On this day 60 years ago, Alan Shepard packed into the cramped Freedom 7 capsule atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket and blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The NASA astronaut climbed to an altitude of 116 miles above Earth’s surface and became the first American to reach space. His flight lasted just 15 minutes, but it cemented his legendary status as one of the most daring explorers in our nation’s history.
In the December 1959 issue, Popular Mechanics details a week spent with the Mercury 7 astronauts while they trained for their historic missions.
I just spent a week with the Mercury 1 astronauts—the seven young Americans who were selected, after long and rigorous tests, for training as the first pilots to be blasted into space in a manned vehicle.
I found them a little bewildered at the attention they’re receiving, slightly impatient to get the Mercury capsule into space, much more convinced of the probability of Project Mercury’s success than the possibility of failure, and giving scarcely a passing thought to that much-posed question in the nation’s press: Who is going to be the first man in space?
Although distinct individuals, the astronauts share to a high degree earnestness of purpose, broad technical knowledge and skill, and a patient and understanding grasp of the necessity of explaining their work and problems over and over again to a world with little background for assimilating this new dimension in exploration.
The astronauts definitely don’t consider themselves in imminent danger of death, and they tend to scoff at the perils predicted for them. This isn’t intemperate whistling past the graveyard; no one is in a better position than the astronauts, themselves, to assess the chances of completing a successful manned space flight. They not only hope to go soon—they also expect to come back. And they have good reasons for feeling this way.
The oldest Astronaut, 38-year-old Marine Col. John Glenn—blond, crew-cutted, amiable and easy-going-told me: “Space travel is going to be accomplished, and we want to be in on it. We have all the faith in the world in the people running this program.” To the seven Mercury Astronauts, it’s as simple as that.
Who are these first space adventurers? Here’s a quick rundown:
Lt. Col. John Glenn, 38, of New Concord, Ohio, veteran of 150 combat missions for the Marine Corps in World War II and the Korean War, holder of a transcontinental speed record in the F8U, 5000 air hours, father of a boy and girl;
Lt. Comdr. Walter Schirra, 36, son of a team of barnstorming pilots, native of New Jersey, with 90 Korean combat missions and 3000 air hours, also the father of a boy and girl;
Lt. Comdr. Alan Shepard, 36, from East Derry, N.H., Navy deck officer in World War II who took flight training immediately after and became a longtime test pilot, 3600 air hours, father of two daughters;
Capt. Donald (Deke) Slayton, 35, native of Sparta, Wis., veteran of seven missions over Japan at end of World War II, 3400 air hours, father of one son;
Lt. Scott Carpenter, 34-year-old Coloradoan, primarily a multi-engine pilot who flew “big boats” during the Korean War and later served in Air Intelligence, 2800 air hours, father of two boys and two girls;
Capt. Virgil (Gus) Grissom, 33, from Mitchell, Ind., veteran of 100 combat missions in Korea in Sabre jets, 3000 air hours, father of two sons;
Capt. Gordon Cooper, 32, from Carbondale, Col., raised in a flying family where he soloed when he was 16, no combat experience. 2300 air hours (more than half in jets), father of two daughters.
These are the bare bones of the Mercury Astronauts.
Now, let’s put their program into perspective before we move on to what the astronauts are doing and why they’re doing it.
Project Mercury is the name given to the manned satellite program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. A Space Task Group was set up in October 1958, under Robert R. Gilruth, headquartered at Langley Field, Va. Its objectives: to put a manned space capsule into orbital flight around the earth, recover the capsule and its occupant successfully, and investigate the capabilities of man in space.
To bring this off, there obviously had to be men able and willing to attempt the flight. Accordingly, a massive selection program was undertaken to find the men best qualified. There were three primary considerations: physical, psychological and technical. The first two have been emphasized in the press out of all proportion to the third. As one of the psychologists attached to the astronauts told me:
“We were looking for a professional group that could best fulfill the most requirements to achieve space flight at the earliest time. This brought us inevitably to military test pilots. Others could undoubtedly have been trained, but these men had a tremendous head start-and because they were in the military they were also available to us. But it should be emphasized that throughout our search, the most important factor was technical skill.”
