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[12.0] Preparations

v1.1.1 / chapter 12 of 26 / 01 apr 13 / greg goebel / public domain

* Although the space race was on, there was still some uncertainty as to what the goals of the race were. As NASA established itself, long-range plans were written up and debated by agency staff. In the meantime, both the US and the USSR were busily laying the groundwork for the first manned space flights, though the Soviets would suffer a few major setbacks along the way.

Medaris, von Braun, & Glennan


[12.1] NASA GROWS
[12.2] SEARCHING FOR DIRECTION
[12.3] SOVIET FAILURES / THE NEDELIN DISASTER
[12.4] THE SOVIET STRATEGIC MISSILE FORCE
[12.5] MERCURY & VOSTOK TEST FLIGHTS
[12.6] THE ANIMAL ASTRONAUTS

[12.1] NASA GROWS

* While the US military worked on ICBMs and spy satellites, NASA extended its domain of authority. Congress authorized construction of the first entirely new NASA organization, the "Goddard Space Flight Center" in Maryland, in August 1959. Goddard obtained "seed" staffing from NRL veterans, and was chartered to specialize in science satellites.

Glennan had bided his time in his attempts to obtain control of ABMA, but in the end, the organization almost fell into his lap. In early 1959, Herbert York, who had been on the committee that recommended the formation of NASA, left his job as chief scientist of ARPA to take a position as head of research and development for the US Department of Defense. York wasn't enthusiastic about manned spaceflight in the first place, and he took a very dim view of the Army's efforts in that direction.

General Medaris had told a House subcommittee: "I believe the US Army must make long-range plans for the transport of small combat teams by rocket. I also believe that cargo transport by rocket is economically feasible." York didn't buy it for a second. In the middle of 1959, he wrote his old boss Roy Johnson of ARPA: "I have decided to cancel the Saturn program on the grounds that there is no military justification."

That was not good news to either the Army or to NASA; the space agency felt they needed the big booster and complained loudly. In September, York and Hugh Dryden discussed the issue. York suggested that NASA take over the Saturn effort and pick up ABMA as well. Once NASA, a civilian agency, took over the booster, York would have no reason to care about it any more. That was exactly what NASA wanted and what the Army feared. Army Secretary Bruckner protested loudly, but Defense Secretary McElroy overruled him. Von Braun was also not happy with the move, as he believed -- wrongly as it turned out -- that NASA wouldn't have the resources to support his ambitions. Keith Glennan chatted with von Braun and reassured him.

President Eisenhower decided to transfer Saturn and ABMA to NASA in November 1959, though the decision didn't formally take effect until 15 March 1960. The organization was renamed the "Marshall Space Flight Center" in honor of Eisenhower's old boss and friend, George C. Marshall, who had died the year before. Now NASA had a facility to develop big boosters. General Medaris and Secretary Bruckner could only fume as they watched the Army's last chance to cash in on the Space Race vanish off into the sunset.

Glennan had really wanted to bring von Braun and his people into NASA and always felt he was an asset, but there were those in the agency who wondered what kind of a bargain they had made. One NASA engineer who went to Huntsville on a liaison team found the environment somewhat different from what he was used to: "We went into a conference room and saw all the Germans sitting all over the place. I sat down. And then von Braun comes in and everybody stands up and clicks their heels."

Von Braun had his admirers, including some of the astronauts like Gordo Cooper, who thought von Braun was a charismatic, sharp, hard-driving, dirty-fingernails, take-charge sort of guy; and he had his detractors who found him arrogant and imperious. Even those in NASA management who had a high regard for von Braun's abilities were uneasy about his shady past. Von Braun was so famous that in public mythology he was sometimes thought to be the head of NASA, but that never happened, it never could happen. The attitude was that he was best kept out of the way in Huntsville, working on rockets. There was no way he was ever going to get to the top desk in Washington.

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[12.2] SEARCHING FOR DIRECTION

* By 1960, the US space program seemed to be in full swing. Useful satellites were being sent into orbit, the Mercury program was moving forward towards putting a man into space, and NASA was working on boosters that could put serious payloads into orbit and beyond.

