July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
The first American to leave the Earth's atmosphere recalls the momentous flight that put us on a course for the moon.
I reached for the clamoring telephone.
The voice at the other end was soft, polite. Considerate. “Commander Shepard?”
“Uh-huh. Yeah, this is Shepard.”
“Have you heard?”
I was awake now. I didn’t like those words. “Heard what?”
“The Russians have put a man in orbit.”
I sat straight up. “They what?”
“They’ve put a man in orbit.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
The caller was a NASA engineer I knew. “I wouldn’t do that, Commander Shepard.” He seemed apologetic. “They’ve done it. They really put a man in orbit.”
I managed some sort of courteous response, thanked the man, and hung up. A single sentence kept repeating itself over and over in my mind: I could have been up there three weeks ago …
I turned on my bedside radio. Excited voices spoke of Vostok and orbit and Yuri Gagarin. I called the other Mercury troops. They’d heard. They were all glum. There wasn’t a race anymore.
It was bad enough for us astronauts to get the news in the middle of the night by telephone. It was worse for the United States to be seen to be falling behind the Soviet Union. And it was worse still that the public relations mouthpiece for the Mercury Seven, Col. John (“Shorty”) Powers, didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut at a tense moment.
A reporter wakened Powers and started asking questions. Groggy, befuddled, and angry, Shorty snarled into the phone, “If you want anything from us, you jerk, the answer is we’re all asleep!” He slammed down the phone. The moment was heaven-sent for a newsman, and by morning the reporter’s newspaper headline shouted: SOVIETS SEND MAN INTO SPACE. SPOKESMAN SAYS U.S. ASLEEP .
So that was that. Nearly four years after Sputnik had started the space race and two years after I and my six colleagues —Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil (“Gus”) Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton—had been presented in a Washington, D.C., ceremony as the Mercury Project team that would represent Americans in space, we’d been beaten to the punch.
We had started out at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. NASA’s new Space Task Group also set up its headquarters there.
For the next two years we trained to be astronauts while engineers worked to develop and perfect the Mercury spacecraft.
We traveled a lot. We studied the Mercury spacecraft then under development at the McDonnell Aircraft plant in St. Louis —as Deke put it, “the thing ain’t got no wings!”—then went off to the Convair/Astronautics division at General Dynamics, where the intercontinental ballistic missile Atlas, still tricky and unproven, was being modified, its usual hydrogen bomb warhead to be replaced with the bell-shaped, blunt-edged Mercury. Finally we flew into the launch complex at Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida, where it would all happen.
On January 19, 1961, I came home with some news and burst into the house, yelling for my wife. “Louise! Louise, you home?”
She came into the living room, and her three words said it all. “You got it!” She hugged me. “You got the first ride!”
“Lady, you can’t tell anyone, but you have your arms around the man who’ll be first in space!”
“Who let a Russian in here?” she teased.
“Nah. We’ll beat those guys.”
But we hadn’t.
Early in 1961 the Cape, as it was simply called, was the most exciting place in the country. It was also a very tough place to work.
Despite the glowing press reports about how well things were going with the astronauts and the Mercury operations team, the reality was that conflict was a part of every day at Cape Canaveral. Arduous project schedules and the long wait to get up into space made us feel stifled and resentful.
The irony of playing second fiddle to a chimpanzee was particularly galling to us. NASA had decided to send a chimp into space before sending me. I protested again and again, but NASA insisted the little ape go first. The agency meant well. But all I could think about were Russian boosters rolling to their pads for the first manned space flight.
There were other frictions too. At the Cape I spent most of my time in a “procedures trainer.” This was a replica of the actual spaceship that would boost me more than one hundred miles into space. It also duplicated the severe semi-supine flight position, with the pilot lying on his back, legs vertical to the knees and then dropped down so that he was shaped like a squared-off pretzel.
