- 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
He received support from Johnson, who told the group the Atlas and Little Joe failures had no bearing on the reliability of the Redstone and Mercury spacecraft. The executive director of the Space Council, Edward Welsh, also stood up to be counted. He rattled off a list of Redstone reliability figures. “The flight will go,” he said. “And it won’t fail. The risks of failure are no greater than our crashing in an airliner between here and Los Angeles just because the weather isn’t perfect. So why postpone a success?”
Kennedy nodded. They had a GO .
We astronauts all felt as if we’d been in a pressure cooker. The word was out that if the United States was to have a civilian manned space program, the first shot must succeed.
The entire team—astronauts, engineers, scientists, technicians, everybody —went on twenty-four-hour availability. Glenn and Grissom became my alter egos, my shadows, always there to support me in every way.
On May 2 I was ready, the rocket was ready, and the range was ready. But I didn’t lift off that day. Low cloud cover rolled in, and Walt Williams scrubbed the launch. The flight operations director was right—he wanted a clear view of that Redstone all the way through fuel burnout—but I moaned and groaned, “I guess I’m destined to stay forever on this planet.”
My flight surgeon, Bill Douglas, grinned at my discomfiture. “Not hardly, Al. That’s a departure we’ll all make someday. The difference is you want to leave and come back.”
I went back to the simulator for more make-believe space flying.
Three days passed. To my surprise, I felt the delay actually eased the tension that had been building up inside me. Before the May 2 launch I’d been plagued with visions of rockets tumbling out of control or blowing up in the air—after all, I’d seen this happen—but during those three days I was able to back off, regroup, and hit it again. I recognized I was experiencing normal apprehension and not fear. The entire reasoning process was old hat to a test pilot. I knew how to turn off this kind of stuff, and I felt calm as the new launch date of May 5 neared.
The night of May 4, however, the other astronauts and support teams brought their own tension onto the scene. Everyone but me was walking on eggshells. Despite the strong feelings about weather, rocket reliability, the escape system, anything and everything, no one dared broach those subjects. It all got so thick I went into my bedroom and phoned my family in Virginia Beach.
Louise answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Alan.” Pause. “I was hoping it was you.”
“Yeah, it’s me. Tomorrow looks promising. I think we’ve got a go.”
“Weather’s supposed to be good.”
“It will be.” Not a doubt in the world. “It’ll be your good-luck day.”
“I do feel good about it. Everything O.K. at home?”
“Everything is just great, Alan. The folks are here.”
“I figured. I’d like to talk with them and then the girls.”
Several minutes later Louise came back on the line. “We’ll be watching you on TV. Be sure you wave when you lift off.”
“Right. I’ll open the hatch and stick out my arm.”
“You do that. Take care of yourself, sweetheart. Hurry home.”
“I love you.”
“Me too, Louise.”
It was pure tonic, wonderful and soothing.
Flight Surgeon Bill Douglas woke me early. I shaved and showered, then polished off a breakfast of filet mignon, eggs, orange juice, and tea. I left the breakfast table to place myself at the mercy of the doctors, who did their usual poking, prodding, and measuring and then attached a battery of medical sensors to me.
Shortly after 4:00 A.M. , suited up, I departed Hangar S with Douglas and Gus Grissom for the launch pad. We rode in a transfer van that was like a cramped cattle car.
The van stopped at the launch pad, and I stepped out into a strange world of glaring floodlights and banshee wails from a breeze blowing across supercold fuel lines. I looked up, for the moment overwhelmed by the gleaming blue-white lights. Then I began the final walk toward the gantry elevator. “Up” was six stories above me.