Shepard: First American in (Suborbital) Space


I’ve talked in previous posts about the first manned Soviet space program, Vostok, and Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. One aspect neither of these posts touched on, however, was the reaction in the United States. Understandably, Americans were less jubilant about Gagarin’s flight than the Soviets. But the feelings of defeat, frustration, and in some cases fear soon disappeared when on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

In the grand scheme of the space race, the first man in space almost pales in comparison to the feat of placing a man on the moon. But the race for manned flight was extremely important in the early 1960s. Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight was, like Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission, the climax of years of preparation and training, and it set in motion a chain of events that set the course of the space race. The flight was a fifteen-minute suborbital hop, officially classified as a pre-orbital training flight, but Americans didn’t care. An American had been in space. (Pictured, Shepard in Freedom 7 the morning of launch. May 5, 1961.)

At the end of 1960, it was no secret that the Soviet Union was ahead of the United States in space. The USSR had proved its might with more powerful launch vehicles capable of putting heavier satellites in orbit. It had even engineered the safe return of biological payloads from space. But at that point in time, the first manned flight was still anybody’s prize. Both nations had working systems and it was a matter of who would work out the kinks first.

At the beginning of 1961, the first manned flight of NASA’s Mercury program was imminent. Robert Gilruth, Head of the Space Task Group (the body charged with putting a man in space before the Soviets), called the seven Mercury astronauts into his office. The meeting the morning of January 19 was short and to the point: Alan Shepard would make the first suborbital flight with Gus Grissom and John Glenn next to fly in that order. In the meantime, Grissom and Glenn would act as Shepard’s backup pilots.

In a PR move, and ostensibly as a means to protect Shepard’s privacy, his name was not immediately released as America’s first astronaut. Instead, Shepard, Grissom, and Glenn were presented to the press as candidates for the first mission. No one knew who would fly; all Americans could do was speculate. This presentation of the ‘top three’ to the public created a divide within the small astronaut corps. Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra, Gordo Cooper, and Scott Carpenter, the ‘other’ four astronauts, experienced none of the popularity or exposure of their colleagues. (Pictured, left to right: Glenn, Grissom, and Shepard stand in front of a Mercury-Redstone. 1961.)

The same day the astronauts learned which among them would make the first flight, Wernher von Braun and his rocket team launched a test Mercury mission – an unmanned Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket. The launch was perfect, and each stage of the mission passed without incident.

The test strengthened NASA’s confidence in its already dependable Redstone launch vehicle – more than 50 successful launches between 1953 and 1960 earned the rocket the nickname “old reliable”. But the Redstone had limitations. It could only lift a capsule into a suborbital ballistic arc. NASA’s other available Atlas launch vehicle, on the other hand, was more powerful and could put a capsule into Earth orbit. The Atlas’s reliability, however, was a mark against it; it had a tendency to explode during launch. And so the Redstone was NASA choice for the first Mercury flights.

With such a record of reliability, it came as a shock to the von Braun rocket team when the Redstone malfunctioned during the subsequent test launch. On January 31, the chimp named Ham (left) flew the same suborbital flight Shepard was going to make. Ham’s ride was rough. The rocket vibrated unexpectedly during launch, which affected the computer’s guidance system. The rocket also burned through its fuel store faster than expected.

The main problem came when the escape tower failed to jettison cleanly. The escape tower was the safety device that would pull the capsule away from the launch vehicle in the event of a launch abort. It was jettisoned at the end of the powered flight when it was to longer needed, but it failed to separate from the capsule in Ham’s case. Instead, the chimp was launched higher as the escape tower pulled the capsule free of the Redstone.  He was subjected to extremely high g-forces as he rose to an altitude of 175 miles, 60 miles higher than planned.

Though the flight was traumatic for Ham (he tried to bite anything he could get his mouth near when the vets retrieved him from the capsule), there was a silver lining. The Redstone’s problem was an electrical malfunction that had a relatively easy fix.

With a solution on hand for the problem and the Redstone’s otherwise trustworthy performance record, Shepard began pushing for a manned launch without any further tests flights. The next launch, he argued, should be his. If the same problem of the faulty escape tower returned, he would fly a little higher. The risk was insubstantial to the seasoned test pilot. The rocket team, however, was collectively of a different mind. They were unsatisfied with the rocket’s performance and questioned its safety; the risk was considered too great to put a man’s life on the line. They pushed for, and von Braun approved of, at least one further unmanned flight.

On March 24, 1961, another unmanned Mercury-Redstone flight was launched. Like the mission launched in mid-January, the flight was perfect. NASA was pleased at this success and felt renewed confidence in moving forward with its manned program. But Alan Shepard was frustrated – that perfect Mercury flight should have been his. He could have been the first man in space. Instead, Yuri Gagarin secured the honour two weeks later. (Left, Shepard in his pressure suit the morning of launch. 1961.)