No one liked the trainer. It was like taking a straight-backed chair, placing it on its back, and then “sitting” in it. This is where the astronaut trained to reach all his instruments and controls until he could go through every motion of his scheduled flight with his eyes closed and never miss hitting the right button or lever.
Similarly, the crew quarters in Hangar S were Spartan, austere, nondescript, and totally uncomfortable. Our sleeping quarters could be reached only by going down a long, poorly lit hallway, an unpleasant walk during which we were assailed by the hoots, screeches, and screams of a small colony of apes housed out back.
In the end we decided the humiliation of stepping aside for a monkey was bad enough. We certainly didn’t have to live with the howling dung-flingers. So we all abandoned Hangar S and took up residence at the Holiday Inn, where we could live like human beings.
By late January events were coming down to the wire. As flight time neared, the practical joking that had helped keep us all sane faded away. A serious tone settled over the launch, support, flight, and recovery teams. Redstone, the booster rocket, was working well, and I was scheduled to be launched in about six more weeks.
But that chimpanzee was still going before a man could fly. All he would do was go along for the ride and bang levers and push buttons in the capsule and get jolted with electricity if he didn’t perform his tasks properly. Despite our protests that the whole concept was ridiculous, the medical teams and psychologists insisted there were too many unknowns about space flight, especially weightlessness and what could be unexpectedly high g-forces, to risk a man’s life without first sending up a living, breathing creature as a possible sacrifice.
So the chimps trained to go into space. It was a great circus act. Scientifically it was a huge waste of money, time, and manpower. Rube Goldberg could have designed the machine intended to test simian skills. In the box-shaped gadget, when a certain color light or series of lights flashed, the animal was trained to push either a right- or left-hand lever. If he performed as commanded, he was rewarded with a banana pellet funneled to his mouth through a dispenser. If the chimp failed to push the right lever, he was whacked with a slight electrical jolt to his foot.
This was the culmination of many years of research, the effort of hundreds of engineers, and the expenditure of several million dollars. Banana pellets and electric shocks to be administered by a space-borne slot machine.
Yet the effort went forward, and NASA selected one ape, christened him Ham, and on January 31, 1961, the Mercury Seven gathered to watch the momentous liftoff of the slot-happy chimp. The flight turned out to be a bit more interesting than planned. Redstone had a “hot engine” and consumed all its fuel five seconds ahead of schedule. The automatic control system sensed that something was wrong. Instantly it ignited the escape tower above the Mercury capsule, blowing the spacecraft away from the rocket with a great shriek of flame that sent the craft much higher and faster than it was intended to go.
The medics figured the ape would be squeezed by eight times gravity, but in fact, Ham experienced more than twice the original estimate. He was one unhappy monkey. The on-board equipment failed, the electrical system and light tests went haywire, and drifting weightlessly, Ham was banging on every lever he could. He did everything right, and for his efforts was rewarded at every turn with a nasty shock instead of a banana pellet.
He also sailed 132 miles farther downrange than the planned 290 miles. He came down with crushing deceleration, the opening parachute slamming him about in the capsule, and he hit the ocean surface with an earsplitting bang. By the time the recovery choppers showed up to lift the craft out of the waves, it was on its side, filled with so much water they had a sputtering, choking, near-drowned chimp on their hands.
They returned Ham to the Cape. NASA went through some idiotic official greeting, but Ham came out of the capsule biting anything, human or otherwise, that came near him.
I reviewed the telemetry tapes and records of the Great Chimp Adventure. I knew I could have survived that trip, but I also knew immediately that my own planned flight was in deep trouble. If only the damn chimp’s ride had been on the mark, I would have launched in March.
But Ham’s flight had not been on the mark, and in Huntsville, Alabama, Dr. Wernher von Braun, developer of the Redstone and director of the Marshal Space Flight center, was showing signs of a new conservatism as responsibility for men’s lives was factored into his decisions. “We require another unmanned Mercury-Redstone flight,” he said.
