Category Escaping the Bonds of Earth


These three words alone could sum up Edward Higgins White II. The son of a West Point graduate and Air Force major-general, he was born on 14 November 1930 in San Antonio, Texas, and his parents instilled in him from a very early age the values of self-discipline, persistence and an absolute single-minded determina­tion to achieve his goals. ‘‘Flying was his birthright,’’ wrote Mary C. White in her biography of him, published by NASA, and, indeed, he was aboard an old T-6 training aircraft with his father – and taking its controls – at the tender age of 12. In fact, White’s father remained active as a pilot during 35 years of Air Force service.

Throughout his childhood, White travelled to bases scattered across the United States, from the East Coast to Hawaii, and, despite the semi-nomadic lifestyle, excelled both academically and as an athlete. In fact, it was only whilst enrolled in Western High School in Washington, DC, when he came to investigate college admission policies, that his lack of continuous residency posed an obstacle. With an extensive history of family service in the military, ‘‘there never seemed to be any question,’’ White said later, ‘‘that I would go there too’’. He was admitted to the Military Academy at West Point to study for a bachelor of science degree and excelled in academics and athletics: serving as a half-back on the football team, making the track team and setting a new record in the 400 m hurdles. His athletic

credentials were so impressive that he narrowly missed selection (by just 0.4 seconds) for the United States’ track team in the 1952 Olympics.

Whilst at West Point, White met his future wife, Pat Finnegan, and upon graduation in 1952 followed in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the Air Force. Initial flight instruction in Florida and receipt of his wings were followed by assignments in Germany, where he piloted F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre fighters and completed the Air Force Survival School in Bad Tolz. His aviation career took a new path in 1957, when he read about plans to hire astronauts and “something told me: this is it – this is the type of thing you’re cut out for. From then on, everything I did seemed to be preparing me for spaceflight’’. By now married and the father of two children, White returned to the United States and enrolled in a master’s programme at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, specialising in aeronautical engineering. He was convinced that such a qualification would give him the academic edge over other astronaut candidates. It was whilst in Michigan that he met an undergraduate named Jim McDivitt.

White completed his degree in 1959, the same year that the Mercury Seven were introduced to the world. His next step on the road towards the hallowed membership of NASA’s corps was to achieve test-piloting credentials, after which he was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, evaluating research and weapons systems and making recommendations for improvements to aircraft design and construction. Whilst in Ohio, he also flew cargo aircraft on parabolic flights to prepare the Mercury astronauts for their weightless missions. “Two of my passengers were John Glenn and Deke Slayton,’’ he said later. “Two other passengers of mine were Ham and Enos, the chimpanzees.” In flying such missions, White would estimate that he “went weightless” at least 1,200 times before his selection to join NASA’s astronaut corps.

When the call went out in April 1962 for volunteers for the second astronaut team, then-Captain White’s was one of the first applications and five months later his perseverence proved successful. However, neither he, nor McDivitt, could have anticipated the sheer outpouring of adoration they received when they moved into the El Lago neighbourhood in Harris County, Texas: groups of children asking for their autographs and screaming “Astronauts in the house!’’ before either man had even begun training! Despite his credentials and drive, White did not see himself as a hero, but he certainly stood out for the old heads of Project Mercury. They regarded him as “a man who, when asked an intelligent question, will answer thoughtfully and to the point. . . but will rarely volunteer information’’.

Basic training included helicopter airdrops in pairs into the Panama rainforest, where they spent days with iguana, boa constrictor and palm hearts as their foodstuffs. White had always pursued physical exercise with a passion akin to religious faith: volleyball, handball, squash and golf were the staples of his sporting diet, together with daily long-distance jogs, bicycle rides to work and even squeezing a rubber ball whilst running to build strength in his hands and arms. He set up a climbing rope in the backyard of his El Lago home and was said to perform 50 sit – ups and 50 press-ups, back-to-back, without so much as a sharp intake of breath. Without doubt, he was the most physically fit of all of the astronauts – the Mercury

Seven included – and this conditioning would prove essential in undertaking America’s first spacewalk.

Physicians, in fact, remarked that they could not find the slightest hint of fat on White’s 77 kg frame. His appetite, though, was voracious, and it was said that he “could put away two full-course dinners at one sitting and then ask for dessert with a straight face!’’ His almost superhuman agility was remembered clearly by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet; their backyards were separated by a tall fence. One night in early 1964, a fire broke out in the Armstrongs’ home and White, heroically, was first on the scene with a water hose. “Still to this day,’’ James Hansen wrote in his biography of Armstrong, “Janet vividly recalls the image of Ed White clearing her six-foot fence. ‘He took one leap and he was over.’’’

