“Don’t fuck up, Shepard…”: Freedom 7 Blasts Off

On May 5th, 1961, Alan Shepard Jr.  sat on the top of one of Werner Von Braun’s Redstone missiles, Freedom 7. The path to that point had been a long one for the astronaut and for NASA. Initially scheduled for late 1960, technical problems with the rocket had pushed the launch back, first to March, then to May. During the course of the delays, the country was shocked when the Soviet Union launched their own rocket, carrying Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, becoming the first man to leave the Earth’s atmosphere to orbit the Earth. Shepard’s flight 49 years ago today marked the point when the United States caught up in the space race by bringing a man to space and back again safely.

Shepard’s launch into space did not match the same achievements that Gagarin did with his mission onboard Vostok 1 just a couple of weeks earlier: Shepard’s flight lasted a mere 15 minutes, travelling just over 300 miles down range, performing a suborbital flight. The United States would not reach that achievement until Friendship 7, several launches later, with John Glenn’s flight, where he orbited the Earth three times. While it took the United States a little while longer to catch up to the Soviet Union, Shepherd’s launch demonstrated that the hardware that the United States had in place could launch a person into space, although a more powerful Atlas rocket was used to actually reach orbit.

The race to orbit was, in large part, a highly visible element – and reminder – of the Cold War arms race that saw the Soviet Union and United States face off against one another. From as early as the Second World War, scientists and military theorists saw that a ballistic missile would be a powerful, almost unstoppable weapon. Both sides captured German military scientists at the fall of Nazi Germany, and put them to work to create their own missiles. The Soviet Union had a more pressing need, and due to their own difficulties to miniaturize the components in nuclear bombs, built missiles and rockets that were more powerful than their American counterparts. This in turn allowed them to reach space much more quickly than the United States, something that a number of people found troubling.

Shepard’s Redstone rocket was the creation of Werner Von Braun, and Freedom 7′s launch vehicle had been extensively modified to accommodate a human passenger. The first stage of a Jupiter-C rocket was added on to allow for extra power to get the rocket out of the atmosphere. As Shepard sat on the top of the rocket, waiting to be launched into space, he recalled that he was sitting on top of a vehicle made by the lowest bidder. The delays in the actual launch of the rocket also demonstrated the complexity and scale of the problems associated with bringing someone into space. Shepard is probably best known for telling Mission Control: “I’ve been in 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?” after another hold on the countdown. After the problem was corrected, Shepherd was launched into space.

The launch into space demonstrated two things for the country: that the Soviet Union did not hold a monopoly on space travel. The United States was still behind, but catching up, fast. Secondly, the launch demonstrated that the underlying missile that NASA adapted for space travel worked, and that it could carry a payload a good distance. It was still limited in range, but the milestone showed that once again, the U.S. was on the right track towards putting together a viable Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Repurposed or not, the launch was a good demonstration that the arms race was still ongoing. Additionally, the space program was providing a huge boost in moral for the country: astronauts were national heroes, and their efforts were seen as the pinnacle of American military, political and technological progress.

Shepard’s flight is also the genesis for all American spaceflight efforts. While Yuri Gagarin was the first into space, the successes of Freedom 7 showed that the long efforts of the United States and NASA were sound, and that the technology and training of the program was something that could be continued into the future. The next flight, Liberty Bell 7, piloted by astronaut Gus Grissom, was also a success (although the crew capsule itself was lost shortly after splashdown), and eventually, American space efforts could continue. Shortly after Shepard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy spoke, before a joint session of Congress, stating that the United States should commit to a goal of reaching the Moon before 1970. The United States would reach that goal in July of 1969, and again in November of the same year. While the successes of the Apollo program are widely known, they owe a large part of their successes to Alan Shepard’s first flight into space.

God Speed, John Glenn

On February 20th, 1962, John Glenn Jr., atop an Atlas rocket, became the third American to leave the Earth’s surface, on his way to fulfill the core objective of the Mercury Project: orbit the Earth and return safely. His flight was met with joy from the people United States, who idolized the seven Mercury astronauts, as this mission would allow the United States to finally catch up to the Soviet Union, who had not only beaten America to space with Sputnik, but they also put the first man into orbit just a month before the American’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard Jr.