Working with the engineers, I confirmed that the problem with Ham’s Redstone had been nothing more than a minor electrical relay. The fix was quick and easy, and Redstone was back in perfect shape. “For God’s sake, let’s fly. Now!” I begged NASA officials, but Dr. von Braun stood fast: “Another test flight.”
I stalked off steaming to the office of Flight Director Chris Kraft. “Look, Chris, we’re pilots,” I said. “When there’s a failure, dammit, we fix it.”
“I know, Alan,” he said.
“Well, what about it? It’s an established fact that the relay was the problem, and it’s fixed.”
“So why don’t we go ahead? Why don’t we man the next one?”
“Why waste time, right?” Kraft smiled.
“Because when it comes to rockets”—the flight director shook his head—“Wernher is king.”
“Forget it, right?”
So I walked away, brooding. The March 24 Redstone flight was an absolute beauty. I could have killed. I should have been on that flight. I could have led the world into space. I should have been floating up there, while the Russians were still wrestling with a balky rocket booster.
We had them by the short hairs, and we gave it away.
But never mind being the first up, would I fly at all? Given Gagarin’s flight and the overwhelming power of the Soviet boosters, there were suggestions in Washington that the U.S. man-in-space program be canceled.
In the White House the country’s young new President was bedeviled with the reality of Soviet superiority in powerful rockets, and for a while he seemed reconciled to the fact that space belonged to the Russians. Indeed, John F. Kennedy emphatically told a news conference that the nation would not try to match the Soviet achievements in space but would choose instead “other areas where we can be first and which will bring more long-range benefits to man-kind.”
Then, just five days after Gagarin’s flight, the invasion of Cuba by CIA-backed armed exiles turned into a disastrous rout. If ever Kennedy needed a bold new step, now was the time. He rested his case solidly on the future of the United States in space. Lyndon Johnson answered his summons and heard a no-nonsense President talking. “I want you to tell me where we stand in space. Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting up a laboratory in space? Or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon … and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”
Kennedy and Johnson were striking out to the future, but elsewhere in Washington Jerome Wiesner, head of JFK’s Space Advisory Committee, wanted to put on the brakes. The first American manned space shot was now on the calendar for May 2. A failure at this point could be devastating for national morale and prestige. On April 25 the American space program started to unravel. An Atlas booster lifting an unmanned Mercury capsule drifted off course, was blown up, and returned to earth in a huge gout of flaming debris. Three days later a Little Joe rocket boosting a Mercury on a test of its emergency escape system spun out of control and was destroyed.
At a meeting the next day in the Oval Office, Wiesner told the President he must order a delay in the first manned lift-off. He recommended further that if Kennedy insisted on going ahead with it, the flight should be carried out later and in secrecy to avoid an overpublicized fiasco should the mission fizzle.
But by now Kennedy was resolved to make the United States a true space-faring nation. There would be no secret launches of the manned civilian space program, he ordered. We will act in the open, for the public.
He received support from Johnson, who told the group the Atlas and Little Joe failures had no bearing on the reliability of the Redstone and Mercury spacecraft. The executive director of the Space Council, Edward Welsh, also stood up to be counted. He rattled off a list of Redstone reliability figures. “The flight will go,” he said. “And it won’t fail. The risks of failure are no greater than our crashing in an airliner between here and Los Angeles just because the weather isn’t perfect. So why postpone a success?”
Kennedy nodded. They had a GO .
We astronauts all felt as if we’d been in a pressure cooker. The word was out that if the United States was to have a civilian manned space program, the first shot must succeed.
The entire team—astronauts, engineers, scientists, technicians, everybody —went on twenty-four-hour availability. Glenn and Grissom became my alter egos, my shadows, always there to support me in every way.
On May 2 I was ready, the rocket was ready, and the range was ready. But I didn’t lift off that day. Low cloud cover rolled in, and Walt Williams scrubbed the launch. The flight operations director was right—he wanted a clear view of that Redstone all the way through fuel burnout—but I moaned and groaned, “I guess I’m destined to stay forever on this planet.”
