* The Americans, having finally put a man in orbit, moved on to plan a two-man spacecraft, which would become known as "Gemini", and sent "Ranger" probes to the Moon, if with little success at first. However, a modified Ranger, "Mariner II", would score a first for the US by performing the first successful planetary flyby, of the planet Venus. In the meantime, both superpowers continued to put men -- and, in what would prove an anomaly, one woman -- into orbit.
* Well before John Glenn's orbital flight, NASA was contemplating a follow-on to the Mercury program. The agency had been working on plans for a "Mercury Mark II" since mid-1959, leading to a public announcement by Bob Gilruth on 7 December 1961 for a "two-man Mercury", with the larger spacecraft boosted into orbit by a modified Titan II missile. The new project become officially known as "Gemini" on 3 January 1962, with initial flights tentatively scheduled for the summer of 1963. McDonnell Aircraft had already been formally awarded a contract for the capsule on 22 December 1961.
Gemini was a stepping stone to Apollo, intended to allow NASA work out the details of relatively long-duration missions that would be required for a Moon flight. In addition, Gemini would be used to develop rendezvous technology, with the spacecraft docking with a specially modified Agena upper stage. Although the debate on EOR versus LOR was still in progress when Gilruth announced Gemini, the two-man capsule could validate the technology for either approach.
* Gemini was only one sign that NASA's star was on a rapid rise. Agency headquarters had already outgrown its temporary residence at Dolley Madison house, and dispersed to various other facilities in Washington. To provide management for the Moon program and the many other tasks the space agency was taking on, NASA's organization was completely restructured.
The new organization was based on four offices, including "Manned Space Flight", "Space Sciences", "Applications", and "Advanced Research & Technology". Webb set up a management triumvirate of himself as administrator, Hugh Dryden assigned to determine goals and objectives, and Robert Seamans assigned to implement those goals and objectives. The most prominent of the four offices, Manned Space Flight, was to have gone to Abe Silverstein, but he decided he'd had enough of Washington DC and went back to the NASA Lewis Center as its head. Dr. Brainerd Holmes became the Director of Manned Space Flight instead.
With the spiraling emphasis on crewed spaceflight, NASA needed to create a new center to manage such efforts. On 19 September 1961, James Webb announced the selection of a site near Houston, Texas, as the site for the new NASA "Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC)", on land donated by Rice University. The MSC would be the new home for Gilruth's Space Task Group, which had created the Mercury program from their old home at NASA Langley. Old hands like Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft were by no means happy with giving up their pleasant settled lives in Virginia, but they had no say in it. Gilruth asked Jim Webb why it was necessary to move; Webb basically replied that Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia had done nothing for the space program, while Congressman Albert Thomas of Texas was a supporter. Webb's hands were clean, however, since JFK himself had made the deal with Thomas.
The STG began to move to temporary facilities in Houston in October, with some offices placed in a shopping center. On 1 November, the STG name was abandoned, with the group taking the name of the MSC itself and with Gilruth at its head. The organization was fully operational in Houston by mid-1962, using rented offices. The new facilities being built by NASA wouldn't be ready for initial occupancy until the spring of 1964.
In response to charges that the site had been selected for political reasons, NASA denied everything, saying that the site was appropriate to agency specifications. That was just the official response and everybody knew it. That JFK had made a deal with Congressman Albert Thomas wasn't exactly common knowledge, but it was obvious that Vice-President Lyndon Johnson had been after a slice of the NASA pie for Texas from his days in the Senate. In fact the Houston MSC would be renamed the "Johnson Space Center (JSC)" in 1973, following Johnson's death in that year.
"Unidentified flying object (UFO)" enthusiasts would later claim that large numbers of UFOs were spotted in the Gulf Coast region after the establishment of the Houston MSC. The exact nature of the link between the two phenomena has yet to be precisely determined.
* Other facilities were being obtained as well, mostly located in the American South. The South was chosen partly because the rivers remained ice-free all year round, allowing oversized rocket stages that couldn't be transported by rail to be sent to Cape Canaveral by barge; and partly because it awarded Southern Democrats in Congress their fair share of "pork", helping to ensure support for the program.
Although NASA had been performing launches from Cape Canaveral, the site was under military control, and the space agency had been leveraging off the military's launch facilities. That wouldn't do for a NASA that was growing so mightily, and so on 1 July 1962 NASA was granted unused land on Merritt Island to the north and west of the existing launchpads to build a "moonport" for the Apollo missions. Eventually most of NASA's payloads would be launched from Merritt Island, not Cape Canaveral, but in the popular view all the shots would still be from "Cape Canaveral", even if that technically wasn't always the case.