The first two Mercury missions were undertaken by American astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, demonstrating that the United States could not only send men into space successfully, but that they could repeat the experiment. However, where the United States had been overtaken by Soviet Union Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was orbital flight, something that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hoped to catch up with during the Friendship 7 Mission.

The mission came at a crossroads with the development of the space race, and at particularly chilly relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Much of NASA’s pitch to Congress depended upon a Soviet lead in the race to orbit, something that the US would meet up with when it came to the Friendship 7 mission, and diplomacy at the time was intertwined with international arms agreements and cooperation with US allies. (Walter McDougall, And the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, 365.) At this point in time, the United States and the Soviet Union were still at the early stages of the Space Race, where both countries had strategic interests in space, namely with the use of spy satellites. As the race progressed, objections to most arguments were dropped. (McDougall, 348). Within this context, it’s hardly a surprise at the reaction to the success of Friendship 7, but also the drive that the Mercury Seven astronauts displayed during their training. There was an acute awareness that the space program was an element of the nation’s security, something that acted as a more visible deterrent for both countries, as an indicator of technological sophistication. (Francis French and Colin Burgess, Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965, 138).

The Friendship 7 mission itself was delayed from its original December 20th, 1961 date, due to technical and weather related issues. There were numerous launch attempts, all resulting in a count-down halt, until February 20th, where there were only minor technical delays and a break in the weather, allowing for a launch. (French, 140). At 9:47 in the morning, the rocket roared to life, and Glenn was on his way to orbit.

This marked the first time that an Atlas Rocket was used to launch a human in the space program. The two prior Mercury flights were powered by Von Braun’s Redstone Rocket (William Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, 326), which allowed Shepherd and Grissom into space, but only on ballistic trajectories. The Atlas Rocket, which was also used to launch nuclear missiles, was powerful enough to bring Glenn to an orbital altitude. The Atlas, first proposed in 1946, was now the survivor of an intense inter-rivalry fight between the United States Army, Navy and Air Force. (Neil Sheehan, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, 222-223)

Glenn’s flight started off better than expected, with a perfect launch, but once the spacecraft reached orbit, a warning light indicated that the heat shield had come loose on Friendship 7, which could mean that the spacecraft and astronaut would burn up in orbit upon re-entry. Mission control ordered Glenn to conduct several tests designed to confirm the nature of the problem, but at that time, he wasn’t told of the issue, but knew that at that point, something was wrong. Glenn was able to conduct three orbits of the Earth, and as the spacecraft reached the point of reentry, Mission Control instructed the astronaut to leave the retropack in place, to keep the heat shield in place should it be loose. After a hair raising trip back to Earth, Friendship 7 landed near the USS Noa. Technical follow-ups with the spacecraft revealed later on that the heat shield had in fact remained in place, and was never loose in the first place: a faulty microchip had malfunctioned, giving off a signal that the spacecraft was in trouble. (French, 146)

The success of the mission helped to fulfill a couple of functions with the US’s image in space. The first aspect was concerned with catching up with the Soviet Union’s achievements in space. With the flight of Friendship 7, the United States had caught up with the Soviet Union in terms of space technology, matching Yuri Gagarin’s flight just 10 months earlier. But the successful flight helped to demonstrate the capabilities of the Atlas rocket once again. While the rocket had been used in a fairly public demonstration with an orbit of the Earth in 1958, Glenn’s use of the rocket to reach orbit was something that was looked upon by millions from around the world. After the mission, Glenn and Friendship 7 went around the world in what was called the 4th orbit, no doubt as a calculated public relations tour that helped to underscore the technological abilities of the United States. (Burrows, 342)

Glenn’s flight was a success for the space program, achieving the goals of the Mercury program: send a human to space and orbit the Earth. The mission demonstrated that the United States could replicate their earlier successes on preexisting hardware, and also demonstrate that the Soviet Union did not necessarily have the final say on spaceflight. But, it also showed that there were issues in command between the crew of the spacecraft and Mission control, issues that would occur later: who would be in charge of the spacecraft in the event of an emergency? In this instance, Mission Control was able to work out possible solutions to the perceived issue on Glenn’s flight, but future missions would strain the ties. Despite that, the Friendship 7 mission was widely celebrated for its contributions to the advances in American spaceflight, allowing the United States to catch up to the Russians and eventually, overtake them in the race to the Moon.

