SP-4308 SPACEFLIGHT REVOLUTION

 

2

The First NASA Inspection

 

It was, by all odds, a superlative display.... Our sincere thanks for a superbly designed, brilliantly mounted, and perceptive look at the very general goals man must achieve before he becomes a space traveler.

- Editorial, Newport News Daily Press, 27 October 1959

 

 

[27] On Saturday morning, 24 October 1959, a little more than a year after the metamorphosis of the NACA into NASA, approximately 20,000 visitors marched through the gates of Langley Field to attend a public open house that was being held in conjunction with NASA's First Anniversary Inspection. The NACA's first anniversary had passed unnoticed; NASA's proved to be a controlled mob scene. 1

The crowds came at NASA's invitation. Local newspapers and community groups had spread the word: for the first time in its 42-year history, Langley Research Center was admitting curious outsiders into the previously sheltered sanctuary of aeronautical research. NASA scientists, engineers, and technicians would show the public just what the new space agency had been doing to launch their country into space. Throughout the day, men, women, and children streamed through the huge NASA aircraft hangar as well as through two other large buildings full of exhibits that represented a cross section of NASA programs. Escorting the visitors was a handpicked group of articulate and polite NASA employees whose job was to handle the pedestrian traffic, guide the visitors through the buildings included in the program, and explain the exhibits.

The visitors moved "in fascination" past the many marvels on display.2 They saw helicopters and aircraft, including a Chance Vought F8U-3 navy supersonic jet fighter used by NASA for sonic-boom research over Wallops Island; a Vertol 76, the world's first tilt-wing aircraft; a ground-effect vehicle designed to move over a cushion of air that the unusual craft created between its base and the ground; a display about the possibilities of SST flight [28] (subsonic commercial jet flights across the Atlantic had only been made for about a year); a full-size mock-up of the air force/NASA X-15 rocket-powered research airplane; plus dozens of static and dynamic demonstrations involving wind tunnels, electrically powered models, electromagnetism, research instrumentation, as well as several examples of NASA technical reports.

Towering above all and attracting the most attention was a large fleet of space vehicles and rockets. This collection included a model of the original German V-2 rocket engine; a full-size version of the Thor-Able missile, which had been used to launch a number of U.S. space probes; a 19-foot Discoverer satellite to be used in polar-orbit research; a full-scale Little Joe rocket that was part of the Mercury program; a 72-foot Scout rocket to be used for general space research purposes; a six-stage rocket vehicle used for reentry physics studies at Wallops Island; and a 6-foot model of the world with orbital traces of the major satellites launched by the United States.

The public was so eager to see these wonders of modern technology that visitors had started forming lines around the exhibits as early as 8:00 a.m. even though the program was not scheduled to begin until 10:00 a.m., and they continued to swarm around the exhibits throughout the day. Most of the visitors were residents of the Peninsula area, but the license plates on some of the cars indicated that several had traveled from more remote parts of Virginia and a few had come from as far away as Georgia and Tennessee.3 For the NASA Langley staff, "The Nice NASA Show For The People," as one local editor called it, was quite an eye-opener. No one expected the general public to be so curious about NASA's research programs.4

After World War II, family members and friends of Langley personnel had been welcome on occasion to attend briefings and watch demonstrations "boiled down" from recently concluded NACA inspections (annual conferences for aeronautical insiders only). Never before the 1959 inspection, however, had Langley put on an open house involving more than just the center's employees and their families. Langley had neither a visitors' center (until 1971) nor any other regular means to handle many outsiders; none was necessary given the NACA's low profile and the limited public interest in what was going on inside a place that some locals referred to as "Sleepy Hollow."

The unprecedented public open house came at the end of a week-long closed affair modeled after the old NACA annual inspections. Up to 400 people a day had attended these NACA conferences. Although they came by direct invitation to learn about NACA programs, most guests already knew quite a bit about these programs because conference attendees were the patrons and clients of the NACA. Representatives from military aviation, the aircraft industry, and the airlines, and a few people from government....

 


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29]

Mercury exhibit at NASA's First Anniversary Inspection, 1959

.

Ira H. Abbott and Henry Reid, 1959

L-59-8O75

T. Keith Glennan and Floyd L. Thompson, 1959

L-59-8097.

A mock-up of the Mercury space capsule appears to land by parachute on Langley's "Mercury Support" exhibit at the October 1959 event (top). At bottom left, Langley Director Henry Reid (middle), former Langley researcher and soon-to-be-named head of the new Office of Advanced Research Programs (OARP) at NASA headquarters Ira H. Abbott (right), and an unidentified guest stare up at the capsule mounted atop a model of the Atlas booster rocket. At bottom right, Langley Associate Director Floyd L. Thompson (middle), with Coke bottle in hand, and NASA Administrator Glennan (left) chat with guests and associates in front of the globe showing the orbital traces of previously launched American satellites.