A facility was also needed for the assembly of the stages for the big rockets that would be used to fly the Apollo missions. NASA managed to obtain the Michoud plant near New Orleans, Louisiana, which was used to build Higgins torpedo boats during World War II. It was in dingy condition, having been idle since 1954, but a good cleanup improved the place greatly.
Since Huntsville, the site of the Marshall Space Flight Center, was too heavily populated to permit noisy static tests of large rocket engines, yet another facility was obtained on the Pearl River in Mississippi, not too far from the Michoud plant. The "Mississippi Test Facility (MTF)" site was relatively isolated and had barge access to the ocean. On the negative side, it was uninhabited for a reason: the land consisted mostly of swamp and mud, and was heavily infested with mosquitoes and poisonous snakes. Getting it operational and liveable proved to be a lot of work. The MTF would be renamed the "John C. Stennis Space Center" in 1988, in honor of John Stennis, an influential Mississippi senator and a NASA patron.
Other new facilities included a computer center in Louisiana; an electronics research center in Massachusetts; and a rocket test facility at White Sands in New Mexico. The expanding empire of NASA facilities not only increased the agency's capabilities, it increased NASA's political clout as well. Every NASA installation meant jobs and money for various congressional districts, and that meant friends for the agency in Congress.
NASA's budget for fiscal year 1961 was a little under a billion USD. By the end of the year, the agency would have almost 18,500 employees, and would be supporting many more workers in industry through NASA contracts. And NASA kept on growing rapidly.BACK_TO_TOP
* While the crewed shots got up to speed, NASA JPL worked on their robot space exploration program, though with little success. On 30 June 1961, the month after Kennedy announced the American intent to land men on the Moon, JPL added a proposal for four "Block III" Rangers, which would be crash-landers, carrying only TV cameras. They would be launched in 1963. NASA approved the plan in August 1961. The Block III Rangers would be in principle useful for scouting landing sites for the Apollo program.
By that time, JPL was ready to shoot at the Moon. The ground communications network, then awkwardly known as the "Deep Space Instrumentation Facility", had been completed, with Goldstone station working with the Woomera, Australia, and Hartebeesthoek, South Africa, stations. The shots went ahead:
Five out of five failures implied something worse than simple bad luck at work. Pickering ordered an in-house board of inquiry on 22 October 1962 in hopes of containing the fallout. NASA headquarters wasn't impressed. Webb had little patience with JPL's "spoiled brat" attitude, and on the 29 October Homer Newell, now the new director of the NASA Office of Space Science, ordered a board of inquiry of his own, run by a Navy scientist named Albert J. Kelly.
The board presented their report on 30 November 1962, and it was a nasty blow to the collective ego of JPL. The report came to several conclusions:
The report concluded that Ranger needed to be radically redesigned and simplified, eliminating almost all payload except cameras; sterilization be abandoned; management be streamlined; and an outside contractor be used to construct and test all Rangers, starting with Ranger 10. JPL's in-house report pointed to some of the same problems, but claimed that they had been imposed on JPL by external forces, which was at least partly justified by the facts. The two reports agreed, however, that if nothing was done, Ranger 6 would go the same way as all the others.
Ranger launches were stopped while JPL tried to fix the problems. The original project director, James Burke, was replaced by Harris M. "Bud" Schurmeier. The new team was very thorough. For example, not only was sterilization of the probe abandoned, but all components that had been sterilized were discarded. JPL wasn't going to take any more chances.BACK_TO_TOP
* While JPL struggled with Ranger, the lab was also working on the first US interplanetary mission, involving the launch of two probes to Venus. Although they hope to build large probes named "Mariners", they didn't have the time, budget, or launch capability to do so at the time, and so on 30 August 1961, the decision had been made to develop two much less sophisticated Venus probes based on Ranger, and which were accordingly designated "Mariner R". The probes were designed and implemented by a JPL old-timer named Jack James, an extremely astute manager who managed to get everyone involved with the project to work together, not at cross purposes as had been the case with Ranger.
