On October 7, 1958, NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan formally approved the fledgling space agency’s proposal for a manned satellite project.

This project sought to:

  1. Place a manned spacecraft in orbital flight around the earth;
  2. Investigate man’s performance capabilities and his ability to function in the environment of space; and
  3. Recover the man and the spacecraft safely.

NASA’s first piloted space venture was named Project Mercury.

Before launching the Mercury spacecraft into earth orbit with a pilot, NASA managers decided to test it in relatively brief suborbital flights. For orbital missions, NASA used the Air Force Atlas missile to propel Mercury; the smaller Army Redstone ballistic missile was used for suborbital flights.

On January 31, 1961, NASA launched a chimpanzee named HAM (an acronym for Holloman Aero Med) on the Mercury Redstone 2 flight. This was supposed to be the final flight before the first launch with a human pilot. The booster engine turbopump ran too hot and depleted the liquid oxygen supply five seconds before the nominal cutoff time. The early engine shut down triggered an abort and the launch escape rocket pulled the spacecraft away from the booster. Coming as it did near the end of the planned engine burn, the escape rocket took HAM to an altitude of 157 miles instead of the planned 115 miles and caused him to overshoot the landing mark by 130 miles. Concerned about the booster problem, NASA Managers added an additional Redstone flight to the schedule. This decision was not popular with the astronauts, who believed the additional flight was unnecessary, but Dr. Wernher von Braun prevailed. The Mercury Redstone Booster Development (MR-BD) flight took place on March 24, 1961. The Redstone performed perfectly and planning proceeded for the first human flight.

Preparations for the Mercury Redstone 3 (MR-3) flight were underway when the Soviet Union launched Vostok 1 with Yuri Gagarin aboard. The Soviets had beaten the United States in the quest to launch the first human in space.

In the lead-up to the MR-3 flight, NASA announced that one of three astronauts, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, or Alan Shepard, would be America’s first man in space. NASA kept the selection under wraps until the morning of May 2, when it was revealed that Shepard would pilot Mercury’s first manned flight. Shepard named his spacecraft “Freedom 7.” Many people believed the inclusion of the number 7 was a tribute to the team of seven astronauts, but actually he’d selected it because he flew in capsule #7.

Rain on May 2 forced a postponement of the flight until May 4. Bad weather again kept Freedom-7 on the pad, but the forecast for the next day looked promising. That night, final preparations began for Freedom-7. The last stages of the countdown began at 8:30 PM for a 7:00 AM liftoff. Shepard was awakened at 1:30 a.m. He ate a breakfast of filet mignon, scrambled eggs and orange juice with his backup pilot John Glenn, physician William K. Douglas, and a few other launch team members. Douglas pronounced him fit for the mission after a physical examination.

After the exam, Shepard donned his silver colored space suit. Beneath the suit, Shepard wore a set of underwear with built in ventilation panels. Looking like some sort of futuristic knight in his silver garment, Shepard walked out of Hangar S (the Mercury astronaut quarters at the Cape) to the transfer van for the short ride to the launch pad.

At the pad, Shepard paused than walked over to the Redstone. Surveying the rocket, he reached out and touched one of the fins. He then boarded the elevator. At the top of the gantry, technicians in the “white room” helped him climb into Freedom-7 and secured the hatch after him. Shepard found a sign left on the instrument panel by John Glenn: “No handball playing allowed.”

Sealed inside the capsule, Shepard went through the pre-launch checklist to ensure Freedom-7 was ready for flight. At T-minus 15 minutes, mission control had to stop the countdown because of low clouds. The clouds were expected to clear within 40 minutes, so everyone waited. During the hold in the countdown, a power inverter in the Redstone failed, so it had to be replaced. This further delayed the launch.

Shepard grew impatient and snapped “Why don’t you just fix your little problem and light this candle?” to mission control. Finally, after a delay of two and a half hours, the count was resumed.

“LOX tank pressurized… vehicle power.” With less than thirty seconds to go, the blockhouse broadcast the progress of the countdown. Finally the launch officer reported “Ignition… mainstage… lift-off!” Freedom-7 blasted off at 9:34 AM on May 5, 1961.

Shepard responded “Roger, lift-off and the clock is started.” As the rocket accelerated, Shepard experienced a peak of 6.2 g’s. One hundred forty-two seconds into the flight, Shepard radioed “Booster cutoff.” The Redstone had done its job and Freedom-7 was traveling at 5,100 miles per hour. Small solid-fuel motors, called posigrade rockets, pushed the capsule away from the rocket. Shepard floated in his couch, weightless as Freedom-7 continued on its 116-mile high arc.

The automatic flight control system turned Freedom-7 around so it flew heat shield first. Shepard turned off the automatic system and took manual control of the capsule. This was one of the critical moments of the flight. Could a weightless astronaut control his spacecraft? “Okay, switching to manual pitch. Pitch is okay. Switching to manual yaw.” He brought the capsule to the desired attitude, then took time to observe the Earth. “What a beautiful view!” he exclaimed while looking through the periscope.

Since Freedom-7 was not traveling fast enough to go into orbit, the retrorockets were not needed, but they were tested anyway. Four minutes and forty-four seconds after launch, the retrofire sequence began. Half a minute later, with the capsule in the proper attitude, each retrorocket fired in sequence. Freedom-7 decelerated as it dropped back into the atmosphere, subjecting Shepard to a peak of 11 g’s.

Shepard splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, 302 miles from Cape Canaveral. His flight had lasted 15 minutes, 22 seconds. After being retrieved by the recovery helicopters that were standing by, Shepard and the capsule were taken to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain. On the recovery ship, doctors examined Shepard and pronounced him fit after his voyage.

Shepard and the rest of the Mercury astronauts were invited to the White House for a special awards ceremony. President John F. Kennedy personally awarded NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal to Shepard. During the ceremony the President dropped the medal. After picking it up, he told Shepard: “This decoration has gone from the ground up.” Afterwards, the astronauts met with the President and emphasized their belief that NASA needed to continue manned space flights after Mercury.

Presidential science advisor Jerome Weisner had presented a report to Kennedy that was very critical of Mercury and manned space flight in general. Relying on scientists like Dr. James van Allen, Weisner concluded that exploration with less expensive robotic probes was preferable. Kennedy, however, needed a highly visible endeavor that would galvanize and inspire America. He looked to the space program.

The United States had recently suffered a major diplomatic set back with the ill-fated invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Public perception was that the Soviets were well ahead of the United States in space. They had launched the first satellite, been first to reach the Moon with an unmanned probe and launched the first human into space. Their satellites were much larger than ours, implying much larger and more powerful boosters. International confidence in America as the world’s greatest nation was waning.

On May 25, President Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and declared: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Considering the fact that no American had even orbited the Earth, this was a particularly bold challenge, but the President had a high degree of confidence that the United States could meet the challenge based, in part, on the success of Freedom-7.

Written by Greg Kennedy on May 3rd, 2013 , Space History

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