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The Launch Box: PoD 2 - Alan Shepard, first man in space

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

By Andy Cooke

Eisenhower's Priorities

After the furore over the Soviet Union "winning" the race to launch the first satellite, President Eisenhower was rather perplexed. The reaction seemed completely out of scale to his perception of its importance.

However, the most important element had been established: The Freedom Of Space was now a recognised principle, which was crucial. The intelligence surveillance programme leapt into action, the Discoverer series of satellites soon flying.

Discoverer 3 - on its way to the ocean

A rather weak attempt to pretend they were scientific payloads fooled few people, least of all the Russians. On Discoverer 3, "trained mice" were added to the capsule as a "life science payload." This did not end well. In the words of a CIA technician involved in the programme, quoted by William E Burrows in "This New Ocean":

"It was thought at first that the little fellows were merely asleep [after telemetry from the capsule indicated no mouse activity while still on the pad], so a technician was sent up in a cherry-picker to arouse them. He banged on the side of the vehicle and tried catcalls, but to no avail. When the capsule was opened, the mice were found to be dead. The cages had been sprayed with krylon to cover rough edged; the mice had found it tastier than their formula; and that was that."

A replacement 'crew' was little more fortunate - surviving launch only for the rocket second stage to fire downwards instead of horizontally, sending the new mice into the ocean rather than space. Numerous failures resulted, but at last, in August 1960, Discoverer 13 worked properly and the capsule containing exposed film was recovered - proving the system. Then, before the end of the month, Discoverer 14 worked perfectly throughout, providing more useful intelligence from seven orbits than the entire U-2 programme had ever given. Eisenhower had what he wanted from space.

NASA had been inaugurated in 1958, as Eisenhower determined that space would not be a province of the Armed Forces, and the first Administrator (T Keith Glennan) promptly began planning to send humans into space and, eventually, to the Moon: the Mercury Programme and the Apollo Programme. Eisenhower signed off on Mercury, but insisted that there was no need to commit to an expensive boondoggle such as the Moon, for what he saw as a pure propaganda mission.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Krushchev had no such compunction. While he couldn't really care less about space - other than the programme providing the technology for the ICBMs he believed necessary to deter the imperialistic Americans - he did care for propaganda triumphs. And Sergei Korolev was very skilled at providing such. A consummate organizer and skilled engineer, he could ensure his people produced what was needed, and while the Americans slowly plodded on with Mercury, his design bureau - OKB-1 - produced a large, self-contained spherical capsule that could hold everything needed to sustain life and survive re-entry.

(Landing softly enough for the passenger to survive uninjured was still to be perfected). Calling it "Korabl-Sputnik", or "Satellite-Spaceship", they started to test-fly it in late 1960.

Back in the USA, the Presidential Election campaign was under way, with space becoming a factor. Kennedy and his running mate, Johnson, making much of the "penny-pinching" Eisenhower letting the Soviets take the lead in space, rode the national mood. Kennedy won the election, and promptly put space onto a back-burner.

The Race is on. Or is it?

The "Mercury Seven" astronauts

The Russians weren't having everything go their own way. The Nedelin Disaster killed ninety-two people, including the Commander in Chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, Marshall Mitrofan Nedelin, when a new ICBM exploded on the pad, thirty minutes before launch (Nedelin had insisted, when the launch looked to be delayed, that the technicians should work on the live rocket, taking out a chair to personally sit on near the rocket in order to convince the technicians it was safe to go ahead). At least one test pilot died testing the Korabl-Sputnik's ejection system (the hatch failed to open). Two dogs died in a Korabl-Sputnik test in space when it re-entered too steeply and burned up. But Korolev continued the pressure - if he wanted funding, he had to provide Kruschev with spectaculars for propaganda.

Not knowing details of the race - but certain there was a race, NASA continued with Mercury. The first seven astronauts had been selected, the Mercury capsule designed, the Atlas launch vehicle selected. Unfortunately, the capsule took a while to be debugged, and the Atlas had an unfortunate habit of exploding. With mass shaved off to the point where the skin of the rocket was exceptionally thin, the rocket's internal rigidity was instead provided by the pressurised fuel and oxidiser in the tanks. This resulted in a less-than-reliable launch vehicle - at least initially - so the first manned launches would be using the proven Redstone rocket. It wouldn't provide nearly enough sustained thrust to put Mercury into orbit, but it could lob a manned capsule well out of the atmosphere, which would be enough to claim the first human in space.