In the early morning hours of April 12, 1961, Shepard received a call from a NASA official with the news that Gagarin was in orbit. The astronaut’s frustration deepened, a reaction mirrored by his fellow Mercury astronauts and NASA program managers. Gagarin’s flight did, however, strengthen Shepard’s desire to fly as soon as possible. The Soviets had won the race to put a man in space, but America still had a space program with long-term goals, and Shepard was anxious to get the ball rolling.

One unexpected silver lining from the Soviet flight was an increased sense of confidence in manned spaceflight. Gagarin hadn’t suffered any ill effects from the weightless environment and had proved a man could withstand the stresses and challenges of a launch and landing – even though the details NASA had of the flight were scant and falsified, the fact remained that Gagarin had orbited and returned unharmed. The successful Vostok 1 prompted NASA to cancel further chimp flights and move along towards the manned goal.

After months of preparation, training, and testing, the launch was set for May 2, 1961. Early that morning, while Shepard was suiting up, his name was finally released through the media to the American people. But the launch was cancelled during countdown as low cloud cover rolled in over Cape Canaveral. The launch was scheduled for three days later.

The morning of May 5 was clear. Shepard started his day with his prime backup pilot John Glenn; the pair had breakfast together in robes. By 4 am Alan Shepard was suited up and on his way to the launch pad. The morning was emotional for many involved in the program. Lead flight director Kris Kraft recalled the day’s sense of grandeur in his memoirs; he looked at Shepard in his silver suit, reflecting the light that illuminated the Redstone in the still dark morning and thought, “He looks like a spaceman”. For others, the morning felt routine. The endless rehearsals and training made launch day feel like just another day at the office. A smiling Alan Shepard was calm during the countdown; his heart rate and blood pressure showed no signs of stress. (Right, Shepard in his silver pressure suit walks from the van to the launch pad. 1961. Image from Time Magazine.)

The countdown was not without hiccups. An electrical malfunction detected as the gantry was rolled back from the Redstone necessitated a one hour and twenty-six minute hold. The countdown resumed, but not for long. At T-minus 15 (or fifteen minutes before launch), cloud cover rolled in forcing another hold.

During this hold at T-minus 15, Shepard had been sealed inside Freedom 7 for nearly four hours and a new problem was starting to emerge. The suborbital flight was only a fifteen-minute mission and no one had thought of the possibility that the astronaut might need to use the washroom. As his need became urgent, Shepard asked his capsule communicator (capcom) astronaut Cooper if he could please just pop out of the capsule to relieve himself. His request was denied. Removing the astronaut was just too time consuming. (Shepard and Glenn breakfast together the morning of May 5, 1961.)

Desperate, Shepard persuaded Cooper to cut the power to his biomed sensors allowing him to famously “wet his suit” without risk of electric shock. The ultra-absorbent long underwear quickly soaked up the liquid, and the steady flow of oxygen moving through the pressure suit dried the underwear out. Within minutes Shepard was dry, his biomed sensors on line, and the countdown had resumed with a much more comfortable astronaut.

At T-minus 2 minutes, the countdown reached the point of no return. The engines started whirring and the spacecraft was using its own power source – there was no turning back.  At this point, too, many within NASA began to feel the reality of what was about to happen. Kris Kraft felt his awe move to tension from the increased pressure. Shepard’s adrenaline was obvious as his heart rate shot up to close to 200 beats per minute – a dangerous rate for any adult.

Shepard’s life, the technological expertise of NASA, and the prestige of America sat on top of the Redstone that morning. But the astronaut was eager, and in his impatience to launch spawned one of the more well-known Shepardisms. Ready to go, he urged the ground controllers to “fix your little problems and light this candle!”

As the Redstone lifted slowly off the launch pad a little after 9:30, the onboard clock started confirming that Freedom 7’s onboard computer was working. The rocket followed its pre-set trajectory without any problems. The capsule’s escape tower jettisoned cleanly and the capsule separated from the booster, all without the excessive vibrations that had affect Ham’s flight. The simple fix had worked. Throughout the launch phase, Shepard felt no ill effects as the g-forces increased as the Redstone gathered speed. He proved that a man was able to handle the physical and mental stresses of launch on an American rocket. (Left, Freedom 7 launches. May 5, 1961.)

People had poured into the area surrounding Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach to watch the launch. News reports showed people captivated by the morning’s events. Locals abandoned their errands to stand in the streets for a view of the Redstone rising into the sky. People prayed or dissolved into tears. Even reporters bringing the launch live to Americans across the country were overcome by emotions or lost for words. NBC war correspondent Merril Meuller, watching Shepard rising on the tail of the Redstone’s exhaust, could only comment: “He looks so lonely up there”.

