Pilots in Space

When Mercury actually started flying, its pilots exercised their numerous options for control in response to a series of contingencies and failures. In May 1961, on Alan She-pard's landmark, suborbital flight, a leaky thruster gave the Mercury capsule a slight but constant rotation about its roll axis. Shepard used the fly-by-wire feature to compensate, and during reentry he used it to damp the oscillations.46 As a test, and also from necessity, Shepard exercised all three of Mercury's modes of control—automatic, manual, and fly-by-wire. Shepard's flight did not include the rate-control feature, but Grissom's suborbital flight (July 1961) did, and Grissom found rate control to be the most responsive of the various options.

Grissom's flight also pressed the issue of pilot control in another way when his hatch prematurely popped off during recovery. The spacecraft sank to the bottom of the ocean and the astronaut almost drowned. Ensuing debate over whether the cause was pilot error or mechanical failure raised the question: if the pilots are to get credit for successful flights, how much blame do they share when something goes wrong?

There followed two automated flights, one including ''Enos'' the chimp, to verify the orbital system for Mercury. Automating the capsule simply required adding a sequencer device in the pilot's seat, with minimal modification to the spacecraft. When John Glenn finally flew his orbital flight in February 1962, he switched between modes to determine the most effective and economical way to control the spacecraft. Glenn's capsule developed a malfunctioning thruster, and the manual modes allowed him to compensate. In the words of the official program history, he decided to ''become a full-time pilot responsible for his own well-being,'' manually orienting the spacecraft and commanding the retro rockets to fire.47

On the second orbital flight in May 1962, Scott Carpenter had a more equivocal performance, having used up all of his maneuvering fuel, but he too exercised all of the control modes. Though several of the control systems failed, Flight Director Chris Kraft was furious with Carpenter for not following the flight plan and suitably obeying directions from the ground. Voas felt that Kraft's anger deprived NASA of the ''public relations feature that the man had performed and brought back a damaged craft, or a partially nonfunctioning spacecraft,'' which he believed would have built support for the human role.48

Not all pilots performed equally, but NASA was loath to compare them in public. Whatever they thought of their own skills, even before the astronauts tightened their harnesses in the tiny capsules they were harnessed to a social structure on the ground that reached through radio channels and ballistic trajectories, a social structure with its own agendas of power, authority, and control, a theme that would continue throughout Apollo.

Like the X-15, the Mercury program constantly found itself justifying the human presence. In the words of Mercury's excellent official history, ''Mercury saw the evolution of the astronaut from little more than a passenger in a fully automatic system to an integral and fully integrated element in the entire spaceflight organism. By the end of the project, the Mercury capsule, instead of simply being a machine with a man in it, had truly become a manned space vehicle.''

That evolution took place in public presentation more than in the actual spacecraft. In early articles in Life, for example, astronauts sometimes referred to their upcoming flights as ''rides'' and to themselves as ''passengers.'' Life compiled those articles, largely verbatim, in the 1962 book We Seven, but rewrote certain sections to emphasize human control. For the book, Life's ghostwriters systematically replaced the word ''capsule'' from the Life articles with the word ''spacecraft,'' a substitution NASA made more generally between October 1961 and January 1962. After then, the astronauts used the word ''passenger'' only in a negative sense.49 As Michael Collins later wrote, ''Capsules are swallowed. One flies a spacecraft.''50

Public statements surrounding the flights also emphasized the pilot's control. John Glenn proclaimed that his flight would have failed without a man ''aboard to assume control and bring the capsule back'' (he did not mention that without a man aboard there would have been no need to bring the capsule back). Wally Schirra related how he turned off all automatic sequences after liftoff—''the capsule was all mine now''— and he declared that before his flight, no one had ''flown a capsule before, much less under pilot control.'' Deke Slayton's wife professed that she feared the prospect of her husband going into space, until she learned that the ''pilot, and not the automatic system, was the most important thing.''51

Press responses to the Mercury missions echoed NASA's selling of pilot control. Journalist and science fiction writer Robert Heinlein typified their conclusions when he wrote, ''The Mercury shots proved that an astronaut can actually control his ship.'' The New York Times published an editorial after Glenn's flight titled with his words, ''Let Man Take Over,'' and hailed the flight as a symbolic victory in a battle between man and machine. ''We need not be ruled by machines,'' ran the piece, and extending the lesson to broader social currents, it continued, ''people should reject a belief in an automatic stream of history over which we have no control.'' Historian James Kauff-man, in an exhaustive survey of press responses, notes that ''every article on Glenn's flight refers to Glenn's active control.''52 Independent of the technical facts, the notion of the pilot in active control of the spacecraft engendered narratives of human spaceflight well suited to public presentation.

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