Part 3 - Operations

Chapter 11

Suborbital Flights into Space

[341] AT 9:34 a.m. on May 5, 1961, about 45 million Americans sat tensely before their television screens and watched a slim black-and-white Redstone booster, capped with a Mercury spacecraft manned by Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., lift off its pad at Cape Canaveral and go roaring upward through blue sky toward black space.

At 2.3 seconds after launch, Shepard's voice came through clearly to Mercury Control; minutes later the millions heard the historic transmission:

Ahh, Roger; lift-off and the clock is started . . . Yes, sir, reading you loud and clear. This is Freedom 7. The fuel is go; 1.2 g; cabin at 14 psi; oxygen is go . . . Freedom 7 is still go!
America's first man in space was in flight only 15 minutes and 22 seconds and was weightless only a third of that time. Freedom 7 rose to an altitude of 116.5 miles, attained a maximum speed of 5180 miles per hour, and landed 302 miles downrange from the Cape. Shepard experienced a peak stress of 6 g during booster acceleration and less than 12 g on reentry. Recovery operations went perfectly, the spacecraft was undamaged, and Shepard was in excellent and exuberant condition.1

In the light of later American space accomplishments, the flight of Freedom 7 was impressive for its benchmark of technical excellence in the new technology of manned space flight and its hallmark of open media reporting. When compared, as it inevitably was, with the previous April 12 orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin, MR-3 was anticlimatic.

Ever since December 1958, when T. Keith Glennan, the NASA Administrator, had announced Project Mercury, the American public had awaited the first manned Mercury flight with fairly general misgivings. Many people whose expectations had been stimulated by publicity became impatient at the long delays and postponements. Some deplored the whole space program as wasteful and of doubtful value. A few still believed space travel was impossible for human beings.

[342] Then, on February 22, 1961, the Space Task Group announced that Shepard, John H. Glenn, and Virgil I. Grissom had been chosen to begin special training for the MR-3 vault into space. More than a month before the public announcement, Robert R. Gilruth personally had made his choice, even to the exact flight order of the men selected. In early January, back at Langley, the day after he had bid outgoing Administrator Glennan goodbye in Washington, Gilruth had decided to inform the flight crewmen of their selection status. He drove over to the temporary building housing the astronaut offices, called the seven men together, and told them of his decision that Shepard would be the first flight astronaut.2 And while the West awaited the next development,Gagarin made his 108óminute near-polar orbit of Earth aboard the five-ton Vostok I (meaning East) spacecraft.

Although some Americans professed disbelief in the Gagarin flight, a majority surely felt a twinge of nationalistic pain in admitting the Soviets had won the first honor in the two-nation race into space. When Shepard's flight took place, barely a month after Gagarin, even the skeptics appeared to derive consolation from the fact that the American launch and recovery had been made in the light of full publicity, with all world news media participating, whereas the Vostok flight had been veiled in official secrecy until after the fact.

Freedom 7, Shepard's capsule, missed what had been widely considered a "realistic" launch schedule by six months. When the capsule had finally been delivered to the Cape on December 9, 1960, some assumed the flight could be made at once. But 21 weeks of preparation - not all of it anticipated - were required by STG's Cape preflight checkout group and a host of McDonnell engineers based at the Florida site. Reaction control system checkout and rework were responsible for a launch schedule postponement to March 6, 1961. Replacement of damaged and corroded peroxide lines forced a further delay of eight days. Rerunning the simulated mission test and correcting structural and equipment defects were other time-consuming problems.3

Thus, technically, it was May 2 before the launch of capsule No. 7 might have been made. Then why not use capsule No. 8 or 9 or 11? Because capsule No. 7 had been selected in the summer and groomed since October 1960 as McDonnell's best product to date, the only porthole version of the capsule that had been or would be man-rated in all respects. By January 1961, after the MR-1A flight had used up Mercury-Redstone booster No. 3, the one originally intended for the first man-launch vehicle, it was clear that Redstone No. 7 would boost capsule No. 7. At the end of March, when booster No. 7 arrived at the Cape, Shepard already knew he was Robert R. Gilruth's prime choice to fly it. "There was no hope," said Shepard, "that a later model of the capsule incorporating our suggestions could be ready in time for MR-3." So capsule No. 7 on booster No. 7 should be the first combination of a series of at least seven flights to put Americans into space. "What better name or call-sign could I choose than Freedom 7?" asked Shepard.4

[343] Although the delays were disheartening, there were compensatory benefits in the way of astronaut training. Some psychologists feared that this long time lapse before the flight actually took place might cause "over training" and staleness. But in the postflight debriefing, Shepard complimented the so-called "over training"; he remarked that the similarity of training conditions to actual flight conditions was a key factor in making the mission seem almost routine. In addition, new and better procedures were developed during repeated rehearsals of the mission, which might not have come to light had the training not been expanded a few weeks.

1 Letter, Larry Stoddard, Rating Section, National Broadcasting Company, Inc., to Sigman Byrd, Hist. and Library Services Br., MSC, March 15, 1965; "Postlaunch Report for Mercury Redstone No. 3 (MR-3)," NASA Project Mercury working paper No. 192, June 16, 1961, 73; James M. Grimwood, Project Mercury: A Chronology, NASA SP-4001 (Washington, 1963), 35, 124; "Postlaunch Trajectory Report for Mercury-Redstone Mission 3 (MR-3, Capsule 7)," NASA Project Mercury working paper No. 210, Oct. 12, 1961, 1-2.

2 Tape of press conference, Mercury astronauts, Cape Canaveral, Feb. 22, 1961. At the conference Robert R. Gilruth pointed out that the four remaining astronauts were not eliminated, since there would be other flights. He said it was simply that at this point in the program a few had to be selected to participate in a particular mission, and that it was only practical to select those best prepared. The others would continue training. Nancy Lowe, secretary to the Mercury astronauts for more than four years, said in an interview with the authors on Feb. 27, 1964, that STG had been besieged for interviews only after the announcement that Shepard, Glenn, and Grissom had been selected to train for the first flight.

3 Memo, George M. Low to Dir., Space Flight Programs, "Project Mercury Status," Jan. 6, 1961; memo, Warren J. North to Dir. of Space Flight Programs, "Mercury Status as of Jan. 13, 1961," Jan. 16, 1961; "Project Mercury Status Report No. 9 for Period Ending Jan. 31, 1961," 3.

4 Alan B. Shepard, Jr., interview, Houston, Aug. 6, 1964.

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