 

[30] ....and the trade journal media had been the only visitors invited to the NACA inspections.*

No one at NASA headquarters had been sure whether to continue the tradition of the NACA inspection, which by the 1950s was rotating annually among Langley, Lewis, and Ames. The inspection was such a long-running show, having premiered at Langley in 1926, and its actors, settings, and stage directions were so closely identified with the NACA that some NASA officials wondered whether the event would serve the interests of NASA's new mission. But in the opinion of many others, including Dr. Hugh Dryden, NASA's deputy administrator, the inspection offered NASA an excellent means of publicizing what it had accomplished during its first year to achieve the nation's new objectives in aeronautics and space. "From a publicity point of view," read one NASA Langley document that outlined the general purpose of the proposed inspection, "the exhibits will present to the audience not only our aims and objectives, but the research background that led to the 'present-day' and future space developments." In other words, NASA could make the point, both directly and indirectly, that "pioneering 'inhouse' research is a first prerequisite to successful aeronautic and space developments." 5

Although this emphasis on in-house capabilities did not match Keith Glennan's agenda for NASA (Glennan wanted to see more research being done by outside contractors), the overall objective of the plan persuaded the administrator. He decided that, in October 1959, NASA would hold its First Anniversary Inspection, a sort of public show-and-tell event.

Because NASA was a new agency with different objectives and a much wider scope than its predecessor, a few things about the inspection were to be done differently. Not only was NASA to have an open house for the general public, it must also invite several foreign guests. While the NACA had discouraged their attendance, NASA had vested programmatic interests in (and mandated legal obligations to) foreign nations, which meant that some foreign scientists, diplomatic representatives, and members of the foreign press corps had to be invited to attend. At NASA headquarters, the Office of International Programs, under Henry E. Billingsley, and the Office of Space Flight Development, under Abe Silverstein, were in charge of issuing these invitations.

Although NASA had to aggressively pitch its program to the taxpayers, which meant packaging it as attractively as possible, the 1959 inspection was virtually the same ritual that the NACA had always orchestrated for the visitors. After registering at the base gymnasium starting at 8:00 a.m., the guests moved to an introductory session in the base theater from 8:50 to....

 


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Walter Bonney and T. Keith Glennan, 1959.

Administrator Glennan spends a few minutes in front of the Mercury capsule exhibit with Walter Bonney, NASA's first director of the office of public information. Bonney, who had worked for the NACA from 1949 to 1958, never found much favor in Glennan's employ. Glennan criticized Bonney harshly for his outdated, NACA approach to the public information field. L-59-8O81.

 

....9:00 a.m. and from there went to a brief technical program in the cavernous test section of the Full-Scale Tunnel. Pinned to the coat of every guest was an identification badge with the person's name and tour group.

For the extended tour of the laboratory, Langley continued the old NACA practice of dividing the guests into color-coded groups, in this case into 10 groups of no more than 40 persons each. Each group had its own bus with a color-coded sign in the window, its own escorts and attachés, its own schedule to keep, and, at least in the minds of the inspection organizers, its own personality. NASA management wanted a mix of people in every group, but it also wanted the group members to be compatible As expected, the gold group included dignitaries and VIPs. The brown and tan groups had the majority of the journalists, and the pink group included the few women who were invited. The red group Comprised most of NASA's leaders. On the first day of the inspection, Tuesday, 20 October, Langley hypersonics specialist John V. Becker was the guide for the red group, which included Robert R. Gilruth, head of the new Space Task Group (STG); NASA Administrator Glennan; NASA Deputy Administrator Dryden; NASA Executive Secretary John F. Victory; NASA Goddard Director Harry J. Goett; NASA Ames Director Smith J. DeFrance; NASA Flight Research Center Chief Paul F. Bikle; Wallops....

 


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Full-size mock-up of the X-15, 1959.

Four Langley secretaries serving as hostesses for the inspection take a look inside the cockpit of a full-size mock-up of the X-15. L-59-7828.

 

....Station Engineer-in-Charge Robert L. Krieger; plus several lesser officials from NASA headquarters. Also in the group were a few important men from the aerospace industry, the airlines, and the armed forces.6

Although some NASA personnel came to the inspection as guests, most came to Langley to report on the progress of the work at their respective centers. NASA Lewis sent an exhibit that demonstrated the relative merits of low-thrust space propulsion systems, including chemical, nuclear, hydrogen, and electrical rockets. NASA Ames contributed a display showing the physics of high-velocity impact in space and the potential dangers of meteoroid collision with spacecraft. For its part, the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB had contracted with North American Aviation for a mock-up of the X-15 and of the XLR-99 rocket engine along with a dummy pilot dressed in a pressure suit. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, formerly operated by the California Institute of Technology, had transferred to NASA in December 1958. The laboratory sent a small display and a team of scientists to present the story of the Vega rocket; at the time of the inspection, NASA thought that this three-stage booster would take a number of future vehicles and payloads into space, even into lunar orbit, but the proposed $65-million development program would be cancelled only two months after the inspection. The new Goddard Space Flight Center was still a part of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) at its Anacostia location pending construction of an independent NASA facility [33] at Greenbelt, Maryland Goddard contributed a display featuring several examples of lightweight inflatable structures that had applications for use in satellites and spaceflight. 7