The Saturn program was progressing nicely. In April 1960, the first stage was static-fired on a test stand at Huntsville, the roar of its eight H-1 engines loud enough to be heard 160 kilometers (100 miles) away. As boosters got bigger there was no way they could be adequately tested at Huntsville, and so work was begun at Edwards Air Force Base on a huge test stand.

The issue of the Saturn upper stage was resolved as well. Early ideas had considered leveraging off Atlas or Titan technology, but Abe Silverstein had become enthusiastic about LOX-LH2 engines when he was running NACA-Lewis, and pitched the concept to von Braun. Von Braun was skeptical at first. Liquid hydrogen is a low-density fuel, implying big liquid hydrogen tanks and an uncomfortable tradeoff between booster size and strength. Although von Braun was a technological visionary, in terms of implementations he and his team were conservative, leaning towards what Krafft Ehricke referred to as "Brooklyn Bridge" construction, disdaining dodgy-looking tricks such as the Atlas "balloon" structure.

Silverstein was able to persuade von Braun that the substantially improved efficiency of LOX-LH2 propulsion over existing rocket types was worth the technical risk. NASA issued a contract for the "S-IV" Saturn upper stage in May 1960, to be powered by six of the RL-10 engines being developed for Centaur. NASA quickly decided that they needed something more powerful than the RL-10 for the job, and issued a contract to Rocketdyne in June for much bigger engine, the "J-2", which would have 883 kN (90,000 kgp / 200,000 lbf) thrust. A single engine could provide all the thrust needed for the S-IV.

In the meantime, the small Scout booster rapidly evolved to its first all-up flight test, which was performed on 1 July 1960 from the NASA Wallops Island facility. It would continue in use into 1993, performing hundreds of launches in the interim.

* NASA was also tinkering with various concepts for sending three men to the Moon, using the massive Nova vehicle then under consideration. Silverstein had even come up with a name for the program: "Apollo". Hugh Dryden announced the name at a NASA-industry conference in late July 1960. However, the Apollo program only existed on paper. Even the Nova booster was unfunded. President Eisenhower was supportive of the Mercury program and was pushing Glennan to raise the priority of Saturn, but sending men to the Moon was another matter. Glennan himself was not wildly enthusiastic about manned spaceflight, and was hoping that once the Mercury flights were ended, the "ridiculous competition with the Russians would be over."

He was not being encouraged to think differently by the president. In the fall of 1960, Eisenhower asked his science adviser, George Kistiakowsky, to clarify NASA's plans for manned spaceflight and put a pricetag on them. Kistiakowsky provided a report in December, which gave the cost for the Mercury program in hundreds of millions of dollars, and the cost of a manned lunar landing in the tens of billions of dollars. Eisenhower was not happy with such wild schemes, suggesting at a meeting with his advisers that he "was not about to hock his jewels for Apollo" -- referring to the old tale about Queen Isabella selling her jewelry to fund Christopher Columbus' expeditions to the New World. One of the advisers replied: "This won't satisfy everybody. When they finish this, they'll want to go to the planets."

Everybody laughed, but in fact it was documented truth. The NASA Lewis center had already released a report, in January 1960, that provided an overall plan for a manned Mars mission, with an interplanetary spacecraft powered by nuclear engines then under investigation. A roughly similar scheme was also being proposed by Ernst Stuhlinger, one of von Braun's Paperclippers, and was even the basis for an installment of Walt Disney's TV show, with striking images of models of Stuhlinger's parasol-shaped Mars spaceships arriving at the Red Planet.

Possibly it was just as well that Eisenhower and his advisers weren't very aware of these schemes. However, NASA wasn't a concern of Eisenhower's for much longer in any case. He was a "lame duck" president, due to be replaced in January 1961 by the charismatic ex-senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy JR. "JFK" had won a closely contested election that fall against Eisenhower's vice-president, Richard M. Nixon.

