’Hara became his latest victim. . .


One of the most dramatic and pervading images of the Sixties will always be the assassination of President John Kennedy on 22 November 1963, at the midpoint between the end of Project Mercury and the first unmanned flight of Gemini. Perhaps more than any other event, it marked a pivotal change in the political and social climate of the period. Perhaps, had it not occurred, co-operation between the United States and the Soviet Union in space and on the ground may have been cultivated. Maybe the escalation of involvement and conflict in Vietnam could have been averted. An entirely different Sixties could have resulted.

Kennedy had been in Texas for several days and, tanned and wearing sunglasses, had visited and been photographed at NASA’s new Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), near Houston, shortly before his murder. His decision to visit Dallas and tour the streets in an open-topped motorcade on 22 November had come about in the hope that it would generate support for his 1964 re-election campaign and help mend political fences in a state just barely won three years before.

The plan for that fateful day called for Kennedy’s motorcade to travel from Love Field airport, through downtown Dallas – including Dealey Plaza, where the assassination would occur – and would terminate at the Dallas Trade Mart, where he was to deliver a speech. Shortly before 12:30 pm Central Standard Time, the motorcade entered Dealey Plaza and Kennedy acknowledged a comment from Nellie Connally, the wife of the Texan governor, that “you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you’’. Indeed, all around him, adoring crowds thronged the streets.

As the motorcade passed the Texas School Book Depository, the first crack of a rifle sounded from one of its upper windows. There was very little reaction to the opening shot, with many witnesses believing that they had heard nothing more than a firecracker or an engine backfiring. Kennedy and Governor John Connally turned abruptly, with the latter being the first in the presidential limousine to recognise the sound for what it was. However, he had no time to respond. According to the Warren Commission, which investigated the case throughout 1964, a shot entered Kennedy’s upper back and exited through his throat, causing him to clench his fists to his neck. The same bullet hit Connally’s back, chest, right wrist and left thigh.

The third and final shot, captured by a number of professional and amateur photographers, caused a fist-sized hole to explode from the side of the president’s head, spraying the interior of the limousine and showering a motorcycle officer with blood and brain tissue. First Lady Jackie Kennedy frantically clambered onto the back of the limousine; Secret Service agent Clint Hill, close by, thought she was reaching for something, perhaps part of the president’s skull, and pushed her back into her seat. Hill kept Mrs Kennedy seated and clung to the car as it raced away in the direction of Parkland Memorial Hospital.

John Connally, though critically injured, survived, but Kennedy arrived in the Parkland trauma room in a moribund condition and was declared dead by Dr George Burkley at 1:00 pm. No chance ever existed to save the president’s life, the third bullet having caused a fatal head wound. Indeed, a priest who administered the last rites told the New York Times that Kennedy was dead on arrival. An hour later, following a confrontation between Dallas police and Secret Service agents, the president’s body was removed from Parkland and driven to Air Force One, from whence it was flown to Washington, DC. Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson, also aboard Air Force One, was sworn-in as President at 2:38 pm.

One of Johnson’s earliest official acts was the establishment of the so-called ‘Warren Commission’ to investigate the president’s death. Chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the very man who had sworn Kennedy into office, the commission presented its report to Johnson in September 1964. It found no persuasive evidence

Crewless successes 235

of a domestic or foreign conspiracy and identified Lee Harvey Oswald, located on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, as the killer. It concluded that both Oswald and his own murderer, Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner, had operated alone and without external involvement.

Immediately after the publication of the Warren Commission’s report, doubts surfaced over its findings and conclusions. Although initially greeted with widespread support by the public, a 1966 Gallup poll suggested that inconsistencies remained. An official investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassina­tions in 1976-79 concluded that Oswald probably shot Kennedy as part of a wider conspiracy and, over the years, countless theories have emerged, placing the blame on Fidel Castro, the anti-Castro Cuban community, the Mafia, the FBI, the CIA, the masonic order, the Soviets and others. An ABC News poll in 2003 concluded that 70 per cent of respondents felt that the assassination was the result of a broader plot, although no agreement could be reached on what outside parties may have been involved. Kennedy’s death will perhaps remain one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the modern era.