Mariner R looked much like Ranger, except that the octagonal bus module was topped by a skeletal framework carrying the probe's modest science payload. The spacecraft carried no cameras, since Venus is blanketed by dense clouds that hide the surface of the planet. Mariner R's primary instruments were a set of two "radiometers" to perform remote temperature measurement, along with a magnetometer to see if Venus had a magnetic field, plus a few small instruments to observe the Sun and interplanetary space. The probe was to be launched by an Atlas Agena-B booster.
A Hohmann interplanetary transfer orbit requires that Earth and the target planet have a specific alignment before a launch can be performed, and such a "launch window" comes open for Venus about every 19 months. One came open in the summer of 1962, and so the first Mariner R probe, "Mariner 1", was launched from Cape Canaveral before dawn on 22 July, on an Atlas Agena B. The probe never made orbit. The booster flew off course, and the range safety officer pressed the self-destruct button, resulting in an impressive display of fireworks. The exact cause of the loss remains ambiguous in the records, but tales persist that it was due to a bug in the software.
Fortunately, JPL was ready to launch a second Mariner R probe, "Mariner 2", which was sent up on 17 August 1962. Mariner 2 cruised through space for four months, performing measurements of interplanetary magnetic fields, solar plasma and radiation, and interplanetary dust during the trip, finally passing by the planet on 14 December 1962. The probe's radiometers confirmed suspicions from Earth-based observations that the planet was very hot, with a surface temperature of about 425 degrees Celsius (800 degrees Fahrenheit), high enough to melt lead.
* The USSR also tried to exploit the 1962 Venus launch window, sending up three more Venus probes, all Mars 2MV spacecraft, in secret. "Sputnik 19", as it was designated by the West, was launched 25 August, followed by "Sputnik 20" on 1 September and "Sputnik 21" on 12 September. Sputnik 19 and Sputnik 20 made it to Earth orbit but suffered upper-stage failures, each re-entering the atmosphere a few days after launch, while Sputnik 21 was destroyed by a booster failure before making orbit. The Soviets said nothing about them to the world's news media.
A Mars launch window comes open every 26 months, and one came open later in 1962. The Soviets tried to launch three Mars 2MV probes, the first going up on 24 October 1962. The upper stage carrying the probe exploded in orbit. That left a clutter of debris in orbit that gave the North American Defense Command a few anxious moments, since the Cuban Missile Crisis was in progress at the time and the debris suggested a strike from space. The Soviets did not announce the flight, and the mission was logged in the West as "Sputnik 22".
Sputnik 22 was followed by the "Mars 1" spacecraft on 1 November 1962. The Soviet probe was to fly by Mars in mid-June 1963, but contact was lost in mid-March 1963. The third attempt was on 4 November 1962. but the probe never left Earth orbit. Nothing was said about it, with the mission logged in the West as "Sputnik 24".
* Mariner 2 was the first successful interplanetary probe. It was a major boost to the morale of the American space effort, since the US had finally trumped the Soviets beyond any argument, and it was in particular a great encouragement for the sorely-tried staff of JPL. Mariner 2 would be followed to the planets by several more Mariner probes, the "R" being dropped, since the original Mariner concept never flew.BACK_TO_TOP
* While the US and the USSR tried to shoot for the Moon and the planets, they also continued their crewed orbital flights. Deke Slayton was supposed to have flown on the second orbital Mercury mission, but he ended up being grounded over a minor heart irregularity that would keep him on Earth for a long time. Williams and Gilruth didn't feel it was worth worrying about, but Webb didn't want to stick his neck out, and so Slayton stayed grounded. To add to the annoyance, Slayton had to sit through a press conference after his condition became public, and he got a bit testy. One reporter asked him what the most stressful part of space flight was, and he shot back: "The press conference after the flight."
In compensation, Slayton became coordinator of the astronaut corps, a position that later evolved into deputy for flight operations. He ended up having a lot of say about the astronauts' concerns in the way things were done, and would be much admired for his stand-up no-chickenshit attitude in going to bat for his people. Sometimes those who had to deal with him would find him too determined, very reluctant to concede even when the facts suggested that he might be wrong.
Alan Shepard would also be grounded soon. He had developed a medical problem named "Menier's syndrome", in which fluid building up in his inner ear affected his balance and gave him bouts of dizziness and nausea. There was no cure for it at the time, but there was an outside chance it would go away on its own, and he stayed with the program. Slayton persuaded Shepard to stay on, Deke making him his deputy to ride herd on the astronauts on a day-to-day basis while Slayton took care of the meetings and the politics. Slayton believed that if he stayed on, he'd get his ride into space eventually, and convinced Shepard that he might get another chance too, if he just toughed it out.
