Tag Archives: mercury

[Mar. 17, 1962]  Our Knights in Shining Armor (Have Space Suit, Will Travel)

[The Journey’s “Fashion Columnist” returns with a timely piece on the latest advancement in sartorial science…]


by Gwyn Conaway

Last month, on February 20th, 1962, John Glenn became the second American to leave behind our earthly constraints for the majesty of space.

Less than one year after Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket, John Glenn ascended to low Earth orbit in his spacecraft, Friendship 7. He circled the Earth three times at speeds upwards of 17,000 miles per hour, and persevered through the crushing force of nearly eight times the force of Earth’s gravity Gs at reentry into our atmosphere.

What a time to be alive! We are witness to human history! This is a milestone in a long journey toward chasing the unknown. Never have I been more certain that we are explorers, creatures of adventure. And what better bedfellow to our curiosity than innovation?  For to accomplish his mission, Colonel Glenn required two spacecraft: the bell-shaped Mercury, as well as his formfitting personal capsule – the Mark IV spacesuit.

Our newly beloved Space Age is thanks, in no small part, to a little-known mechanical engineer and designer named Russell Colley at B. F. Goodrich Company. Owing to his career-long devotion to high-altitude pressure suits, Colley has been deemed the Father of the Spacesuit, the First Tailor of the Space Age. Mark my words, his Mark IV spacesuits, with their sleek and futuristic design, will inspire generations of fashion to come.

The Mark IV rides on the coattails of many pressure suits designed by Colley and others over the years. Its evolution is a testament to American doggedness and bears the fruits of the unbridled technological advancements in textiles and garment manufacturing we’ve seen through the past decade.


The Post pressure suit, first flown in 1934. This suit had a skewed visor to favor Wiley Post’s one good eye.

Colley first began his groundbreaking work in 1934 when Wiley Post, the aviator who achieved fame through making the first solo flight around the globe, commissioned him to design the world’s first pressurized suit for high-altitude flight. Later the same year, after two failed designs, Colley built a rubber bladder suit with long underwear and a diver’s helmet on his wife’s sewing machine. This suit launched Wiley Post 50,000 ft into the air and jump-started an evolution over the next thirty years that leads us to our current moment of triumph – the Mark IV spacesuits.


John Glenn being fit for his Mark IV, destined to carry him into orbit last month. What once looked like a diver’s suit has now been transformed into a feat of futuristic design and engineering.

From 1941 to 1954, the David Clark Company designed and built twenty pressure suit models for the U.S. Military.  When David Clark’s funding dried up, B.F. Goodrich, where Colley worked, was offered the contract. Colley himself built seven suits at B.F. Goodrich. They started this contract with the Model H (the 8th letter of the alphabet and their 8th suit design, in case you were wondering). Models H through R were built and tested before the company began the Mark series that would take Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and now John Glenn into space.

By the time B.F. Goodrich won the bid to build their Mark IV spacesuits in 1961, the U.S. Military and NASA had collectively funded more than forty pressure suit designs across three major engineering companies.


The Mercury 7 in a fitting for their Mark IV space suits. Note the sage green option for the suit in the back right.

The Mark IV, in addition to its sleek name, is a marvel to behold, unlike any other piece of flight equipment I’ve ever seen. Each suit is fitted by Colley in Akron, OH, where he attended to each of the Mercury 7 pilots. The gloves alone come in fifteen sizes: five palm sizes, each with short, regular, or long digits. John Glenn had a new feature added to his gloves specifically for his February flight: tiny lights affixed to the tops of each finger so he could read the instrument panels.


John Glenn shows off his finger flashlights. Also visible in this photo are the only two instances of metal bearings in the entire suit: the neck ring and glove attachments.

Space suits have made incredible strides since his Colley’s collaboration with Wiley Post more than thirty years ago. When pressurized, these high altitude suits inflate the interior, pushing in on the human body and out on the suit. This provides the pilot with enough atmospheric pressure to stabilize blood flow to the brain and keeping them conscious during difficult maneuvers. However, once these suits are pressurized, mobility becomes extremely limited, and even bending one’s fingers becomes a task of titanic strength.


Astronauts ‘test’ the Mark IV in a light-hearted ball game. Clearly visible along the outer seams of the arms and legs are Colley’s revolutionary elastic pleating to enhance mobility.

The earliest suits were outfitted with heavy metal hinges at the joints for mobility. In a stroke of genius, Colley departed from metal bearings and joints in the Mark series. Rather, he used adjustable cords and pleats to fold the inflated suit at important junctions. While the cords had originally concerned NASA, they proved invaluable in fittings, where Colley was able to replace the lengths of many of these cords with highly-tailored zippers, elastic seams, and pressure pockets for each pilot.


John Glenn’s waffle-weave long underwear can be seen here as he suits up. The waffling occurs across the back, buttocks, thighs, and biceps in reinforced panels.

It’s a daring, romantic choice. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw John Glenn walk to his shuttle last month and sigh, “Ah, now there is a knight in shining armor!” I wonder how far into the future Russell Colley’s Mark IV will inspire children, artists, and science fiction? How long will the stamp of America’s Mercury 7 linger on the face of space exploration? Decades? Centuries?