As was becoming to the host center, NASA Langley presented by far the greatest number and variety of exhibits. Langley staff built displays and gave illustrated talks on many space subjects: the nature of the space environment, reentry physics, and manned reentry vehicles such as ballistic capsules, high-drag gliders, and high lift-drag boost-gliders. Langley engineers also reported on aeronautical programs, notably the X-15, Vertol 76, and an SST airplane. Langley even supplemented Ames's display of high-velocity impacts in space with graphic results of its own experiments on the subject.

 

Following the NACA Way

 

According to the NACA's policy of triennial rotation among its three major research centers, it was "by the numbers" Langley's turn to host the 1959 inspection. However, NASA probably would have held the inspection there regardless of the rotation. The assistant chief of the Full-Scale Research Division and Langley's coordinator for the technical program, Axel Mattson, remembers with pride:

 

There was only one place that could put on that show. . . There was no other place for it to go.... If it had been someplace else, the overall presentation wouldn't have been as good, and the emphasis might I have been slightly different.8

 

In other words, Langley had the most experience in staging this event. Langley was also the oldest NACA facility and the NASA center closest to Washington, D.C., thus making it convenient to congressional and other powerful visitors. Perhaps most importantly, Langley was the place where the stars of the space program- the STG and its astronauts- were in training for the first U.S. manned space effort, Project Mercury.

Axel Mattson was a big, likeable, and loquacious engineer who loved the showmanship and conviviality of past inspections. In the weeks prior to the 1959 event, his job was to confer with the other NASA centers and to help them plan their participation in the inspection. In the cases of Ames, Lewis Wallops, and the Flight Research Center at Muroc, Mattson's help was only minimal because the staffs at the former NACA facilities knew what an inspection demanded. They understood the rigorous standards for quality presentations and were ready for the customary competition among the centers for the best exhibits. All of the centers "tried to out-do one another" with the most sophisticated displays and demonstrations, Mattson recalls. "At least we thought they were sophisticated, let's put it that way."9

[34] The 1959 Anniversary Inspection was the first time that all the NASA facilities were participating, and those facilities included two that had not been part of the NACA- JPL and Goddard.** Mattson was responsible for encouraging the staffs of these new centers to develop appropriate and effective presentations for the inspection. "I had a dog and pony show," Mattson remembers. "I took slides with me from previous NACA conferences" to show them what went on. He assembled the initiates in a conference room, making sure that people "with enough horsepower" to make the right things happen were in the audience, and then he briefed them on what an inspection was about and the purposes it served.10

Mattson tried his best to be polite and not to act arrogant while educating the non-NACA staffs about the do's and don'ts of an inspection, but he still did not receive a warm welcome at either of the two non-NACA centers. In fact, at Goddard's temporary home within the NRL, he feared he would "be tarred and feathered." Typically, any organization that had been "navy" had superb loyalty among its staff and was very closed, even resentful of outsiders. In the opinion of the Goddard staff members, the inspection "was just something that the NACA did, and they didn't think much of it.''11

In particular, the navy personnel did not like the idea of rehearsals. In advance of NACA inspections, staff members customarily rehearsed their talks in their own research divisions and then sweated through another performance a week or so before the event as part of a fully staged dress rehearsal with center management and several key officials from NACA headquarters as the audience. For all the Washington office people to come down to Langley and critique the inspection material was a "big thing." Dr. Dryden, John Victory, and others "all had a grand time with that." Some laboratory employees complained privately about "having to put on a parade for their parents," but most had reconciled themselves to the imposition. By 1959, NACA veterans like Mattson saw the NACA practice of rehearsals as the only way to guarantee the success of such a complex show. Mattson had to convince NASA's new partners of the importance of all the planning and preparations. The staff at Goddard was unimpressed by Mattson's explanations. A few of the more indignant told Mattson: "You won't rehearse me. My gosh, I'm an expert, you know. Who's going to critique what I say?" But Mattson held his ground and told them they...

 


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John Stack and Axel Mattson.

In this picture from the 1959 inspection, Axel Mattson (right) confers with John Stack, a devoted airplane man who surely experienced mixed feelings about the affair because of its emphasis on space rather than aeronautics. L-59-7831.