Nobody really knew what Kennedy's decisions concerning NASA and the future of the American space program would be. When he was a senator, he and his brother Robert F. Kennedy had met with Charles Draper of MIT, who tried to sell them on space exploration. Both of the Kennedys rejected the idea immediately as a waste of money. However, during the election of 1960 JFK had hammered on the humiliations the US had taken in space, saying that if a man were shot into space that year, "his name will be Ivan!"

That was just political posturing; the wounds were superficial. When Americans went to the polls in the fall of 1960, information that was in part or completely available to the public showed that the US had performed 28 successful space launches compared to 8 by the USSR, with the American spacecraft covering a substantially wider range of application and capability. Of course, any reasonable secret intelligence estimate also showed that there was even less to Soviet capabilities than there seemed, though the public and NASA didn't have access to such data.

Despite all that, the Soviets had scored many flashy "firsts" and Krushchev had loudly played them up. Americans didn't like being upstaged by what they regarded as a country of peasants. Krushchev clearly understood the attitudes of Americans and enjoyed embarrassing them. JFK understood the attitudes of Americans, too, and used them to help gain office in an extremely close election. Nixon had downplayed Soviet space successes in the campaign, demonstrating a sense of proportion but a poorer grasp of political theater. Kennedy appealed with straightforward political calculation to red-white-and-blue egotism. Just how such election-time sloganeering would translate into decisions once Kennedy took office remained to be seen.

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[12.3] SOVIET FAILURES / THE NEDELIN DISASTER

* Those Americans who saw the Soviet space effort as "more show than go" had plenty of justification in the facts. The Soviet Union was making headlines with space successes that inflamed American politicians like JFK. Their failures didn't make the news.

Korolyev had directed development of a new derivative of the R-7 ICBM, named the "Molniya (Lightning)", for launching Soviet planetary probes and other payloads. It had a much larger second stage than the Luna / Vostok boosters, with a fueled weight of 24,300 kilograms (53,580 pounds) and a single "RD-0108" engine. This was not the same engine as the Glushko RD-108 used in the first core stage; it was a two-chamber engine designed by Semyon Kosberg's organization that provided 297.9 kN (30,380 kgp / 66,990 lbf) thrust. The Molniya also had a third stage for planetary trajectory injection, with a fueled weight of 5,100 kilograms (11,245 pounds) and powered by a single "S1.5400" restartable LOX-kerosene engine, designed by Korolyev's OKB-1 and providing 66.7 kN (6,670 kgp / 14,710 lbf) thrust.

The Molniya gave the Soviets plenty of lift capacity for planetary missions, but as always, there were bugs to be worked out. A "Mars 1M" flyby probe, for which details remain unclear, was launched on 10 October 1960, but the Molniya went out of control about five minutes into flight and was commanded to self-destruct by range safety. Another Mars 1M shot was performed on 18 October 1960, but due to an upper-stage failure the probe didn't make orbit either. The missions were not publicly announced and were classified as "Mars 1960A" and "Mars 1960B", or more informally "Marsnik 1" and "Marsnik 2".

In early 1961, the USSR tried to send two flyby probes to Venus. The first, a "Mars 2MV" probe, whose details also remain unclear, was launched on 4 February 1961, but due to an upper-stage failure, it never left orbit. The spacecraft was designated "Sputnik 7". The second probe, "Venera 1", was launched a few days later, on 12 February 1961. It was the first "Venera 1VA" series probe, a reasonably sophisticated spacecraft with twin solar arrays; a large folding parasol-type communications antenna on the side; and a domelike atmospheric entry vehicle on top. The spacecraft achieved its proper trajectory, but communications were lost 15 days after launch. It did perform a flyby of Venus on 19 and 20 May 1961, but it returned no data. The mission was significant, however, in that it was the first flyby of a spacecraft of another planet, the Molniya booster had worked as specified, and the flight had helped validate Soviet operational procedures for deep-space missions.

