- Historic Sites
First Step To The Moon
The first American to leave the Earth's atmosphere recalls the momentous flight that put us on a course for the moon.
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
I reached for the clamoring telephone.
The voice at the other end was soft, polite. Considerate. “Commander Shepard?”
“Uh-huh. Yeah, this is Shepard.”
“Have you heard?”
I was awake now. I didn’t like those words. “Heard what?”
“The Russians have put a man in orbit.”
I sat straight up. “They what?”
“They’ve put a man in orbit.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
The caller was a NASA engineer I knew. “I wouldn’t do that, Commander Shepard.” He seemed apologetic. “They’ve done it. They really put a man in orbit.”
I managed some sort of courteous response, thanked the man, and hung up. A single sentence kept repeating itself over and over in my mind: I could have been up there three weeks ago …
I turned on my bedside radio. Excited voices spoke of Vostok and orbit and Yuri Gagarin. I called the other Mercury troops. They’d heard. They were all glum. There wasn’t a race anymore.
It was bad enough for us astronauts to get the news in the middle of the night by telephone. It was worse for the United States to be seen to be falling behind the Soviet Union. And it was worse still that the public relations mouthpiece for the Mercury Seven, Col. John (“Shorty”) Powers, didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut at a tense moment.
A reporter wakened Powers and started asking questions. Groggy, befuddled, and angry, Shorty snarled into the phone, “If you want anything from us, you jerk, the answer is we’re all asleep!” He slammed down the phone. The moment was heaven-sent for a newsman, and by morning the reporter’s newspaper headline shouted: SOVIETS SEND MAN INTO SPACE. SPOKESMAN SAYS U.S. ASLEEP .
So that was that. Nearly four years after Sputnik had started the space race and two years after I and my six colleagues —Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil (“Gus”) Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton—had been presented in a Washington, D.C., ceremony as the Mercury Project team that would represent Americans in space, we’d been beaten to the punch.
We had started out at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. NASA’s new Space Task Group also set up its headquarters there.
For the next two years we trained to be astronauts while engineers worked to develop and perfect the Mercury spacecraft.
We traveled a lot. We studied the Mercury spacecraft then under development at the McDonnell Aircraft plant in St. Louis —as Deke put it, “the thing ain’t got no wings!”—then went off to the Convair/Astronautics division at General Dynamics, where the intercontinental ballistic missile Atlas, still tricky and unproven, was being modified, its usual hydrogen bomb warhead to be replaced with the bell-shaped, blunt-edged Mercury. Finally we flew into the launch complex at Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida, where it would all happen.
“Lady,” I said, “You can't tell anyone, but you have your arms around the man who'll be first in space.”
On January 19, 1961, I came home with some news and burst into the house, yelling for my wife. “Louise! Louise, you home?”
She came into the living room, and her three words said it all. “You got it!” She hugged me. “You got the first ride!”
“Lady, you can’t tell anyone, but you have your arms around the man who’ll be first in space!”
“Who let a Russian in here?” she teased.
“Nah. We’ll beat those guys.”
But we hadn’t.
Early in 1961 the Cape, as it was simply called, was the most exciting place in the country. It was also a very tough place to work.
Despite the glowing press reports about how well things were going with the astronauts and the Mercury operations team, the reality was that conflict was a part of every day at Cape Canaveral. Arduous project schedules and the long wait to get up into space made us feel stifled and resentful.