After basic astronaut training, White was assigned to monitor the design and development of the Gemini flight controls, a task he appreciated ‘‘because it involves the pilot’s own touch – the human connection with the spacecraft and the way he manoeuvres it’’. As part of his work, White campaigned and succeeded in securing a standard hand controller to be used in all of NASA’s manned spacecraft. ‘‘It seemed inconceivable to me,’’ he said, ‘‘that… an astronaut would fly toward the Moon in an Apollo using one kind of stick, them climb into the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module, later renamed the Lunar Module] and use a different kind of controller to land him on the Moon.’’ Landing on the Moon and becoming the first to set foot on its surface was immensely important to White and, sadly, his death in January 1967 means that no one will ever know if he could have achieved his most exalted goal.

‘‘His goal,’’ said his father, ‘‘is to make that first flight’’. He would have a lot of competition.

From the East


The Sixties were a decade of contrasts. Their three thousand, six hundred and fifty – three days were marked by some of the most tumultuous, violent and devastating, yet far-reaching, inspiring and influential events in human history. They saw enormous political, social and cultural change and have been seen as a nostalgic era of peace and liberalism, overshadowed by a dark cloud of hatred, oppression and wanton excess. They began, ominously, under the longest shadow of the Cold War. Only days after the first man rocketed into space, a newly-elected United States president and a feisty Soviet premier locked horns over the fortunes of a young Cuban revolutionary, bringing the possibility of nuclear war onto an international stage.

As the decade wore on, that very same president was publicly cut down by an assassin’s bullet – as, indeed, was his younger brother a few years later – and the Soviet leader was toppled from office in 1964, hours after bragging to the world of his nation’s latest space triumph. Elsewhere, decades of servile colonialism drew to an end as a handful of African countries finally achieved independence from European mastery; some evolving into stable democracies fit for the modern world, others degenerating into corrupt and despotic dictatorships. Younger generations, inspired by the unequal conservative norms of the time, as well as an increasingly unpopular war brewing in Vietnam, cultivated a social revolution which swept across much of the western world.

Simmering discontent in America’s black community boiled over with the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis and, a year later, with the point-blank assassination of Black Panther Party co-founder Fred Hampton in Chicago. Meanwhile, Vietnam consumed ever-increasing numbers of lives on both sides – including, at My Lai, the infamous massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians – and enforced conscription led to massive opposition, culminating in the 500,000-strong Moratorium protests in late 1969. Voting rights were questioned: why, asked American youth, should they die for their country if they were barred from casting at

the ballot box? Remarkably, amid all this chaos and carnage, men visited the Moon and, as one observer told Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, saved what was otherwise the darkest point of the decade.

On the fringes of Europe, equally divisive measures were being undertaken to forcibly separate eastern communists from the democratic west. Beginning in August 1961, less than a week after the Soviets launched their second cosmonaut, East German troops sealed borders and set about building a physical barrier between the eastern and western halves of Berlin. An initial barbed-wire fence was, by 1965, replaced by one of the most hated icons of the communist regime: the 157 km Berlin Wall. In spite of its clear violation of the Potsdam Agreement (which granted Britain, France and the United States a say over Berlin’s post-war future) little effort was made to challenge the wall by force. Even President John Kennedy’s administration acquiesced that its existence was “a fact of international life’’. Closed by chain fences, walls, minefields and manned by sharpshooters, the despised barrier would divide families, friends and communities for almost three decades.

As Soviets and Americans spacewalked outside their Earth-circling ships and raced to put a man on the Moon, efforts to promote democracy in eastern communist states, including Poland and Yugoslavia, but notably Czechoslovakia, came to nothing. The optimistic Prague reforms of Alexander Dubcek in the spring of 1968 raised such alarm that 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops and thousands of Soviet tanks rumbled into the country to stifle any attempt to create a new nation of pluralism, tolerance and improved human rights. The invasion provoked widespread opposition both within Czechoslovakia – visibly expressed through the self­immolation of student Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square in January 1969 – and from beyond, even from within the Soviet Union itself. Three hundred thousand emigrations from Czechoslovakia to the west represented an exodus so high in number that it has not been seen since. Dubcek himself was forced from office to ensure that, in future, his country would subordinate its interests to those of the Eastern Bloc.

Similar opposition and destruction, not merely of people and places, but of an entire way of life, commenced in 1966, as the abject failure of Chairman Mao’s Five – Year Plan to bring lasting economic prosperity to China culminated in the rampages of the Red Guards and the abolition of the so-called ‘Four Olds’, believed to stand in the way of socialist progress. Over the next few years, old customs, old cultures, old habits and old ideas were systematically eradicated, as the old world was smashed in favour of the new. It should have granted the Chinese people their most extensive period of free speech yet seen; in reality, it was a ‘freedom’ severely impaired by Maoist ideology, military brutality and the biggest single attempt by a nation to eliminate its own identity ever seen in the modern age.

