First Step To The Moon

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The irony of playing second fiddle to a chimpanzee was particularly galling to us. NASA had decided to send a chimp into space before sending me. I protested again and again, but NASA insisted the little ape go first. The agency meant well. But all I could think about were Russian boosters rolling to their pads for the first manned space flight.

There were other frictions too. At the Cape I spent most of my time in a “procedures trainer.” This was a replica of the actual spaceship that would boost me more than one hundred miles into space. It also duplicated the severe semi-supine flight position, with the pilot lying on his back, legs vertical to the knees and then dropped down so that he was shaped like a squared-off pretzel.

No one liked the trainer. It was like taking a straight-backed chair, placing it on its back, and then “sitting” in it. This is where the astronaut trained to reach all his instruments and controls until he could go through every motion of his scheduled flight with his eyes closed and never miss hitting the right button or lever.

Similarly, the crew quarters in Hangar S were Spartan, austere, nondescript, and totally uncomfortable. Our sleeping quarters could be reached only by going down a long, poorly lit hallway, an unpleasant walk during which we were assailed by the hoots, screeches, and screams of a small colony of apes housed out back.

In the end we decided the humiliation of stepping aside for a monkey was bad enough. We certainly didn’t have to live with the howling dung-flingers. So we all abandoned Hangar S and took up residence at the Holiday Inn, where we could live like human beings.

By late January events were coming down to the wire. As flight time neared, the practical joking that had helped keep us all sane faded away. A serious tone settled over the launch, support, flight, and recovery teams. Redstone, the booster rocket, was working well, and I was scheduled to be launched in about six more weeks.

But that chimpanzee was still going before a man could fly. All he would do was go along for the ride and bang levers and push buttons in the capsule and get jolted with electricity if he didn’t perform his tasks properly. Despite our protests that the whole concept was ridiculous, the medical teams and psychologists insisted there were too many unknowns about space flight, especially weightlessness and what could be unexpectedly high g-forces, to risk a man’s life without first sending up a living, breathing creature as a possible sacrifice.

So the chimps trained to go into space. It was a great circus act. Scientifically it was a huge waste of money, time, and manpower. Rube Goldberg could have designed the machine intended to test simian skills. In the box-shaped gadget, when a certain color light or series of lights flashed, the animal was trained to push either a right- or left-hand lever. If he performed as commanded, he was rewarded with a banana pellet funneled to his mouth through a dispenser. If the chimp failed to push the right lever, he was whacked with a slight electrical jolt to his foot.

This was the culmination of many years of research, the effort of hundreds of engineers, and the expenditure of several million dollars. Banana pellets and electric shocks to be administered by a space-borne slot machine.

Yet the effort went forward, and NASA selected one ape, christened him Ham, and on January 31, 1961, the Mercury Seven gathered to watch the momentous liftoff of the slot-happy chimp. The flight turned out to be a bit more interesting than planned. Redstone had a “hot engine” and consumed all its fuel five seconds ahead of schedule. The automatic control system sensed that something was wrong. Instantly it ignited the escape tower above the Mercury capsule, blowing the spacecraft away from the rocket with a great shriek of flame that sent the craft much higher and faster than it was intended to go.

The medics figured the ape would be squeezed by eight times gravity, but in fact, Ham experienced more than twice the original estimate. He was one unhappy monkey. The on-board equipment failed, the electrical system and light tests went haywire, and drifting weightlessly, Ham was banging on every lever he could. He did everything right, and for his efforts was rewarded at every turn with a nasty shock instead of a banana pellet.

He also sailed 132 miles farther downrange than the planned 290 miles. He came down with crushing deceleration, the opening parachute slamming him about in the capsule, and he hit the ocean surface with an earsplitting bang. By the time the recovery choppers showed up to lift the craft out of the waves, it was on its side, filled with so much water they had a sputtering, choking, near-drowned chimp on their hands.

They returned Ham to the Cape. NASA went through some idiotic official greeting, but Ham came out of the capsule biting anything, human or otherwise, that came near him.