On the 21st of November 1960, Mercury-Redstone 1, with an unmanned capsule, launched. Reaching a maximum height of 3.8 inches, it was not deemed an unqualified success. It did, however, not explode. An incorrect cable had caused a power plug to cut off 29 milliseconds before a control plug, terminating thrust.

The Redstone was successfully defuelled and the capsule transferred to a back-up booster (the original booster, with a now-damaged rear fin, was never launched and is now on display at the Marshall Spaceflight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama). It launched on 19 December 1960 and was successful enough to convince NASA to try a chimpanzee on the following flight.

Ham's Wild Ride

The view from Mercury-Redstone 2

Ham the chimpanzee was boosted into space on Mercury-Redstone 2 on 31st January 1960 and splashed down safely. There were, as always, a number of "anomalies" on the flight, but one of these was highly significant: the liquid oxygen valve jammed fully open early on, the engine "ran hot" and the oxidiser ran out five-and-a-half seconds earlier than expected.

Thanks to this, a Russian was the first human in space.

How come? Well, the abort pressure switches on the capsule - which would automatically trigger an abort - were timed to be transferred from abort mode to a normal shutdown mode at 137.5 seconds into the flight. Expected shutdown was at 142.5 seconds.

The oxidiser ran out, thanks to the jammed valve, at 137 seconds exactly - half a second before the abort mode would be transferred. Pressure dropped off early, the abort sequence was triggered, and the abort rockets yanked the capsule forwards.

Chimponaut Ham before the flight. Considerably less grumpy than he would shortly become.

Thanks to the excess thrust from the engine running hot, the capsule was already travelling at 450 mph faster than planned (659 feet per second). The abort rockets added 335 mph (492 feet per second) on top of that. As the abort involved jettisoning the retro-rockets that should have slowed it by 313 mph (313 fps), Ham ended up doing nearly 1100 mph more than intended (1611 feet per second). Instead of peaking at an altitude of 114 miles and splashing down 291 miles downrange, Ham soared past 150 miles up and 415 miles downrange, sustaining over 15g on the deceleration. Ham was very grumpy after his flight, the handlers having to evade bared fangs and attempted bites. Personally, I don't blame him.

That was enough to add an extra test flight into the schedule. Mercury-Redstone 3 had been planned to carry Alan Shepard, but "Mercury-Redstone-Booster-Development (MR-BD)" was substituted for his originally planned flight. A long discussion had weighed up whether to proceed with the plan or to err on the safe side and make sure they'd sorted out all outstanding issues, and von Braun insisted on just one more test flight. Shepard, in a rage, complained vociferously to the flight director, who calmly said that the last word was von Braun's. MR-BD launched on the 24th of March, 1961, a disconsolate Shepard watching from the ground as the booster and unmanned boilerplate capsule carried out a perfect mission.


Vostok 1 launches and the manned spaceflight era begins

While he watched, far away in Tyuratam in the Soviet Union, a Korabl-Sputnik - now renamed "Vostok", or "East" - was being mated to a modified R-7 booster. They hadn't yet resolved the hard landing issue, but Korolev decided he'd run out of time. Nineteen days after Shepard watched MR-BD arc perfectly through the Florida sky, Yuri Gagarin climbed into Vostok 1. The controls were locked behind a combination lock to ensure cosmonauts couldn't tamper with them, but Korolev secretly slipped Gagarin the combination. The countdown finished at just after 9am on April 12th, 1961, and with a shout of "Poyekhali!" ("Here we go!") from Gagarin, the rocket rose into the sky.

Aside from a brief scare as the telemetry failed for a few moments during ascent, the single orbit went perfectly, Gagarin not needing to undo the combination lock. The Russians announced the success while Gagarin was still in orbit, wanting other countries to be able to independently track the Vostok to confirm the mission. It was only during re-entry that things almost went horrifically wrong.

The equipment module at the rear of the Vostok was supposed to separate, leaving the spherical descent module to re-enter alone. But the umbilical cord connecting it to the rest of the vehicle failed to separate and, as the atmosphere started to bite, swung the Vostok around. Entering a spin at 17,000 mph, Gagarin wondered if his end was here. It almost was.

For ten minutes, the clinging equipment module spun him around - and blocked the heat shield. At last, though, it snapped free, and - wobbling - the descent module stabilised, heat-shield first. The frighteningly high possibility that the first man in space would burn up on re-entry had passed.