A revolution of a somewhat different kind came one night in February 1964, with the triumphant arrival in New York of four mop-topped Liverpudlians called the ‘Beatles’; their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show transformed them overnight into one of the few British acts at the time to achieve enormous success in the United States. The so-called ‘British Invasion’ was followed by an infusion of new musical talent from across the Atlantic: the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Moody Blues, the

Rolling Stones and the Who. Yet, although the late John Peel once remarked that his distinctive Merseyside accent alone enabled him to break into American radio, the invasion was by no means restricted to music. British movies, characters and television series, from James Bond to Mary Poppins and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ to ‘The Avengers’, were met with great enthusiasm Stateside.

The British Invasion, though, formed only part of a wider ‘counter-culture’, which ran like a broad vein through the mid to late Sixties, encompassing demands for improved rights and freedoms for women, homosexuals and racial minorities. Rampant use of psychedelic drugs seemed to journey hand-in-hand with, and influence, the music, artwork, movies and attitudes of the time. Only months after three American astronauts died in a launch pad fire and a Soviet cosmonaut plunged to his death when his parachute failed, one of the defining moments of this counter­culture came with San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love and the associated rise of the hippie movement. Two years later came Woodstock, although the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings of August 1969 provoked growing mistrust of the counter­culture and its lax morals. Indeed, the excesses of the period prompted Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kanter to quip: ‘‘If you can remember anything about the Sixties, you weren’t really there!’’

It is fortunate, therefore, that another of the decade’s most persistent themes will remain forever entrenched in human memory. After countless millennia spent staring up at the heavens and wondering what lay beyond the thin veil of our atmosphere, men – and, in 1963, a woman – finally broke free of their home planet. Some would spend many days circling Earth, others would open hatches and venture outside in pressurised space suits to work, still more would dock their spacecraft together and a few hardy souls would visit the Moon. By the end of the first decade of humanity’s adventure in space, men would have left their footprints in lunar dust.

We would be naive and foolish to suppose that Russia and America – communist and capitalist rivals – undertook these escapades for purely scientific and peaceful purposes, although undoubtedly both of these reasons played a part. The development of rockets capable of hurling humans into space emerged from a long-nurtured desire on both sides to send weapons across thousands of kilometres and drop them onto each other’s cities. In fact, at an August 1961 press conference in Moscow to announce the flight of the second cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, a New York Tribune journalist was not interested in the scientific accomplishments of the mission, but rather in its military implications. Was Titov’s Vostok 2 spacecraft, the journalist asked, capable of delivering bombs to pre-selected spots on Earth? The cosmonaut, with a hint of embarrassment, replied that it was not, but the question certainly demonstrated the reality that space was the new ‘high ground’ and would be exploited by both superpowers for their own ends.


Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova’s parents provided the almost-perfect socialist background that Khrushchev wanted to present to the outside world. Her father, a

tractor driver, had fought in the Russian Army as a sergeant and tank commander, dying in the Finnish Winter War when Tereshkova was two years old. Following her historic mission, incidentally, she was asked about possible ways in which the Soviet Union could demonstrate its gratitude to her: she requested a search to be conducted for the exact location of her father’s death. This was duly done and a monument stands today in Lemetti, on the Russian side of the border with Finland, to commemorate Vladimir Tereshkov.

After her father’s death, her mother single-handedly raised three children whilst working at the Krasny Perekop cotton mill. The young Tereshkova, who had been born on 6 March 1937 in the village of Bolshoye Maslennikovo, on the Volga River in the Yaroslavl Oblast of the western Soviet Union, did not commence her formal schooling until she was ten years old. She worked variously making coats, serving as an apprentice in a tyre factory and finally joined her mother and sister in 1955 as a loom operator at the cotton mill. She continued her academic studies in tandem, taking correspondence courses and eventually graduating from the Light Industry Technical School.

Her interest in aviation crystallised with membership of the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club, in which she quickly proved herself to be a skilful amateur parachutist, completing her first jump aged just 22. By the time she was picked as a cosmonaut candidate in March 1962, she had no fewer than 126 jumps under her belt and it was this achievement, coupled with the need for Vostok fliers to parachute out of their capsules during descent, which aided her selection. Her family and friends knew nothing of her plans: even her mother was under the impression that Tereshkova would be undertaking ‘special studies’ for a women’s precision skydiving team. In fact, the first that Yelena Tereshkova knew about her daughter’s achievement was on the day of her launch, via Radio Moscow.

Tereshkova’s technical qualifications, admittedly, were lower than those of her male counterparts in the cosmonaut team, but her role as an active Party member – she had been the secretary of her local Young Communist League in 1961 – together with a war-hero father certainly brought her to the attention of the selection board and, finally, Khrushchev.

