MR-1A: Suborbital Quality Proven

Early in the morning of December 19, winds of 150 knots aloft in the jet stream required a 40-minute hold. During the countdown another solenoid valve in the capsule's hydrogen peroxide system had to be replaced, necessitating a recycle of the count by one hour. So it was 45 minutes before noon when the dramatic final 10 seconds of countdown for MR-1A occurred. This time there were no fouls. The 83-foot Mercury-Redstone assembly was cheered on - "Go! Fly, bird! Go!" - as it lifted off, burning brightly for 143 seconds to a velocity (slightly high) of 7,120 feet per second at cutoff. With this impetus, MR-1A coasted on up to 131 miles, its maximum altitude, then nosed over while the bolts in the mating-ring exploded as planned and the booster and its payload parted company. The capsule behaved perfectly in its attitude control and came down along its predestined trajectory to impact 235 miles from Cape Canaveral, 18 miles beyond the desired target impact point.

A P2V aircraft pilot saw the capsule descending on its parachute at 4,000 feet, and about 35 minutes after launch a Marine helicopter from the aircraft carrier Valley Forge retrieved the capsule, and returned it secure to the flight deck of the carrier within 48 minutes from launch. This time Low elatedly reported to Glennan that "the launching was an unqualified success."78

The Goddard Space Flight Center computers, both men and machines, performed admirably in making their first "real-time" impact prediction. On the Valley Forge sailors crowded everywhere topside. Visual inspections of the capsule by a NASA recovery inspection team revealed no damage except a crack in one outer layer of glass in one capsule porthole.

Exuberance was obvious in the postlaunch reports of the various participants. Howard C. Kyle, the capsule communicator, said, "Except for a few minor discrepancies during the countdown, all equipment appeared to operate normally. Technical support was universally superb." Tecwyn Roberts, the flight dynamics officer, wrote, "All communications checked A. OK. Data selection loop had some noise, but intelligible communication was possible at all times." Henry E. Clements, a captain in the Air Force and network status monitor, reported all [299] instrumentation "A. OK," with few discrepancies. One note of caution was entered by Stanley C. White, the Mercury Control Center flight surgeon:

The acceleration associated with the reentry exceeded by at least 1 g the calculated value. If a similar overshoot occurs with the new profile being proposed on future MR flights, we are reaching the point where the astronaut has demonstrated inability to stay alert and to keep up with the events. The consequence of this aberration from predicted should be discussed before the new profile is accepted.79
Later, when the movies from the onboard camera were developed and shown, clean-room engineers and workers saw the necessity for still higher standards of cleanliness. Washers, nuts, and wire clippings came out from hidden niches and floated freely around the cabin during the weightless period. But otherwise, the Mercury team felt the pendulum of luck beginning to swing back in their favor at the end of 1960. They were proud of the Christmas gift represented by the demonstration of suborbital capability of the hardware in MR-1A.

Perhaps the most significant result of the Little Joe 5 and MR-1 failures was a profound reexamination among the managers of Project Mercury of their original design philosophy. Warren North reported to Silverstein at Headquarters on December 6 the results of a series of discussions among field hands on the subject of man- machine integration:

During the week of November 27, Messrs. Gilruth, Williams, Mathews, Preston, Bland, Ricker, Fields, Roberts and others conducted a major review of the capsule and booster sequence logic in an effort to determine what improvements could be made to prevent incidents such as occurred during Little Joe 5 and MR-1. Also involved in the week long series of discussions at Cape Canaveral were key personnel from McDonnell (including Burke), Convair, Marshall, and Aerospace.

