- 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 stopped for one more look at the awesome beauty of the Redstone booster with its Mercury spacecraft. They had an air of expectancy about them. I watched plumes of vapor venting from the liquid oxygen tank and thought: “I never again will see this rocket.”
I moved into the elevator. The door closing behind me was an unplanned signal for applause and cheering by the men and women who’d worked day and night, always under the shadow of the great Russian boosters, to start America’s own high road into space. I turned and waved to the launch team.
I had the strangest feeling I was taking them along with me.
I started to call out to them, but the words choked in my throat. Then Bill Douglas handed me a box of Crayolas. “Just so you’ll have something to do up there,” he said.
Soon I was in the sterile White Room that surrounded the capsule that would take me out of the world. John Glenn greeted me with word that everything was ready. We gripped hands, and then I began the squeeze into the spacecraft.
SETTLED IN, I SAW A SMALL NOTICE ON THE INSTRUMENT PANEL: NO HANDBALL PLAYING IN HERE.
The name Freedom 7 had been painted on the capsule’s side. My choice. Freedom because it was patriotic. Seven because it was the seventh Mercury capsule produced. It also represented the seven Mercury astronauts.
It was no space liner. The capsule was a truncated cone ten feet high and just over six feet wide at the base of the ablative heat shield. Once I was shoehorned into it and all the suit connections were completed, I could move my eyeballs and not much more. For this flight NASA had placed a parachute chest pack on a small ledge inside the capsule. The only time I could use it would be if, after my main parachute had opened, something went wrong that required an emergency exit. Then I’d have to clip on the chest pack, open the hatch, and wriggle my way out. The chute was along so that if the flight came apart, no one could say the pilot never had a means of escape.
Settled in, I saw a small notice attached to the instrument panel: NO HANDBALL PLAYING IN HERE . Glenn looked through the hatch and grinned. I handed the notice back to him.
They readied the hatch. I gave Glenn the thumbs-up. “See you soon.”
Behind Glenn the gantry crew shouted good-bye. “Happy landings, Commander!”
The hatch closed.
I was alone, squeezed into a spacecraft with less room than a telephone booth. I felt the butterflies trying to squeeze in with me, reminding me I was sitting on top of a huge bomb. I pushed aside the thought and went to work, running down my checklists, testing the radios, all switch settings. The butterflies went away.
Looking through the periscope viewer in the center of the instrument panel, I saw the crew still at work outside the spacecraft. Then they began to diminish in size as the gantry rolled back from the Redstone.
The periscope gave me a view of clouds lit by the morning sun. Far below, I watched the launch crew finishing last-minute details at the base of the rocket. I glanced at my capsule timer. Only fifteen minutes to go. The view outside dimmed. Cloud cover rolling in! Damn!
The countdown clock stopped. Everybody sat on tenterhooks, waiting for the sky to clear. Everybody hated countdown delays. They just allowed more time for something to go wrong.
It did. The launch director ordered the gantry rolled back to the rocket. A small electrical part had suffered a glitch. Not much, but it had to be fixed, resulting in a one-hour-and-twenty-six-minute delay.
Gordon Cooper was the principal prelaunch communicator in the blockhouse.
“Tell Shorty Powers to call Louise. I want her to hear from us that I’m fine and explain that I’m going nowhere fast.”
The delay was also taking its toll in a physiological manner. The suborbital flight was scheduled to last only fifteen minutes, and no one had thought it necessary to equip me or the Mercury with a urine-collection system.
“Man, I got to pee.”