She was also well-liked by Kamanin as being ‘‘suitably feminine’’ and modest and, indeed, would demonstrate such attributes in an article entitled ‘Women in Space’, published by an American journal some years later. ‘‘I believe a woman should always remain a woman,’’ she wrote, ‘‘and nothing feminine should be alien to her. At the same time, I strongly feel that no work done by a woman in the field of science or culture. . . however vigorous or demanding, can enter into conflict with her ancient ‘wonderful mission’ to love and be loved and with her craving for the bliss of motherhood.’’ She was also doggedly determined in her efforts. Although she did not score the highest of the five candidates in her exams, her consistent effort prompted Yuri Gagarin to once comment that ‘‘she tackled the job stubbornly and devoted much of her own time to study, poring over books and notes in the evening’’. That was Tereshkova. Modest. Determined. Hard working. A good communist. To Khrushchev, she was ideal; the perfect candidate.


John Glenn’s flight – dubbed Mercury-Atlas 6 or, in keeping with Shepard and Grissom’s spacecraft-naming tradition, ‘Friendship 7’ – was eagerly awaited by the United States, although it proved a long time coming. The choice of name, Glenn recalled in his memoir, had been made by his children, Dave and Lyn. ‘‘They pored over a thesaurus and wrote dozens of names in a notebook,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Then they worked them down to several possibilities, names and words, including Columbia, Endeavour, America, Magellan, We, Hope, Harmony and Kindness. At the top of their list was their first choice: Friendship.’’ Although the name would be kept quiet until the morning of launch, Glenn had privately asked Cecelia Bibby, the artist at Hangar S, to inscribe the name on his capsule in script-like characters, adding more individuality than the block lettering employed to stencil Freedom and Liberty Bell onto Shepard and Grissom’s spacecraft.

‘‘From what John Glenn told me later, [he] had decided that he wanted the name of his spacecraft applied in script and applied by hand,’’ Bibby said, ‘‘because Al Shepard’s and Gus Grissom’s names had been applied by some mechanic who went into town, got a can of spray paint, a stencil-cut of the names and then spray-painted them onto the capsule.’’ Apparently, added Bibby, Glenn felt that men had such poor handwriting that a female artist would be preferable. When she painted the name on the capsule, Bibby, clad in white clean-room garb, became the only woman to ascend the gantry to Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral and was even told by a disgruntled Guenter Wendt that she did not belong there. So pleased was Glenn with the design that Gus Grissom dared Bibby to secretly paint naked women on the spacecraft as well.

She rose to the challenge, not by painting on the exterior of Friendship 7, but by drawing a naked woman on the inside of a cap used to cover the periscope. Although the cap would be jettisoned before launch, it would be seen by Glenn as he boarded the capsule and hopefully might give him a laugh. Reading ‘It’s just you and me against the world, John Baby’, the drawing was placed there by Bibby’s friend, launch pad engineer Sam Beddingfield. The launch itself was scrubbed, but Bibby got into work the following morning to find a note from Glenn, ‘‘telling me he had


With artist Cece Bibby proudly looking on, John Glenn displays the Friendship 7 logo on the side of his spacecraft.

gotten a big kick out of the drawing”. Bibby was almost fired for her practical joke, although fortunately both Grissom and Glenn intervened on her behalf and saved her. Later in the launch preparations, she sent Glenn another gift: this time a drawing of a frumpy old woman in a house dress, bearing mop and bucket and the legend ‘You were expecting maybe someone else, John Baby?’ Not long afterwards, Glenn’s backup, Scott Carpenter, requested a naked woman for his own capsule, Aurora 7, which would fly the second American orbital mission in May 1962 …

Sadly, the news at the beginning of the year was nowhere near as light-hearted: a launch attempt on 16 January was postponed by at least a week, due to technical problems with the Atlas rocket’s fuel tanks. With each successive delay, more criticism was voiced from journalists and congressmen, who questioned whether Project Mercury – already a year behind the Soviets – would ever succeed in placing a man into orbit. Even President Kennedy, at a news conference on 14 February, expressed disappointment, although he felt that the final decision on when to launch should be left to the Mercury team. Others, however, commended NASA’s frankness in conveying the reasons for each delay. It was stressed that the orbital mission had been planned for over three years and a few more weeks’ delay was of little consequence, a sentiment shared by Glenn himself, who described being not “particularly shook-up” by the postponements.

Indeed, according to planning charts issued by NASA in April I960, the orbital mission was originally scheduled for May 1961, then July, October and ultimately December. A variety of manufacturing changes to Glenn’s capsule – Spacecraft No. 13 off the McDonnell production line – had contributed to delays in its progress: a shortage of environmental control components had virtually stalled work in October 1960 and then extensive re-planning ordered after the MA-3 failure in April 1961 prompted NASA to assign No. 13 to the first manned orbital mission. By the end of August, the capsule had been delivered to Cape Canaveral and early in January 1962 was mated to its Atlas launch vehicle on Pad 14.

Following the 23 January postponement, caused by poor weather, another attempt was scheduled for the cloudy morning of the 27th. Glenn rose early for his low-residue breakfast of filet mignon, scrambled eggs, orange juice and toast with jelly, before undergoing the laborious process of having biosensors glued onto his body and his pressure suit fitted. That day, he lay inside Friendship 7 for more than five hours, hoping for a break in the overcast skies. It never came and, at T-20 minutes, Walt Williams scrubbed the launch. “It was one of those days,’’ Williams remembered later, “when nothing was wrong, but nothing was just right either.’’ Another event, back in Arlington, Virginia, which did not go right, at least for Vice­President Lyndon Johnson, was his plan to visit Glenn’s home… complete with a television crew and a horde of the media.

