Chapter 8

Machine-Rating the Men

(January - June 1960)

[223] JUST as the safety of the pilot flying the Mercury mission depended primarily on the reliability of the boosters, so the overall success of the mission would depend primarily on the adaptability of the man inside the capsule. This proposition, recognizing man and machine as directly interdependent, had been far from evident at the beginning of the project. But by the middle of 1960 the developers of Mercury had encountered enough troubles with various automatic systems to dissipate much of their faith in automata. They began to believe that it might be simpler to train toward human perfection and safer to teach the operations team to act automatically than to try to make electromechanical systems operate faultlessly. If the gaps left after technologically man-rating the machines could be filled with techniques learned by machine-rating the men, then lack of experience need not jeopardize either the man or the mission.

Early in 1960 two peerless feats in hydronautics complemented mankind's first infantile steps toward astronautics. Two uncommon vessels named Trieste and Triton, sponsored by the United States Navy, made voyages probing the plenum of the seas only a year before men became able to venture upward into the near vacuum. While "space" was being defined popularly as the region above the atmosphere and below the ionosphere, man also conquered the aqueous seven-tenths of Earth's surface space between the atmosphere and the lithosphere for the first time in history. Demonstrating remarkable closed ecological systems and significant integrations of men and machines, the Trieste descended to the bottom of the deepest known point in the oceans and the Triton "orbited" the Earth underwater.1

The Trieste and Triton voyages symbolized an accelerating translation of science fiction into fact at the beginning of the sixth decade of the 20th century. These voyages not only dramatically demonstrated man's ability to explore and pioneer new frontiers but they also symbolized some complex interrelationships in the sociology of science, invention, innovation, and discovery. Project Mercury likewise promised to exhibit the social energy of a civilization intimately interlocked with industrial technology, governmental organization of manpower, and an [224] accumulation of usable knowledge. Motivationally, too, Mercury grew out of the curiosity, courage, and creativity of individual men who wanted to do "unnatural" deeds. An age-old question of humanistic inquiry - what is human nature? - seemed to become rhetorical, and, as preparations for manned space flight neared completion, inverted: what is not natural to man?

No one doubted at the beginning of 1960 that someone was going upward into space shortly, but precisely who, when, where, and even why were highly controversial questions. NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan predicted the first Mercury suborbital flight within the year. Soviet spokesmen previewed their mid-January rocket tests over the Pacific as a preparation for placing man in space. Winds from conflicting opinions expressed by political, military, scientific, and industrial critics of American policy regarding space technology began to brew some squalls when NASA asked that almost $108 million of its total budget request of $802 million be appropriated for manned space flight development in fiscal 1961. Whether Mercury would finally cost $250 or $350 million, as was now variously estimated, it would still be a small fraction of the cost of the great Saturn rocket, not to mention other NASA projects.2

While the Eisenhower administration rejected the "space race" image attached to Mercury, Congress pressed for a greater sense of urgency, NASA Headquarters sought supplemental funds, and the Space Task Group concentrated on reconciling schedules with quality control. There was a detente in the cold war until the controversial U-2 incident in May 1960. But even during this thaw STG, as the technical coaching staff for the prime American contestant, became steadily more enmeshed in the confused competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to be first with its man in space. While Maxime A. Faget was being honored as one of the top 10 young men in government service for his designs of the Mercury capsule, couch, and escape concepts, Abe Silverstein stated publicly, "We feel no urgency to move the program unsafely." But the political pressure to produce would increase rapidly as 1960 wore on.3

At the end of January, Little Joe 1-B finally, with a boilerplate capsule, proved the basic aerodynamic viability of the Mercury abort concept. McDonnell Aircraft corporation's first production hardware, which happened to be capsule No. 4, was delivered on demand only half-finished to Langley, where it was fitted with instruments like Big Joe's for the first flight to mate the Atlas booster with the "real McDonnell" head. As it turned out, the only other flight test for Mercury during this half year occurred at Wallops Island on May 9. There and then, McDonnell's Mercury capsule No. 1, so named because it had been first on the assembly line, was yanked by its escape rocket from the beach abort position to begin successfully the qualifying flights for the McDonnell capsule. It took only 14 months to build and deliver this first capsule with its most critical systems ready to be qualified for basic technical performance. Meanwhile qualification tests in laboratories began in earnest. No mechanisms were more difficult to qualify than those most intimately related to the human system.

1 Jacques Piccard, "Man's Deepest Dive," National Geographic, CXVIII (July 1960), 235; Edward L. Beach, "Triton Follows Magellan's Wake," National Geographic, CXVIII (Aug. 1960), 585-615; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 86 Cong., 2 sess. (1960), Ocean Sciences and National Security, July 1, 1960; Norris and Ross McWhirter, eds., Guinness Book of World Records (paperback ed., New York, 1964), 205, 207; Bern Dibner, The Victoria and the Triton (Norwalk, Conn., 1962). On Jan. 23, 1960, a Pacific Fleet task element floated above the Marianas Trench, an abyssal canyon north of Guam, also known as the Challenger Deep, while Jacques Piccard, the son of Auguste who had designed the Trieste, and Donald Walsh, a Navy lieutenant, squeezed themselves into the bathyspherical gondola beneath their hydrostatic balloon. In this third of a series of dives, Piccard and Walsh sank down 7000 fathoms, or eight miles, where their vehicle endured 1085 tons of pressure per square foot and where they saw life on the bottom of the ocean. For all mankind, Piccard and Walsh figuratively "took possession of the abyss, the last extreme on our Earth that remained unconquered." Three months later, on April 25, 1960, the nuclear-powered submarine Triton, with 183 Americans captained by Edward L. Beach, completed the world's first undersea circumnavigation, following for two months submerged the wake of Magellan's ship, the Victoria, at an average speed of 18 knots for 41,519 miles. The inertial guidance navigation system that made the trip of the Triton possible had grown out of the same research and development program, Project Navaho, that had provided the prototype rocket engine for the Redstone, Jupiter/Polaris, Thor, Atlas, and Titan.

2 House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 86 Cong., 2 sess. (1960), Hearings, Review of the Space Program (Part 1, No. 3), testimony of T. Keith Glennan, 170, and Project Mercury, First Interim Report, Jan. 27, 1960; John W. Finney, "Soviet Space Man Held Pacific Aim," New York Times, Jan. 9, 1960; Finney, "U.S. Steps up Effort in Outer Space Race," New York Times, Jan. 19, 1960; Craig Lewis, "NASA's $802 Million Request May Grow," Aviation Week, LXXII (Jan. 25, 1960).

3 Abe Silverstein, quoted in Albert Sehlstedt, Jr., "No Space Man Urgency Seen," Baltimore Sun, Jan. 26, 1960; William Hines, "Scientist Urges Use of Space for Humanity," Washington Evening Star, Jan. 25, 1960; Ralph E. Lapp, Man and Space: The Next Decade (New York, 1961), 55-67; Donald W. Cox, The Space Race: From Sputnik to Apollo - and Beyond (Philadelphia, 1962), 88-93; David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, The U-2 Affair (New York, 1962).

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