First Step To The Moon


“You heard me. I’ve got to pee. I’ve been in here forever. The gantry is still right here, so why don’t you guys let me out of here for a quick stretch?”

“Hold on.” Gordo came back a few minutes later. “No way, Alan. Wernher says we don’t have the time to reassemble the White Room. He says you’re in there to stay.”

“Gordo, I could be in here a couple more hours, and by that time my bladder’s gonna burst!”

“Wernher says no.”

“Well, shit, Gordo, we’ve got to do something. Dammit, tell ‘em I’m going to let it go in my suit.”

NO! No, good God, you can’t do that,” Gordo shouted back. “The medics say you’ll short-circuit all their medical leads!”

“Tell ‘em to turn the power off!”

The solution was that simple. Gordo had a chuckle in his voice when he told me, “Okay, Alan. Power’s off. Go to it.”

It was as if they’d designed the suit for such an emergency. In that semi-supine position the liquid pooled in the small of my back and my heavy undergarment soaked it up. With 100 percent oxygen flowing through the suit, I was soon dry.

The countdown resumed. The gantry was gone.

I watched the waves breaking on the beach. Just what the doctor ordered. Calming and soothing.

Five minutes.

Three minutes.

Two minutes and forty seconds and counting.

I heard the dreaded word Hold .

Gordo was on the line immediately. “Alan, uh, we’re gonna hold here at this time. We’ve, ah, got a little computer problem here—”

“Shit!” I yelled. “I’ve been here more than three hours. I’m a hell of a lot cooler than you guys. Why don’t you just fix your little problem and light this candle?”

They fixed the problem. The count resumed. At T minus two minutes I heard Deke Slayton’s voice. Pure comfort to hear that man. From this point on Deke Slayton would be my main contact for the mission.

Gordo was in the blockhouse just a stone’s throw from the pad. Deke sat before his console in Mercury Control two miles away. He shared the control room with fifteen men, who sat behind three banks of consoles to measure every moment of the flight.

Deke’s voice became a professional monotone as he counted off the final seconds.

Just before liftoff I had a last message, but spoke it only to myself: “Deke and the man upstairs will watch over me. So don’t screw up, Shepard. Don’t screw up. Your ass is hauling what’s left of your country’s man-in-space program.”

Vibration rattled the capsule as the Redstone’s internal pumps came alive.

T minus seven .”

Six .”

Five .”

I pushed my feet firmly against the capsule, bracing myself.

Four .”

I had my hand up near the stopwatch on the panel; I had to initiate the timer at the moment of liftoff if the automatic clock failed.

Three .”

Left hand on the abort handle. The escape tower was loaded, its pyrotechnic devices ready to go.

Two .”

I was talking aloud to myself in the tradition of pilots about to enter the unknown: “Okay, buster, you volunteered for this thing. Now make it work!”

One .”

“Don’t screw up, Shepard …”

Zero .”

Deke’s voice rose in pitch as he sang out, “Ignition!”

Rumbling far below. Pumps spinning, fuel gushing through lines, joining in the combustion chamber. Before I could think about what came next, a dull roar boomed through Redstone, rushed up into the spacecraft, shook it with a surprisingly gentle touch. Thunder grew, louder and louder.

“Liftoff!” Deke called.