Johnson also asked for Life journalist Loudon Wainwright, who was in attendance at Glenn’s house as part of the Mercury Seven magazine deal, to leave. Annie Glenn, who wanted nothing less than to have television lights in her home and wanted Wainwright to stay, flatly rejected Johnson’s request. “I understand the vice­president was pretty pissed off,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, “and that he wasn’t too happy with Jim Webb or Webb’s astronauts at that point.’’ In the weeks that followed, there were theories, Slayton added, “that Webb had gotten ticked-off at John Glenn’’ as a result of the episode and had begun searching for a way in which to better ‘control’ his astronauts. Some observers would speculate that Slayton, assigned to fly the next Mercury-Atlas orbital mission, would be an unfortunate victim of Webb’s politicking. Although it was not a theory that Slayton himself supported, he remained convinced, years later, that the decision made about his career just weeks after Glenn’s flight ‘‘was political’’.

After the 27 January postponement, Glenn’s launch was initially targeted for 1 February, necessitating the emptying, purging and refilling of the Atlas’ propellant tanks. Then, two days before launch, on the 30th, as the ground support team began refuelling, a mechanic discovered, by routinely opening a drain plug, that there was fuel in the cavity between the structural bulkhead and an insulation bulkhead which separated the propellant tanks. Initial estimates suggested at least a ten-day delay to correct the problem and recheck the rocket’s systems. The 600 accredited members of the media at the Cape could do little but groan as John Glenn’s launch was postponed yet again, this time until no earlier than 13 February.

Most of the journalists quickly dispersed, together with Glenn himself, who spent a few days with his family at home in Arlington, before travelling to the White House for a brief visit with President Kennedy. For the astronaut, it was time of peaks and troughs. “I think people normally build up to a peak when they are getting ready for an event as complicated as this,” he said later, “and here we had a situation where we kept building up psychologically and nothing happened. It was like crying ‘wolf5 over and over again. But I needn’t have worried at all. These people kept working and preparing and lost none of their sharpness.’’ Some psychologists were concerned that he would suffer emotionally under the strain. In Glenn’s mind, the delays simply gave him extra time to run each day, to study, to read and respond to mail (one of which told him that it was God’s way of letting him know that he shouldn’t tamper with the heavens) and to work in the simulators.

‘‘If I was suffering,’’ he said, ‘‘I wasn’t aware of it and neither were the psychiatrists whose job it was to keep track of my emotions. The nearest I came to getting upset was after I visited a friend’s house for a home-cooked meal and a quiet evening with his family. A couple of days later, it turned out that the friend’s children had the mumps. As far as I could remember, I’d never had them. Delays for weather and for technical difficulties were facts I could accept, but a postponement or a possible replacement while the astronaut recovered from a childhood disease seemed a bit silly. It would make quite a headline!’’

On 13 February, although weather conditions remained foul, NASA personnel began to move back into position to attempt a launch. The media’s pessimism was reflected in their turnout: by that evening, only 200 had checked in at the nearby Cocoa Beach motels. Their doubt was well-placed and the launch gradually slipped towards the end of the month. By the 19th, with liftoff rescheduled for the following morning, the Weather Bureau predicted only a 50 per cent chance of a launch: conditions in the recovery zones were fine, but the Cape was poor. A frontal system had been observed moving across central Florida, which, it was surmised, could cause broken cloud over the Cape in the early hours of the next day.

Glenn rose early on the morning of 20 February, to be greeted by physician Bill Douglas at 2:00 am, who told him that the weather still offered little more than a 50­50 chance of a successful launch. After breakfast, he underwent the now-customary pre-flight examination and was outfitted with biosensors and helped into his silver pressure suit. Technician Joe Schmitt tested the suit and Bill Douglas ran a hose into a fish tank to check the purity of the air supply – dead fish meaning bad air – which offered Glenn the chance for some humour. ‘‘Bill, did you know a couple of those fish are floating belly-up?’’ Douglas’ shocked reaction as he rushed over to the tank was soon arrested by a broad grin on Glenn’s face.

Out at Pad 14, clouds rolled overhead by the time the astronaut arrived outside the capsule at 6:00 am. However, forecasters were predicting possible breaks by mid-morning, producing a different atmosphere on the gantry, with less casual chatter, as if everyone sensed, said Glenn, ‘‘that we were going for real this time’’. Weather caused the original launch time to be missed and a broken microphone bracket inside Glenn’s helmet required repair before Friendship 7’s hatch could be finally closed and bolted at 7:10 am. One of the bolts sheared, necessitating the removal of the hatch while it was replaced. (Several months earlier, Gus Grissom


Godspeed, John Glenn!” The Atlas takes flight with a man aboard.


flew with a defective hatch bolt, but this time Walt Williams was taking no chances.)

