Events were to move swiftly toward the climax—the actual flight of the first U.S. man in space. All bore an interrelationship not only with science and technology, but also with the reassessment of U.S. goals in space exploration.
In the weeks following the suborbital flight of chimpanzee Ham on January 31, 1961, the life-sciences community began with renewed vigor to assess the biomedical program and to weigh the implications of earl manned space flight without further animal experimentation. Secondhand sources, for example, have indicated to the author that highly placed officials, suggested facetiously that centrifuges be transported to Africa where chimpanzees would be readily available for further testing prior to actual manned flight. Be that apocryphal or not, it would seem to indicate the trepidation felt by certain members of the life-sciences group who felt that, at best, the Atlas launch vehicle was marginal and that perhaps manned space flight should proceed at a slower and more conservative pace rather than take what seemed an unwarranted risk with human life.13
In contrast to the scientists who desired further extensive animal testing prior to manned flight, the operations staff of STG had moved forward with confidence toward the first U.S. suborbital flight. Since 1958 their total effort had been to bend the potential of technology to overcome the hazards of space travel. The STG aeromedical team, having witnessed the application of technology to the problems of human survival in flight, was now satisfied that extension of the principles and practice of aviation medicine would suffice to sustain the astronaut for a short mission in space. Extended space flight would pose biological problems not yet understood; but the short-range Mercury flights must be undertaken as a logical step in the orderly progression of steps necessary to solve these problems.*
So intent was the Space Task Group upon the forthcoming Shepard flight—and the realization of a 3-year dream—that they may have given little thought to other developments. At NASA Headquarters, for example the long-range life-sciences program was getting underway, having been established the previous March in accordance with the recommendations of the Kety committee. At the national level, a new administration had just come into office, and Dr. Glennan, the NASA Administrator, had been succeeded by James E. Webb. But at the STG level, there had been no concomitant change in the mission-oriented staff. Dr. Gilruth remained Director of Project Mercury; W. C. Williams was Operations Director; and the aeromedical team remained relatively unchanged. Dr. White continued to direct Medical Operations, and Dr. Douglas continued to be personal physician to the astronauts.
Apparently one point of continuing concern to life scientists outside
NASA had been the lack of a program to measure blood pressure. Indeed,
as early as the period of the Stever committee, the Lovelace ad hoc committee
had recommended that this measurement be taken. Now, in April 1961, the
Director of Life Sciences, NASA Headquarters, was to contract with Webb
Associates, Yellow Springs, Ohio, to survey current capabilities in blood
pressure measurement, state of the art, and suitability for use in space
More than a dozen laboratories in Government and industry across the country were visited during May 1961 by Webb Associates. Four different instruments were found from which a choice could be made by NASA. This information, together with the results of an extensive literature search, was made available to Dr. Henry at the Space Task Group.14 In addition, a preliminary review of previous related experiences in laboratory stress situations was undertaken. This included such stresses as acceleration, heat and cold, hypoxia and hyperoxia, hypocapnia and hypercapnia, vestibular stimulation, and vibration.
The results of this study were to have impact in later flights, but not in April 1961 as the Space Task Group (STG) concentrated upon the immediate problem at hand—the MR-3 flight.
By April the crescendo of activities had begun to mount at an unprecedented pace as the days drew near for countdown and launch.
All plans for the Shepard flight had been made.
The eyes of the world were focused on one geographical spot—Cape Canaveral. Terms such as "gantry" and "cherry picker" were becoming part of the world language.
Soon there would be countdown…
The author can remember in vivid detail the tension and great sense of dedication reflected by every team member at the Cape, each grateful for his own small part in this unprecedented event. On April 12, she was one of the group from the Office of the Surgeon General, USAF, which was visiting Cape Canaveral for a Mercury briefing and a staff visit to Grand Bahama Island, where the prefabricated surgical hospital and debriefing unit had been recently built. This briefing had been arranged by Col. George M. Knauf, the DOD Assistant for Bioastronautics, Project Mercury.
Each person living then would remember his own reaction to that historic day, April 12, 1961, and tell his children and his children's children; but that visiting group would remember it with particular intensity.
There had been the ride by military bus from Patrick Air Force, Base to the Cape Canaveral complex, and the strict security guard at the gate.
Then the ride along the stark flat land with the gantries in the distance rising orange-red into the sky. And finally, the briefing room.
It was during the briefing by General Flickinger, Assistant for Bioastronautics to General Schriever, Commander of the Air Force Systems Command, that be was handed a note. He read it, then quietly announced to the group: "They've got a man in orbit." "They" meant the Soviet Union.
Disappointment, yes, that the United States had not been first—that was the immediate reaction. Following close, then, the sense of pride in what man, with his scientific knowledge, had been able to accomplish. And then, the new girding of will and dedication to the U.S. effort … this was the emotional pattern that day. Or so it seemed to the writer.
On this day, April 12, 1961, the Russians had successfully orbited the first man in space.
Six weeks later, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy would announce as a national objective an accelerated space program to accomplish a landing on the moon in the 1969-70 period instead of sometime after 1970 as projected by the previous administration.
Success obviously breeds success, and now that technology had validated the fact that man could be provided with the necessary life-support systems for short-term space flight, there would be the orderly progression to overcome the biological hazards of extended space flight. As a first step, the United States would carry out the Shepard suborbital flight as planned. For, although Gagarin had demonstrated that man could survive space travel, the United States had yet to test its own spacecraft and life-support system.
During the 3 weeks after the Gagarin flight, the pace of activities at Cape Canaveral, the command post, intensified. Waiting—checking the last-minute details—tense to the point of explosion—the aeromedical team had gathered together from the comers of the earth to focus upon one lone man who, atop a rocket, would shortly plunge into the unknown.
There was the waiting period for the astronaut as he went into retreat, accompanied only by his fellow astronauts and by the aeromedical team.
Finally, in the very early hours of the morning he would arise, partake of a hearty low-residue breakfast, be dressed in his pressure suit, enter the waiting van with Dr. Douglas, his personal physician, and start through the morning darkness toward the gantry and the unknown.
Astronaut Shepard was ready.
* There was no document available to the author by which to gage the reaction of the President but, in the light of historical fact, it appears that he took no step to postpone the MR-3 flight, thereby indicating his own confidnce in the mission. This part of the Mercury history remains yet to be written.
13. It was not possible to document this statement from official sources, but the author has discussed the problem with officials closely associated with the Mercury program.
14. "A Survey and Evaluation of Methods
of Measuring Blood Pressure for Immediate Space Flight Programs," prepared
under contract NASr-51 for the Office of Life Science Programs, NASA, by
Webb Associates, June 30, 1961. Also, personal conversations by the author
with Dr. Paul Webb, Principal Investigator, Webb Associates, in the spring
of 1964. This problem is discussed In detail in The Measurement of Blood
Pressure in the Human Body, NASA SP-5006,1964, pp. 17 ff.