Was NASA’s First Launch Delay its Most Significant?

In January 1961, the pieces of the manned spaceflight puzzle were slowly coming together. NASA had a capsule, astronauts to ride inside it, and rockets to launch it. The capsule had even successfully launched on top of the rocket. The missing piece was the go-ahead for astronauts to launch inside a capsule, but flight surgeons and rocket engineers were playing it safe. Had they been a little more bold, Alan Shepard could have been history’s first man in space. Instead, Wernher von Braun’s concern that his rocket might explode and kill an astronaut delayed Shepard’s launch and secured his position as the first American in suborbital space. (Left, Alan Shepard on the morning of his May 5, 1961 suborbital flight.)

The human factor of spaceflight was one the biggest concerns in the beginning of 1961. No one was entirely sure what would happen to a man in space. High altitude balloon tests that kept test pilots at near orbital altitudes for hours had confirmed the environment wasn’t hazardous so long as the astronaut was properly protected. High altitude flights in aircraft like the X-15 had confirmed that men could survive short bursts of weightlessness.

It was prolonged exposure to weightlessness that doctors anticipated would be the real problem. Would an astronaut be able to swallow food in space or would they starve? Would his eyes, floating free from their bodily supports, change shape and impair his vision? If the disorientation from weightlessness left him physically impaired, could NASA guarantee his safe return? No one wanted to put a Mercury astronaut into space before they knew it was completely safe. These guys were national heroes, and no one likes the organization that kills a hero. (Right, Ham in training. Photo credit: Life.)

So NASA practiced on chimps since they’re physiologically similar to humans. Doctors devised tests for these primates that would approximate the tasks of an astronaut in orbit. If the chimp survived and performed well, a man could go. If the chimp didn’t, it was better to have sacrificed a chimp than a man in the first wave of the space race.

Ham the chimp, whose name is an acronym for the Holloman Aerospace Medical Centre that prepared him for his flight, was the first primate launched as part of NASA’s manned spaceflight effort. His flight anticipated the first suborbital missions of the Mercury program. Launched as the first astronauts would on a Redstone rocket, Ham would rise 115 miles on a ballistic flight path safely cocooned in a custom made cabin inside a Mercury capsule before splashing down in the Atlantic. During the flight, he would pull one of three levers in front of his face that corresponded with a light. If pulled the correct lever, he got a banana flavoured pellet and a sip of water. If he pulled the wrong lever, he got an electric shock to the bottom of his feet.

Ham’s task of pulling levers was more or less equivalent to the Mercury astronauts’ role of monitoring their systems. Granted, the astronauts could control their attitude while Ham couldn’t, but the basic functions were close enough for the doctors. If Ham could manage his task, the astronauts could manage theirs. (Left, another shot of Ham.)

Medical concerns weren’t the only ones going into this flight, there were technical concerns too. The German-engineered Redstone rocket had a “hot engine” – it devoured its available fuel incredibly fast, so fast that Wernher von Braun described it as the hottest engine he ever tested. This complicated coordinating the launch abort system, a series of rockets that would pull the capsule free from harm. The problem was that an abort system that fired prematurely could be almost as dangerous as a launch abort system that didn’t fire at all.

To reduce the risk of the abort system misfiring, flight engineers decided to program a time for the system to shut down and jettison from the capsule; it needed to be armed only during launch. The hottest Redstone von Braun had tested ate through its fuel in 139 seconds. To be safe, the abort system was programmed to shut down and jettison after 137 seconds.

Ham’s MR-2 mission launched on January 31, 1961 and rose smoothly for two minutes and 17 seconds. Then, things got dicey. The Redstone devoured its fuel in just 134.5 seconds. Sensing a change in the rocket’s engine chamber pressure before its preset shutdown, the still active abort system kicked in and fired. The small rockets ignited and carried Ham away from his rocket to a peak altitude of 157 miles. A few seconds later, a malfunction in the cabin’s environmental system caused a loss of pressure. Ham was safe inside his personal, pressurized, smaller capsule, but he wasn’t spared the problems of an electrical malfunction. Whether he pulled the correct lever or not, he got a shock to the soles of his feet. (Right, the launch of MR-2, the second Mercury-Redstone flight that carried Ham on a bumpy ride. 1961.)

The unexpected peak in Ham’s altitude meant he experienced much higher g-forces than the 17gs flight directors had anticipated and his splashdown was almost 50 miles downrange from his intended impact point. It took three hours for recovery crews to find and pull the chimp from the ocean. He was soaked and sputtering from the water that had seeped into the capsule. Suffice it to say Ham wasn’t happy when he was finally removed from the cabin. The official Mercury program history says that “it became visually apparent that he had no further interest in cooperating with the spaceflight program.”

Problems aside, Ham survived, but the malfunctions dealt a serious blow for the astronauts. MR-2’s imperfect flight did little to soothe the concerns of conservative doctors and engineers who remained wary of putting a man through the same bumpy ride. The doctors argued that Ham’s performance hadn’t been 100 percent perfect so further training and testing was needed. The Redstone’s engineers were embarrassed and concerned by their rocket’s performance. Von Braun called for a number of engineering changes and one more unmanned launch to make sure the rocket was truly safe for a man.

Al Shepard disagreed. He was in line to make the first Mercury flight and didn’t think delaying a manned mission would do any good. He reviewed the telemetry data from Ham’s flight –  the Great Chimp Adventure as he called it – and saw that it was a pretty bumpy ride, uncomfortable but survivable. That Ham didn’t die was enough for Shepard. He wanted to fly and beat the Soviets into space. Flight director Chris Kraft was of the same mind. If the Soviets were NASA’s only adversaries Shepard would get the next flight but they weren’t. Doctors and rocket engineers standing firm in their opinions became an internal obstacle. (Left, Shepard the morning of launch. May 5, 1961).