* Despite the cloak of secrecy, these failures were nothing to be very embarrassed about. They were ambitious missions with immature hardware and the probability of failure was high. Only days after the losses of the two Soviet Mars probes, however, the USSR suffered the worst disaster in the history of spaceflight.

In late October 1960, the Soviets were preparing for the initial launch of the new R-16 ICBM from the Baikonur launch site. Mikhail Yangel, the head of the design bureau responsible for the R-16, and Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, head of the RVSN rocket force, were present, and they were both under pressure to get results. The annual Russian Revolution celebrations were coming up on 7 November and the launch would be propaganda coup.

On 23 October 1960, the missile was fueled. After the fueling was complete, a leak was found. The leak was judged acceptable, but more bugs were uncovered; the management of the launch team proposed draining the highly toxic and corrosive nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH propellants from the rocket, then flushing the tanks with inert nitrogen. Such a procedure, known as "safing" the rocket, is prudent when any major servicing is required, but it would have put the launch preparations back to square one. Marshal Nedelin rejected the proposal.

The launch team tried to fix what they could that evening, and then broke for the night. They resumed in the morning, Monday, 24 October, and things went from bad to worse. Nedelin was under pressure from Moscow to launch, and so he ordered a driver to take him to the launch pad where he could supervise matters personally. Of course, his entourage followed him. Some witnesses say that Nedelin wanted to show that he was behind his people, others claim he was just making a damned nuisance of himself. In any case, there was an ant's nest of activity around the fully-fueled missile, with about 250 people either trying to get something done or getting in the way.

What nobody knew was that the wrong command had been sent to the upper stage and it was continuing its own countdown to ignition. At 6:45 PM local time, the countdown reached zero and the second stage lit up, with the exhaust burning into the loaded first stage -- resulting in a huge fireball that washed over the launch pad. Many of the personnel were incinerated instantly. Some tried to escape, but the launch pad was fenced off and they were killed by the corrosive and toxic propellants.

Yangel himself had been at the launch pad, but had left the launch area to chat with a senior launch official over a cigarette. When Yangel saw the disaster unfolding before him, he hysterically tried to rush over to the launch pad and had to be restrained by his colleagues. The fires raged for two hours. Survivors were rushed to the hospital. At first, the military refused to tell the doctors what had caused the patients' horrible burns, but the doctors were insistent and were finally told about the corrosive propellants.

* On hearing of the disaster, Krushchev immediately ordered Leonid Brezhnev, then the largely ceremonial Soviet president, to go to Baikonur with an investigative team and figure out what went wrong. Krushchev made it clear to Brezhnev not to rush his judgements.

In the meantime, the dead were attended to. Many remains were impossible to identify. The exact count of the dead, including those killed outright and those who died in the hospital later, remains unclear, estimates ranging from 92 to 190. The military personnel were buried in a mass grave in the launch site, while some of the civilians were sent home for burial. On 26 October 1960, the Soviet newspapers published a short official government communique informing the public that Marshal of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin had died in the airplane crash, of which no details were given.

Brezhnev's investigative committee concluded that the launch procedures had been hasty, careless, and over-confident, and identified specific technical problems that had led to the disaster. They did not recommend any punitive actions, since any people who might have been held responsible were dead. Brezhnev reportedly said: "All guilty had been punished already." It is also said that Krushchev, in his coarse peasant way, bluntly asked Yangel: "Why are you still alive?"

The accident was kept a complete secret. Although a CORONA spy satellite took picture of the launch site the next day that indicated there had been a disastrous rocket explosion, such accidents were common both in the US and the USSR at the time and there was no hint of the true magnitude of the tragedy from orbit. Rumors did gradually leak out, but the Soviets did not publish real details until 1989.

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[12.4] THE SOVIET STRATEGIC MISSILE FORCE

* The "Nedelin disaster", as the accident would eventually be known, had no impact on the Vostok / Zenit program, and didn't hold up the R-16 program for very long. After the end of Brezhnev's investigation, the effort went back to full steam ahead. Work continued in parallel for the design of underground silos to protect and launch the R-16. The next test launch was on 27 January 1961, but the missile suffered a second-stage failure and fell to Earth. However, by the end of 1961 the R-16 was flying reliably.