Forty minutes later, the countdown resumed. By the time the pad crew moved clear of the Atlas, Glenn – whose pulse varied from 60-80 beats per minute – was granted his first view of blue skies as the realisation took hold that 20 February might be ‘The Day’. He was also assailed by the peculiar, eerie sense of being atop the silvery rocket. ‘‘I could hear the sound of pipes whining below me as the liquid oxygen flowed into the tanks and heard a vibrant hissing noise,’’ he said later. ‘‘The Atlas is so tall that it sways slightly in heavy gusts of wind and, in fact, I could set the whole structure to rocking a bit by moving back and forth in the couch!’’ Thirty-five minutes before launch, the rocket’s liquid oxygen supply was topped off and, despite another brief hold caused by a stuck fuel pump outlet valve and a last-minute electrical power failure at the Bermuda tracking station, the clock resumed ticking.

With 18 seconds to go, the countdown switched to automatic control and, at four seconds, Glenn ‘‘felt, rather than heard’’ the engines roaring to life far below. At 9:47:39 am, with a thunder that overwhelmed Scott Carpenter’s ‘‘Godspeed, John Glenn’’ send-off, the Atlas’ hold-down posts separated and the enormous rocket began to climb. The ‘gas bag’ was on its way.


As the crew debate continued, the spacecraft itself was put rigorously through its paces in the summer of 1964. Air-drop tests to verify its new soft-landing system were conducted close to the Black Sea resort of Feodosia. These proved initially successful, but on 29 August problems materialised when jettisoning the parachute hatch: an error in the circuit design caused it to fail and the test capsule – which some sources suggest was Gherman Titov’s old Vostok 2 – was destroyed. In retrospect, Korolev claimed the test capsule’s electrical system was not representative of a ‘production’ Voskhod and, at a State Commission on 18 September he declared that he was ready to certify the new spacecraft as ready to fly. The final air-drop on 3 October, with Korolev present, was successful. However, other glitches remained.

Firstly, the launch of a Vostok-based Zenit 4 reconnaissance satellite, employing a rocket identical to that planned for Voskhod 1, was aborted on the pad when one of its first-stage strap-on boosters failed to ignite. It was the first such failure in more than a hundred launches of Korolev’s Little Seven. Rescheduled for mid-September, the Zenit liftoff was normal, quantifying the rocket’s capabilities and clearing it for use with Voskhod 1. Then, as the launch neared, the spacecraft’s Tral telemetry system exhibited discrepancies, requiring a week to fix. Finally, on 6 October, a full – duration, day-long unmanned dress rehearsal of the Voskhod 1 mission was flown under the cover name of ‘Cosmos 47’.

Early plans called for dogs to be flown, although this was eventually set aside in favour of full-sized mannequins. The Cosmos 47 spacecraft duly entered a 177-413 km orbit, inclined 64.8 degrees to the equator, and flew for 24 hours before landing in Kustanai. It was returned to Tyuratam on the 8th for examination, which

“The world’s first passenger spaceship” 189

confirmed that both its interior, exterior and – perhaps most importantly – its soft – landing parachute were in good shape. Indeed, Cosmos 47 was described as having “zero velocity” on impact with the ground, penetrating merely 90 mm into the soil, and, although strong winds dragged the parachute and capsule some 160 m after touchdown, it was decided that a cosmonaut crew could jettison the canopy and endure this. The Little Seven, too, performed well, despite a slight depletion in thrust which was supplemented by the engine controller.

By 11 October, the Moscow rumour mill was billing Voskhod 1 as the ‘Soviet Apollo’; a false illusion that would endure for many years. Wire services relayed news of a forthcoming flight with a cosmonaut known only as ‘K’, who was described as a violin player, a full Communist Party member and the bearer of a Ukrainian accent! Some observers already suspected Vladimir Komarov’s involve­ment, particularly in light of an earlier rumour, in mid-August, when the Vostok 3 and 4 cosmonauts revealed that their backups were ready to fly. Those backups happened to be Komarov and Boris Volynov, which made some sense.

More problems with the Tral system on the evening before launch, which necessitated its last-minute replacement and, according to Nikolai Kamanin in his diary, caused Korolev to fly into a rage, did not conspire to delay the flight. The morning of 12 October dawned frosty, wrote Kamanin, although he considered it ideal: wind speeds were gentle and visibility extended to more than 20 km. The State Commission approved the launch at 3:00 am Moscow Time and, shortly thereafter, the Voskhod 1 crew – Komarov, Yegorov and Feoktistov – were awakened. The men washed, ate breakfast and were fitted with biosensors and dressed in blue flight garments. Since no pressurised suits would be worn, all three were fully outfitted by 7:00 am and ready to ride to the pad. During this quiet time, Kamanin advised them of secret code words to be used during the mission: ‘‘Outstanding’’ would mean just that, ‘‘Good’’ would denote the appearance of problems and ‘‘Satisfactory’’ would request an immediate emergency landing.