Yuri Gagarin may have beat us to space in April of last year, but the cosmonaut’s orange utility suit will not leave such a glimmer in the eyes of our children. The Russians touched the stars first, but Russell Colley has won the hearts of the people of Earth.

[February 20, 1962] American Made (John Glen and the flight of Friendship 7)


by Gideon Marcus

And the Free World exhales.  At long last, an American has orbited the Earth.  This morning, Astronaut John Glenn ascended to the heavens on the back of an Atlas nuclear missile.  He circled the globe three times before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

It is impossible to understate what this means for us.  The Soviets have been ahead of us in the Space Race since it started in 1957: First satellite, first lunar probe, first space traveler.  Last year, the best we could muster was a pair of 15 minute cannonball shots into the edges of space.  For two months, Glenn has gone again and again into his little capsule and lain on his back only to emerge some time later, disappointed by technical failure or bad weather.  Each time, the clock ticked; would the Soviets trump us with yet another spectacular display of technological prowess?

But this morning, everything was fine – the weather, the booster, the spacecraft, and the astronaut.  As I went to sleep last night, Glenn woke up.  He had the traditional low residue breakfast of orange juice, toast, eggs over-easy, fillet mignon, and Postum, before suiting up and entering the capsule.  That was at 5 AM his time (2 AM mine).  For five hours, the patient Colonel waited as his Atlas rocket, only recently tamed sufficiently for human use, was prepared and tested for flight.

At 9:47 AM his time, at last we saw the fire shoot out from beneath the missile, saw the Atlas and its black-painted cargo lift off, leaving its support gantry shrouded in white smoke.  For several minutes, the flight of mission Mercury-Atlas #6 was a strictly aural affair, the TV cameras’ only subject being the now-empty launchpad.  But we heard the confident communication between Alan Shepard on the ground and Glenn hurtling skyward, America’s first and American’s latest spacemen, and we knew everything was still going well.

The sky went quickly from blue to black as Glenn struggled against six times his normal weight.  First, the Atlas’ two side engines exhausted their fuel and detached.  A few minutes later, the central sustainer engine’s job was complete, and the Mercury capsule, dubbed Friendship 7 by Glenn, flung itself from its empty booster.  Glenn was now in orbit, weightless, and cleared for his full three-orbit, five-hour mission.

For the first time, an American flight was long enough for the public to contemplate, to be worthy of news flashes.  And even though the last Soviet flight had spanned a full day, it was shrouded in secrecy until after its completion.  Glenn’s mission was, on the other hand, entirely open.  Cockpit chatter was broadcast in the clear; each success and potential failure was presented for the world to hear.  Space travel had become a spectator sport.

The world participated.  Indeed, it had to.  An orbital mission requires global tracking.  Glenn’s flight was monitored as he passed over exotic locales like Zanzibar, Woomera, Hawaii.  The citizens of the west Australian city of Perth turned their lights on for the astronaut’s passage, providing a virtual streetlamp as he whizzed overhead at 18,000 miles per hour. 

Three sunsets and three sunrises greeted Colonel Glenn, though he was given precious little time to appreciate them, so crowded was his schedule with experiments and ship operations.  As the Mercury spacecraft’s functions began to degrade in its third orbit, the value of an experienced human pilot became evident.  Glenn manually configured and trimmed the vessel to make the most of the journey and ensure the mission could be completed. 

Glenn’s biggest challenge came at the end of the mission.  Sailing backwards over the Earth, the astronaut prepared to fire the ship’s retrorockets, a blast of fire that would slow the craft such that it could break out of orbit and back toward ground.  But an indicator suggested that the Mercury’s heat shield was loose.  If that were true, then there could be no returning for the astronaut – he would burn up on reentry. 

Was there anything the astronaut could do about the situation?  Well, the retrorocket package was held tight against the bottom of the bell-shaped craft (and thus, its heat shield) by a series of straps.  Normally, the retrorockets would be discarded before reentry.  This time, on the advisement of ground control, Glenn left the retrorockets strapped in.  The hope was that the straps would keep the shield attached, if it was indeed loose.

What a terrifying display that must have been for the pilot, watching flaming chunks of the retrorockets fly past his window as he tore through the white-hot outer layers of the atmosphere.  Glenn had plenty of other things to worry about.  The “G” forces spiked as the craft decelerated, and the ionization of the air cut off radio contact.  We all waited, white-knuckled, for some sign that the astronaut had survived the journey…or had been vaporized.

Then his voice crackled over the air again, the Mercury’s striped parachutes were deployed, and we began breathing again.  A ship of the recovery fleet, the little destroyer called the U.S.S. Noa, was already close at hand when Friendship 7 touched down in the waves.  Once the capsule was hoisted aboard, the astronaut popped the side hatch, the one that had exploded prematurely for second astronaut Grissom.  An overheated but grinning Glenn stepped out of the Mercury, and into history.