The R-16 finally entered full operational service with the RVSN in February 1963, being designated by NATO as the "SS-7 Saddler". By that time, a silo-launched version had also been successfully flight-tested, in 1962, and the first silos armed with the R-16 were in service in March 1963. By 1965, the R-16 was in service in quantity, the maximum number deployed being about 186, providing the USSR with an effective and powerful ICBM force. The clumsy R-7 and R-9 ICBMs were soon retired, though the R-7 would be the basis for all but unarguably the most successful space launch vehicle ever built.

Even as the R-16 force was being built up, Yangel's bureau was performing test shots of a derivative of the R-16, the "R-36", which NATO would eventually designate "SS-9 Scarp". The R-36 featured a bigger upper stage and "prepacked" storable propellants, meaning it was fueled at all times, with the toxic propellants sealed into the tanks, allowing it to remain in a state of launch readiness for years. In contrast, the R-16 was normally unfueled, being tanked up during a crisis to remain on active alert for maximum of a month. Ultimately, the USSR would have an arsenal of R-36 ICBMs dispersed in a network of protected underground silos, the missiles ready for launch on short notice.

R-36 missile being placed in silo

* The Soviets would introduce a third generation of new missiles in the 1970s and a fourth generation in the 1980s. Their submarine-launched missiles followed a similar evolution. The USSR lacked expertise in the fabrication of large solid-fuel grains and so stayed with storable propellants, finally introducing solid-fuel missiles with the fourth generation in the 1980s. A detailed discussion of this long list of missiles is beyond the scope of this document.

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[12.5] MERCURY & VOSTOK TEST FLIGHTS

* While the US and the USSR fielded ICBMs, they continued preparations for their first manned space flights. The Mercury 7 continued their training, having advanced to more sophisticated and practical training systems. One trainer, named "ALFA (Air Lubricated Free Attitude)", was essentially a more sophisticated follow-on to the gyrating MASTIF. It rode on air bearings and was designed respond to control inputs from an astronaut just as though it was a space capsule being maneuvered with thrusters. It actually gave the sound of the thrusters being fired, and the astronauts could also look out a porthole and periscope to see images of terrain that would change as the trainer adjusted its attitude. ALFA was followed by detailed Mercury capsule simulators.

However, actually getting the capsule off the ground was proving troublesome. The first launch attempt of an unmanned Mercury capsule on a Redstone booster took place on 21 November 1960, and was a bust, to put it mildly. There was a cloud of smoke after ignition, but when it cleared away the booster was still there, draped with the Mercury capsule landing parachutes swaying in the breeze. As one witness explained later: "We had launched the escape tower."

It turned out that the umbilical connections had been improperly assembled. The Redstone had lifted off the pad, dropped its umbilical connections, and then the engine shut down after it had flown a few inches. By some miracle, the booster simply dropped back into place upright and didn't fall over. The Mercury capsule sensed the engine shutdown and fired the escape tower, but since the capsule wasn't undergoing any acceleration, it then assumed it was time to release the escape tower and deployed the parachutes. It sounds comical in hindsight, but it was no joke at the time. The Redstone was fully fueled with pressurized tanks and had an armed self-destruct system, and with the umbilical connections gone there was no way to send commands to "safe" it. If a good breeze came up, it might catch the parachutes and topple the booster, resulting in an explosion.

Trying to send work crews to deal with the Redstone under the circumstances was inviting a disaster -- not so unlike that which, unknown to the NASA people, had so recently taken place in the Soviet Union. There was a hasty brainstorming session in which the mission control crew tried to think up some way of safing the Redstone. One suggestion was that somebody go out and shoot holes in the propellant tanks with a rifle to drain them, but that proposal got a loud, immediate NO. Finally, somebody suggested that in about 24 hours, the batteries running the booster systems would drain. When they did, the self-destruct system would shut down and pressure-relief valves would open up. The weather report indicated calm winds into the next day, so the crews simply waited until the Redstone's batteries ran down and then safed the booster.