The Road to the Moon

“Many years ago the great British Explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”
Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”
John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man made satellite, Sputnik 1,  into Earth’s orbit, signaling the beginning of a decade long race to Earth’s closest celestial body. The space race would continue on for another twelve years before the stated goal of reaching the moon was achieved on July 20th, 1969. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the lunar landings that changed the world, and makes for a good time to reflect on just how difficult the lunar landings were and just what it meant. Sputnik came at a time that was shattering to the American public – there had been much confidence in the progress that the nation was making, but that percieved lead was taken with the successes of the Soviet Union. The race to space had to be sped up, and the US was lagging far behind.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy laid down what seemed like an impossible goal for the nation: to reach the moon and land successfully before the end of the 1960s. At that point, the United State’s cumulative experience with human spaceflight was a mere fifteen minutes with Astronaut Alan Shepherd‘s flight. In his speech to Congress in 1961, Kennedy linked the efforts in space to the the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, placing the efforts in space as a way to deter tyranny and dark nature of the Soviet Union. This was a feeling that was very much in fashion in the years following the launch of Sputnik. NASA administrators were asked before Congress if the Soviet Union would gain the ability to reach the moon before the United States, and if they would be able to color the surface red, as a constant reminder of the power of the Soviet Union. The race to the moon had become far more than mere scientific endeavor and exploration; it became a powerful tool and symbol of the might of both countries as they locked horns during the Cold War.

NASA had been formed only a couple of years prior, in 1958, and instituted Project Mercury a year later, designed to bring a human into space and back again safely. This project was the first of three projects, with the overall intent on bringing people to space, and later, to the moon. Mercury was possibly one of the most popular projects that NASA ever undertook after Apollo. The general public was riveted to news of the astronauts. The Mercury 7 astronauts were instant celebrities upon their announcement, and even more so after the publication of Tom Wolfe‘s book, The Right Stuff.

Mercury was the proving ground that saw the first American into space, Alan Shepherd, as well as the first American to orbit the Earth (John Glenn Jr, who would become the oldest man in space many years later) and the first US flight that would exceed 24 hours with Gordo Cooper. NASA proved with Mercury that humans could go to space, operate for an extended period of time, and then return safely. That was the first, and most crucial step that all American spaceflights have predicated on.

Mercury was only the first step. NASA proved that they could get into space, but with President Kennedy’s mandate to fly to the moon and land on it, a far more complicated project was in order. Gemini was born, and was put into place to test the more advanced methods that would be required in space for a mission as complicated as a lunar landing. A new group of astronauts were brought into the fold, with notable names such as Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Pete Conrad, Jim Lovell, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and others – astronauts that would gain valuble spaceflight experience prior to being assigned to the upcoming Project Apollo.

Gemini tested a number of procedures and maneuvers that would be required for longer missions. Two crew members would fly each manned mission, rendezvous and docking maneuvers would be tested to link together the command module and landing module, Extra Vehicular Activity was accomplished for the first time by an American and numerous other scientific and practical procedures were tested out during these missions. Ten missions were undertaken between 1965 and 1966, with each mission adding on valuble experience to NASA’s plans for a lunar landing, and it brought the United States further along the race to catch up with the Soviet Union, as most of these accomplishments had already been completed successfully by Russia.

Project Apollo was the project that would bring mankind to the moon. Instituted in 1961, before Gemini, this project was the followup to Mercury, and would build upon the experience that NASA gained during Gemini to reach our nearest heavenly body. There are arguments for and against the effectiveness of the three projects. With the successful landing of Apollo 11, the mission was over, and the general public began to lose interest in the launches. However, within the confines of the space race that brewed between the United States and Russia, there was an artificial sense of urgency, with a huge push from their respective governments to reach the moon for no other purpose but to plant a flag on the moon, and leave the other to look up and see this as a powerful symbol of the other’s might. Apollo was to be one of the most complex projects ever undertaken at the time, but it was also the most specialized of the missions, with one end goal – to reach the moon, which would be accomplished on July 20th, 1969.