Mercury’s primary mission, to orbit and safely return a human, has been completed.  Nevertheless, there is obviously much life left in the bird.  Three more three-orbit flights are planned to shake out the bugs that plagued the latter portion of Glenn’s flight.  Then 12, 24 hour, and perhaps multi-day flights are slated. 

Of course, the Soviets may soon respond with a flight that trumps ours, perhaps even a two-person mission.  But for now, the hour rightfully belongs to the West.  The democracies of the world at last have their emissary to the stars. 

Godspeed, John Glenn!

[February 1, 1962] Silver Lining (January Space Race round-up!)


by Gideon Marcus

January has been a frustrating month in the Space Race.  We are no closer to matching the Soviets in the manned competition, much less beating them, and our unmanned shots have been a disappointment, too.  That said, it’s not all bad news in January’s round-up: stick to it through the end, and you’ll see cause for cheer!

Quintuplets fail to deliver

The Air Force has been playing around with combined launches for a while now.  After all, if you’re going to spend millions of dollars to throw a booster away, you might as well get multiple bangs for your buck.  Sadly, the latest attempt, a Thor Ablestar launch on January 24 dubbed “Composite 1,” failed when the top stage tumbled in orbit and failed to separate from its payloads.

What we lost: SolRad 4, for measuring solar X-rays (only visible above the curtain of the atmosphere); Lofti 2, which would have examined the effects of Earth’s ionosphere on Very Low Frequency radio transmissions; Surcal, a strictly military probe designed to calibrate the navy’s communications net in orbit; the wholly civilian Injun 2, which would help map the Van Allen belts (see below); and Secor, a big balloon that would have helped the Army with their ranging equipment.

Copies of these probes will end up at some point, either launched together on a big rocket or separately on little ones.

Moon Miss-ion

It’s been a bad run of luck for NASA’s latest moon program, Project Ranger.  After the failure of the first two Ranger missions, designed to test the probe’s engineering and return sky science, there were high hopes for the lunar flight, launched January 26. 

Things went badly from the beginning.  Ranger 3 was pushed into a bad trajectory by a faulty guidance system.  Not only did it rush past the moon, failing both to hit the target or end up in orbit, but it was pointed the wrong way the entire length of the journey.  No useful data or pictures were obtained.  That nifty seismometer that makes up Ranger’s Rudolph nose went completely unused. 

Ranger 4, a carbon copy of #3, should launch in the next few months.  Hopefully, they’ll have the kinks worked out by then.  This is one of those clear places where the Communists are ahead in the space race, having pioneered both lunar orbit and the moon’s surface several years ago.

A rain check for Mercury

The third time turned out also not to be the charm for Major John Glenn.  His orbital Mercury mission has now been postponed three times.  It’s a good thing the Marine is so good-natured; I know I’d be frustrated.

The first delay happened on January 22 when there was a failure in the spacecraft’s oxygen system.  Definitely something I’d like working on a five hour flight!  On the 27th, cloud cover prevented the launch, and just today, there was a problem with the temperamental Atlas booster.  The next opportunity to launch won’t come until February 13.

So much is riding on this flight.  The Soviets have already launched two of theirs into orbit while we flutter futilely on the ground.  Newspapers and talking heads are already opining that we’ll have a Red-staffed space station and a Red-dominated moon before long if we don’t hurry to catch up. 

Explorer 12: Reaping the harvest

Here’s the good news: I’ve said before that the most exciting thing about a satellite is not its fiery launch but the heap of data it returns.  That’s where the taxpayer gets one’s money’s worth and where the scientist sees the payoff.  Explorer 12 was the latest in the series of probes (starting with America’s first, Explorer 1) sent into orbit to probe the hellish fields of charged particles that circle the Earth.  The spacecraft is still up there, though it went silent in December.  However, in its four months of life, it learned a great deal about the furthest reaches of our planet’s influence.

For one, Explorer 12 found that the outer of the two “Van Allen” belts around our planet is made mostly of protons rather than electrons (though there are still plenty of the latter — enough to make hanging around a dangerous proposition for astronauts).  Those protons, particularly the less energetic ones, have been linked to solar magnetic storms, which result in spectacular auroras on Earth.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the probe found the edge of the Earth’s magnetosphere.  “What’s that?” you ask.  Well, our planet is a giant magnet, probably the result of a dense iron core that spins deep inside the Earth.  These magnetic lines of force extend far beyond the Earth’s crust and 70,000 kilometers into space where they trap the wind of high energy particles from our sun.  This keeps them from scouring away our atmosphere. 

Where our magnetic field meets the field carried on the solar wind, called the magnetopause, there is an area of turbulence and disorganized magnetism. It is now believed that the sun’s wind smashes against the Earth’s field, creating a bow shock – the kind you’d see when a blunt body is smacked by a supersonic gas.  Moreover, the Outer Van Belt “breathes” inward and outward, responding to waves in the solar wind.

And speaking of magnetic fields, NASA scientists just released findings from the intentionally short-lived Explorer 10 found a magnetic “shadow” behind the Earth.  Specifically, the solar wind seems to hit our planet’s magnetosphere and deflect around the Earth, but the magnetic field acts as kind of an umbrella, shielding a large portion of near-Earth space. 