My flight surgeon, Bill Douglas, grinned at my discomfiture. “Not hardly, Al. That’s a departure we’ll all make someday. The difference is you want to leave and come back.”
I went back to the simulator for more make-believe space flying.
Three days passed. To my surprise, I felt the delay actually eased the tension that had been building up inside me. Before the May 2 launch I’d been plagued with visions of rockets tumbling out of control or blowing up in the air—after all, I’d seen this happen—but during those three days I was able to back off, regroup, and hit it again. I recognized I was experiencing normal apprehension and not fear. The entire reasoning process was old hat to a test pilot. I knew how to turn off this kind of stuff, and I felt calm as the new launch date of May 5 neared.
The night of May 4, however, the other astronauts and support teams brought their own tension onto the scene. Everyone but me was walking on eggshells. Despite the strong feelings about weather, rocket reliability, the escape system, anything and everything, no one dared broach those subjects. It all got so thick I went into my bedroom and phoned my family in Virginia Beach.
Louise answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Alan.” Pause. “I was hoping it was you.”
“Yeah, it’s me. Tomorrow looks promising. I think we’ve got a go.”
“Weather’s supposed to be good.”
“It will be.” Not a doubt in the world. “It’ll be your good-luck day.”
“I do feel good about it. Everything O.K. at home?”
“Everything is just great, Alan. The folks are here.”
“I figured. I’d like to talk with them and then the girls.”
Several minutes later Louise came back on the line. “We’ll be watching you on TV. Be sure you wave when you lift off.”
“Right. I’ll open the hatch and stick out my arm.”
“You do that. Take care of yourself, sweetheart. Hurry home.”
“I love you.”
“Me too, Louise.”
It was pure tonic, wonderful and soothing.
Flight Surgeon Bill Douglas woke me early. I shaved and showered, then polished off a breakfast of filet mignon, eggs, orange juice, and tea. I left the breakfast table to place myself at the mercy of the doctors, who did their usual poking, prodding, and measuring and then attached a battery of medical sensors to me.
Shortly after 4:00 A.M. , suited up, I departed Hangar S with Douglas and Gus Grissom for the launch pad. We rode in a transfer van that was like a cramped cattle car.
The van stopped at the launch pad, and I stepped out into a strange world of glaring floodlights and banshee wails from a breeze blowing across supercold fuel lines. I looked up, for the moment overwhelmed by the gleaming blue-white lights. Then I began the final walk toward the gantry elevator. “Up” was six stories above me.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
He placed the microphone by his radio, calling in the blind for anyone who could tell them what was going on. The NBC radio engineer Joe Sturniola was at his shortwave gear on Grand Bahama Island and picked up the freighter’s call. He heard clearly the operator saying, “It couldn’t have been an airplane. Not from what we saw. We don’t know what it was!”
Sturniola answered immediately. “You people have just been missed by the rocket that carried the first American into space.”
“Astronaut? Into space? American?”
“That’s right. This is Grand Bahama Island, and Alan Shepard will be arriving here shortly.”
“O.K. This is Freedom 7 . My g-buildup is three … six … nine.” I was grunting now, using the proven system of body tightening and muscle rigidity to force out the words.
It got tougher. At eleven times the normal force of gravity, I was close to “weighing” a full earth ton. But I’d pulled eleven g-loads in the centrifuge, and I knew I could keep on working now.
“O.K. … O.K.” I was grunting in high atmosphere instead of space. The g-loads were fading away. “O.K. … this is Seven , O.K. Forty-five thousand feet. Uh, now forty thousand feet.”
I was through the gantlet of punishing g-forces and deceleration and blazing heat of re-entry. I felt great. Right behind my back the temperature had soared to 1,230 degrees, a critical test for the spacecraft, and at the worst of it in the cabin the temperature hit a peak of about 100 degrees. Inside my suit the reading topped at 85 degrees. Not at all bad, just nice and toasty.