In any case, the second Mercury orbital flight, "MA-7", was performed by Scott Carpenter, performing three orbits in "Aurora 7" on 24 May 1962. The mission proved troublesome, with the capsule suffering problems with its attitude control system that led Mission Control to worry about recovery. The problems were compounded by the perception that Carpenter wasn't paying enough attention to his mission, some claiming that he seemed "spacehappy", and there was considerable friction between him and Mission Control.
As things went from bad to worse, the ground controllers became increasingly worried that Carpenter would lose all his attitude control fuel, making a safe re-entry impossible. He finally came down way off target. Nothing was heard for a half an hour; Gordo Cooper, buried his face in his hands and Walter Cronkite announced to the TV audience in a choking voice: "We may have lost an astronaut."
The recovery team found him floating casually in his life raft, chewing on a candy bar. To compound the friction with Mission Control, Carpenter told the press: "I didn't know where I was, and they didn't know where I was either." It infuriated the controllers, one saying: "Bullshit! The sonofabitch is damned lucky to be alive!" Then, to make things completely crazy, Carpenter became repentant, admitting that he screwed up, and NASA brass told to him knock it off and put on a happy face over the flight. NASA was in the limelight and everything was to look as perfect as possible. Out of the public view, internal reviews went over the flaws of the mission and changes were implemented.
Carpenter later protested in his memoirs that the flight had been full of bugs that kept his hands much too full to communicate effectively with Mission Control, and even the other astronauts said the flights were being loaded down with unrealistic mission task lists that could easily become overwhelming. Whatever the actual facts, Chris Kraft swore he would make sure Carpenter never flew in space again, and he never did. Carpenter left NASA a few years later to work in undersea exploration as an "aquanaut", then heading up an oceanic and environmental firm named Sea Sciences INC. Carpenter died on 10 October 2013.
* The Americans were learning, becoming more confident, and looking to the future for bigger and better adventures in crewed spaceflight. That spring, NASA recruited a second batch of nine astronauts. The "Nine", as they came to be called, included four USAF officers:
-- three Navy officers:
-- and two civilians:
The newcomers found the Mercury Seven decent enough to them, but the Seven had the seniority: they were the pros, the Nine were the rookies. Some, like Gus Grissom, treated the newcomers accordingly while others, like Wally Schirra, greeted them warmly. The Nine got an "exclusive story" deal of their own, with Field Enterprises instead of LIFE magazine, and they also found out about the sweet deals they could get on cars and mortgages, taking some of the discomfort out of their situation. They kept on working hard, looking ahead to the time when they would get their launch assignments from Deke Slayton.
Another batch of astronauts, 14 this time, would arrive at the end of 1963, including seven USAF officers:
-- four Navy officers:
-- one Marine officer:
-- and two civilians:
There had been an Air Force effort, driven by US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, the president's brother and one of the main "powers behind the throne", to put Captain Ed Dwight, a black bomber pilot, on a track toward the astronaut corps, but his qualifications were marginal and he wasn't that interested anyway. Like many military pilots, he saw working for NASA as a diversion that would probably sidetrack advancement in his real career. The first person to set foot on the Moon was going to be a white male.
* Alan Shepard, "Big Al", was the caretaker for the newcomers, and some of them were intimidated by him. Shepard was an ultra-competitor in an environment of competitors. He was regarded as the biggest and most successful skirt-chaser of the Seven, though ironically he adored his high-class wife Louise and his daughters. He was completely arrogant in an absolutely self-confident and understated way, and had a certain cool and aloof air of superiority that few ever managed to penetrate. One of the other astronauts observed that if it came down to "him or me", Shepard "would cut your balls off so fast you wouldn't know they were gone for a little while."
Shepard was always a sharp-edged sort, and being grounded had done nothing good for his disposition. When had his fits of dizziness and nausea he was particularly mean and hard to get along with. Some NASA contractors gave him the nickname of "Snake".
He was generally professional in his work, but he was also working business deals on the side, and that led to some frictions with his colleagues. Houston was a boomtown in those days, space being part of it but oil being the big player, and there were all sorts of opportunities for a sharp guy who wanted to score. Shepard acquired a share interest in a bank and found many other profitable ventures to invest in, and soon he was a millionaire in the days when a million dollars was definitely big money. He became part of the Houston business community, which included Shepard's neighbor and fellow New England expatriate George Herbert Walker Bush, an oilman with an interest in politics. Shepard's daughters were on familiar terms with the three Bush boys, Jeb, Neil, and George JR.