* The news media howled at the "four-inch flight" and NASA was embarrassed, but the engineers knew that things will go wrong in tests, they would fix them and move on to the next step. The next unmanned Mercury-Redstone launch test, on 19 December 1960, went almost perfectly.

Obviously it was time to get ready for sending up a man. On 19 January 1961, Bob Gilruth -- only those very close to him actually called him "Bob", his demeanor was genial but cool and professorial, and everyone else called him "Dr. Gilruth" -- assembled the astronauts and told them that Alan Shepard had been selected to be the first American in space. Gus Grissom would follow, and then John Glenn.

Glenn and Shepard had been the prime candidates, having the most flight time and experience, and they competed aggressively to get the first launch assignment. Shepard managed to keep a straight face and not gloat and the other astronauts congratulated him, but they were all disappointed and he knew it. Deke Slayton, not normally touchy, was very unhappy that he hadn't even made the list, and though he admitted Shepard was a fine choice he also petulantly suspected that the fact that President Kennedy had been a Navy man had been the real reason that Lieutenant Commander Shepard had been chose.

John Glenn had been lobbying hard for the first slot, had believed he had the inside track, and was downright shocked when he didn't get it. In reality, his lobbying had been counterproductive, some of the management getting the impression that Glenn was placing too much emphasis on lobbying and not enough on doing his job. What annoyed Glenn was that there had been a confidential poll of the astronauts, who were told to select who should go and were not allowed to vote for themselves. Glenn was upset about the fact that the selection had been made by a "popularity contest" and tried to appeal the decision. However, Deke Slayton would later say he believed Gilruth had actually made the decision himself and had simply asked for the vote to confirm his judgement, as well as to make complaint among the astronauts more difficult. In any case, Gilruth finally told Glenn to shut up: "I want this backbiting stopped right now. Alan Shepard is my choice. That's it."

Shepard took obvious pleasure in referring to Glenn as his "backup", but Glenn, always disciplined, swallowed his disappointment and worked conscientiously to help Shepard. The two men actually achieved a certain sort of camaraderie, though it didn't eliminate their rivalry by any means. Shepard even toasted Glenn at a dinner and praised him. The news media had no idea all this was going on; NASA successfully maintained a fiction that the astronaut selection wouldn't be made until the last moment, to ensure that the press didn't hound Shepard and his family. The press bet on Glenn as the likely winner.

* While the Mercury Seven had become heroes to the public, they had acquired something of a hero of their own in the form of stand-up comedian Bill Dana. Dana, actually born Bill Szathmary and of Hungarian Jewish extraction, was best known for his routines in which he played a goofy Mexican immigrant who introduced himself with: "My name ... Jose Jimenez."

Although within a decade Dana would, with good reason, be judged politically incorrect and turn to profitable work in writing scripts for hit TV comedies, he was very popular at the time, at least among Americans who weren't of Hispanic extraction. Dana introduced a routine in 1960 in which he had Jose play an astronaut, and when he cut a comedy LP titled BLAST OFF with the routine on it, the record producer, Mickey Kapp, sent a copy to all the astronauts as a promotion. They didn't respond, but it wasn't because they had tossed the LPs out; it was more because they were too busy laughing at them. The pressure was intense and the comedy helped blow off some steam.

Bill Dana as Jose Jiminez

When Dana played at the King's Inn in Cocoa Beach, to his surprise several of the astronauts and many other NASA folk were in the audience, giving him a wild welcome. Dana's Jose routines needed a straight man, with wooden-faced variety-show host Ed Sullivan being the best-known, and when the astronauts started shouting out the straight lines, Dana rotated Shepard, Schirra, and even the normally close-mouthed Deke Slayton into his act:

"Astronaut Jimenez, what is the first thing you're going to do once you reach orbit?"