Because these men were to be engineering consultants as well as pilots, the technical requirements dictated older men. The original list of 110 military test pilots invited to volunteer for the program was first winnowed to 32, and finally to the seven men selected as astronauts. Seven was considered the most workable number for the specialized training necessary; the seven men chosen also embodied special skills in particular areas which had to be explored as the astronauts were being trained.
The astronauts were released by their various service branches (three Air Force, three Navy, and Col. Glenn, the lone Marine) and reported to Langley Field for training last April. Since that time the program has been moving steadily—but sometimes rather painfully—forward toward the day when the Mercury capsule will be secured atop an Atlas rocket and fired out of the Earth’s atmosphere into space with one of these seven men strapped securely in the contour couch inside.
How do you train an astronaut? There were no precedents to guide the directors of Project Mercury, and training devices had to be created almost from scratch. Here the technical skill of the astronauts themselves proved of great help.
Astronauts Help Design Capsule
Wally Schirra told me: “One of our most important jobs is to put the pilot’s ideas into the cockpit of the capsule. The engineers won’t be going up into space with us. There’s always a certain amount of conflict between the designers and the men who fly the machines, but we’ve worked it out well with the technical people here.”
The astronauts are stationed (and their families live in and around) Langley Field, near the southeastern tip of Virginia. They spend from half to two-thirds of their time at Langley; the rest is spent at various installations around the country where they personally consult on the building of equipment to go into the capsule or take training tests not available at Langley.
When I met with the astronauts, they had just returned from a three-week trip to the West Coast which included extended visits at McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis, manufacturers of the space capsule; Convair in San Diego, builders of the Atlas rocket; and North American Aviation, which is building and testing the X-15. The week I followed them through their activities at Langley was typical of their fluid training program.
Here are the essential elements of that program:
Technical lectures on basic astronautics, physics, astronomy, propulsion, biophysics, gyroscopic theory and similar highly technical subjects delivered by specialists from the Langley Research Center. These are usually scheduled every Monday morning.
Briefings on activities in areas where they are concerned … e.g., Atlas firings.
Lectures on specific problems of Project Mercury. There were several of these a day when the program started, but they have largely been completed and are now reduced to a few each month.
Practice flights on equipment at Langley which simulate some of the conditions they will encounter in space.
Flying jet aircraft from Langley Field. Two F-102’s have been assigned for the exclusive use of astronauts, and they strive to put in at least 20 air hours a month per man to maintain their flying proficiency. Later, this flying will be done in pressure suits to help them adapt to long periods in this encumbering type of equipment. All of the astronauts complain they don’t get enough time in the air—which they don’t.
Above all, these man are dedicated pilots. They love to fly, and look forward eagerly to leaving the classroom for the flight line.
Not Much Leisure
Individual study of technical reports. More and more, lectures are being superseded by technical reports which the men can read and assimilate during leisure moments—of which there are far too few.
Free time for athletics and recreation.
And finally field trips to (1) make test flights in equipment not available at Langley and (2) consult with manufacturers on the equipment the astronauts will be using in their space flights.
The two most important training facilities away from Langley are the weighlessness tests at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and the centrifuge at Johnsville, Pa. To familiarize the astronauts with the sensation of weightlessness, they are tumbled in the cargo compartment of a C-130 transport which pulls abruptly out of a steep power dive and provides about 15 seconds of weightlessness for its occupants at the top of the climb. This is the most difficult element of space flight to simulate—particularly for a period long enough to give the astronauts any real feel of the problems involved in exerting hand controls in a weightless state.
A new effort to breach this gap is underway at Langley now. Still in the development stage, it will consist of a barrel-shaped device filled with water. The astronaut will be inside the barrel, completely submerged. In this state, he will have to operate controls similar to those in the space capsule.
