- 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 reviewed the telemetry tapes and records of the Great Chimp Adventure. I knew I could have survived that trip, but I also knew immediately that my own planned flight was in deep trouble. If only the damn chimp’s ride had been on the mark, I would have launched in March.
But Ham’s flight had not been on the mark, and in Huntsville, Alabama, Dr. Wernher von Braun, developer of the Redstone and director of the Marshal Space Flight center, was showing signs of a new conservatism as responsibility for men’s lives was factored into his decisions. “We require another unmanned Mercury-Redstone flight,” he said.
Working with the engineers, I confirmed that the problem with Ham’s Redstone had been nothing more than a minor electrical relay. The fix was quick and easy, and Redstone was back in perfect shape. “For God’s sake, let’s fly. Now!” I begged NASA officials, but Dr. von Braun stood fast: “Another test flight.”
I stalked off steaming to the office of Flight Director Chris Kraft. “Look, Chris, we’re pilots,” I said. “When there’s a failure, dammit, we fix it.”
“I know, Alan,” he said.
“Well, what about it? It’s an established fact that the relay was the problem, and it’s fixed.”
“So why don’t we go ahead? Why don’t we man the next one?”
“Why waste time, right?” Kraft smiled.
“Because when it comes to rockets”—the flight director shook his head—“Wernher is king.”
“Forget it, right?”
So I walked away, brooding. The March 24 Redstone flight was an absolute beauty. I could have killed. I should have been on that flight. I could have led the world into space. I should have been floating up there, while the Russians were still wrestling with a balky rocket booster.
We had them by the short hairs, and we gave it away.
But never mind being the first up, would I fly at all? Given Gagarin’s flight and the overwhelming power of the Soviet boosters, there were suggestions in Washington that the U.S. man-in-space program be canceled.
In the White House the country’s young new President was bedeviled with the reality of Soviet superiority in powerful rockets, and for a while he seemed reconciled to the fact that space belonged to the Russians. Indeed, John F. Kennedy emphatically told a news conference that the nation would not try to match the Soviet achievements in space but would choose instead “other areas where we can be first and which will bring more long-range benefits to man-kind.”
Then, just five days after Gagarin’s flight, the invasion of Cuba by CIA-backed armed exiles turned into a disastrous rout. If ever Kennedy needed a bold new step, now was the time. He rested his case solidly on the future of the United States in space. Lyndon Johnson answered his summons and heard a no-nonsense President talking. “I want you to tell me where we stand in space. Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting up a laboratory in space? Or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon … and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”
THE IRONY OF PLAYING SECOND FIDDLE TO A CHIMPANZEE WAS PARTICULARLY GALLING TO US.
Kennedy and Johnson were striking out to the future, but elsewhere in Washington Jerome Wiesner, head of JFK’s Space Advisory Committee, wanted to put on the brakes. The first American manned space shot was now on the calendar for May 2. A failure at this point could be devastating for national morale and prestige. On April 25 the American space program started to unravel. An Atlas booster lifting an unmanned Mercury capsule drifted off course, was blown up, and returned to earth in a huge gout of flaming debris. Three days later a Little Joe rocket boosting a Mercury on a test of its emergency escape system spun out of control and was destroyed.
At a meeting the next day in the Oval Office, Wiesner told the President he must order a delay in the first manned lift-off. He recommended further that if Kennedy insisted on going ahead with it, the flight should be carried out later and in secrecy to avoid an overpublicized fiasco should the mission fizzle.
But by now Kennedy was resolved to make the United States a true space-faring nation. There would be no secret launches of the manned civilian space program, he ordered. We will act in the open, for the public.