Liberty Bell cracks

On 8 May, the Mercury astronauts enjoyed a celebratory dinner at the White House, while back at NASA thoughts were already turning to a second suborbital flight. Almost everything on Freedom 7 had worked perfectly, and if all went well with the next mission, the third flight could be sent into orbit.

Gus Grissom named his capsule Liberty Bell 7, and in tribute to the original Liberty Bell (rung in 1776 in Philadelphia before the reading of the Declaration of Independence), a crack was painted down one side.

This was to prove prophetic - Liberty Bell's flight on 21 July went perfectly, but shortly after splashdown the explosive bolts holding a new and larger escape hatch in place triggered accidentally, flooding the capsule and sending it sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic. Grissom himself, his spacesuit filling with water, was lucky to escape with his life.

GRISSOM STEPS OUT

Gus Grissom strides purposefully towards the Mercury-Redstone 4 rocket, with technicians and support personnel gathered at its base, on the morning of 21 July 1961.

ALAN SHEPARD'S SUBORBITAL HOP

ONE OF A KIND

Alan Shepard's crooked grin appears during rehearsals for fitting his pressure suit. Shepard was a mon of contradictions with a changeable personality - perhaps fittingly described as mercurial.

MAN IN A CAN

Shepord later commented: "It's a very sobering feeling to realize that one's safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract."

Shepard entered the spacecraft at 5:20am - inside he found a note that had been left by Glenn, which

FOUR STEPS TO SPACE

Shepard and Glenn suited up together with the assistance of suit technician Joe Schmitt, but only Shepard got to make the fateful walk to the gantry elevator, carrying his portable air unit. Once there, he was helped into the tiny capsule by the ground crew. Schmitt then shook his hand while the ground crew wished the astronaut "Happy landings!"

EXPERIENCE

ALAN SHEPARD'S SUBORBITAL HOP

Almost in orbit

ONE OF A KIND

Alan Shepard's crooked grin appears during rehearsals for fitting his pressure suit. Shepard was a mon of contradictions with a changeable personality - perhaps fittingly described as mercurial.

think all of us certainly believed the statistics which said ... probably 88% chance of mission success and maybe 96% chance of survival. And we were willing to take those odds.,f

Unlike the flight of Vostok 1 - which was prepared for and carried out in almost total secrecy until it was actually under way - the launch of Mercury-Redstone 3 from Cape Canaveral carrying Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 capsule happened amid a blaze of publicity on 5 May 1961.

MAN IN A CAN

Shepord later commented: "It's a very sobering feeling to realize that one's safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract."

FOUR STEPS TO SPACE

Shepard and Glenn suited up together with the assistance of suit technician Joe Schmitt, but only Shepard got to make the fateful walk to the gantry elevator, carrying his portable air unit. Once there, he was helped into the tiny capsule by the ground crew. Schmitt then shook his hand while the ground crew wished the astronaut "Happy landings!"

Shepard was woken in the early hours of the morning. After breakfasting with his backup, John Glenn, and other members of the team, he was given a final medical examination and pronounced fit to fly. Before he suited up, biosensors were placed on his skin in a variety of places. By 3:55am EST, he was boarding the transit bus for the journey out to the launch pad. As he later recalled:

"The excitement really didn't start to build until the trailer - which was carrying me, with a spacesuit with ventilation and all that sort of stuff - pulled up to the launch pad."

Shepard entered the spacecraft at 5:20am - inside he found a note that had been left by Glenn, which read "No handball playing here!". The launch was set for 7:25 - barring delays, he had 125 minutes to wait. But at T-15 the first in a series of holds was called. After an hour's wait, and with another hour at least to go, Shepard had a problem, which he communicated to Gordon Cooper in launch control. As the communications transcript records, the capsule's electrical supply had to be turned off while Shepard relieved himself:

Alan Shepard: Gordo! Gordon Cooper: Go, Alan. AS: Man, I got to pee. GC: You what?