But it was still an E-ticket ride that had some bumps and grinds to go.
The altimeter showed thirty-one thousand feet when Deke’s voice reached me again. “ Seven , your impact will be right on the button.”
Great news. Flight computations were as close to perfect as could be, and so were the performances of the Redstone and the spacecraft. The Mercury was arrowing directly for the center of the Atlantic recovery area close to Grand Bahama Island. The Cape lay three hundred miles to the northwest and with the diminishing altitude would soon be out of radio contact. I signed off with Deke, telling him I was going to the new frequency.
“Roger, Seven , read you switching to GBI.”
He was eager to cut the hell out of Mercury Control Center as fast as he could go. I knew Gus would be right there with him, and the two of them would clamber into a NASA jet and burn sky to GBI so they could be on the ground waiting when I was delivered by helicopter from the recovery vessel.
“ Seven , do you read?” came a new voice on the GBI line.
“I read.” I was starting to look for the recovery fleet. But the game wasn’t quite over. I still had to reach that fleet and in good shape, which meant the parachute system had to work perfectly. Otherwise everything that had gone so beautifully up to this moment would mean nothing.
I locked my view through the periscope. Above me panel covers snapped away in the wind as the spacecraft fell. And the small drogue chute whipped out to stabilize the craft.
“The drogue is green at twenty-one, and the periscope is out.”
The altimeter unwound and aimed for ten thousand feet, where the main chute was to open. If it failed, I already had a finger on the “pull like hell ring” that would fling a second, reserve chute out of its pack.
“Standing by for main.”
Through the periscope I saw the most beautiful sight of the mission. That big orange and white monster blossomed above me beautifully. It told me I was safe, all was well, I had done it, all of us had done it. I was home free.
“Main on green. Main chute is reefed, and it looks good.”
Freedom 7 swayed back and forth as it dropped lower. The main chute unreefed into a magnificent orange and white paneled flower.
I opened my helmet faceplate, quickly disconnected the life-support hoses to my suit, and released the straps that had kept me snared within the cabin.
From a thousand feet up I saw the water clearly below. The heat shield had dropped the intended four feet to deploy the perforated skirt landing bag that would act as an air cushion when Mercury and ocean met.
Splashdown! Into the water we went with a good pop! Abrupt, but not bad. No worse than the kick in the butt when I was catapulted off a carrier deck. This was home plate!
The spacecraft tipped on its side, bringing water over the right porthole. I smacked the switch to release the reserve parachute that kept the capsule top-heavy. While I waited for the shifted balance to right my great spacecraft, but lousy boat, I kept thinking about the chimp’s near disappearance beneath the ocean. I checked and checked the cabin for leaks, ready to punch out.
But I stayed dry. Shifting the center of gravity had worked, and the capsule came back upright.
Planes roared overhead. “Cardfile Two Three,” I called. “This is Freedom 7 , would you please relay all is O.K.?”
“This is Two Three; roger that.”
“This is Seven . Dye marker is out. Everything is O.K. Ready for recovery.”
Bright green dye spread bright across the ocean surface from the capsule.
“ Seven , this is Two Three. Rescue One will be at your location momentarily.”
It went like another practice run. Within minutes Rescue One, a powerful helicopter, was overhead. I opened the hatch, grabbed hold of a harness dropped from the chopper, and was hoisted aboard.
Rescue One zeroed in on a waiting aircraft carrier, USS Lake Champlain . I saw sailors along the deck waving. “This is one of the best carrier landings I’ve ever made,” I told a chopper crewman.
Until the moment I stepped out on the flight deck of the carrier festooned everywhere with red, white, and blue decorations, I hadn’t realized the intensity of the emotions and feelings that so many people had for me, for the other astronauts, and the whole manned space program. This was the first sense I had of public response, of a public expression of thanks for what we were doing.
I was very close to tears as I thought: It’s no longer just our fight to get “out there.” The struggle belongs to everyone in America .
That was the best of all.
From now on there was no turning back.