By 8:15 am, the cosmonauts had arrived at Gagarin’s Start and Komarov rendered a smart salute and a declaration to the State Commission’s chairman that he and his crew were ready to perform their mission. The two fliers whom Kamanin had labelled ‘invalids’ were first to enter the capsule; donning suede slippers, Yegorov boarded first, then Feoktistov moved to his middle seat and Komarov brought up the rear in his couch, closest to the hatch.

Launch itself came at 10:30 am Moscow Time – or 12:30 pm local time in Tyuratam – and the ride to orbit, thankfully, was uneventful. Indeed, Kamanin and Korolev had already discussed the crew’s dire predicament in the event of a booster failure: a safe recovery was simply impossible for at least the first half-minute of the ascent and even an abort during the remainder of the climb to orbit only ‘‘should’’ have been achievable and survivable. (Korolev, apparently, was so nervous that he was visibly shaking during Voskhod 1’s ascent.) With the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps fortuitous that only two of these exceptionally high-risk ventures were ever attempted with men aboard.

Five hundred and twenty-three seconds later, Voskhod 1 entered orbit. Communications between Komarov and fellow cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at


The crew of sardines: Feoktistov, Komarov and Yegorov.

Tyuratam had been clear and consistent throughout the ascent phase and the first few hours of the mission were characterised by only minor problems. A false reading was registered by Yegorov’s biosensors, then there was a two-hour delay in confirming the correct operation of Voskhod 1’s orientation system and the cabin temperature rose unexpectedly from 15°C to 21°C. However, by the seventh orbit, all cabin readings – pressure, humidity, gas composition and temperature – were normal and voice contact and televised images from the cabin proved crisp and clear.

At 11:46 am, a UPI wire revealed that “… the Soviet Union today launched the world’s first passenger spaceship with three men aboard…’’ and Radio Moscow’s famous wartime announcer Yuri Levitan boomed out the news to an astonished world. Orbital parameters were given as 178-408 km, inclined 64.9 degrees to the equator, and radio hams in western Europe and North America picked up Morse transmissions from the spacecraft, identifying Komarov’s callsign of ‘Ruby’. The three cosmonauts extended greetings to the athletes of the 1964 Olympic Games, which had begun two days earlier in Tokyo, and spoke to both Nikita Khrushchev and his deputy, Anastas Mikoyan. At one stage, Khrushchev declared that Mikoyan ‘‘is standing next to me and is keen to take the telephone receiver from me’’. Within hours, not only the telephone receiver, but also the mantle of power as head of the Soviet Union, would have been taken from him. By the time Voskhod 1 parachuted to terra firma on the afternoon of 13 October 1964, Russia would be under new management.

From thaw to stagnation 191


Physical conditioning would prove crucial for Ed White’s survival on the United States’ first spacewalk, as fellow astronaut Gene Cernan would discover on his own excursion a year later. During training, White spent a total of 60 hours in vacuum chambers, rehearsing opening the hatch, pushing himself outside and moving around in a mockup of the space suit that he would wear, all at simulated altitudes of up to 55 km. The suit itself weighed 14 kg, cost over $30,000 to construct and comprised no fewer than 22 layers to provide protection from the intense heat of direct sunlight to the frigid cold of orbital darkness and, Time magazine told its readers, ‘‘as a pressure force to keep White’s body from exploding in the near-vacuum of space’’. Estimates that the suit could be punctured by a high-velocity micrometeorite were placed at about 10,000 to one, although tests blasted it with splinters of plastic fired at speeds of 7.6 km per second – and it held its own. The hand-held manoeuvring unit, which White would position just below his midriff, consisted of two cylinders of compressed oxygen, belted to a handle which also acted as a trigger to send jets of air through a pair of hollow tubes. White would position it as necessary to aim its impulse through his centre of mass in order to make a specific movement.

As the launch drew nearer and information about the forthcoming spacewalk trickled out, some sections of the media expressed scepticism that it had been a long – planned exercise and felt it was a hastily-concocted stunt to catch up with the Russians. Chris Kraft, the lead flight director for Gemini IV, angrily suppressed such talk. “We’re not playing Mickey Mouse with this thing,” he snapped. “We’re trying to carry out flight operations. I don’t think it’s very fair to suggest we’re carrying out a propaganda stunt.’’

In spite of the doubts, the media response to the mission was enormous. All 800 seats in the MSC’s main auditorium proved woefully inadequate for the 1,100 journalists who requested accreditation before the launch and NASA was forced to lease a nearby building at a total cost of $96,165 per year, plus $181,000 for modifications, television monitors and chairs, to handle the overspill. This ‘Gemini News Center’ would track each mission over the next 17 months and provide a base for over a thousand newspaper, magazine, radio and television representatives, as well as five dozen public relations groups from industry.