"I'm going to cry a lot."

"Did NASA give you something to break your fall, Jose?"

"Yes ... de state of Nebada."

"Is that your crash helmet?"

"Oh! I hope not!"

Jose would say that the best part about the mission was blastoff: "I always take a blast before I take off ... otherwise I wouldn't get in that thing."

Dana had to rotate the astronauts because the routine was killing them, they couldn't keep from cracking up into laughing fits. He was astonished to find out how well the astronauts had soaked up the promotional LPs, and he and Mickey Kapp became good friends with the group. Dana had been a US Army infantryman in World War II and won the Bronze Star, and that gave him a fair amount of status with the Mercury Seven -- not all of them having actually been in combat, much less the dirty "up close and personal" sort of combat performed by the infantry.

They called Dana the "eighth astronaut"; Shorty Powers had tried to claim that title for himself, and no doubt they gave Dana the title both to praise him and put Powers in his place. Alan Shepard even adopted the Jose Jimenez persona as his own -- creating an interesting situation in which an astronaut was pretending to be someone who was pretending to be an astronaut.

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[12.6] THE ANIMAL ASTRONAUTS

* The first full rehearsal for the a manned Mercury shot was performed on 31 January 1961, with a four-year-old male chimp named "Ham" (for the "Holloman Aerospace Medical Center") AKA "Chop Chop Chang" launched from Cape Canaveral in a Mercury capsule on top of a Redstone booster. Ham was just a passenger, but he had been trained to pull sets of levers to see how his responses were affected in space. If he pulled the right levers, he got a banana pellet. If he pulled the wrong levers he got a mild electric shock on his feet.

Things started going wrong almost immediately. The Redstone's engine burned "hot" and Ham ended up pulling seven gees as the rocket climbed into space. Then there was a partial loss of cabin pressure because of a faulty valve, followed by a premature shutdown of the Redstone's rocket engine due to the hot engine burn. Alarmed ground controllers activated the Mercury capsule's escape system. The capsule flew off the top of the Redstone as planned, but the retrorockets didn't work properly and Ham pulled 15 gees as he fell back to the Earth, well away from his predicted recovery zone. In the meantime, the capsule's electrical systems went haywire and every time he pulled a lever he got a shock. When he landed, the capsule tipped over and started to take on water.

Ham was saved when the recovery helicopter arrived, but unsurprisingly he wasn't particularly grateful. Although he was usually a very affectionate chimp, after being run through the mill he was, as Gordo Cooper put it later, "one pissed-off chimp", screaming in rage and trying to bite everyone who came near him. He calmed down, but when photographers suggested he be strapped back into his contour seat for pictures, he was entirely uncooperative: nothing doing, he'd been through that once, he wasn't going to do it again.

Ham the chimp

Wernher von Braun decided that another Mercury-Redstone test shot was in order before NASA could risk a first manned launch attempt. Alan Shepard complained bitterly to Chris Kraft, the Mission Control manager, but all Kraft could do was sympathize. Kraft was mad as hell about it himself, and even the STG's boss, Bob Gilruth, could barely hide his annoyance. Kraft regarded von Braun as an "arrogant Teutonic SOB", but the Redstone was von Braun's baby and so von Braun made the call. Shepard even complained directly to von Braun: "For God's sake, we're ready, let's go!" -- but von Braun insisted on another flight.

The decision was logical for the conservative mindset of von Braun and his Paperclippers. The erratic behavior of Ham's Redstone had shocked them, and they couldn't conceive of putting a man on the next shot after Ham's narrow escape -- it just wasn't done. In addition, unlike the Soviet space program, NASA worked in the full glare of publicity, if a disaster occurred the world would see it happen, and so NASA headquarters had no inclination to question von Braun's judgement. However, the competitive spirit was very strong at NASA and there was considerable resentment over the delay.

* An empty Redstone-Mercury was launched on 24 March and the mission went flawlessly. The US was now ready to launch a man into space, but the Soviets were already moving towards their manned flight and were on the inside track. For the moment, however, they were suffering a few more setbacks.