AS: You heard me. I've got to pee. I've been up here forever ... tell them to turn the power off!

Alan Shepard, February 1991

Four hours and 14 minutes after Shepard boarded Freedom 7, launch control "lit the candle" and Shepard soared skywards. For 45 seconds the ascent was smooth, but then vibrations began to build up as the rocket approached the sound barrier. Two minutes into the flight, Shepard was experiencing maximum acceleration of around 6g. Another 20 seconds, and the Redstone engine beneath him shut down. Still soaring skywards, Freedom 7 jettisoned its launcher and escape tower as its external temperatures rose to 104°C (220°F). Shepard described what he could see:

"On the periscope What a beautiful view.

Cloud cover over Florida - three to four tenths near the eastern coast. Obscured up to Hatteras ... I can see [Lake] Okeechobee. Identify Andros Island. Identify the reefs."

The capsule had automatically turned itself around by the time it reached its peak altitude of 187km (116 miles). Shepard now assumed manual control to fine-tune the capsule's attitude and fire the retrorockets. As he plummeted back down the re-entry curve, he jettisoned the retropack strapped across the capsule's heat shield. Plunging back into the atmosphere, Shepard felt the strain of up to 11.6g before the drogue parachute was deployed at 6,400m (21,000ft). At 3,000m (10,000ft) the main parachute slowed the capsule further, dropping it back to a splashdown at a relatively sedate 10.5m (35ft) per second.

"The rocket had worked perfectly, and all I had to do was survive the re-entry forces. You do it all, in a flight like that, in a rather short period of time, just 16 minutes as a matter of fact."

Alan Shepard, February 1991

TAKING A BOW

Picked up and transported to the USS Lake Champlain within 11 minutes of splashdown, Shepard had a moment to acknowledge the applause of the crew before answering a call from President Kennedy.

Alan Shepard, February 1991

TAKING A BOW

Picked up and transported to the USS Lake Champlain within 11 minutes of splashdown, Shepard had a moment to acknowledge the applause of the crew before answering a call from President Kennedy.

FRIENDSHIP 7

Each astronaut got to choose the name of his own craft. Here, Glenn poses with Chrysler employee Cecelia Bibby, the pointer responsible for each of the emblems.

GLENN GIVES THE SALUTE

An ebullient Glenn finally boarded his spacecraft at 6:03am. He hod already been awake for four hours, and hod to wait almost four more before launch.

CLIMBING ABOARD

Once Glenn hod clambered into position, 70 bolts secured the hatch in place. Halfway through the process, a broken bolt was found, so the whole process had to be restarted.

Mercury in orbit

John Glenn's three historic orbits around the Earth in February 1962 briefly put NASA back on a more even footing with its Soviet rivals. However, the first orbital Mercury was not entirely flawless.

Despite the near-disastrous ending of Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 mission in July 1961, the Mercury capsules had proved themselves reliable in flight. Meanwhile, the Atlas ICBM also seemed to have overcome its early glitches - now it was time to combine the two and put Mercury into orbit.

However, any hopes that NASA might have had of levelling the score with its Soviet rivals were dashed on 6 August by Gherman Titov's successful day-long flight aboard Vostok 2 (see p.80). Despite pressure from some quarters to rush to a manned launch, Gilruth's Space Task Group, now in the process of relocation from Langley to the new Manned Spaceflight Center at Houston, Texas, continued to insist on a steady process of qualification. The first unmanned launch of a Mercury capsule on an Atlas rocket took place on 13 September and went flawlessly, but before NASA would trust a man to orbit, it insisted on a full dress rehearsal with another space chimp.

As a result, Enos, a male chimp like Ham, was launched into space on 29 November aboard Mercury-Atlas 5. The flight went well, despite a few problems with control of the spacecraft's attitude in orbit, and Enos coped magnificently with 181 minutes of weightlessness and higher G-forces than even Ham had tolerated. The Mercury-Atlas combination was now ready to take its first human passenger.

BIOGRAPHY

JOHN GLENN

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