Twelve hours before liftoff, a Martin team began the lengthy effort to fuel the Titan II, while the backup crew of Frank Borman and Jim Lovell oversaw checks inside the capsule itself – flipping switches to their launch positions, testing communication circuits and handling routine chores for McDivitt and White. The prime crew was duly awakened at 4:10 am on 3 June 1965 and marched crisply through their medical checks, steak-and-eggs breakfast, suited-up and were at the foot of Pad 19 by 7:07 am. Among the procedures put into place in support of White’s EVA – which would necessitate the depressurisation of the entire cabin, thus exposing McDivitt to vacuum, too – was prebreathing pure oxygen to flush nitrogen from their bloodstreams and avoid attacks of the bends.

Once aboard the spacecraft, White’s faceplate fogged, but he quickly cleared the problem by switching on his suit fan. Then, barely half an hour before the scheduled launch, as the erector was being lowered, it stuck at a 12-degree angle from the Titan. A second attempt was made to raise then lower it, but it stuck again. Eventually, engineers discovered an improperly-fitted connector in a junction box, replaced it and the erector lowered. After a 76-minute delay, Gemini IV speared for the heavens at 10:16 am, to the synchronised yells of ‘‘Beautiful!’’ from both McDivitt and White. Despite initial pogo effects, which caused the astronauts to stutter their words over the communications link, the Titan quickly calmed down and gave them a perfect ride to orbit. They would later describe it as exhibiting little noise, but stressed that the near-perfect silence was shattered abruptly when pyrotechnics jettisoned the first stage and the second stage ignited.

Monitoring the ascent and, indeed, the entire mission, were 300 flight controllers, technicians, engineers, physicians, and scientists supervised by Chris Kraft in the new MOCR. In the Real Time Computer Complex, five IBM 7094-11 computers each processed 50,000 bits of telemetry per second from the vehicle. Also watching the launch, thanks to live television coverage from the Intelsat 1 (‘Early Bird’) satellite in geostationary orbit, were citizens of a dozen European nations.

Within minutes, Gemini IV had entered an initial elliptical orbit of 163-282 km and, almost immediately, McDivitt set to work on the first task of the mission: to station-keep with the Titan II’s second stage. It was whilst attempting this manoeuvre that they encountered problems. Firstly, despite having been outfitted with flashing, 2.5 million-candlepower lights, the stage had not been designed as a rendezvous target and when the capsule entered orbital nighttime, it was rendered almost invisible to them. Moreover, it was tumbling and the astronauts were cautious about getting too close. Difficulty in judging distances by eyesight alone complicated matters yet further.

When they first spotted the booster, propellant streaming from its nozzle, McDivitt estimated it to be 120 m from them, whereas White felt it was 70 m away. McDivitt cancelled the motion imparted by the separation manoeuvre and thrusted towards the target, but after two OAMS burns he was surprised to observe that the Titan seemed to move ‘away’ and ‘downward’. A few minutes later, he pitched the spacecraft nose-down and pulsed the thrusters again, with no success. Approaching orbital nighttime by this point, he reported that he could see the flashing lights, but that the gap seemed to have increased, he guessed, to around 600 m. For a while, circumstances improved and McDivitt felt he was gaining on the stage, but with the early streaks of dawn its lights dimmed and vanished from view. At length, realising that he was wasting precious propellant, McDivitt asked Chris Kraft which objective was more important – rendezvous or EVA – and was assured that the latter was the mission’s main task.

Their biggest obstacle of all, as rendezvous expert (and fellow astronaut) Buzz Aldrin would explain after the flight, was a lack of understanding of basic orbital mechanics. ‘‘When they emerged into daylight, the booster was below and ahead of Gemini IV,’’ wrote Tom Stafford, who was following the mission closely in anticipation of his own rendezvous on Gemini VI. ‘‘Jim’s instinctive move was to thrust toward it, as though he were flying formation in a jet airplane. By doing so, of course, he increased the speed – and moved into a higher orbit even further behind the booster. The only way to get even close to the Titan, in these circumstances, would have been to fire thrusters retrograde – against the direction of travel – slowing the Gemini and dropping its orbit.’’ It was an early lesson: adding speed raises altitude, moving a spacecraft into a higher orbit than its target. However, paradoxically, the faster-moving spacecraft actually slows in comparison to the target, since its orbital period – a direct function of its distance from the centre of gravity – also increases. To catch up with a target ahead, future crews would drop into a lower orbit, then rise back up to meet it.

It was an early lesson, admittedly, but not an easy one. ‘‘It’s a hard thing to learn,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, ‘‘since it’s kind of backward from anything you know as a pilot.’’ Added engineer Andre Meyer: ‘‘We just didn’t understand or reason out the orbital mechanics involved. As a result, we all got a whole lot smarter and really perfected rendezvous manoeuvres.’’