 

....would have to do it. Thinking back, Mattson calls his visits to the non-NACA installations "interesting sessions," and he singles out the first NASA inspection as "the most difficult inspection of them all to put together." 12

Other NACA veterans have also commented on the difficulties of the new fraternal relationships within NASA. "There wasn't any love lost between us," remembers Langley's Charles J. Donlan. "I really shouldn't say 'love lost' because the people really didn't know one another." But "all the NRL guys" came "kicking and screaming into this new organization" that they thought was "going to be overwhelmed by the NACA bunch.''13 Everyone needed time to get over these psychological barriers and realize that they were all working as a team. A few people, some say particularly at Goddard, were never able to accept the partnership.

Strained interaction among NASA centers represents a key tension in the story of NASA that historians have not explored fully. In the first NASA inspection, a vestige of the old NACA culture won out over other integral parts of NASA; in the ensuing years, the culture of the NACA research laboratories, dominant in the early years of NASA, would in many ways be overwhelmed and superseded by those at the more hardware-oriented and operations oriented spaceflight and spacecraft centers in Huntsville, Houston, and at Cape Canaveral. This turnabout, which would have seemed unlikely in the earliest days of NASA, was made inevitable by the large manned spaceflight programs of the 1960s and 1970s. The biggest bucks would be spent on the more industrial side of NASA, as they still are.

In the end, everyone at Goddard and JPL agreed to do their part in the 1959 inspection. As mentioned earlier, Goddard staff sent an exhibit that featured four erectable space structures, but they did so only after Langley....

 


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Goddard's exhibit at NASA's First Anniversary Inspection,1959 .

The small exhibit area on space science and technology provided by the Goddard Space Flight Center. L-69-7275.

 

....had proposed that Goddard send an exhibit dealing with reentry physics. The JPL group sent an exhibit about the soon-to be cancelled Vega project. Both exhibits were prepared with the help of outside design consultants. The NASA representatives sent to Langley with those exhibits were "awful proud" of what they had done. "After all the trials and tribulations of getting them organized and getting them going," Mattson states, "they walked around like peacocks" strutting their stuff and showing off their exhibits. 14

Interestingly, after getting the new centers to cooperate and to do it the NACA way, some NACA veterans still found reasons to criticize. "For my money," Smith J. DeFrance, the director of Ames, wrote to Henry Reid, the director of Langley:

 

the stops [on the tour] by your group were far superior to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's stop and especially the Goddard Space Flight Center's stop. As you know, both of these were prepared by so called specialists in the field of exhibition. Neither of the stops came up to the degree of perfection that was demonstrated by your own people.15

 

DeFrance had come to work at NACA Langley in 1922; Reid had come in 1921. They had followed the NACA way for so long that they found it [37] difficult to value any other. But Reid's answer did reflect an openness to the new NASA partnerships. "Letters are pouring in from many of the visitors," he wrote DeFrance, "and I feel that this inspection has certainly been very much worthwhile, not only because of the impression made on people outside our organization but also the impression made on many of our new members of the organization." Despite the problems convincing new members of the importance of an inspection, Reid summed up the experience as positive: 'We were indeed very fortunate in having the excellent teamwork, even from our new organization, JPL." The teamwork of Goddard, to the extent that it materialized, Reid did not mention.16

 

Project Mercury

 

"Ladies and gentlemen, at this stop we shall discuss Project Mercury," announced the NASA engineer as another busload of visitors to the 1959 inspection found their way to the cold metal folding chairs set up in rows inside the West Area's Aircraft Loads Calibration building. Eight young members of the STG working in teams of two took turns giving this talk. The script of the presentation had been finalized just a day or two before the inspection to ensure an up-to date report.

The STG speakers did not bother to introduce themselves (they had been told not to), and their identities would not have meant much to most people in the audience. They were Edison M. Fields and Jerome Hammack, Systems Test Branch; Elmer A. Horton, Control Central and Flight Safety Section; Milton B. Windler, Recovery Operations Branch; John D. Hodge, Operations Division; Carl R. Huss, Trajectory Analysis Section; John E. Gilkey, Engineering Branch; and Norman F. Smith, Engineering and Contract Administration As it turned out, some of these men were destined to play major roles in NASA's subsequent manned space programs.17

"The possibility of venturing into space," the inspection talk began, "has shifted quite recently from the fantasy of science fiction to the realm of actuality Today, space flight is considered well within the range of man's capabilities:" Only five days after its establishment, NASA had formed the STG to design and implement, as quickly as possible, a manned satellite project. NASA put veteran NACA researcher Robert R. Gilruth, the former head of Langley's Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD), in charge; based the group at Langley; and named the Project Mercury after the fleet-footed Roman god of commerce, who served as messenger of the gods.18 The speakers proudly declared the mission of Project Mercury: to send "this nations first space traveler into orbit about the earth," to study "man's....

 


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Robert R. Gilruth.

NACA veteran Robert R. Gilruth directed Project Mercury from offices at Langley.