Once the capsule separated from the Redstone, Shepard switched to his manual control system. He was to use his brief period of weightlessness to test how easily he could manipulate Freedom 7’s orientation. It was a test both of the capsule’s hardware and a test for the astronaut. It was also a significant step for the US over the USSR as Shepard became the first man to control a vehicle in space. Even if his control was minimal – he was only able to manipulate the pitch, yaw, and roll of the capsule – he was still in control.

At the apogee of his ballistic flight, Shepard reached an altitude of 116 miles – well above the 50-mile limit that marked the termination of the Earth’s atmosphere – and became the first American in space. After six weightless minutes, Shepard switched back to the automatic control system for the retrofire manoeuvre that would begin his descent and splashdown. The retrorockets fired and the pack jettisoned on time. The parachute system composed of a smaller drogue chute and a larger main chute worked perfectly; there wasn’t a problem with Freedom 7’s splashdown. (Above, Shepard is hauled into the recovery helicopter after a trouble-free splashdown. 1961.)

Once in the water, the capsule (notoriously called a bad boat by the astronauts) behaved better than expected. Shepard freed himself from his restraints lest some last minute surprise necessitate an emergency egress, but it was an unnecessary precaution; there were no leaks. Recovery of both the astronaut and capsule was as smooth as a training exercise.

The whole flight, from countdown to splashdown experienced a single failure – Shepard’s panel telelight indicating that the retrorocket pack had separated failed to illuminate. NASA later determined that the bulb had burnt out. But a burnt-out bulb didn’t ruin the flight, and such a minor failure was certainly not about to dampen the elation that swept thorough the country at finally putting an American in space. NASA public affairs officer John “Shorty” Powers, searching for a stronger way to say the mission was perfect, reported that the mission was A-OK.

The scene that met Shepard aboard the prime recovery carrier USS Lake Champlain was celebratory. The crew cheered the astronaut as he stepped from the recovery helicopter onto the deck covered with red, white, and blue decorations. The reaction on the ship mirrored the emotional response of the country.

After the flight, splashdown parties popped up everywhere in Florida. Televised news reports showed people throughout the US and around the world celebrating the American accomplishment. President Kennedy followed the flight with equal interest from the Oval Office, calling Shepard directly once the astronaut was safely aboard the USS Lake Champlain. The elation persisted as NASA released hourly reports on Shepard – that he was doing well and experiencing no after effects of the flight. The public was reassured that a man could work and survive in space using American-built technology. (Left, Shepard aboard the USS Lake Champlain. 1961.)

NASA was lauded not only for its technological accomplishment, but also for its decision to televise the launch live – a bold move with such a high-risk venture. NASA really had nothing to lose with this decision since any disaster during launch would be made public. But the decision proved to be beneficial. It allowed the country to experience the flight first-hand right along side Shepard. It truly was a moment all Americans could share. (Pictured, von Braun addresses a jubilant crowd assembled at the Madison County Courthouse in Alabama after the successful Mercury flight. 1961.)

Three days after the flight, President Kennedy formally recognized the contributions of NASA and Freedom 7. The seven Mercury astronauts, their wives, and a select few NASA administrators were invited to the White House on May 8 for a special ceremony. Kennedy presented Shepard with the Distinguished Service Medal. Dropping it during ceremony, the charismatic young president covered the foible by announcing the award had come, like a rocket, from the ground up.

Shepard shakes hands with President Kennedy after receiving the Distinguished Service medal, May 8, 1961.

Presidential recognition confirmed the future of NASA. Kennedy was certainly neither blind nor immune to the elation that swept through the US. The small victory had a huge effect on the nation, raising spirits and inspiring pride. Kennedy sought to prolong the feeling. Some Mercury astronauts recall discussions that went on the night of the ceremony between the president and the NASA officials. Kennedy wanted something bigger from NASA; some great goal the nation could rally behind and support its men. The moon was a plausible goal. If the national reaction to Freedom 7 was any indication of America’s support of its space program, a lunar landing was an extremely appealing prospect.

Suggested Reading

1. Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Moonshot. Virgin Books, 1994

2. Kris Kraft. Flight. Plume, 2001.

3. Gene Kranz. Failure is Not an Option. Berkley, 2000.

Suggsted Viewing.

A short video with footage of Shepard’s launch day preparations, and Freedom 7’s launch.

Spacecraft Films has done a fantastic job of transferring all the Mercury-era footage from tests and actual launches and flights to DVD. Most of the video is accompanied by some relevant interview with someone involved in the program. Well worth looking into for those of you wanting even more vintage NASA footage!