This device illustrates the extreme efforts being made to develop training machines to simulate conditions man has never experienced. The trainers will probably be modified drastically once a trip into space has actually been made and the pilot can report accurately what he encountered. But lacking this information, the ingenuity of the NASA engineers and scientists must substitute as effectively as possible for exact knowledge. So far it has been impossible to develop any one training device which duplicates all of the problems—atmospheric and mechanical—that the astronaut will face. Probably the closest thing is the centrifuge at Johnsville, Pa.
Here, the astronauts are strapped into a cockpit, faced with a battery of complicated instruments, and whirled about to give them a taste of the tremendous forces that will be exerted on them. During the launch trajectory, the astronaut will have to take about 8.6 Gs, and again during the re-entry. The time at these peak Gs will be only a fraction of a second, but he will probably be above 5 Gs for a half-minute to a minute. The Johnsville centrifuge can duplicate and greatly exceed these pressures.
Because space travel opens an entirely new frontier, the production of the “hardware”—as the astronauts call their capsule and its attendant equipment—limits the speed at which the program can progress. The size of the capsule is dictated by the size of the Atlas on which it will hitch a ride; presently it is about 10 feet high, 6 feet in diameter at its broadest point, and shaped very much like an oversized TV tube.
Since at this stage the astronauts can’t make test flights in the capsule itself, NASA engineers have had to substitute various simulators to reproduce partial problems the astronauts will have to meet. Two in particular at Langley merit special mention. One—just now being completed—simulates orbital flight dynamics in a frictionless system for tracking and navigation control. The astronaut reclines on a couch and must make altitude and navigational corrections on his controls through visual reference to a projected picture of the earth which he can see through the periscope in front of him. The machine “floats” on a powerful air jet, and smaller jets—controlled by the astronaut—will change the attitude of the trainer.
The other simulator combines the Mercury control panel with a stationary F-100 trainer in the Langley Research Center to provide the astronauts control problems which are fed into the simulator through a computer.
Simulators Very Important
Other simulators have been considered and abandoned. Among them was a proposal to take a capsule aloft to 100,000 feet under a balloon. Now most efforts are channeled toward combining as many space conditions as possible in a single simulator. Most of the men helping to train the Astronauts (particularly the medical people) submit to the same tests—as far as their physical equipment will permit so they can better understand the problems of the astronauts.
In general, throughout the time I spent with the astronauts, their mornings were taken up with lectures and briefings, and their afternoons with work on the flight simulators, proficiency flying, conferences with engineers and scientists on problems in each man’s specialty area, and some exercise to keep in shape. Beyond the normal working day, their time is their own, and they live a reasonably normal sort of life with their families. Two of the astronauts—Cooper and Carpenter—live on the base at Langley. Glenn still maintains a home in Washington, D.C.; Shepard lives about an hour’s drive away at Virginia Beach, and the other three Astronauts live in a new subdivision near Langley.
A number of rather widely held misconceptions have grown out of the avalanche of publicity around the astronauts. Here are a few of the most common:
1. The astronauts are the world’s greatest physical specimens. John Glenn told me: “Sometimes I think people expect us to sprout wings and take off. This business of us being the greatest physical specimens in captivity is badly overstated. We’re as healthy as any group you could find, but we aren’t supermen. There are plenty of other people just as healthy.”
Being a test pilot is a rigorous profession. The astronauts had to be in top physical condition to ply their trade, and they still are. But there are probably thousands of other men—the Navy’s frogmen for example—in other rigorous pursuits who would have been physically qualified for the space program. Again, the primary qualifications of the astronauts were technical. Along with the technical background, they of course had to have the intellect (all of them have IQ’s in excess of 130) to grasp the engineering problems implicit in flying the Mercury capsule.
Not a Suicide Mission
2. There’s an odds-on chance that Mercury will be a suicide mission. Quite the contrary is true. Every possible caution and precaution is being taken to insure the safe return of the astronauts. These young men have no vainglorious desire to kill themselves in the interests of space travel. But as experienced test pilots, they are familiar with the dangers of unknown and untested aircraft. They regard the Mercury capsule simply as an extension of the work they were engaged in before Mercury existed.