 

....capabilities in space flight," and to assure "the safe return of the capsule and its pilot to the earth."19

The STG plan was to send a small one-person spacecraft into orbit using the existing Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile as the launch vehicle and a ballistic reentry module as the crew capsule. After a few passes around the earth, retrorockets would fire to slow the satellite and thus initiate descent from orbit. After reentry into the atmosphere accomplished safely thanks to the capsule's blunt ablative heat shield- a large parachute would deploy to carry the capsule on its final approach and land it in the open sea. The capsule and the astronaut would be recovered by helicopter and brought home aboard a naval vessel.

The Mercury plan was a bold yet essentially conservative engineering concept, and it was to be almost unbelievably successful. By May 1963, it resulted in the successful launches of six Americans into space, thus leading to some two and one-half days of flight time in space. Although glitches and other vexing technical problems would plague virtually every Mercury mission, no major accidents occurred. "We were pretty lucky," one leader of Project Mercury remembers. "In retrospect, we wouldn't dare do it again under the same circumstances. But that's true of most pioneering ventures. You wouldn't dare fly across the ocean with one engine like Lindbergh did, either, would you?"20

 


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Diagram of Mercury mission concept.

A diagram used at the first NASA inspection to illustrate the basic concept of a Mercury man-in-space mission. L-59-1167.

 

Without question, the Project Mercury stop was the featured attraction of NASA's entire anniversary show. In 1959 everyone around the country was obsessed with beating the Soviets to manned spaceflight, and that obsession soon included the men who would actually pilot the spacecraft. Introduced to the public for the first time in April 1959, NASA's astronauts were not yet the golden boys they eventually became, but with the national media already bearing down on them and NASA's public affairs officers polishing the seven former test pilots' armor to a blinding shimmer, the future knights of spaceflight had already acquired star quality. They were national heroes before they did anything heroic. Some of their luster was lost in August 1959, if only temporarily, when the astronauts sold the exclusive rights to their personal stories to Time-Life for one-half million dollars. To most Americans this seemed an excessive amount of money; at that time the federal minimum wage was a mere $1 an hour. The resulting controversy over the ethics of the deal was fueled largely by Life's legitimately disgruntled competition and did not really do much to damage the public's growing love affair with their handsome, if not yet "launched," astronauts.21

A few minutes into their talk at the Project Mercury stop, the STG speakers dimmed the lights and showed a short motion picture devoted to "the seven brave young men who have been chosen as the Mercury astronauts." 22 First as a group, then one by one, the film introduced them,...

 


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The Mercury astronauts

The "Original Seven": (left to right) Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Shepard, and Slayton. L-71-2971.

 

....just as each had been introduced with such flair during the sensational opening press conference at NASA headquarters on 9 April 1959. The "Original Seven" were Air Force Capts. Leroy G. Cooper, Jr. (later called L. Gordon), Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton; naval aviators Lt. Malcolm S. Carpenter (who preferred "M. Scott"), Lt. Comdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Lt. Comdr. Walter M. Schirra, Jr.; and Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., of the Marine Corps. Everyone knew that one of these men would soon be the first American, possibly the first human, to venture into space; one of the seven was destined to become the greatest technological hero since Lindbergh.

The Mercury astronauts were the survivors of an extraordinarily elaborate and rigorous search process that the STG had used to solicit applications from and to evaluate candidate astronauts. At the start nobody knew what sort or degree of skill, education, and training space pilots would need. So-called specialists in crew selection proposed that NASA choose the astronauts from "people in dangerous professions, such as race car drivers, mountain climbers, scuba divers, as well as test pilots." But the STG was committed to the idea of test pilots from the beginning; with just any old breed of daredevil on board, the delegation of critical flight control and [41] command functions to the crew in the capsule would be much more difficult When President Eisenhower decided that astronauts would be chosen from a military test-pilot pool, Gilruth and associates all "breathed a sigh of relief." 23

A key person in the screening and final selection of the Mercury astronauts was Langley's Charles J. Donlan. Formerly the free lance technical assistant to Floyd Thompson, Donlan was now serving as Gilruth's deputy. Working on a crash schedule basis, Donlan headed the NASA/Department of Defense (DOD) team, which included a psychologist on loan to NASA from the National Science Foundation. The team established the final seven evaluation criteria:

 

1. Less than 40 years old
2. Less than 5'11" tall***
3. Excellent physical condition
4. Bachelor's degree in engineering or equivalent
5. Test-pilot school graduate
6. Minimum of 1500 hours flying time
7. Qualified jet pilot

 

Another Langley man who played a part in the screening process was Robert A. Champine, a veteran NACA test pilot who knew what kind of talents it might take to fly into space. Although not an STG member, he was part of the small NASA/DOD panel that evaluated the files of the nearly 600 military service test pilots who had applied for the astronaut positions. Of the seven evaluation criteria, experience as a test pilot was clearly the deciding factor.24