The general contours of Earth’s magnetic environment have thus been mapped.  Neat stuff, eh?

[November 30, 1961] Man vs. Machine (November 1961 Space Round-up)


by Gideon Marcus

November 1961 been an exciting month for space buffs with several sequels to exciting missions as well as one brand new satellite. 

For instance, the fourth Transit navigational satellite went up on November 15.  Not only did it carry a little nuclear reactor for power, but it also had a piggyback pal.  Called Transit Research and Attitude Control (TRAAC), it’s a little research probe designed to try a new method of stabilization.  You see, an object launched into orbit will have a tendency to tumble.  There are active methods to right a satellite, like engines or gyroscopes.  TRAAC uses a passive method, employing just its shape and the tidal force of the Earth.  It’s an exciting experiment.

The Air Force was two for three this month with their reconnaissance programs.  Discoverer 34, on November 5, and Discoverer 35, on November 15, were sent into space to spy on the Soviet Union.  Each had a little camera on board and a capsule for sending film back to Earth.  Both craft made it into orbit, and at least the latter mission’s payload was recovered in a daring (but now routine) mid-air catch by a plane.  Only the boys in blue know whether the targets were a Soviet base or skinny dippers on the Black Sea.  Samos 4, launched November 22, failed to orbit.

By the way, it’s going to get harder for me to give you the skinny on military missions.  While Eisenhower was rather cavalier about letting the Soviets know what we’re up to, probably to show off, President Kennedy has put a lid on spy flights.  Newspapers aren’t covering them much anymore, and the details we do get are sketchy.  Just be aware that, at any given time, there are robot shutterbugs in orbit, taking snapshots of Nikita.  And maybe of you.

On to the civilian world: the second Moon probe Ranger probe was a bust, just like the first.  It’s a shame because these two missions, comprising the first iteration of the probe known as “Block 1,” were designed to do some excellent sky science.  They weren’t aimed at our celestial neighbor.  Rather, they were to be flung into high orbits for engineering tests and cosmic investigation.  The next mission, a Block 2 lunar impactor, is planned for January 1962.

But the real NASA news this month involves a little primate named Enos.  Yesterday, for the second time, an Atlas booster roared into the orbit from Cape Canaveral with a Mercury capsule at its tip.  Unlike the last one, however, Mercury-Atlas #5 (the first three had been suborbital missions) carried a passenger.  The 37.5 pound chimpanzee circled the Earth twice before safely splashing down some 255 miles southeast of Bermuda.

Just as the launch of a chimp presaged Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in May, so Enos’ jaunt paves the way for astronaut John Glenn to be the first American in orbit in just a few weeks (weather permitting).  Now, the flight was not entirely flawless.  A roll reaction jet failed, and one of the components of the electrical system overheated.  As a result, Enos’ capsule returned to Earth after just two of the planned three orbits.  But, had a human been on board, he could have compensated for these issues, easily. 

That’s the bigger story, to me.  I know some people wonder why we bother to send people up into space when electric implements have proven capable enough, and cheaper.  And there is certainly a segment of the flyboy population that snickers at the thought of test pilots relegated to following in the furry shoes of ape predecessors. 

Yet, in MA-5, we have the reason.  No monkey and, as yet, no machine can react with the speed and intellect of a human.  Moreover, no machine can think creatively, adapting to an evolving situation beyond a few set scenarios programmed into its core.  Imagine if an astronaut were flying the Discoverer missions.  He’d have the discretion of choosing the targets to photograph.  He’d be able to bring a film capsule home with him rather than relying on complicated automatic systems and aerial recovery planes. 

When John Glenn flies, he will return far more information about the universe than any experiment or animal could, not just scientific, but about the human condition.  For 270 minutes, he will be an outpost of the Free World in space.  What will it mean to him, to all of us, his three circuits of the globe? 

We can’t know until he gets there, but I’m betting it will be profound.

[September 13, 1961] Dry Run (Mercury-Atlas 4)


by Gideon Marcus

It’s is a red-letter day for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and for America as a whole.  For today, we finally got a Mercury space capsule into orbit!  The flight, dubbed “Mercury-Atlas 4,” began this morning in a blast of fire on a Florida launchpad and lasted one hour and fifty minutes.  At its conclusion, the Mercury capsule deorbited and parachuted safely into the Atlantic ocean.  By all standards, it was a picture-perfect mission.

Except that there wasn’t anyone in the capsule…

All flippancy aside, it really is a big deal.  The reason the Soviets are ahead of us, such that they’ve gotten two fellows into orbit while our two astronauts have been limited to 15-minute suborbital jaunts, is because they started out with the better rocket.

In 1957, the Russians announced that their first ICBM, a missile that can cross the world, was ready for business.  It is no coincidence that their first space probe, Sputnik, was launched soon after.  That’s because an ICBM can be used to carry payloads into orbit about as easily as they can carry atomic weapons to farflung countries. 

