Mercury Redstone 3: Remembering the first crewed US space mission
On May 5, 1961, about 45 million US television viewers watched a single-stage Redstone rocket lift off from Launch Complex 5 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on their black and white sets. Atop the rocket was a tiny capsule less than 7 ft (2 m) tall. As it rose into the sky at 9:34 am EST, Mercury Redstone 3 carried Alan Shepard on a 15-minute flight to become America's first man in space.
When the news broke on April 12, 1961, that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 had successfully orbited the Earth for the first time, one person who reacted with anger and disappointment was Alan Shepard. One of the famous Mercury 7 astronauts selected to fly America's first crewed spacecraft, he had trained hard for 21 weeks and claimed the top spot to be the first person in history to enter outer space, only to end up being relegated to second place. Worse, Gagarin had orbited the Earth while Shepard was only going on a sub-orbital flight before a splashdown in the Atlantic.
For Shepard, this was a particular blow because the Mercury project had faced many delays in its first three years, including an Atlas rocket exploding after less than a minute in flight and a Redstone booster only rising about 4 ft (1 m) from the pad before coming to rest again on its tail as the engine cut out.
It was bad enough that these setbacks occurred fully in the public eye due to NASA's policy of complete transparency, but Shepard also had to bear his frustrations in a mixed atmosphere of adulation and derision. On the one hand, he, along with Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, and Scott Carpenter, became instant heroes the moment they were introduced to the world as the first US astronauts. On the other, the test pilots of the American X-15 space plane project jeered that the Mercury 7 weren't pilots, but guinea pigs, or "Spam in a can."
It didn't help that Shepard may have been slated to be the first man in space, but he wasn't the first American. In January 1961, that honor was given to a chimpanzee named Ham, and who could take pride in doing a job that a monkey could already handle?
Not that the astronauts took this lying down. Unlike their Russian counterparts, they were already well versed in the concepts of spaceflight, and they were not only expected to be completely briefed on their craft and the support systems, they were also expected to supervise the construction of the Mercury capsules and make suggestions for improvements.
In fact, they not only made suggestions, they made demands. On the grounds that they were pilots and the captains of their ships, not trained chimpanzees, they expected to fly their "spacecraft" (not "capsules"). They wanted a window, a hatch they could open themselves from the inside, and flight controls. At one point, they even demanded to be able to manually fly the launch vehicle using aircraft-style controls with a joystick and pedals. The last request wasn't possible, but they were given manual overrides to initiate or abort launch sequences if the autopilot failed.
Unfortunately, Freedom 7, as Shepard christened his spacecraft, was too far along for these modifications, so his view of space and the Earth would be through a periscope and two tiny portholes. He chose the name Freedom 7 because it was capsule no. 7, riding booster no. 7, and there were seven astronauts.
“What better name or call-sign could I choose than Freedom 7?” asked Shepard.
The launch on May 5 came after several delays due to bad weather, and even after Shepard entered the capsule there were long waits. At T-minus 15 minutes, one of the IBM 7090 computers at the Goddard Space Flight Center developed an error and required a recheck run, resulting in a two-hour hold. In all, the countdown took four hours and 14 minutes with Shepard sitting in the capsule. At three hours, Shepard asked permission to urinate in his suit. When permission was denied, he went ahead anyway. Fortunately, the oxygen flow in the suit soon dried him out.
Meanwhile, unlike Vostok 1, which lifted off in a shroud of secrecy, Mercury Redstone 3 was being watched in person by hundreds of reporters and by millions worldwide via television broadcasts. Given that this was more than an adventure, but a counter thrust in the Cold War, the stakes were very high. One blessing in disguise was that Gagarin's flight removed many of the medical fears for Shepard's safety while in space.
For Shepard, the flight of Mercury Redstone 3 had a strange feel to it. He'd not only trained, he'd over-trained to the point where his every response was a reflex action. When the countdown reached zero and the booster roared into life, it seemed to him like he was back in the centrifuge, except the rocket vibrated and didn't knock him around like the simulation.
Two minutes and 20 seconds into the flight, the rocket shut down, and two seconds later the escape tower jettisoned. At two minutes and 24 seconds, the capsule separated from the booster as small rockets fired to push them apart. Eleven seconds after that, the autopilot turned the capsule so it was flying backwards behind the all-important heat shield.
Unlike later missions, which were marked by systems checks and other business, Shepard was already a third of the way through his suborbital flight at the five-minute mark, reaching an altitude of 115 miles (185 km) while only 150 miles (240 km) downrange of Cape Canaveral. At this point, Shepard took manual control of the craft, firing the pitch, yaw, and roll thrusters to demonstrate that he could control its attitude. He then switched back to automatic and maneuvered the craft using the fly-by-wire controls.
At five minutes and 15 seconds, the retrorocket pack fired for 10 seconds, slowing Freedom 7 for controlled reentry. The pack was then jettisoned, leaving the heat shield bare. As the craft descended, Shepard tried to see the stars through the tiny portholes, but it turned out that they aren't as visible to the naked eye as was thought. He was also falling behind on his to-do list and was feeling both time and gravitational pressures as the seconds ticked by and acceleration rose to 11.6 g.
A mere 10 minutes into the flight. The main parachute deployed and Freedom 7 drifted down to the recovery area in the North Atlantic off the Bahamas for splashdown. The entire mission lasted 15 minutes and 22 seconds and Shepard ended up only 303 miles (487 km) from where he'd started.
By today's standards, Mercury Redstone 3 was a very simple suborbital mission, but in 1961 it was proof that the United States had mastered the technology to send a human being safely into space. The transparency of the mission, being carried out live on television for all to see, also led to the public skepticism about the Soviet orbital mission, which was carried out in absolute secrecy and which the Soviets lied about for years afterwards. But most important, Mercury Redstone 3 was the first step that would lead to the first footprint on the Moon in eight short years.