- 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
Moments before, I had weighed a thousand pounds. Now a feather on the surface of the earth weighed more than I did. Being weightless was … wonderful, marvelous, incredible. A miracle in comfort.
The tiny capsule seemed to expand magically as pressure points vanished. No up, no down, no lying or sitting or standing. A missing washer and bits of dust drifted before my eyes. I laughed out loud.
I’d expected silence at this point, with the atmosphere something far below me and no rush of wind despite so many thousands of miles an hour. No friction. No turbulence.
But instead there was the murmur of Freedom 7 , as though a brook were running mechanically through its structure. Inverters moaned, gyroscopes whirred, cooling fans had their own sound, cameras hummed, the radios crackled and emitted their tones before and after conversational exchanges. The sounds flowed together, some dull, others sharper, a miniature mechanical orchestra. I found those unexpected sounds most welcome; they meant things were working, doing, pushing, and repeating. They were the sounds of life.
Now I felt Freedom 7 go into its slow turnaround. Other sounds! Of course, the control thrusters firing in a vacuum. But within the hull of the capsule they exerted pressure, and that pressure came to me as thudding noises, dimmed bangs carrying wonderful satisfaction. The ship was obeying its autopilot-commanded flight plan, turning on schedule, rotating into a position that would assure the blunt end of the capsule facing in the direction of re-entry.
I was zinging along high above the planet’s atmosphere at better than five thousand miles per hour, but there was nothing by which to judge speed. You need relative comparison for that: a tree, a building, a passing spacecraft. My view of the outside universe was restricted to what I could see through the capsule’s two small portholes, and through those I saw that very deep blue, almost jet black, sky. There was only one available reference to tell me I was actually moving: the earth below.
But that look at earth would have to wait. The mission checklist came first. I had to go flying. Until now Freedom 7 had flown its profile on autopilot. The only aspect of the flight different for me than for the chimp was that I could give a verbal report of events.
Now I took hold of the three-axis control stick and reached out to switch from autopilot mode to manual control. One axis at a time, I warned myself.
“Switching to manual pitch,” I told Deke, and squeezed the stick to one side. Tiny jets of hydrogen peroxide gas spit into space from exterior ports on the spacecraft. Instantly Seven ’s blunt end raised and lowered in response. I couldn’t believe the incredibly smooth movements of the small spaceship. It was doing precisely what I demanded.
“Pitch is okay. Switching to manual yaw.”
“Roger. Manual yaw.”
I fed in reaction thrust to the yaw axis, and again Seven danced left and right.
“Yaw is okay. Shifting to manual roll.”
Again Seven moved slickly. Finally we’re doing something in space on our own , I said to myself. We’re first with it! Manual control of a spaceship. Dyno-mite!
Yuri Gagarin in that heavy Vostok had gone higher and faster and had raced all the way around the planet, but the Russians had played it very tight against the vest with a supercautious approach, and Gagarin had been a fascinated passenger, flying his entire mission on autopilot.
Freedom 7 had proved itself a good little flying ship, and I had become the first pilot to maneuver a space vehicle. I felt damn good about it.
“Roll is okay.”
Deke almost made a speech. “Roll is okay,” he confirmed from his console. “It looked good here.”
I took a deep breath. Now , I told myself, you can fly part of this mission for yourself. Go ahead, man. Take a good look at the earth .
My portholes still looked outward, toward the blackness. Back on the pad I had tried to look downward through the periscope and swore. While still on the pad, looking through the scope, I’d stared into the bright sun and immediately moved in filters to cut down the glare. I’d forgotten to remove those filters, and now, peering through the scope, I saw my planet only in shades of gray.