Ironically, the greatest skepticism about the Mercury concept existed inside the family of test pilots. Pathbreaking NACA/NASA test pilots like A. Scott Crossfield, Joseph A. Walker, and even the young Neil Armstrong, who in 10 years was to become the first man to walk on the moon, were at first not in favor of Project Mercury. Their attitude was that the astronaut inside the ballistic spacecraft was no more than "Spam-in-a-can." Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager, the air force test pilot who broke "the sound barrier" in 1947 in the X-1, expressed this prejudice: "Who wanted to climb into a cockpit full of monkey crap?"25 This was a crude reference to the noble primates (such as "Ham" and "Enos" ) who flew in the Mercury spacecraft prior to the astronauts and who went through some challenging and painful experiences to make the experience of humans safer and more certain.

By the time of the NASA inspection, all seven Mercury astronauts had been in training at Langley under the STG's technical supervision (and Langley AFB's administrative care) for about five months. Six of the seven moved into the area with their families: Carpenter and Cooper lived in [42] Hampton just across the tidal river from the air force base; Grissom, Schirra, and Slayton bought ranch-style homes within a few blocks of one another in the new Stoneybrook Estates subdivision of Newport News; and Shepard drove his white convertible through the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel each day from his family's home at the Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. Glenn was the exception; while at Langley Field, he stayed in military base quarters and commuted to his home in Arlington, Virginia, on weekends to visit his wife and children. Already the local press was calling the astronauts "The Peninsula's Own" and trying to satisfy an adoring public's hunger for even the most mundane details of the astronauts' everyday existence, such as what kind of fruit juice they drank for breakfast.26

The film shown at the Project Mercury inspection stop said little about NASA's selection of the astronauts and showed nothing about their personal lives; it concentrated on illustrating key aspects of their training for the upcoming Mercury flights. In one of the film's early scenes, the astronauts sat in a classroom listening to a lecture delivered by an STG engineer. This lecture was one in a series organized by STG member Dr. Robert Voas, the navy psychologist in charge of coordinating astronaut training. The lecture series was designed to introduce formally the astronauts to the Mercury program.27 Although not depicted in the film, the astronauts also took a short course equivalent to graduate-level study in the space sciences. Henry Pearson, W. Hewitt Phillips, and Clinton E. Brown were among those engineers with special competencies in reentry physics, astronomy, and celestial mechanics and navigation chosen to teach the course.

While the astronauts learned a little about everything pertinent to the program, they were also trained to specialize in particular technical areas. Carpenter specialized in communications and navigation equipment; Cooper and Slayton concentrated on the liaison with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA, later NASA Marshall Space Flight Center) and the launch vehicle suppliers; Glenn focused on cockpit layout; Grissom handled inflight control systems; Schirra was responsible for life-support systems and pressure suits: and Shepard followed tracking range and recovery. Each astronaut was then responsible for briefing the other six periodically about what he had learned.28

The inspection film of 1959 showed the Langley-based STG putting the astronauts through several spaceflight simulation systems and techniques to familiarize them with the Mercury capsule and evaluate the efficacy of astronaut capsule control. By this time in their training, the astronauts had already ridden on the end of the 50-foot arm of the centrifuge at the Naval Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory at Johnsville, Pennsylvania. The film showed one of the astronauts boarding what came to be known among the astronauts as "the wheel" because it resembled a medieval instrument of torture. Not even the grimacing face of the astronaut, as he desperately tried to operate a few manual controls, could communicate how miserable [43] the experience actually was for the rider, who was being pushed back in the seat as the wheel picked up speed, pinned there unable to move either arms or legs, breath forced out of the lungs, vision narrowing and darkening, and a sharp pain growing beneath the breastbone. John Glenn recalls, "At 16 Gs**** it took just about every bit of strength and technique you could muster to retain consciousness." 29

The training at Langley was a little easier, at least physically. The astronauts made several "flights" in a closed-loop analog simulator that had been developed by the training devices section of the STG's Operations Division. This simulator had a basic configuration similar to the X-15 attitude control system simulator that had been built earlier at Langley. At the time of the October 1959 inspection, it contained a simple chair with a sidearm controller and rudder pedals. 30 A later version would have a three-axis controller and a molded couch like those individually fitted for each astronaut for the actual Mercury missions. The function of this couch, which was one of many ideas supplied by the STG's brilliant Maxime Faget, was to protect the astronaut against the high G-forces during launch and reentry. In one scene of the film, two of the finished couch forms were visible in the background; in tests at the Johnsville centrifuge, such couches had proved effective for loads of more than 20 Gs. The movie also featured a sequence in which an astronaut used the sidearm controller to move his chair through various changes in pitch, roll, and yaw, and a scene showing an overheated astronaut in a full pressure suit undergoing what the speaker called "elevated temperature elevation."31

