Sunday, January 11, 2009

May 2007: Mercury Memories

May 4: Walter Schirra died yesterday. He was 84. He was one of the original Mercury Astronauts. Of the original seven, only John Glenn, aged 85, Scott Carpenter, aged 82, are still alive.

Alan Shepard, the first American in space, passed on in 1998 at the age of 74. He had cancer. I was a bit shocked when I learned of his passing simply because I thought of him frozen in time to May 5, 1961 when Freedom 7, as his mission was called, made him the first American in Space. The flight was only 15 minutes and 28 seconds long rising to an altitude of 116.5 statute miles. I must have somehow thought, these guys can never die. They were eternally young… at least in my memory.

What we, as Americans, tend to forget is that Alan Shepard was only the first American in space. He was not the first human being to into space. That honor goes to a Russian, Yuri Gagarin. On April 12, 1961, he successfully flew an orbital mission. Alan Shepard flew his mission on May 5, 1961, less than a month later. The Wikipedia entry on Gagarin claimed that he was not the first person in space. Three other Soviets had actually flown into space but died on re-entry. The Soviets, however, suppressed that information. Gugarin died tragically in March of 1968 at the age of 34 in a crash of a MIG-15 on what was supposed to have been a routine re-qualification flight.

Alan Shepard was not the first of the Mercury Seven Astronauts to die. Virgil “Gus” Grissom died on January 27, 1967 during a training exercise for the Apollo One mission.

John Glenn was the third American into Space and the first American to orbit the Earth. What always amazed me was that John Glenn immediately became more popular than Alan Shepard and remained that way until this day. Of course, John Glenn went on to become a United States Senator proving that he is a truly gifted and charismatic man. I always wonder if he knew flying the first orbital mission would have more impact and provide more notoriety than simply being the first American into space. John Glenn also became the oldest American into space when he flew in the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.

So why did the passing of Wally Schirra, the fifth American in Space, prompt me to write about the Mercury program? I am not entirely sure. His flight, Sigma 7, orbited the Earth nine times. He was the only one of the original seven astronauts to fly in all three programs: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Gus Grissom would have shared this distinction with Schirra had he not died in that training exercise. While Schirra did fly an Apollo mission, he never went to the moon. I was probably touched by his passing since he flew all three missions and the fact that, upon his retirement from NASA, he worked with Walter Cronkite as a commentator on the space program.

Certainly, Wally Schirra was a key and important astronaut. More so, I am writing because I realized that five of the of the original seven, eternally young in my mind, astronauts have passed away.

· Alan Shepard, died 1998 at 74Freedom 7 – Suborbital
· Gus Grissom, died 1967, at 40Liberty Bell 7 – Suborbital
· John Glenn, 85Friendship 7 – 3 Orbits
· Scott Carpenter, 82Aurora 7 – 3 Orbits
· Walter Schirra, died May 3, 2007at 84Sigma 7 – 9 Orbits
· Gordon Cooper, died 2004 at 77Faith 7 – 22.5 Orbits
· Donald Slayton, died 1993 at 69 – Never flew a mission

May 12: On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress. In this famous speech, the President laid out an impressive national challenge:
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
The speech was not just about Space. It was a mini-State of the Union addressing Urgent National Needs. Most of it was geared toward the raging Cold War with the Soviet Union. The President addressed social and political issues. But, I daresay, the quote above is the most memorable part of the speech.

The impact of the speech had a great effect on me. I was almost eight years old at the time. I knew that there was an evil we were fighting, this Soviet Union. I did not know much else but that we were "the good guys" and they were "the bad guys." That is the bottom line any eight year old really wanted or needed to know. Forget all the other rhetoric, the blah-blah who knows what these talking heads were droning on about. Just tell me that we are the good guys and we will beat the bad guys. That is the way it should be.

Kennedy understood that it was not only eight year olds that needed to hear this kind of news. While his speech was around eight thousand words and I am sure I would have thought he was droning on and on. But in this speech it was clear to one and all that he had laid down the space challenge. He laid down the gauntlet in front of the Soviets. We will beat you to the moon, we will do it before the end of the 1960s, we will win, and we will remain number one. That is all most of the people needed and wanted to hear, especially an eight year old.

Guillermo Fernandez is a friend and Colgate colleague. He was President of Colgate Venezuela and then Mexico, delivering superior results for the entire time I was employed there. He told me that a General Manager and leader needs to be bilingual. He needs to speak finances, ROI, Cash Flow, etc., with the corporate leadership. This is the language they want to hear. This is what they are interested in. Yet, to the most of the employees, these kinds of goals are neither meaningful nor inspirational. They want to hear that our goal was to be number one in toothpaste, beat Procter and Gamble. This was a standard the troops understood and could rally around. An ROI/ROA goal just doesn't cut it.

Kennedy knew this. He delivered all kinds of messages in his speech. These were things the Congress need to hear and consider. In sum, he laid a ground work for the masses that was we are the good guys and the Soviet Union is bad. If we don't do a few things, their evil may threaten our good. In the last quarter of his speech, he switched his language and spoke to something everyone could rally around. We will win because we will put a man on the moon first. The Space Race was already underway but his speech that day “officially” kicked off the Space Race.