The United States had no ICBM in 1957.  We were later to that party.  Instead, we had a stable of shorter-ranged IRBMs, sufficient only to launch small payloads into space.  Our first ICBM, the Atlas, wasn’t operational until 1960.

It takes an ICBM to launch something as heavy as a manned spaceship, and it’s not enough that the missile be able to deliver a nuclear payload.  Since the stakes are higher with a human passenger, it is important to qualify an ICBM as a space booster very carefully, something the Soviets have had more time to do.  The Russian qualification flights, Sputniks 4, 6, and 9, all took place before last March.  Our balky Atlas has now been tested with the Mercury capsule four times.  Only two of those flights were successful – the second, a suborbital jaunt, and this latest, orbital, flight

I imagine NASA is still not out of the woods.  They’ll want to see the Mercury Atlas combination work together at least once more before trusting a man to it.  (I use the word “man” in its specific sense.  The team of 13 woman astronaut candidates was disbanded this week, more’s the pity)

Based on the results of this flight, it is just possible there might be a manned orbital Mercury flight before the year is out.  Or at least before the next few Soviet men (and women?) fly overhead…

[August 7, 1961] Day-O!  (Vostok 2 spends day in orbit)


by Gideon Marcus

For a few bright weeks, it looked as if the United States might be gaining in the Space Race.  Now, the Reds have pulled forward again with a most astonishing announcement: their second cosmonaut, a Major Gherman Titov, orbited the Earth in his “Vostok 2” for an entire day before coming safely back to Earth this morning.

As usual, details of the launch were not divulged until Comrade Titov was already in space.  He circled the globe a record 17 times (compare to his predecessor, Gagarin’s, single orbit).  The flight lasted long enough that Americans had the unique, if not entirely pleasant, opportunity to both go to bed and awaken with the knowledge that a Russian was whizzing just a matter of miles over their house.

This flight comes almost on the heels of that of our second spaceman, Captain Gus Grissom, who flew into space for a comparatively puny 15 minutes on July 21.  For a few short weeks, the free world held the lead, if not in time in space, then at least number of astronauts.  The Soviets have now made that success look feeble.  In fact, I am now hearing rumors that astronaut John Glenn’s suborbital Mercury flight, scheduled for next month, will likely be canceled.  There is no propaganda value left in half-measures, and besides, Shepard’s and Grissom’s flights taught us all there was to be learned from the Redstone launched missions.

Now, there is a whole lot of worry being dispensed by the newspapers over Titov’s flight.  Many speculate that there is no way we can catch up to the Communists in our race for the Moon.  After all, our first orbital flight is still untold months away; before an American ever orbits the Earth, the Russians may have a space station or even a foothold on our nearest celestial neighbor.

I think these fears are unfounded.  Vostok 2 was almost assuredly the same type of ship as Gagarin’s Vostok 1.  It was designed, like our Mercury, to endure several days in orbit.  The increase in orbits from 1 to 17 does not reflect a seventeen-fold increase in Soviet space capability – merely greater use of Vostok’s full potential.

Similarly, the 15 minute flights of Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7 reflect but a tiny proportion of the Mercury spacecraft’s endurance.  When the Atlas booster is on-line in a few months, you will see the American program accomplishing the same feats as that of the Soviets.  I’m willing to bet our lunar ship, which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began work on earlier this year, will be done before its Russian counterpart, too.

We have to remember that the timing of the Soviet missions is designed for maximum psychological effect.  Without taking anything away from the 26-year old Titov’s noteworthy trip, I note that it occurred just as tensions over Berlin reached their highest since the Commnunist blockade of 1948.  Khruschev is flexing his muscles, both on the land and in space, hoping that Kennedy will blink if the Soviets carry out their threat to wall off their side of Berlin from ours. 

Now is not the time to get discouraged.  Not in the Space Race, not in the Cold War.  As I’ve said before, the Race to the Moon is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.

[July 22, 1961] Into Space – and the Deep Blue (The Flight of Liberty Bell 7)


By Larry Klaes

After three failed attempts just this week, yesterday (July 21, 1961), astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom finally became this nation’s second (and the world’s third) man to reach outer space.  Grissom achieved another sort of milestone when his spacecraft unexpectedly sank after splashdown – and almost took the astronaut with it to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean!

Following a very similar mission profile to that of his predecessor, Alan Shepard, back on May 5, Grissom rode his Mercury vessel, which he christened Liberty Bell 7 (complete with a painted white crack on the hull) in an arcing flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 5 (LC-5) in Florida.

The reliable Redstone booster hurled the ton-and-a-half craft, some 262.50 nautical miles downrange and 102.76 nautical miles above the Earth’s surface Grissom’s 15-minute suborbital flight lasted just nine seconds longer than Shepard’s.  Of course, both flights were far shorter than Cosmonaut Gagarin’s 90-minute flight in April.  That’s because the Redstone simply isn’t powerful enough to send a Mercury into orbit, unlike the unnamed ICBM the Soviets are using. 