"The Space Task Group has found the seven astronauts inspiring young men with whom to work," speakers told the audience. To equip them with the "detailed knowledge and skills that the pilot of a pioneering orbital space capsule must possess," NASA was putting them through "an extensive program of training, indoctrination, and specialized education." And rest assured, the speakers told the audience, the astronauts were preparing for their upcoming launches into space "with an enthusiasm and a maturity that are vital in a program of such importance to our nation."32

The speakers did not mention that the astronauts sometimes felt they were being treated like guinea pigs. This was not the case in their dealings with the STG at Langley. As the astronauts later attested, the STG treated them as "active and valuable participants in the safe operation of the machine " Bob Gilruth and his staff had been dealing directly with test pilots in NACA aircraft research programs since before World War II. These years of experience contributed to a relationship with the astronauts that was built on respect.33

Much to the disappointment of many in the audience at the NASA open house, especially the young people, the living, breathing astronauts were nowhere to be seen. Neither Gilruth nor anyone else responsible for....

 


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Molded couches for Mercury capsule.

Molded astronaut couches line the Langley model shop wall. The names of the test subjects- Langley employees- are written on the backs. L-59-4426.

 


Diagram of Mercury capsule.

This cutaway drawing was used by the STG to explain the Mercury ballistic capsule to visitors at the first NASA inspection. L-6l-5741.

 


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John Glenn inside Mercury capsule.

Astronaut John Glenn sits within the cozy cocoon of the Mercury spacecraft.

 

....the astronauts wanted to add to the astronauts' already heavy schedule by keeping them in front of several thousand sticky-fingered and camera-clicking fans for an entire Saturday. The astronauts' training at Langley included a rigorous regimen of physical exercise, including skin-diving operations designed to simulate weightlessness and the kind of sensory disorientation that they might experience during reentry from space. In Langley's large hydrodynamics tank (Building 720) as well as in the brackish water of the Back River, an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay behind the East Area the astronauts were learning to get out of the space capsule as it floated in water. Along with the tiring training at Langley, the astronauts also made trips to the Johnsville centrifuge; to Cape Canaveral, where the Countdown for their manned orbital flights would be made; as well as to the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation plant in St. Louis, where the Mercury capsules were being built.

Although the astronauts were excused by NASA from appearing at the open house' they had participated in the inspection earlier in the week. They were not assigned to give speeches or conduct tours, but they were asked to mix with invited guests in the major exhibit hall within the large aircraft hangar, where the makeshift after-hours wet bar called "19th Hole" was set up and most socializing occurred.

 


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John Glenn and Annie Castor Glenn, 1959.

John Glenn, who in three years would become the first American to orbit the earth (20 February 1962), explains a feature of the Mercury capsule to his wife, Annie Castor Glenn, whom he had known since his New Concord, Ohio, childhood.

 

Big Joe, Little Joe

 

The success of two recent tests for Project Mercury lent a cautiously upbeat mood to the First Anniversary Inspection. Five weeks earlier, on 9 September 1959, the project reached an important early milestone with what the inspection speakers called the "highly successful firing" of "Big Joe." Big Joe was a one-ton, full-scale instrumented mock-up of the proposed Mercury spacecraft designed to test the efficacy of the ablative heat shield and the aerodynamic stability of the capsule design. Speakers at the Project Mercury stop boasted that the Big Joe project had not begun until December 1958 and was flying successfully only 10 months later.34

After showing a short movie of Big Joe's launch atop an Atlas D booster from Cape Canaveral, the STG engineers explained that although the launch was normal, the two outer booster engines failed to jettison as planned because of a malfunction; the capsule-Atlas combination rose to an altitude of only about 100 miles. This was nevertheless high enough for the capsule, once separated from the Atlas, to fall back to earth in conditions that closely simulated orbital reentry. Another short movie showed the shipboard recovery of the capsule by a navy destroyer. The STG speakers explained that the recent Big Joe test not only proved to be an excellent exercise for the military recovery teams but also provided data that confirmed that the [47] blunt-body capsule shape had performed as predicted in NASA wind-tunnel and other laboratory studies In their words, the Big Joe test was "the first major step" in proving that the Mercury design concepts were feasible.35