The idea that Shepard was mixing business deals with his work made other astronauts uneasy, though NASA management never did much more than hand him some warnings not to let it get out of line. What was more irritating was that most of the other astronauts, who had to focus on training for missions and generally didn't have Shepard's kind of hustle, dabbled in business schemes and got burned. Scott Carpenter got involved with a deal with Shepard and lost big, going so far as to think about taking Shepard to court. The most infuriating thing, however, was that Shepard would lecture his people with a straight face, warning them about taking gifts and being careful about outside business deals.
* One of the Fourteen, Ted Freeman, would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first astronaut to be killed. As mentioned, the astronauts had used T-33s, F-102s, and F-106s on loan from the Air Force to maintain flight proficiency, but it was a clumsy arrangement, troublesome to manage, and NASA had finally obtained their own fleet of Northrop T-38 Talon trainers as the astronauts' mount and for test duties. The T-38 was a slick, dartlike little tandem-seat supersonic jet, originally designed for the Air Force; it was sporty and speedy, but still economical to operate. The astronauts used them to keep up flight hours and as their own little "airliners" for cross-country trips.
On 31 October 1964, Freeman would be coming into Ellington Field near Houston, and his approach was waved off. He came around again and his path crossed that of a flock of migrating geese. One hit the canopy of his aircraft, shattering the plexiglas, which was sucked into the engine intakes He lost engines but managed to eject. Although modern "zero zero" ejection seats can in principle get a pilot out of an aircraft safely even when it is sitting on the runway, the T-38 didn't have such a thing. Freeman was too low, his parachute didn't open completely, and he slammed into the ground.
The accident was something new to NASA, the organization didn't know how to react properly, and the first thing Freeman's family knew about the accident was when a reporter knocked on the door to ask them for comment. Procedures were set up to make sure such things didn't happen again.BACK_TO_TOP
* For the moment, the Americans were still behind the Soviets, and the Soviets were raising the stakes. Following Khrushchev's orders in the wake of John Glenn's flight, Korolyev had pushed forward on his "group flight" concept. It couldn't be done in ten days as Khrushchev had wanted, but by late summer all was ready.
Korolyev had wanted to launch three Vostoks at once, but that was too ambitious and he settled for two. General Kamanin, worried about Titov's space sickness, tried to limit the missions to a day, but Korolyev wanted three days, and he got his way. On 11 August 1962, the USSR launched "Vostok 3" into orbit, carrying Major Andrian Nikolaev, callsign "Sokol (Falcon)", into space. The next day, 12 August, "Vostok 4" was launched, carrying Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Popovich, callsign "Berkut (Golden Eagle)", into a very similar orbit that brought the two spacecraft to within 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) of each other.
They chatted as they worked through their task lists, exchanging comments about the food, which had greatly improved since the first flights, with proper meals cut into bite-sized chunks. When Popovich said that his dinner included a piece of dried fish, Nikolaev asked: "Couldn't you spare a little slice for me?" Popovich, a genial sort with a good sense of humor, replied: "Well, come a little bit closer, and we'll share what we've got."
Part of the flight task list involved Nikolaev removing his restraints so he could float around in the capsule a bit. Soviet propaganda played little games with this exercise, reporting that Nikolaev had worried about bumping into things while he was floating around in the capsule and that he might have troubles getting back in his seat. In reality, the Vostok wasn't that much roomier than the Mercury capsule, he couldn't do more than float off his seat a bit, and the whole story was a fabrication intended to give the impression that Vostok was very roomy inside. Popovich also tried to free-float and banged his head.
* There was less and more to the dual mission than it appeared. The two Vostoks did not attempt to rendezvous, and in fact they did not have the hardware to do so; they simply passed each other in space. NASA had expected a rendezvous, but intercepted flight communications indicated the two spacecraft didn't even try to do so. Some NASA folk began to wonder, with good reason, if there was less to Soviet space accomplishments than met the eye. However, the fact that Korolyev's team had been able to perform two space missions so neatly synchronized indicated that they were advancing their launch procedures from "art" to "science". NASA would have been hard-pressed to perform two simultaneous crewed space shots at the time. The fact that it also made for good headlines didn't hurt, either. More importantly, the two spacecraft set endurance records that the US wasn't able to touch for the time being.