As a result of operational experience, it was apparent that some of the original design philosophy should be changed, especially insofar as the role of the pilot is concerned. It has become obvious that the complexity of the capsule and booster automatic system is compounded during the integration of the systems. The desirability of avoiding, for manned missions, a direct link between capsule and booster systems, is therefore being studied. For example, the Little Joe-type failure would be averted by the use of an open loop manually controlled abort system. Similarly, the escape tower would not have jettisoned during the MR-1 launch attempt if this had been a manned flight with manual control over the escape rocket and capsule sequence system.80

Meanwhile the Atlas, the basic vehicle to propel Mercury into orbit, also was undergoing its most critical examination. A special ad hoc technical investigating committee, established on December 19, 1960, composed of both NASA and Air Force personnel, and headed by Richard V. Rhode of NASA Headquarters and Colonel Paul E. Worthman of the Ballistic Missile Division, was ordered to investigate the reasons why the Atlas had failed so often on NASA launches. Called the Rhode-Worthman Committee informally, the dozen members, [300] representing all concerned organizations, looked carefully at three recent failures in the Atlas-Able series of lunar probes, at MA-1, and even at Big Joe, hoping to prevent another fiasco. Since the conferees at the last major coordination meeting, on November 16, had issued a test program summary reviewing MA-1 and subsequent action, the Rhode-Worthman group began with those inconclusive records and a set of 12 agreements on launch conditions for MA-2. Paul Purser and Robert E. Vale flew to Los Angeles the day after Christmas to defend STG's position on MA-1 and to expedite Convair's construction of a "quick-fix" solution for MA-2 and its fabrication of "thick-skin" Atlases for subsequent Mercury flights. Other members of the committee distrusted the original design for the "quick fix," which was in the form of a "belly band," or girdle, to strengthen the interface area around "station 502" on the Atlas booster, where the adapter ring for the capsule nested against the lox dome. Later the dissenting committee members supported a revised version of the fix after a number of their suggestions had been integrated. Both Chamberlin and Yardley had suggested the "belly band," but Hohmann disagreed. On December 31, 1960, Purser warned Charles Donlan, back at Langley Field, that STG and Convair might be overruled by Aerospace, STL, BMD, and NASA Headquarters representatives. As it turned out, on the second day of the new year Rhode sent a message to Seamans at NASA Headquarters that recommended great caution regarding the decision to incorporate the "quick fix," as many of the committee felt that it added uncertainty and possibly a new set of hazards. If so, MA-2 might have to wait three to six months more for a "thick-skin" Atlas from the factory.81

The year 1960 ended in suspense for the Mercury team. The Soviet attempt on December 1-2, 1960, to orbit and retrieve two more dogs from space had, as the Soviets admitted, ended in cremation for "Pchelka" and "Mushka" when their attitude control system failed at retrofire and their vehicle, Korabl Sputnik III, burned up on reentry from its rather too shallow orbit. To appraise the meaning of the flight of the Soviets' third man-sized spaceship from available information was exceedingly difficult. Obviously the Soviets were close to the day when they could put a man into orbit, but the similar failures of their first and third "cosmic ships," on May 19 and December 2, respectively, had made the question "How close?" highly debatable.82

On December 5, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, G. Pokrovsky, had extolled the "socialist system," in spite of its failure to recover Pchelka and Mushka, and boasted that "we are on the threshold of manned space flight, and the first man to be in space will undoubtedly be a Soviet citizen." That same day, Time magazine had bemoaned "Lead-Footed Mercury" and ridiculed Wernher von Braun's calling MR-1 "a little mishap": "Project Mercury's latest failure, third in a row, just about evaporated the last faint wisp of hope that the U.S. might put a man into space before Russia does." A New York Times editorial agreed with that evaluation and advised the new President-elect to persevere: "The first man in space will not be the last, and after the tributes have been paid to that first man and those who made his feat possible the more important question will arise of what man can do in space that is worth the immense cost of putting him there."83

Although there was some exultation in the United States after the success of MR-1A on December 19, the public seemed to sense, without any deep understanding, a difference of several orders of magnitude between Soviet space flight tests and American qualification flight difficulties. Within the Space Task Group, NASA, and the Mercury team, technical understanding, sometimes divorced from political intuition, appeared to buttress the hope that an American manned ballistic flight into space might still precede the substantially more difficult manned orbital flight around Earth. Manned space flight was a name for a series of field events in the space olympics. Although the odds were with the Soviets to win the marathon of the first orbital circumnavigation, perhaps Mercury might win the suborbital sprint.


