- 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
As I reached for the filter knob, the pressure gauge on my left wrist bumped against the abort handle. I stopped that movement real quick. Sure, the escape tower was gone, and hitting the abort handle might not have caused any great bother, but this was still a test flight, and I wasn’t about to play guessing games.
I looked again through the periscope. Gray or not, the sight was breathtaking.
“On the periscope,” I radioed. “What a beautiful view!”
“Cloud cover over Florida, three- to four-tenths on the eastern coast, obscured up through Hatteras.”
I drank it all in. Clouds obscured the Florida coastline south to Fort Lauderdale, then yielded to sunshine and the rich green of Lake Okeechobee’s shores and down to the spindly curve of the Florida Keys. I shifted slightly to see the Florida panhandle extending west, saw Pensacola clearly. The horizon arced away to offer a tantalizingly bare glimpse of Mobile, beyond which, just out of visual reach, lay New Orleans.
I looked northward across Georgia, at the Carolinas, and saw the coastline of Cape Hatteras and beyond.
I looked down, beneath the tight little craft, studied Andros Island and Bimini and saw other Bahamian islands through broken cloud cover.
I was now at the highest point, 116 miles. Back to the mission profile. Freedom 7 was swinging into its downward curve, calculated to carry me directly to the Navy recovery teams waiting in the waters near Grand Bahama Island, some three hundred miles southeast of the Cape.
I worked the controls to the proper angle to test-fire the three retro rockets. They weren’t necessary for descent on this suborbital, up-and-down mission, but they had to be proven for orbital flights to follow, when they would be critical to decelerate Mercury spaceships from orbital speed to initiate their return to earth.
“Retro one.” The first rocket fired and shoved me back against my couch. “Very smooth.”
“Roger, roger,” from Deke.
“Retro two.” Another blast of fire, another shove.
“Retro three. All three retro have fired.”
“All fired on the button,” Deke said with satisfaction.
The weightless wonderland vanished. Gravity was back, and the buildup came swiftly as Freedom 7 plunged into the atmosphere. I switched to manual control to get as much flying as I could while under g-forces, worked the controls until the small thrusters could no longer counter the massive pull of high g-loads. Then I switched to automatic mode for the rest of the trip downward.
Deke was on the horn. “Do you see the booster?” There was a touch of concern in his voice.
Before launch, engineers had voiced some concern that when I fired the retros, the speed would be slowed enough so that the empty Redstone, following its own ballistic arc, might catch up to and interfere with the flight of the Mercury.
This struck me as trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. Old-maid hand wringing. Even though Redstone and the Mercury had boosted out of atmosphere, there was still some drag associated with upward lofting after burnout of fuel. Redstone was so much bigger and its mass so much greater that even remnants of atmosphere would to some degree interfere with its ballistic arc and keep it well below Freedom 7 .I was confident Redstone would be considerably lower than I was, and would soon slam back into denser atmosphere to begin its self-destruction as it plunged toward the ocean.
It turned out I was right. Well below Freedom 7 , Redstone was tumbling wildly out of control, burning and disintegrating as it re-entered the atmosphere.
Below, a freighter moving north through calm seas was struck without warning by the very violent shock waves ripping downward through the sky.
The terrified crew thought the ship had exploded. “What the hell was that?” the captain shouted.
Someone pointed up and screamed: “Omigod! Look! ”
A white and black shape, the charred and still-burning Redstone, crashed out of the sky, sailed high over the ship’s deck, and smashed into the Atlantic several miles east of the freighter, sending multiple geysers into the air.
The crew stared, stunned, until the radio operator shouted, “Hey, on deck! Everybody! Listen!”