Grissom’s flight was relatively short in both duration and distance, but our second American astronaut did get to experience a few moments of weightlessness, move his ship around, and view our home planet and the blackness of space as few have yet to do.  His view was better than Shepard’s: The two portholes on Freedom 7 were replaced with a larger single window. 

The other improvement on Liberty Bell 7 was an explosive side hatch, to be activated in the event of emergency after landing.  It was a wise precaution, but it almost caused the Mercury program’s first fatality.

After Grissom’s splashdown in the Atlantic, while he waited inside his space vessel to be rescued by four Sikovsky UH-34D helicopters dispatched from the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, the explosive release on the Liberty Bell 7 side hatch suddenly activated, blowing the heavy metal door across the water like a skipping stone.  The Atlantic Ocean rushed into the now open spacecraft.

The Mercury astronaut prudently abandoned his vessel and waved frantically at the hovering helicopters to hoist him out of the drink: Grissom’s spacesuit was filling with sea water due to an open oxygen inlet connection and it began weighing him down.  The rolls of Mercury dimes Gus had taken along in his suit to later hand out as souvenirs were also contributing to his inexorable dip beneath the ocean surface.

Unfortunately, the lead helicopter pilot interpreted Grissom’s reaction as an indication that he was okay, so they focused on trying to rescue the sinking Liberty Bell 7 by attaching a cable to it>.

The flooding Mercury spacecraft soon became too heavy for the helicopter to lift from the water, and it threatened to bring down the chopper and its crew as well.  With no other choice, the rescue team detached Liberty Bell 7, which quickly sank to the bottom of the ocean over seventeen thousand feet below. 

Attention finally returned to the desperate astronaut.  Grissom grasped for the lowered harness.  Exhausted, he slumped in the harness as he was retrieved for his trip back to the rescue ship. 

It remains to be determined whether the premature explosion of the side hatch was caused by a mechanical defect or by manual release by Grissom, perhaps in a momentary panic.  Gus himself swears he was lying calmly inside the spacecraft when the incident occurred.  Whatever the real story, engineers will need to check the hatch escape system thoroughly to make sure it does not happen again – especially in space!  Perhaps this system will be more fully tested during the next Mercury mission, another suborbital flight scheduled for September, with John Glenn the anticipated pilot.

Intriguingly, in his post-flight briefing this morning, attended by his family and fellow astronauts, Grissom admitted to feeling “scared” when his vessel lifted off towards space.  The Mercury spacemen were chosen for their exceptional bravery and flying skills.  Yet, in the end, they are human.  Did Gus, who flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War and has had a long reputation as a top-notch pilot, have a moment of weakness when confronting the unknowns of outer space?  Is this what contributed to the release of the spacecraft hatch that caused the loss of the Liberty Bell 7 and nearly the astronaut as well?  Are there aspects about the vast realm beyond Earth that may make it impossible for a man to extensively explore and colonize space?

At the moment only three human beings have actually ventured into the alien void.  All have returned alive and unharmed; however, in all of these cases they made only the briefest of ventures into space.  Can someone survive the longer durations entailed in extended orbital missions?  What about manned expeditions to the Moon and other worlds in our Solar System?  Can man make it to those places in person and live to tell the tale?

In the end, there can be only one way to find out: By sending qualified men and eventually even women into the Final Frontier to confront what may be there and conquer it for the good of humanity. 

[June 30, 1961] Reaping the Harvest (June 1961 space science results)

June was a busy month for space travel buffs, especially those who live in the Free World.  Here’s an omnibus edition covering all of the missions I caught wind of in the papers or the magazines:

Little lost probe

The Goddess of Love gets to keep her secrets…for now.  The first probe aimed at another planet, the Soviet “Venera,” flew past Venus on May 19.  Unfortunately, the spacecraft developed laryngitis soon after launch and even the Big Ear at Jodrell Bank, England, was unable to clearly hear its signal.

The next favorable launch opportunity (which depends on the relative positions of Earth and Venus) will occur next summer.  Expect both American and Soviet probes to launch then.

X Marks the Spot

Just as planes use fixed radio beacons to determine their position, soon submarines (and people!) will be able to calculate where they are by listening to the doppler whines of whizzing satellites.  Transit 4A, launched by the Navy, joined the still-functioning Transit 2 on June 29 (#3 conked out March 30, and #1’s been off the air since last July). 

This Transit has an all-new power source.  Instead of batteries or solar panels, it gets its juice from little nuclear reactors.  These aren’t aren’t like the big fission plants you see being established all over the country.  Rather, they are powered by the heat of radioactive decay.  These energy packs are small and much simpler than solar panels.  Expect to see them used quite a bit on military satellites.

The Navy gets extra points for making their rocket do triple-duty: Also boosted into orbit were Injun 1 and Solrad 3.  The first is another University of Iowa particle experiment from the folks who discovered the Van Allen Belt; the latter a solar x-ray observatory.

Along a dusty trail

Contrary to popular belief, outer space is not empty.  There are energetic particles, clouds of dust, and little chunks of high-speed matter called micrometeorites.  All of them pose hazards to orbital travel.  Moreover, they offer clues as to the make-up and workings of the solar system. 

