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[October 4, 1962] Get to work!  (The Mercury Flight of Sigma 7)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Five years ago, satellite launches were quarterly events that dominated the front page.  Now, the Air Force is launching a mission every week, and NASA is not far behind.  The United Kingdom and Canada have joined the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the orbital club, and one can be certain that Japan and France aren’t far behind.  It’s truer than ever that, as I’ve said before, unmanned spaceflight has become routine.

Yesterday, the same thing happened to manned missions.

39 year-old Navy Commander Walter M. “Wally” Schirra blasted off early the morning of October 3, 1962, flew for six orbits, and splashed down safely in the Pacific near Midway Island less than half a day later.  His Sigma 7 capsule was in space twice as long as Glenn and Carpenter’s Mercury ships and, to all accounts, it was a thoroughly uneventful trip.  Aside from the whole nine hours of weightlessness thing.

While the newspapers all picked up the mission, radio and television coverage was decidedly less comprehensive than for prior flights.  Part of it was the lack of drama.  Shepard was the first.  Grissom almost drowned.  Glenn’s mission had the highest stakes, it being our answer to the Soviet Vostok flights, and his capsule ran the risk of burning up on reentry.  For a couple of hours, Carpenter was believed lost at sea.

But the upshot of Schirra’s mission seemed to be that, as the Commander put it, a chimpanzee could have flown it.  The giant Atlas rocket blasted off just 15 minutes late (the delay was due to a radar malfunction at a overseas tracking station), and that was the most remarkable snag.  One of Schirra’s tasks was to make observations of various points of interest on the ground and snap shots with his camera.  Unfortunately, mother nature was not accommodating, clouds obscuring most of Schirra’s targets (further reducing his active scientific role).  The pilot did see Glenn’s “fireflies,” though, which have since been determined to be ice crystals shaken loose from the capsule. 

After Carpenter’s flight, wherein a combination of engine malfunction and pilot exuberance led to Aurora 7 running out of fuel on reentry, Schirra chose to let his capsule drift.  When Sigma 7’s heat shield began to glow on contact with the atmosphere, it still had a tank that was 78% full.  The spaceship landed less than a mile from the carrier recovery fleet, well within view of television cameras on the deck of the U.S.S. Kearsarge (I felt a brief eerie sensation at the thought that almost exactly twenty years ago, American carriers had patrolled these same waters — to do battle with their Japanese counterparts.)

It was, as Schirra termed it, a “textbook flight.”  If you read the Press Kit, you might well have skipped watching the news.  And yet, it is the lack of drama that makes the flight so dramatic.  Now, instead of biting our fingernails, wondering if our rockets will work, our ships will function, our pilots will survive…now we can focus on getting the work of spaceflight done.  We’ve passed the Wright Flyer stage — now we’re ready to put our craft to use.

There will probably be just one more Mercury flight, this one to last a full day.  The pilot has not been chosen for this mission, but it had been broadly hinted that it will be L. Gordon Cooper, the remaining active Mercury astronaut (Donald K. Slayton having been removed from the roster for heart trouble).  After that, we move on to two-man flights aboard the aptly named Gemini.

Whether we beat the Soviets to that stage of the Space Race remains to be seen…