3. Once the first man is put into space, the Mercury program will be over. Obviously this program is not aimed at putting a man into space once and then quitting. Eventually all of the astronauts will go, and quite likely many more men whom they will train. For this reason, the astronauts are impatient with all the emphasis being put on the first man into space. Several of the astronauts—and possibly all of them will take the short ride on a ballistic missile into space before the first man is orbited.
On this point, John Glenn said. “This business of being first is badly overdone. The individual isn’t all-important here; it’s the big job that’s important. People have dreamed about this for thousands of years, and it’s so much bigger than individual names. This program opens up whole new worlds, and we’re just lucky—as individuals—to be part of it. Sure we all want to be first. Any guy who didn’t really want to go first shouldn’t be in this program. But we also realize that the second and third guys up will probably be much more important from the standpoint of information obtained.”
4. Project Mercury is a crash program geared to a race with the Russians to put the first man in space. If Mercury is a crash program, it’s doing a lot of creaking at its financial joints. A few weeks ago, the astronauts spent the better part of a day sitting around airports waiting for commercial flights. They’ve traveled in buses and creeping trains on field trips because there is no provision in the Mercury program for government air transportation for them. The space budget was pared some $68 million last year, and every activity has to be carefully considered in the light of hard budgetary facts.
Even the Astronauts are acutely conscious of budgets; Alan Shepard told me that lack of sufficient funds was holding up the production of equipment for tracking stations for the space capsule. As for racing with the Russians, the astronauts are divided on this point; the majority of them emphasize that under no circumstances are we cutting any corners to beat the Russians at getting a man into space that not even a minute safety element will be sacrificed to attain this objective. But while granting this, several of the astronauts feel that the competitive challenge can hardly be avoided budget or no.
One of them told me: “Sure we’re in a race with Russia. That’s no way to run a technological program, but that’s the way it is and we can’t change it.”
Don’t Know When
5. Space flights will be made on a schedule already established but not released. Probably no comparable program in history has ever had more scheduling fluidity than Project Mercury. Each step in putting a man into space depends entirely upon the successful completion of the previous step as well as production of the necessary “hardware.” As a result, it’s impossible to set any sort of rigid schedule. When officials say they don’t know when the first space flight will be attempted, they’re stating a simple and irrevocable fact.
6. The astronauts are kept on a rigid program of diet and exercise. Quite the opposite is true. The Astronauts have no formal program of either diet or exercise. When Project Mercury started, the astronauts were asked if they wanted regular calisthenics. Being experienced military men, they said “No” emphatically, and that was that. The astronauts’ only group physical training has been a course with Navy frogmen, which ended with them swimming a thousand yards under water using an aqualung and flippers. This is not to say that they don’t keep in good physical condition. But as Scott Carpenter pointed out: “We don’t need any formal health or physical conditioning program. We’re big boys now, and know how to take care of ourselves. Besides, this thing is important to us, and we’re not going to let ourselves get out of shape.”
All of the astronauts enjoy water sports and indulge in them whenever possible. Only Glenn played college football at Muskingum College in Ohio. Glenn tries earnestly to run two miles every morning before breakfast—and does most of the time. At the start of the program, three of the Astronauts didn’t smoke. Now all of them have quit—but strictly on their own and under no duress. The astronauts office at Langley has a hand-lettered sign stuck to the door which reads: “No Smoking in This Room Please.” and it’s signed “Three Ex-Smokers.”
But the astronauts are in superb physical condition. One of the NASA engineers stumbled on Gordon Cooper the other day playing with a group of 50-pound weights; he lifted four of them rather easily. Another saw Scott Carpenter climb a 40 foot rope hand-over-hand in a friend’s back yard, just for exercise.
The astronauts are all highly motivated young men going about a logical extension of their business which is test piloting. For many years they’ve worked at a hazardous occupation, and they have no personal fear. Their main concern is with getting the job done.
John Glenn said: “This project is comparable to the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, with Orville and Wilbur pitching a coin to see who was going to shove the other one off the hill. I think we stand on the verge of something as big and expansive as that was 50 years ago.