Prior satellites have tried to measure just how much dirt swirls around in orbit, but the results have been vague.  For instance, Explorer 8 ran into high-speed clouds of micrometeorites zooming near the Earth late last year corresponding with the annual Leonids meteor shower.  Vanguard 3 encountered the same cloud in ’59, around the same time.  But neither could tell you precisely how many rocks they ran into; nor could previous probes.

NASA’s new “S(atellite)-55” is the first probe dedicated to the investigation of micrometeorites.  It carries five different experiments — a grid of wires to detect when rocks caused short circuits, a battery of gas cells that would depressurize when impacted, acoustic sounding boards…the whole megillah.  It is one of those missions whose purpose is completely clear, accessible to the layman, unarguably useful.

Sadly, the first S-55, launched today from Wallops island, failed to achieve orbit when the third stage of its Scout rocket failed to ignite. 

It’s a shame, but not a particularly noteworthy one.  The Scout is a brand new rocket.  We can expect teething troubles.  Every failure is instructive, and I’ll put good money on the next S-55, scheduled for launch in August.

Worth the Wait

Speaking of Explorer 8, Aviation Week and Space Technology just reported the latest findings from that satellite.  Now, you may be wondering how a probe that went off the air last December could still generate scientific results.  You have to understand that a satellite starts returning data almost immediately, but analysis can take years. 

I’d argue that the papers that get published after a mission are far more exciting than the fiery blast of a rocket.  Your mileage may vary.  In any event, here’s what the eighth Explorer has taught us thus far (and NASA says it’ll be another six months until we process all the information it’s sent!):

1) The ionized clouds that surround a metal satellite as it zooms through orbit effectively double the electrical size of the vehicle.  This makes satellites bigger radar targets (and presumably increases drag).

2) We now know what causes radio blackouts: it is sunspot influence on the lower ionosphere. Solar storms create turbulence that can cut reception.

3) The most common charged element in the ionosphere is oxygen.

4) The temperature of the electrons Explorer ran into was about the same as uncharged ionospheric gas – a whopping 1800 degrees Kelvin.

This may all seem like pretty arcane information, but it tells us not just about conditions above the Earth, but the fundamental behavior of magnetic fields and charged particles on a large scale.  Orbiting a satellite is like renting the biggest laboratory in the universe, creating the opportunity to dramatically expand our knowledge of science.

Air Force discovers Pacific Ocean

The 25th Discoverer satellite, a two-part vehicle designed to return a 300 pound capsule from orbit, was successfully launched June 16.  Its payload was fished from the Pacific Ocean two days later, the recovery plane having failed to catch it in mid-descent.  I recently got to see one of those odd-tailed Fairchild C-119 aircraft that fly those recovery missions; they’re bizarre little planes, for sure. 

As for the contents of the space capsules, it’s generally assumed that they carry snapshots of the Soviet Union taken from orbit.  This time around, however, the flyboys included some interesting experiments: three geiger tubes, some micrometeroid detectors, and a myriad of rare and common metals (presumably to see the effects of radiation upon them). 

You may be wondering what happened to Discoverers 23 and 24 (the last Discoverer on which I’ve reported was numbered 22).  The former, launched on April 8, never dropped its capsule; the latter failed to reach orbit on June 8.  Unlike NASA, the Air Force gives numbers to its failed missions.

Next Mercury shots planned

Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom is set to be the next Mercury astronaut in late July.  His flight will be a duplicate of Alan Shepard’s 15 minute jaunt last month.  If all goes well, astronaut John Glenn will fly a similar mission in September.

I don’t think the Atlas is going to be ready in time this year for an orbital shot.  That means there will be several tense months during which the Soviets could upstage us with yet another spectacle. 

[May 6, 1961] Dreams into Reality (First American in Space)

I’ve been asked why it is that, as a reviewer of science fiction, I devote so much ink to the Space Race and other scientific non-fiction.  I find it interesting that fans of the first would not necessarily be interested in the second, and vice versa. 

There are three reasons non-fiction figures so prominently in this column:

1) I like non-fiction;
2) All the science fiction mags have a non-fiction column;
3) Science fiction without science fact is without context.

Let me expand on Point 3.  Science is different from all other philosophies because of its underpinning of reality.  My wife and I had this debate in graduate school many years ago with our fellow students.  They felt that, so long as their systems were logical, their views on how the universe worked were just as valid as any others – certainly more valid that lousy ol’ science, with its dirty experiments and boring empiricism.

They’re wrong, of course.  Religion and philosophy have discerned little about the natural universe except by accident or where the practitioners have utilized some version of the scientific method.  The fact is, there is a real universe out there, and it pushes back at our inquiries.  That “friction” is what allows us to experiment as to its nature.  It’s why we have wonders like airplanes, nuclear power, the polio vaccine, the contraceptive pill. 

Similarly, science fiction is nowheresville without an underpinning of science.  Science fiction is not make believe – it is extrapolation of scientific trends.  Even fantasy makes use of science; ask Tolkien about his rigorous application of linguistics in his construction of Elvish.  It is important that my readers keep abreast of the latest science fact so they can better understand and appreciate the latest science fiction. 

