First Step To The Moon

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From a thousand feet up I saw the water clearly below. The heat shield had dropped the intended four feet to deploy the perforated skirt landing bag that would act as an air cushion when Mercury and ocean met.

Splashdown! Into the water we went with a good pop! Abrupt, but not bad. No worse than the kick in the butt when I was catapulted off a carrier deck. This was home plate!

The spacecraft tipped on its side, bringing water over the right porthole. I smacked the switch to release the reserve parachute that kept the capsule top-heavy. While I waited for the shifted balance to right my great spacecraft, but lousy boat, I kept thinking about the chimp’s near disappearance beneath the ocean. I checked and checked the cabin for leaks, ready to punch out.

But I stayed dry. Shifting the center of gravity had worked, and the capsule came back upright.

Planes roared overhead. “Cardfile Two Three,” I called. “This is Freedom 7 , would you please relay all is O.K.?”

“This is Two Three; roger that.”

“This is Seven . Dye marker is out. Everything is O.K. Ready for recovery.”

Bright green dye spread bright across the ocean surface from the capsule.

Seven , this is Two Three. Rescue One will be at your location momentarily.”

It went like another practice run. Within minutes Rescue One, a powerful helicopter, was overhead. I opened the hatch, grabbed hold of a harness dropped from the chopper, and was hoisted aboard.

Rescue One zeroed in on a waiting aircraft carrier, USS Lake Champlain . I saw sailors along the deck waving. “This is one of the best carrier landings I’ve ever made,” I told a chopper crewman.

Until the moment I stepped out on the flight deck of the carrier festooned everywhere with red, white, and blue decorations, I hadn’t realized the intensity of the emotions and feelings that so many people had for me, for the other astronauts, and the whole manned space program. This was the first sense I had of public response, of a public expression of thanks for what we were doing.

I was very close to tears as I thought: It’s no longer just our fight to get “out there.” The struggle belongs to everyone in America .

That was the best of all.

From now on there was no turning back.