78 Memo, Low to Administrator, "Mercury-Redstone 1 Launching," Dec. 20, 1960. See also Jerome B. Hammack and Jack C. Heberlig, "The Mercury Redstone Program," paper, American Rocket Society, Space Flight Report to the Nation, New York City, Oct. 9-15, 1961, 16-17.

79 Memos, Howard C. Kyle to Mercury Flight Dir., "MR-1 Launch on December 19, 1960 - observations"; Tecwyn Roberts to Flight Dir., "Report on Test No. 5111," Dec. 20, 1960; and Stanley C. White to Flight Dir., "MR-1A Test No. 5111," Dec. 20, 1960. For the later post-flight inspection of MR-1A, see letter, Purser to Burke, "Contract NAS 5-59; Post-Flight Evaluation of Capsule Number Two," Jan. 31, 1961, with two enclosures. See also Chap. X, footnote 26.

80 Memo, North to Dir., Space Flight Programs, "Mercury Capsule Changes and Flight Schedule," Dec. 6, 1960:

"Open loop operation of the Abort Sensing and Implementation System (ASIS) is a change which does not detract from the effectivity of the system. This change, in fact, makes the system more reliable and effective because a pilot who is placed in the control loop has the ability to assess whether a true abort situation exists. In this concept, the pilot would get a red light indication that an abort is called for but would manually activate the escape sequence. The inherent aerodynamic stability and high structural strength of the Redstone should provide a sufficient time constant between capsule abort light indication and time for abort decision. The pilot, after observing the abort light, can either immediately abort, if he is in a critical flight regime, or he can rely on secondary cues such as changes in acceleration, changes in attitude, and radio voice transmissions from visual observers or telemeter monitors. Although it is reasonably clear that the Redstone should be flown with an open loop ASIS, the Atlas operational procedure is not yet resolved because allowable pilot reaction time will be somewhat less. I feel, however, that experience with the manned Redstone will convince us that the manned Atlas should also be flown open loop. Incidentally, three Atlas ASIS systems have been flown open loop to date; two would have caused inadvertent aborts."

Warren North was himself a test-pilot engineer, and this viewpoint became even stronger over the next year; see North and Walter Williams, "The NASA Astronaut Program," Aerospace Engineering, XX (Jan. 1962), 13-15.

81 For an overview of the meetings and conferences on the MA-1 failure, see James M. Grimwood, Project Mercury: A Chronology, NASA SP- 4001 (Washington, 1963), 111, 112. On the MA-1 review of Nov. 16, 1960, see "Mercury-Atlas Program," briefing brochure Nos. AD-60-0000-02356 and AT-600829-00415, undated. Minutes, "Summary of Test Programs and Recommendations for MA-2 Launch," Sjoberg, secretary, Nov. 16, 1960; Ms. notes, Purser, "STG Position on MA-1," Dec. 20, 1960; draft letters, Purser to Donlan, Faget, and James A. Chamberlin, Dec. 31, 1960, and Jan. 1, 1961; memo, Low to Dir. Space Flight Programs, "Project Mercury Status," Dec. 29, 1960; and Richard V. Rhode, interview, Washington, Jan. 18, 1966.

82 A Chronology of Missile and Astronautics Events, 135; Sheldon, "The Challenge of International Competition," 11, 26, and comments, Aug. 12, 1965.

83 G. Pokrovsky, "We Give Space to the Russians," Washington Daily News, Dec. 5, 1960; "Lead-Footed Mercury," Time, Dec. 5, 1960; "Man in Space," editorial, New York Times, Dec. 2, 1960.


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