Nikolaev orbited the Earth 64 times in 94 hours 22 minutes, and Popovich conducted 48 orbits in 70 hours 57 minutes. Nikolaev was regarded as the ideal subject for a long-duration flight because of his notable stamina. Russians have a reputation for being able to stoically endure hardship, but Nikolaev, a tough and quiet type, had astounded the doctors during his initial medical screening by enduring the worst they could throw at him without any sign of distress.
Vostok 4 was supposed to stay in space as long as Vostok 3, but Popovich's mission ended a day early when he said he was "observing thunderstorms", which ground control interpreted as the prearranged codephrase for a bout of spacesickness. When Popovich got back down to the ground, he insisted that he had felt fine, he really had been observing thunderstorms, and had tried to correct the ground controllers. General Kamanin was skeptical of this story, suspecting Popovich had really been spacesick but was trying to cover it up. Much later, some American astronauts would insist that any spacefarer who claimed never to have been spacesick was a liar.
Soviet propaganda also came up with another fabrication at the end of the flight, saying that Nikolaev and Popovich had chosen to eject from the capsule instead of landing with it, as if it was an option. Of course, it was only an option in the sense that they could stay with the capsule if they wanted to break every bone in their body on landing.
* While astronauts and cosmonauts orbited the Earth, the crewed balloon flights of both nations were winding down, with the decline of the Soviet effort accelerated by a tragedy. On 1 November 1962, two experienced Red Air Force parachutists, Major Yevgenny Andreyev and Colonel Pyotr Dolgov, were sent up to perform parachute jumps from a Volga balloon.
Andreyev punched out using an ejection seat out at 24,460 meters (83,500 feet), wearing a standard military high-altitude pressure suit, and landed safely seven and a half minutes later. Dolgov was wearing an experimental military pressure suit, and he manually bailed out at 28,640 meters (93,970 feet). His parachute did deploy, but the recovery team found him quite dead. The faceplate of his suit had hit the gondola as he jumped and his suit had depressurized at high altitude. Garbled tales would circulate in the West that turned Dolgov into another "phantom cosmonaut" who had died in unsuccessful space shots -- despite the fact that Dolgov had never been a member of the Soviet cosmonaut corps.
The usefulness of crewed high-altitude balloon flights had generally passed in any case, and though balloons would continue to be flown in large numbers for scientific research to the present day, they would carry automated payloads. The crewed balloon flights had been an interesting if obscure footnote to the space race, and the Americans could claim that they had "won" the exercise, with the Navy "Strato-Lab V" balloon performing a flight on 4 May 1961 to 34,765 meters (113,740 feet), still the record for a balloon with a human crew. The crew had included Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather. This flight had also been a space suit test, and it also ended in tragedy. The balloon came down in the Gulf of Mexico; Prather slipped out of the helicopter winch harness when he was being recovered, fell into the sea, and drowned.BACK_TO_TOP
* The game of "space tag" went back to the Americans, who launched Mercury "MA-8" with Wally Schirra in "Sigma 7" on 3 October 1962. The plan was to perform six orbits; since the Mercury capsule had only been designed to perform three orbits, it was modified with about 20 changes to provide more expendables. Although everyone held their breath when a steering malfunction on the Atlas booster caused the big rocket to go through an unscripted slow roll after it left the pad, Schirra performed the six orbits and came back safe.
The Americans also performed the next crewed flight, launching "MA-9" with Gordon Cooper in "Faith 7" on 15 May 1963. This was the "Manned One Day Mission (MODM)", with Cooper's capsule heavily modified to provide the necessary load of expendables. There were 183 changes, but they were so cleverly done that they led to no significant increase in weight.
Cooper almost didn't fly. Walt Williams, the Mercury operations manager, couldn't figure out Cooper's easy-going Okie style, and for want of anything better decided Cooper was lazy. Shepard lobbied Williams to get the flight for himself, but Deke Slayton, who always backed up his people, fought for Cooper, and the other astronauts joined in on Cooper's side. If he didn't get a fair deal, would they?