A Vostok 1K designated "Korabl Sputnik 3" AKA "Sputnik 6" had been launched on 1 December 1960, carrying two Soviet "space mutts" named "Pchelka (Little Bee)" and "Mushka (Little Fly)". They spent a day in orbit, but the retrorocket cut off early and the capsule began to fall to Earth on a path that would take it outside of the USSR. It was ordered to self-destruct, killing its passengers. The Soviets publicly announced that the retrofire sequence had caused the sharik to enter too steeply and that it had consequently burned up.

The next Vostok 1K shot went only relatively better. Two dogs, "Damka (Little Lady)" and "Krasavka (Beauty)" were launched on 22 December, but there was an upper stage failure and they ended up taking a suborbital space flight, to land thousands of kilometers downrange in the Tunguska region of Siberia.

That was only the start of the cliffhanger adventure for the two dogs. The sharik's self-destruct system was still active and was supposed to go off after 60 hours had elapsed. To no surprise, given the time of year and the location of the landing, the weather in the landing area was nasty and very frigid, and it took over 60 hours for the recovery team to find the sharik. To the mixed feelings of the recovery team, it was still intact. With considerable apprehension they immediately disarmed the self-destruct system, and found that it hadn't gone off because cables that controlled the system had burned through on reentry. Astoundingly, Damka and Krasavka were still alive, if not feeling at all happy after two days strapped inside the capsule in bitter cold. The ejection hatch had popped off, but due to damage inflicted during their short flight they remained stuck in the sharik. Had the ejection system worked, the two dogs would have swiftly frozen to death.

This was the fifth Vostok test flight, and of the five only one had been successful. The authorities put off telling the cosmonauts about the troubles to keep from demoralizing them during their intensive training, in hopes that things would start looking up.

The Americans were breathing down the neck of the Soviet effort, and despite the problems, Korolyev wanted to begin test flights of the actual "Vostok 3KA" operational spacecraft. The first shot was on 9 March 1961, with a payload of an Ivan Ivanovich dummy, along with rats, a guinea pig, and a dog named "Chernuschka (Blackie)". The dummy wore a prototype spacesuit to provide a suit integrity check. The mission was highly successful, with the spacecraft, designated "Korabl Sputnik 4" AKA "Sputnik 9", performing one orbit of the Earth to be brought down and recovered without incident.

Chernuschka & Zvezdochka

That was very encouraging and the Vostok 3KA appeared to be reliable, but Korolyev wanted one more shot to make sure before sending up a cosmonaut. "Korabl Sputnik 5" AKA "Sputnik 10" was launched on 25 March 1961, carrying a payload of another Ivan Ivanovich plus biological payloads including a dog named "Zvezdochka (Little Star)". The flight also went perfectly, performing one orbit and then reentering without incident, though there was a slight amount of trouble after landing.

The sharik had landed near a village in chest-deep snow, complicating recovery. A platoon of paratroops was sent in to keep the villagers away from the sharik; the villagers, however, were upset with the paratroopers for heartlessly ignoring poor Ivan Ivanovich, who was lying motionless in the snow. The soldiers finally let one of the peasants inspect the dummy so that the peasant could go back to tell his comrades that everything was all right. The Korabl Sputnik 5 sharik was actually put to further use, being used for training, and in 1996 it was finally auctioned off at Sotheby's in London.

After two consecutive near-flawless test flights, the Soviet Union was now poised to put a man into space. The animals had done their duty for the time being, though animals would continue to be sent into space every now and then as part of space biology experiments. The animal astronauts are now largely forgotten, but they did have some celebrity at the time. Premier Krushchev gave President Kennedy's daughter Caroline a puppy named "Pushinka" from a litter borne by the space dog Strelka, a friendly gesture that also helped rub in the USSR's accomplishments. Kennedy took the business in good humor; when Pushinka had four puppies herself, he referred to them as "pupniks".

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