- 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 SAW SAILORS WAVING ON THE LAKE CHAMPLAIN . “THIS IS ONE OF THE BEST CARRIER LANDINGS I’VE EVER MADE,” I TOLD A CHOPPER CREWMAN.
He placed the microphone by his radio, calling in the blind for anyone who could tell them what was going on. The NBC radio engineer Joe Sturniola was at his shortwave gear on Grand Bahama Island and picked up the freighter’s call. He heard clearly the operator saying, “It couldn’t have been an airplane. Not from what we saw. We don’t know what it was!”
Sturniola answered immediately. “You people have just been missed by the rocket that carried the first American into space.”
“Astronaut? Into space? American?”
“That’s right. This is Grand Bahama Island, and Alan Shepard will be arriving here shortly.”
“O.K. This is Freedom 7 . My g-buildup is three … six … nine.” I was grunting now, using the proven system of body tightening and muscle rigidity to force out the words.
It got tougher. At eleven times the normal force of gravity, I was close to “weighing” a full earth ton. But I’d pulled eleven g-loads in the centrifuge, and I knew I could keep on working now.
“O.K. … O.K.” I was grunting in high atmosphere instead of space. The g-loads were fading away. “O.K. … this is Seven , O.K. Forty-five thousand feet. Uh, now forty thousand feet.”
I was through the gantlet of punishing g-forces and deceleration and blazing heat of re-entry. I felt great. Right behind my back the temperature had soared to 1,230 degrees, a critical test for the spacecraft, and at the worst of it in the cabin the temperature hit a peak of about 100 degrees. Inside my suit the reading topped at 85 degrees. Not at all bad, just nice and toasty.
But it was still an E-ticket ride that had some bumps and grinds to go.
The altimeter showed thirty-one thousand feet when Deke’s voice reached me again. “ Seven , your impact will be right on the button.”
Great news. Flight computations were as close to perfect as could be, and so were the performances of the Redstone and the spacecraft. The Mercury was arrowing directly for the center of the Atlantic recovery area close to Grand Bahama Island. The Cape lay three hundred miles to the northwest and with the diminishing altitude would soon be out of radio contact. I signed off with Deke, telling him I was going to the new frequency.
“Roger, Seven , read you switching to GBI.”
He was eager to cut the hell out of Mercury Control Center as fast as he could go. I knew Gus would be right there with him, and the two of them would clamber into a NASA jet and burn sky to GBI so they could be on the ground waiting when I was delivered by helicopter from the recovery vessel.
“ Seven , do you read?” came a new voice on the GBI line.
“I read.” I was starting to look for the recovery fleet. But the game wasn’t quite over. I still had to reach that fleet and in good shape, which meant the parachute system had to work perfectly. Otherwise everything that had gone so beautifully up to this moment would mean nothing.
I locked my view through the periscope. Above me panel covers snapped away in the wind as the spacecraft fell. And the small drogue chute whipped out to stabilize the craft.
“The drogue is green at twenty-one, and the periscope is out.”
The altimeter unwound and aimed for ten thousand feet, where the main chute was to open. If it failed, I already had a finger on the “pull like hell ring” that would fling a second, reserve chute out of its pack.
“Standing by for main.”
Through the periscope I saw the most beautiful sight of the mission. That big orange and white monster blossomed above me beautifully. It told me I was safe, all was well, I had done it, all of us had done it. I was home free.
“Main on green. Main chute is reefed, and it looks good.”
Freedom 7 swayed back and forth as it dropped lower. The main chute unreefed into a magnificent orange and white paneled flower.
I opened my helmet faceplate, quickly disconnected the life-support hoses to my suit, and released the straps that had kept me snared within the cabin.