Then Cooper, reacting to piled-up frustrations as the launch date approached, revealed the other side to his personality by taking up a NASA F-102 two days before the launch. It was something of a tradition, but he went unusually wild, ending with a very low pass over the Cape facilities. Walt Williams got the shock of his life to see the F-102 screaming past the second-story window of his office in the administration building; Williams was actually looking down on the fighter as it flashed by. Williams looked something like a beefy captain of police and had a gruff personality to match, and those around him said they had never seen him so enraged. He screamed in red-face fury: "It's that goddamed Cooper! I'll have his ass on a plate!"
Williams called Deke Slayton, who had to shout because Cooper was tearing up that part of the facility at the moment. Williams said he'd be glad to give the flight to Al Shepard. Slayton didn't want to do that -- he'd done his share of wild things in the air -- but he had reservations about Cooper's judgement. Once Cooper had flown an F-102 to Huntsville and put it down on a runway that was really too short for it. He contacted a nearby Air Force base to get tanked up again, but they refused to do it, claiming it wasn't safe for him to try to take off again. He just shrugged and took off anyway, making it to a nearby Air Force base with fumes in his tanks. Slayton was a hard man to shock, but that was about enough to do it.
Williams and Slayton let Cooper sweat about his flight status for a day to put some fear into him. On the morning of the shot Cooper arrived, suited up and ready to go, at the launchpad, meeting Guenter Wendt, a Peenemunde graduate who had become chief of the "closeout crew" that packed the astronauts into their vehicles. Wendt was something of a good-natured joker and the astronauts were generally chummy with him, calling him the "Pad Fuehrer".
Cooper reported with mock formality to Wendt, declaring himself as "Private 5th Class Cooper", and Wendt replied in kind, declaring himself to be "Private 5th Class Wendt". It was a long-standing gag of theirs: a few years earlier NASA had let TV crews tag along with Cooper during a launch rehearsal to record a "day in the life of an astronaut", and when he got to the gantry elevator, he grabbed onto the door while Wendt tugged at him, with Cooper shouting: "NO! NO! I WON'T GO!" NASA public relations people were not amused, with one suggesting that Cooper be busted to "private 5th class". Cooper and Wendt had liked the idea and run with it.
Cooper didn't put up a fuss this time, and in fact while he was sitting on top of the Atlas on the launch pad waiting to be sent up, medical telemetry showed that his heartrate and breathing had fallen so low that it appeared he was taking a nap. That turned out to be the case, and the CAPCOM, Wally Schirra, had to shout "GORDO!" over the comlink to wake him up to prepare for liftoff.
Faith 7 pushed the envelope of the capabilities of the Mercury capsule, with Cooper performing 22 orbits in 34 hours 20 minutes, and catching some sack time in space. His breathing went so low there were worries among the medical staff that something was wrong, though he was fine: he was the only one of the Mercury 7 who had never been a smoker, and his lungs were in better shape than average.
Cooper ran through his list of tasks methodically. His suit had been improved by adding lights in the fingertips to allow him to see what he was reaching for better; the lights proved very effective. A second Mission Control team had been organized to allow them to alternate in 24 hour shifts, and it turned out they had their hands full following Cooper's 19th orbit. System failures accumulated with each orbit. One of the failures was in the automatic flight control system, and Cooper was forced to re-enter on manual control. Cooper seemed perfectly relaxed, taking all the emergencies in stride, listing problems to ground controllers and then concluding: "Other than that, everything's fine."
His manual re-entry was done perfectly by-the-book and he landed almost exactly on target, with both himself and the capsule recovered promptly. He was very pleased with the precise landing, since Wally Schirra had made much of the precision of his landing and Cooper enjoyed the idea of an Air Force "blue suiter" showing up a Navy man. After recovery, he smoothly praised the teamwork and discipline of the entire Mercury mission team to the press.
For all the technical problems on the flight, Cooper's performance had been magnificent, doing much to finally put the "spam in a can" crap to bed. The capsule had lost whatever little mind of its own it ever had, and he had flown the thing back to Earth. If he hadn't been a superb test pilot, he would have been dead. Walt Williams shook Cooper's hand and told him: "Gordo, you were the right guy for the mission."
There had been talk of a three-day Mercury mission, but it didn't make sense, not with Gemini coming up to do a real job on long-duration flights. Faith 7 was the last Mercury shot, but of course the capsule was torn down to see why everything had gone wrong. As it turned out, it was the issue of sanitation rearing its nasty head again, this time being not merely unpleasant but downright dangerous. Urine had leaked into the spacecraft systems and caused most of the trouble. Spacecraft engineers made a note to ensure that potable water and waste water systems were improved in the Gemini spacecraft, and also improved electrical wiring so it would not short out so easily.