Unfortunately for Shepard and much to Kraft’s chagrin, Von Braun was king where rockets were concerned. He wanted another unmanned test and he got one. Kraft didn’t hide his displeasure and demanded that the test flight take the designation MR-BD for Mercury-Redstone Booster Development. He wanted to make it clear the problem had nothing to do with the capsule or the astronaut.

Kraft saw no technological benefit to the unmanned test, only a delay in getting an American in space. He took his plea for a manned launch on the next Redstone directly to James Webb, NASA’s administrator who joined the agency when Kennedy became president. Webb considered Kraft’s argument but ultimately decided in favour of another unmanned Redstone launch. Politically, this was less risky than a possibly fatal manned flight. A dozen unmanned launches were worth it to increase the odds of a safe first manned Mercury mission.

On March 24, Shepard watched the rocket he wanted to ride launch. It went up without a hitch and he was given a go for launch sometime in early May.

In the early hours of April 12, Shepard got a call. The man on the line told him Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had made one full orbit around the Earth and returned safely. Shepard’s shock gave way to fury. Not only had the Soviet Union put a man in space before the United States, but a few nervous engineers had cost him the historic title of being the first man in space. All Shepard could think was that he could have been up three weeks before Gagarin. (Right, the very successful launch of MR-BD on March 24, 1961.)

Impacts of the Launch Delay

The story of Shepard’s missed launch opportunity brings up some really interesting questions. If Shepard had launched on March 24, what would the 1960s have looked like? Would NASA have pressed on in space at the impressive pace it did, and would we have gone to the Moon? Or would beating the Soviets into orbit have been enough? Would those four years between Sputnik and Shepard’s flight been the extent of the space race?

For argument’s sake, imagine nothing between October 4, 1957 and March 24, 1961 was different save Shepard making the first flight. I suspect NASA would still have gone to the Moon. The infrastructure for Apollo was already in place, albeit in a preliminary and ill-defined form, and the Moon is something we all see almost every day.  It’s too present in our society to ignore and the draw too great to visit our closest neighbour. An Apollo program without a space race, however, would likely have looked very different. Without the ‘race’ aspect of reaching the moon, NASA’s lunar program might have progressed at a much slower pace, closer to the 20- or 30-year timeframe commonly associated with a manned Martian mission rather than the nine years it actually took. Or, bureaucracy could have stepped in and killed every piece of the puzzle along the way. (Left, Shepard walking out to his Redstone on May 5, 1961. Photo Credit: Time.)

Looking at the Soviet Union’s technology in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine any mission launched after Shepard becoming the first man in space that could have sparked the same fear in the US that prompted the race to the Moon. Without that push, it’s possible that NASA would never have experienced the peak in productivity and inflated budget it did in the mid-1960s. Without that launch delay, it’s possible the current landscape of space exploration and our understanding of the universe would be very different.

Kennedy pledging the nation to a landing on the Moon by the end of the decade before congress. May 25, 1961.

Suggested Reading

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

Chris Kraft. Flight. Plume, 2001.

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

Newsreel about Ham’s flight, “Trailblazer in Space,” that glosses over some details.

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10 thoughts on “Was NASA’s First Launch Delay its Most Significant?

  1. Cool article! I read as well that this incident influenced NASA to go ahead with the Apollo 8 mission: sending the first manned Saturn V launch straight to the moon!

  2. Beg pardon, but I wonder if you have a citation for the bit about Ham’s name being an acronym for the Holloman Aerospace Medical (Center). Animals In Space: From Research Rockets To The Space Shuttle by Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs doesn’t offer a definitive origin of the name, and can only suggest that maybe it derived from Lt Col Hamilton Blackshear. (Ham’s name, when the Air Force purchased him from the Rare Bird Farm of Miami, was apparently “Chang”, and was changed for fear of giving the impression of an ethnic slur, according to Burgess and Dubbs.)

    1. I think you are right on with this one. Had we gone first, perhaps the embarrassment to the Soviets would have increased their desire to beat us, and hit us where it really counted, by getting to the Moon before any American could.

  3. Great post! Now, on the topic of chimpanzees, here’s an extract from Episode 1 “Can we do this” of “From The Earth To The Moon” (HBO):

    – What do you do here at the base, sir? – I’m an astronaut.
    Are you one of the seven astronauts that have been chosen?
    That’s right. I’m one of the seven.
    They’re gonna shoot me out into space, into the blue.
    Up above buildings.!
    Now, sir, just one moment. One moment.
    Sure. I’m a little nervous. I’m afraid I’m gonna lose my life.
    – Sir, may I ask you something? – Sure.
    I saw the pictures of the seven astronauts that appeared in Life.

    – You saw those pictures, yeah. – You are not among them.
    None of them are them.
    – You mean, those are not the real? – No, those are models.
    You see, they can’t take pictures of us. We’re monkeys, man.
    – What do you mean, you’re monkeys? – Let me explain something.
    – Those are seven handsome men. – See, they’re beautiful.
    They take pictures of them, so that we’re not ashamed for Russia…
    to show such ugly little astronauts.!
    – You’re not a very good-looking man. – No, I’m a monkey.!
    Sir, I’m a little disturbed that they’re sending you up…
    to be the first man in space.
    You seem ill-equipped to be an astronaut.
    What do you mean? I got gloves and everything.

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