The rush had not given Korolev time to resolve the hard-landing issue. Accordingly, Gagarin ejected from the capsule at 21,000 feet, landing under his own parachute. This fact was kept secret from the West for decades, as the Soviets feared it would invalidate their achievement - all aircraft records were held to be only valid if the pilot landed with the vehicle.

We're all asleep down here

The flight was announced at 9:59 am local time in Moscow. This was 1.59 am on the East Coast of the USA, but that didn't stop reporters urgently phoning NASA for a quote. Roused in the early morning and unclear over what was the emergency, "Shorty" Powers, the Public Affairs Officer of NASA, blearily interrupted the voice on the phone to say, "We're all asleep down here."

The press had their headline.

Kennedy called the new NASA Administrator, Jim Webb - Kennedy's own appointee - into the Oval Office. Webb, attempting to relieve the President's concern, presented him with a model Mercury capsule. Unplacated, Kennedy asked if Webb had bought it in a toy store on his way in.

"Find out when, at what point, we can overtake the Russians," was the clear directive. Yet America hadn't even sent a single human into space. The President and the National Space Council scrutinised the existing plan, including the parts rejected by Eisenhower. NASA would launch a man into space, then gradually extend the one-man flights into orbit, and then longer-duration orbital flights. Two-man flights would follow, then an orbiting laboratory, then a space station, a manned mission around the moon, a landing on the Moon, then men to Mars.

It would take far too long. They continued to wrangle over what to do, but accelerating a long way down the track (and skipping steps if possible) seemed to be essential - otherwise they'd always be playing catch-up. Especially as the Soviet Union had demonstrated superior heavy-lift capability already. If, for example, Kennedy announced an objective of creating a manned space station, the Soviets could probably launch something they could call a space station far sooner than the Americans could hope to do.

"Why don't you light the damned candle, 'cause I'm ready to go"

Liftoff of the (delayed) Mercury-Redstone 3, carrying the capsule "Freedom 7" and Alan Shepard

On the 5th of May, there were prolonged delays on the pad (during which time Shepard first managed to uncover a significant design defect in the new spacesuits: they had no provision for urination, which could prove problematic considering the plans were for day-long missions. Suffice it to say that they realised the sensors around the lower body could be switched off to prevent any shorting out when liquid was introduced...). Much of the delay was simply down to von Braun's team getting nervous about actually launching a human, before Shepard irritatedly instructed the technicians to fix whatever was wrong and "light the damned candle." The team swallowed hard, complied, and Mercury-Redstone 3 finally soared into the sky. Shepard had become the second man into space.

Five days later, Kennedy ratified the plan his advisers had come up with. America was going for the Moon.

On the 25th of May - when America's manned spaceflight experience was still only 15 minutes in total - Kennedy announced the plan to Congress... and asked for the funding.

"I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activity, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:

First, 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 Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space. And none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

You know the rest...

What If...?

One thing that seems clear - Kennedy felt pushed into this by Gagarin's flight beating Shepard's. He needed a spectacular success, especially after leading on closing the space gap in his presidential campaign. When Jerome Weisner, the chairman of his Science Advisory Committee, complained that the President kept saying that "we have to do this," Kennedy retorted, "Well, it's your fault. If you had a scientific spectacular on this earth that would be more useful - say desalting the ocean - or something that is just as dramatic and convincing as space, then we would do it..."

If Shepard had beaten Gagarin into space, that pressure would have been considerably less. Even with an orbital flight from Gagarin comparing favourably with Shepard's suborbital lob, the public would have been far less excited, and committing $20 billion dollars (in 1961 prices) would not have seemed quite so unavoidable.

Had that single valve not stuck open on MR-2, and Ham's flight been less off-course, there is every likelihood that MR-3 would have launched as planned, on a perfect flight to take Alan Shepard 114 miles up - into space, and into the history books. And that would have changed the entire Space Race.

In that timeline, Apollo would never have been accelerated as dramatically as it was in OTL. Indeed, it might even have been delayed or even ground to a halt. Merely nine weeks before Gagarin's liftoff, Kennedy had rejected a request from NASA for an extra $182 million, partly to support manned spaceflight activities. Kruschev would have redoubled his push for spectaculars from Korolev for propaganda purposes, so I would expect the Soviet plans to continue apace.

In OTL, the Soviets aborted their Moon plans after four failures of their N-1 moon rocket, after Korolev's death, and after the Americans had comprehensively beaten them to the Moon. If, however, Apollo's target date had been in the mid to late Seventies - or even perennially delayed - would the Soviets have plugged away, the winning tape still seductively beckoning? And what else would have changed?


Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP


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