On display in the Aircraft Loads building was the recovered capsule; alongside it was a second Big Joe boilerplate capsule mounted on a Little Joe booster mock-up. NASA Langley was proud of Big Joe. A small group of Langley technical service people under STG's Jack Kinzler had actually fabricated the capsule's afterbody, including the upper heat shield and the parachute deck, while another NASA group under Scott Simpkinson at Lewis had made the lower part of the capsule, the instrumentation, the controls, and the rest of the heat shield. But Langley positively doted on its Little Joe. Little Joe was an innovative solid-fuel rocket, one of the earliest U.S. launch vehicles based on the principle of the clustered rocket engine. (The Soviets were already "clustering" the more complex and troublesome liquid-fuel rocket engines.) STG engineers Max Faget and Paul Purser, then of Langley's PARD, had conceived Little Joe as a space capsule test vehicle even before the establishment of NASA and the formation of the STG. Gilruth understood the importance of the Little Joe tests: "We had to be sure there were no serious performance and operational problems that we had simply not thought of in such a new and radical type of flight vehicle."36 A launch of Little Joe on 21 August 1959 had failed, but at Wallops Station on 4 October 1959, just two weeks before the inspection, NASA successfully fired one of the "little" test rockets to an altitude of about 40 miles over the Atlantic Ocean before intentionally destroying it.37

"Little" was relative, of course, because the rocket stood 50 feet tall, weighed 28,000 pounds- the gross takeoff weight of a Douglas DC-3 airliner --and had a cluster of eight solid propellant engines that produced a quarter of a million pounds of thrust at takeoff. Nor did "little" accurately describe Little Joe's importance to the Mercury project. For the 4 October launch, neither the capsule nor the escape rocket had been instrumented, but Little Joe would carry instrumented payloads to varying altitudes, thus allowing NASA engineers to check the operation of the escape rocket and recovery systems. This they could do from Wallops Island before proceeding to the more expensive and difficult phases in the latter part of the program at Cape Canaveral. In ensuing months, Little Joe rockets (models I and ll) also provided information on flight stresses as they related to "biological payloads." The first of these payloads was Sam, a 7-pound Rhesus monkey launched from Wallops on the nose of a Little Joe on 4 December 1959. Surviving a violent ride up and down from a height of 55 miles with a parachute landing into the Atlantic Ocean, Sam gave NASA flight engineers a better idea of how human astronauts would fare during their upcoming Mercury flight.38

To the public, Project Mercury looked to be proceeding smoothly. The major setback of July 1959, when the first Atlas-Mercury production vehicle failed structurally under launch loads at the Cape, was not mentioned....

 


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Little Joe capsules constructed in Langley shops.

L-59-4946

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Langley technicians constructed the Little Joe capsules in-house in Langley's shops (top). A crane swings a capsule into place atop Little Joe in preparation for a launch at Wallops Island (right).

Little Joe on the launchpad at Wallops Island.

L-59-5134

 

[49]

Little Joe blasting off from Wallops Island, 1959.

L-59-8427

 

Langley's Little Joe rocket blasting off (left) from Wallops Island in the fall of 1959. Max Faget thought that Little Joe could be made reliable enough to carry a man, but Gilruth eventually scrapped the idea, deciding to use Redstone and Atlas. Below, the Little Joe capsule is recovered at sea.

 

.

Little Joe capsule recovered at sea.

L-64-6455

 

[50] ....in Langley's open-house presentation. To everyone behind the scenes at Langley, Project Mercury was in fact advancing at breakneck speed. In the period between early October 1958 and mid-January 1959, specifications for the Mercury capsule had been prepared and sent to the aerospace industry with a Request for Proposals; the bidders had been briefed; all the source selection (evaluation of proposal) activity had taken place; and the contract had been placed. That was not all. During the same period, the STG procured Atlas rockets and launch services from the air force; worked out a plan with the army (and Wernher von Braun's rocket team in Huntsville) for Redstone boosters; drew up the specifications for Little Joe; tested escape rockets over the beach at Wallops; and were in the midst of a wide range of tests at Langley. The STG also had to present technical reviews of the project to NASA headquarters officials approximately every two months. To do all this, every member of the STG worked holidays, evenings, and weekends. "These were the days of the most intensive and dedicated work [by] a group of people that I have ever experienced," Gilruth recalls proudly. This kind of performance could have occurred only "in a young organization that had not yet solidified all of its functions and prerogatives."39

This performance could have happened only in an organization whose staff members did not know or care to know- the difference between the possible and the impossible until they found out for themselves.

 


* Some headquarters officials did not like the name "inspection," which had been in use since the 1940s. They argued that it did not accurately convey what happened in the program. They suggested "exhibition," "observance," "annual meeting," and a number of other substitutes, but none of these names was adopted.

** The ABMA (Army Ballistic Missile Agency) under Dr. Wernher von Braun at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, did not become a part of NASA until their "shotgun marriage" was consummated by a vote of Congress in February 1960, but the decision to transfer the ABMA to NASA was actually finalized in October 1959, the month of the first NASA inspection. A number of ABMA representatives attended the NASA inspection. So, too, did the mayor of Huntsville.

*** The absence of a weight requirement is incredible given the demands of the payload on the launch rocket's boosting power and the tight squeeze for the passenger inside the Mercury capsule.

**** "G" is the symbol representing the acceleration due to gravity.


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