Except for this one incident, the six orbital flights of Project Mercury were to proceed as planned. Modifications in life-support systems were continuous as increasing experience was gained. Also, as the missions progressed, the initial elaborate medical procedures for tracking and recovery operations were modified. Increasingly, NASA turned to its own growing medical in-house capability and became less dependent upon the Services for medical support.
The author remembers vividly the contrast between the first suborbital flight, viewed on television from the conference room of the USAF Surgeon General in Washington, D.C., on May 5, 1961 and the 22-orbit flight of Astronaut Cooper, last of the Mercury flights, which was viewed from the blockhouse at Cape Canaveral on May 15, 1963.
In 1961, the U.S. capability was untried. Now, in 1963, there was confidence born of experience. The author recalls the predawn trip from Patrick Air Force Base to the Cape on May 14, 1963, and the long wait atop the blockhouse as events on the gantry seemed slowly to take shape. Through binoculars the orange-red gantry could be viewed at close range; and with the naked eye it could be seen in the distance as the sun rose. Nearby, the noisy helicopters waited and the scuba divers in their black leotards and fin shoes lounged in readiness. The sounds of the loudspeaker to system battled with those of transistor radios carried by various individuals.
That morning there appeared to be trouble with the gantry, and as the visitors stared at the spacecraft poised on the launch vehicle that spewed a continuous white steam from the area near the ground, there was intermittent conversation . . .
"Do you remember," one medical officer asked another, "how one of the astronauts found it imperative to void in his pressure flight suit prior to countdown?"
"And do you remember," asked someone else, "the ham sandwich that was smuggled aboard a previous flight?"
Apocryphal or not, these were reminders that it was man-a normal, functioning man, constrained in his activities by biological considerations that science and technology could not change—who was being launched into orbit.
Suddenly, then, the word "Scrub!" The flight was postponed.
Next day the observers waited as they had waited the previous day; the countdown finally ticked away; the big Atlas slowly rose off the pad, gaining speed, turned in the direction of the block-house, and soared out of sight. Through the long day, the author, like the world, waited and watched by television the progress of the Astronaut Cooper. At one point, General Roadman took her, along with other NASA Headquarters Space Medicine observers, to the Mercury Control Room. Sitting silently, watching, were Dr. Gilruth and D. Brainerd Holmes. Behind them were the group of new astronauts, chosen to supplement the original seven. In the center of the room sat Lt. Col. Charles Berry, USAF (MC) (who bad succeeded Dr. Stanley White), at one of the control positions. At this point in the mission it might be a medical decision as to whether, at any time, the flight would be cut short.7
This flight, successfully concluded after 22 orbits, brought Project
Mercury to a close.
7. Personal notes of the author.