John F. Kennedy would not live to witness the Gemini flights, much less the fulfillment of his goal of landing Americans on the Moon, JFK being gunned down by a lunatic during a presidential visit to Dallas on 22 November 1963. Kennedy's death did nothing to slow down the US in its race to the Moon, President Lyndon Johnson continuing his patronage of the effort. Indeed, the American Moon program became something of a memorial to the slain president, with the NASA Cape Canaveral launch facility becoming the "Kennedy Space Center" a week after his death.BACK_TO_TOP
* Although Mercury was over, the Soviets were not quite done with Vostok, performing two more launches in the series a month after Faith 7. "Vostok 5" was launched on 14 June 1963, carrying Lieutenant Colonel Valery Bykovsky into orbit, to be followed two days later, 16 June, by "Vostok 6", with Flight Lieutenant Valentina V. Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Tereshkova wore an "SK-2" suit, identical to the SK-1 except for accommodations for female body features.
Bykovsky's callsign was "Yastreb (Hawk)", while Tereshkova's was "Chaika (Seagull)". After the supposed confusion over Popovich's mission, they were equipped with a new set of code phrases:
No doubt Orwell shifted around slightly in his grave.
The two Vostoks came to within less than five kilometers (3 miles) of each other. Bykovsky raised the Soviet space endurance record, remaining in orbit just under five days, and Tereshkova spent almost 70 hours in orbit, more time in space than all Americans had acquired put together to that point.
Tereshkova's cosmonaut training had been, of course, a complete secret, and she had only told her mother that she was taking "parachute training". The older woman didn't know any different until her daughter was in space, and refused to believe it until it was confirmed. Although Soviet citizens were very familiar with the dictates of state security, there were still hard feelings between mother and daughter for a few years.
Despite the fact that Korolyev was always pushing some new space stunt, he had nothing to do with putting a woman into orbit. The decision was made "at the highest levels", and it was over Korolyev's objections. The USSR liked to portray itself as a champion of women's equality, but like so many other Soviet accomplishments it was more appearance than substance. Women did traditionally work in many fields that were restricted to men in other countries, with women pilots and snipers achieving significant combat distinctions in the Great Patriotic War, but Soviet culture remained thoroughly male-dominated, and no women ever made it to the highest positions of power.
Tereshkova's technical qualifications for the flight were well under those of her male counterparts in the cosmonaut corps. However, she had excellent political credentials, being a good Communist of thoroughly proletarian background, with a father who had died defended the Motherland during the war. Tereshkova had appealed to the authorities in a letter to give Soviet women a chance at space, and the letter had eventually filtered down to a cosmonaut selection board headed by General Kamanin. He liked the idea, and five women, were selected for cosmonaut training at the end of February 1962, the other four including:
Tereshkova wasn't even a pilot, she was only a parachutist. In fact she had substantially poorer formal qualifications than some of the other women who had been selected for the training, but she could walk the Party line. Korolyev did not like the idea, regarding the whole thing as a nuisance. When Tereshkova became spacesick on the mission, he was heard to mutter: "I'm not going to deal with women any more!"
The mission hadn't really gone badly and General Kamanin, who was apparently a paternalistic if gruff boss who fought for his people, defended Tereshkova. Korolyev wasn't impressed, and he was as good as his word. No other Soviet female, or for that matter any female, would fly in space again for almost 20 years. To the credit of the Soviets, or maybe more appropriately to the embarrassment of the Americans, the US didn't get around to putting a woman in orbit until 1983.
The quarrel over Tereshkova's flight was of course not made public, with the woman played up by Soviet propaganda. She married Andrian Nikolaev in November 1963, with Khrushchev, Glushko, and Korolyev attending the reception. Tereshkova had a healthy girl, Yelena Nikolaev, the world's first "space baby", seven months later, but the marriage eventually broke up. The Bykovsky and Tereshkova flights were the last Vostok shots, and in fact the very last flights of one-person spacecraft in the 20th century. There were no more crewed missions for over a year, while both sides prepared to take the next step.
The Soviets ramped up for more flights, recruiting a third batch of cosmonauts, 15 this time, in January 1963. As with the first batch, they were all from the Red Air Force. They included:
As it would turn out, the aggressive flight schedules expected over the near term wouldn't materialize.BACK_TO_TOP