And it goes both ways – the science of today is directly influenced and inspired by the dreams of yesterday.  Without science fiction, science is a passionless endeavor.  Jules Verne showed us space travel long before Nikita Khruschev. 

Thus ends the awfully long preface to today’s article, which as anyone might guess, covers America’s first manned space mission.  Yesterday morning, May 5, 1961, Commander Alan B. Shepard rocketed to a height of nearly 190 kilometers in the Mercury spacecraft he christened “Freedom 7.”  His flight duplicated that of chimpanzee Ham’s February trip: a sub-orbital jaunt that plopped him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  He flew for just 15 minutes.

The flight was so short because Shepard’s rocket, the same Redstone that launched the first American satellite into orbit, was simply too weak to push the two-ton Mercury fast enough to circle the Earth.  The Redstone is an old missile, made by the Army in the early ’50s.  It is significantly weaker than the Soviet ICBM that hurled the first cosmonaut into space.  It looked embarrassingly undersized compared to the Mercury it carried – like a toy rocket.

We have a booster comparable to that which launched Vostok, the ICBM called Atlas, but it’s not ready yet.  In fact, a test shot of the Atlas-Mercury combination (MA-3) failed miserably just last week on April 25, and before that, the Atlas failed in four out of four unmanned Moon missions.  It is likely that we won’t see an American in orbit until 1962.

The flight of “Freedom 7” might have impressed more had it before occurred the Soviet orbital shot that made the headlines on April 12.  In fact, a Mercury-Redstone did go up on March 24, a full three weeks earlier.  It carried an unmanned boiler-plate Mercury capsule; the main purpose of the mission to make sure the Redstone was truly ready for a human passenger since it had been a little balky during Ham’s flight.

The flight of “MR-BD” went perfectly.  Had MR-BD been a manned mission, Shepard would have been the first human in space. 

And so the Soviets scored yet another first in the Space Race.  But does it matter?  NASA is already soliciting designs for its “Apollo” series of Moon ships, scheduled to launch at the end of the decade.  The Russians announced a similar program on May Day.  If this is going to go on for the long haul, I prefer a measured, safety-conscious space program over a reckless one.  The tortoise beat the hare, and I predict Shepard’s flight is just the first tentative step toward a permanent American presence in space.

The Mercury capsules are proven.  Our astronauts are proven.  All that’s left is the Atlas.  Let’s do things right the first time rather than repeat the failures of the Air Force’s Discoverer program and the Soviet Vostok program.  I want all my astronauts back safe and sound; this is a marathon, not a sprint.

And at the end of it, all those space travel stories we’ve enjoyed for decades will at last become reality.  A triumph for science fiction and science.

[February 28, 1961] Strings of Success… and Failure (Transit 3B, Venera)

Before we move on to the latest Space Race update, why don’t you mosey on down to your local record store and pick up a copy of Wheels, by the String-a-longs?  It’s a swinging tune, and it’s been on the radio a lot lately.  It’ll keep a smile on your face even when the news threatens to be a drag.

There are good weeks and there are bad weeks.  For the Space Race, this wasn’t the best week.

It’s been several months since the Navy got one of their Transit navigational satellites up into orbit.  Last year, I raved about these little marvels that make it possible to determine one’s position just by listening to the satellite’s whistle (and doing a little math).  Two were launched in quick succession, and it seemed a constellation would be established in short order. 

But the third Transit (and its piggyback Solrad probe) failed to launch last November, and its replacement, Transit 3B, had a booster malfunction that stuck it in an eccentric, relatively useless orbit.  In attendance at the ill-fated launch were two of the three Mercury astronauts who have been chosen to make the first manned flights: Alan Shepard and John Glenn (Gus Grissom was in Bermuda).  When asked for their opinions on the botched mission, they voiced their confidence in NASA’s rockets. 

The launch may not have been a complete bust.  This Transit had a piggyback, too—the LOw Frequency Transmission through the Ionosphere (LOFTI) satellite.  It will test the ability of submarines to use the VLF band (below the bottom of your AM dial) for communications.  Maybe.  At last report, LOFTI had not detached from Transit 3B as planned, and I don’t know if either satellite will work in a Siamese configuration.

The Soviets aren’t having a great time of it, either.  Their Venus probe, launched two weeks ago, fizzled out some time before February 26, when it failed to respond to ground-based radio queries.  Venera may not be dead, but it is certainly giving us the silent treatment.  It’s a shame—we will have to wait another 11 months for Venus and Earth to be favorably aligned before we see Venera 2 or its American counterpart.

To take the taste out of failure out of our mouths, let’s ponder Things to Come.  The Air Force has announced that its next Discoverer capsule-return probe will carry a monkey; look for that launch late next month.  Also, NASA is hard at work developing the next generation lunar probe.  It is called Ranger, and as its “mother” is Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, it will have an entirely different configuration from Space Technology Laboratories’ ill-fated Pioneer-Atlas series. 

Fingers crossed!