May 15: We used to get Christmas gifts from Mrs. Farquar, the gracious lady who rented the upstairs flat from my Mother’s Mother, Grannie. The Christmas before Kennedy’s speech she gave me a book on letters children, mostly my age, had written to the President. Many of my peers had written President Kennedy to ask for information for school reports on almost any subject you can imagine. So, I wrote President Kennedy that I was interested in the Space Program. Today, I would have simply surfed the web but back in the 1960s, the US Mail was how this kind of timely information was sought out.

A mere month or two later, I came home from school to find a 9x12 manila envelope from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I could not open the envelope fast enough. “Dear Mr. Gavoor” the cover letter began. This was pretty cool stuff for a grade school kid.

The envelope was full of pamphlets outlining the three programs that would take us to the moon. It included information on the X-15 experimental plane, all the booster rockets, the three kinds of manned capsules, and the Lunar Landing and Excursion Modules. It was great stuff. I felt like I had access to government secrets. At first, I only looked at the photos but in the ensuing months and years, I read every word.

The most prized possession of this collection was an 8.5x11 booklet, in glorious black and white, outlining the Mercury Program. There were photos and biographies of each of the seven astronauts. I decided to keep a record of each flight, each mission, in this booklet. I took notes on the flight, writing down the date and exact time of launch. I wrote notes on the kind of mission, sub-orbital or orbital. I wrote down how many orbits and the time of splash down. I was glued to the TV at home or at school. Back then in those early heady days of the Space Program, they would wheel a TV into each classroom to watch these historic launches.

I really made a mess of the book. My penmanship was awful. I wrote in the margin all around the photo of the astronauts. I felt more a part of what was happening by writing down everything I thought important. It was like other boys I knew who would dutifully keep the box scores of any baseball game they attended. I felt like I was part of mission control.

I have no clue as to whatever happened to those brochures and the manila envelope I kept them in. They may still be at my parent’s house somewhere, but I doubt it. When the Mercury program ended, I did not have a similar book on Gemini. By the time Apollo rolled around and we had landed on the moon, my interest faded. When I watched the movie Apollo 13, I realized how my interests had changed. I had no recall as to the peril that mission had encountered.

Needless to say, I was bound and determined to become an astronaut. I was bound and determined until I watched a special on the training Astronauts endured. I saw that sled that plunged into water and that centrifuge like contraption that was used to simulate the gravitational forces. I quickly realized that I would get nauseated on every amusement park ride short of merry-go-rounds. I concluded that I did not, in fact, have The Right Stuff. So, I decided to study science and be a mission control nerd. I did study mathematics and industrial engineering but never went the NASA route. But, they were great boyhood dreams.

May 27: When I think back about Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, I recall be in awe of the booster rockets: Redstone, Atlas, Saturn. These rockets, one bigger than the other, were sleek, powerful, and simple in their design. They were cylinders topped with the conical capsules. The Freudian in you, or more likely me, could easily write about the symbolism of the ultimate phallus. Nothing was bigger or more powerful to me than these rockets.

I was rather disappointed when the designs of the Space Shuttle were revealed in the late 1970s. From the moment I saw the piggy-back design of the shuttle attached the Solid Rocket Boosters, I felt the design was flawed and actually ugly. I believed that space vehicles should be sleek and the pinnacle of symmetry and simplicity. The Space Shuttle and launch system were anything but.

I never liked the Shuttle vehicle itself. I thought it was big and bulky, again not very sleek. I understood the need to carry large payloads and all which is probably why the shuttle looked more a freight liner than what science fiction had us come to think re-usable space vehicles should be.

The other thing that really bothered me with the initial design was the insulating tiles that covered the vehicle. I, like everyone else, was impressed by the science that developed the truly amazing material these tiles were made from. I recall reading the following. Heat a small cube of the tile material until it is red hot. Let it cool for half a minute and then can be picked up by the edges and corners. The rest of the cube is still red hot.

While that is amazing, I could never get over the fact that the vehicle was tiled. Tiles come loose. They come loose in bathtubs and showers, let alone a re-usable space vehicle that is subjected to extreme temperatures, gravitational forces, and vibrations involved with hurtling out of our atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and then re-entering and landing. Tiles come loose.
I was shocked by the space shuttle tragedies but not surprised. Two shuttles and crew were lost out of the 117 missions flown to date. When comparing this to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, one crew was lost, Apollo 1, out of 27 missions flown. So, actually, the catastrophic failure rate for the shuttle is 1.7% compared to 3.7% for the race to the moon missions.

Maybe, I need to re-evaluate my view of the shuttle separating my aesthetic view from the failure rates. It is easy to forget the risks and perils of sitting on top of a huge rockets and being hurtled beyond this world. NASA’s website ( states:
The space shuttle is the most complex machine ever built, is the only spacecraft with its robust capacity. The space shuttles capacity enables human today to build the world’s largest orbiting laboratory, paving the way back to the moon, on to Mars and further into the universe.
I wonder what the future of manned space travel will be. I would love to see a manned mission to Mars. It would be even cooler if the vehicle was really sleek.

No comments:

Post a Comment