- 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 felt movement. Again I readied myself for vibration and shock. In anticipation I’d already turned up the volume of my headphones. I didn’t want to miss a word from Deke because of the still-increasing noise.
Freedom 7 swayed slightly.
My heart pounded.
“You’re on your way, José!” Deke shouted.
“Roger, liftoff, and the clock has started,” I called out. Now I felt the power beneath me; the minimal sound and vibration surprised me. Redstone came to life gently. But by God, I was on my way.
“This is Freedom 7 . Fuel is go. Oxygen is go. Cabin holding at five-point-five PSI.”
“I understand, cabin holding at five-point-five,” Deke responded.
Flame lifted Freedom 7 higher, faster.
Not bad at all! Damn, Shepard, this is smoother than anything you ever expected. Hang in, guy. It’s going beautifully .
I spoke to Mercury Control. “This is Freedom 7 . Two-point-five g. Cabin five-point-five. Oxygen is go. The main bus is twenty-four, and the isolated battery is twenty-nine.”
A comfortable, assured “Roger” came back from Deke.
I was at two and a half times my normal weight. So far the flight was a piece of cake. I was through the smoothest part of powered ascent, and now came the rutted road, the barrier I had to cross before leaving the atmosphere behind.
Redstone was hammering at shock waves gathering stubbornly before its passage, slicing from below the speed of sound through the barrier to supersonic straight up. Now I was in Max Q, the zone of maximum dynamic pressure where the forces of flight and ascent challenged the booster rocket. My helmet slammed against the contour couch.
Eighteen inches before me the instrument panel became a blur, almost impossible to read.
One thousand pounds of pressure for every square foot of Freedom 7 was trying to crack the capsule.
I started to call for Deke, changed my mind. A garbled transmission at this point could send Mercury Control into a flap. It might even trigger an abort.
And then the Redstone slipped through the hammering blows into smoothness. Out of Max Q, I keyed the mike.
“Okay, it’s a lot smoother now. A lot smoother.”
“Roger,” said Deke.
Mercury Control called out the time hack. “Plus two minutes.”
I was now twenty-five miles high and accelerating through twenty-seven hundred miles an hour. Increasing g-forces mashed me down into my couch. It hurt, and it felt terrific.
What a ride!
“All systems are go,” I called down to Deke.
Redstone increased my weight to a thousand pounds as I called out the force of six times gravity to Deke. I was finding it difficult to talk as the g-forces squeezed my throat and vocal cords. But I drew on the techniques of fighting these loads I’d perfected in test flying, and they heard me clearly in Mission Control.
THE THOUSAND POUNDS OF PRESSURE FOR EVERY SQUARE FOOT OF FREEDOM 7 WAS TRYING TO CRACK THE CAPSULE.
Another moment of truth was at hand: cutoff. That was the instant when the Redstone engine shut down, when the booster became an empty tube from which I had to separate.
Above my head a single large solid-propellant rocket blazed to life, spewing back flame from three canted nozzles. These broke connecting links to yank the tall escape tower, now no longer needed, away from Freedom 7 and send it racing along a safe departure angle.
Systems functioned precisely on their rapid schedule.
Three small separation rockets at the base of the capsule ignited. Freedom 7 pulled away from Redstone.
A new light flashed on the instrument panel.
“This is Seven . Cap sep is green.”
I was on my own, slicing high above earth along a great ballistic arc.