Many thanks to the fantastic site io9 for their link in!

Exploration vs. Scientific Modes of Spaceflight

Now that I’ve since finished my last seminar of classwork for my Master’s, I’ve begun to switch gears and begun work on my Capstone Paper, the final paper before I get my diploma, should I pass. I’m very excited to begin this mode of work, because I’ve gotten a topic that I’ve gotten really interested in – the Space Race. Originally, I’d intended on studying something with the comic book industry and the Second World War, but there’s a huge lack of sources. Since then, I’ve switched gears, and will be looking to the early days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and the military roots and implications that the American space program represented to the United States during the Cold War. I’m still working to narrow down my sources, and will likely spend the weekend working through sources to get a comprehensive bibliography put together, along with a tighter thesis.

While talking with my program director earlier today, I came across a realization about the space program that I hadn’t realized or considered before – the current Space program will never, ever be as successful as the Mercury – Apollo era, for one simple reason – there is no certain, end all goal for the current plans for space travel. This is in no way trying to say that what we’re doing up there is useless, far from it. The difference between the two is that in 1961, President John F. Kennedy set an end goal for American space ambitions. Americans would reach the lunar surface by the end of the decade – an extraordinary declaration that left many at NASA and the nation stunned, as the cumulative United States spaceflight experience amounted to a mere 15 minutes with Alan Shepherd’s Freedom 7 flight earlier in the year.

From that point forward, there was a clear point to work to, and the space missions that came afterwards followed a specific path to reach the moon. The Mercury missions were designed to get mankind to space and into orbit, the longest time in space amounting to just over a day, with Mercury 9. Project Gemini followed with a slate of missions that were designed to test space flight, where the first docking and EVA on the US’s part took place. Finally, the Apollo missions are most noted for the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon. This was the validation of the efforts of the US, but leading up to that saw other specialized missions that saw humanity to the moon and back, testing the Apollo hardware in each of its phases.

While reaching the moon was the most visible goal and most dramatic part of the space race, it is far from the most important aspect. The space race did a number of things, but everything was done with an overall goal in mind, one that was contested early on by mission planners who felt that we should skip the moon all together and head for the other planets. What the early missions provided was structure and essentially, building blocks that helped to bring the lunar landings from science fiction to reality.

Following the Apollo missions, there was a lull. The space shuttle program was approved, as well as Skylab, and the entire mission and focus for space shifted from an exploration model to one of scientific discovery. Skylab was essentially the turning point, utilizing leftovers from the Apollo missions for something new entirely. However, there has been no overarching goal for space since the Apollo years. The public has turned away from space and NASA’s efforts up there, I suspect because of a perceived lack of purpose. The Space Shuttle, while a wonderful machine, has not really full filled any sort of plan to reach the next inevitable stage, missions to Mars, beyond scientific experiments that require a zero-gravity environment, servicing space stations and satellites. The information gathered about living in space for extended periods of time has been incredibly helpful and will no doubt be utilized in a future mission, but these experiments were not expressly conducted for a martian mission.

Mars is the next logical step for future space flight missions beyond the International Space Station (which, looking at it, is a good goal that has brought together nations, but has largely failed to capture the public’s imagination like the Lunar landings did. Let’s face it, walking around on the moon is a lot cooler). What is required of the United States is a large, overarching series of missions that will begin to pave the way for heading to Mars. The technology is certainly there, as is the willpower, but what is needed the most is guidance from up on high. Kennedy’s statement in 1961 was a powerful catalyst that set everything in motion, and any further trips to Mars, and indeed, even the Moon, will require such a thing, but will also require a comparable plan.

Now is also the best time for such a project, when one thinks about it. At the peak of the Apollo program, NASA employed around four hundred thousand people, and that does not count the other multiple hundreds of thousands that would have worked in the defense and aerospace industries during that time designing, building and supporting the missions leading up to the space program. In a book that I’ve been reading, it was noted that not a single dollar was spent on the moon – it was spent on earth, and provided a massive boost to the economy during that time by supporting those industries. This is exactly what will be needed in the coming years, and I hope that with China and India beginning space programs of their own, this will provide an acute sense of urgency for US mission planners and policy makers to begin to really consider such an endeavour.