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Thursday, April 24, 2025
Sunday, April 11, 2021
On the night before the second launch attempt we got a later start out of Daytona than we had the first time. We stopped and ate and this time we were all armed with sleeping bags. Just as we had planned Friday morning, almost everyone parked where they had been for the scrub. This time, however, some of us crawled into our sleeping bags and grabbed a few hours of sleep. I have to admit that I kept waking up, looking at the Shuttle in the spotlights and then covering back up thinking “Wow, this is so cool.” I would run through my mind all of the other manned launches that I had watched on TV and remembering how much I always wanted to be where I was at this moment.
As dawn broke folks began milling around again. This time there was a different feeling in the air. I had a sense that the Shuttle was gonna go today. There was an exhilaration among the crowd rather than anticipation, as if we all had our fingers poised on some sort of launch button and were certainly going to push it. A few hucksters were walking up and down the crowd, just as they had done on the day of the scrub, trying to sell assorted souvenirs. One guy had a simple black and white bumper-sticker that had a rough Shuttle image on it and the words “I SAW IT.” Someone, I believe it may have been Jennings, shouted to him,
“What if it blows up?”
Without missing a beat the huckster reached into his pocket and pulled out a large black marker. He pointed to an open space on the right hand corner of the bumper-sticker and he said,
“Then you take this marker and over here you write BLOW UP.”
He was apparently a huckster with the Right Stuff.
Our friend with the mobile Space Shuttle flight following station in the trunk of his car had taken his place right next to us again. Just like on scrub day, I had remembered to bring along my tape recorder. I’d been taping manned launch broadcasts from the TV since I was 13 years old and had recorded Apollo 14, so I was determined to get this one too. I asked our pal with the battery powered TV if I could place my tape recorder next to his TV at launch time and pick up some of the broadcast. He happily agreed and we all waited as the countdown passed every milestone that it had stumbled upon during the first launch attempt. No one knew what to expect. In fact, the damned thing just might blow up.
We saw nothing but a silhouette of the Shuttle and Pad 39A as the sun came up. It was a bit hazy and so our view remained that of a silhouette against a stunning orange sky while the count ticked down. Like expectant parents we paced a bit and alternated between looking at the pad in the distance and focusing on the little TV set. I kept running through my mind the fact that this was indeed history that could be considered on the scale of witnessing Freedom 7, or Friendship 7, or Gemini 3, or Apollo 8 or perhaps even Apollo 11. Countless space firsts were about to take place right in front of our eyes. I just had to hope that I would not forget to turn on my tape recorder.
As the countdown hit the two minute mark I hit the record button and set the tape recorder down next to the TV. Oddly, about that same time no one was looking at the TV set, every eye that had a view of the pad was focused toward the silhouette of the Shuttle backed by the now amber sky. Everything seemed to get quite still. For the first time there was very little talking among all of us on that riverbank- it was as if we all collectively held our breath.
At main engine start we saw the silhouette of the steam cloud billowing from the engines working against the sound suppression water. Six seconds later the solids lit and we saw what looked like a second sunrise. Then the STS-1 stood up on two stilts of flame as bright as the sun. Everyone was screaming “GO!... Go Baby GO!... GO!” I heard myself screaming it and I heard it echoing up and down the riverbank. What I did not hear- was the Shuttle.
Then I remembered something I read in Mike Collins’ book “Carrying the Fire.” He described watching the first Saturn V, Apollo 4, launch. Collins wrote that about the time he said to himself “You can’t hear it,” the sound hit him. And just as I had that thought, the sound hit us.
Although there were certainly a few Saturn V veterans present, most folks who were there to witness STS-1 had never experienced anything like the Shuttle. It reached out, took hold of you and shook your senses as well as the ground under our feet. My tape recorder picked up the sound of the items in the trunk of the car rattling. The only thing louder was the sound of the shouts, screams, squeals and rebel yells coming from the crowd. People were jumping up and down and punching their fists into the air as STS-1 ripped into the sky. You really had to work to hear any of the calls coming from Mission Control. The whole thing kept going for over two minutes and then we heard the “Go for SRB sep.” call. It was then that everything seemed to grow comparatively quiet with just a smattering of “Hoots” and “Whoooos.” A few seconds later at SRB separation we saw the translucent white plume and then saw the two solids dropping away. At that moment a spontaneous cheer went up followed by a rolling applause produced by the near million or so people who now lined the riverbank as far as the eye could see. It was as if the home team had made a fantastically great play in front of a sellout crowd. It was sudden and it was contagious. I found myself clapping as if someone in NASA could actually hear me. That applause was actually captured on my tape. We applauded NASA, the Shuttle and our nation.
Following SRB separation we turned our attention to the tiny TV set once more, watching and listening as STS-1 headed for its target in orbit. In the distance out over the Atlantic the vehicle looked like a very bright star hanging in the sky. As the boost continued we had the illusion that the vehicle was actually heading downward toward the horizon, because that was what it was actually doing. Soon the star simply faded into a pinpoint. A glance at the TV and then a look back toward the sky found the Shuttle lost to the eye. At Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) everyone seemed to snap back to reality.
There was pure joy in the crowd and you heard a lot of “Man! Did you see that?” as if someone there could have missed it. We patted one another on the back, smiled and felt great, even though we had done nothing more than be there and watch. Even complete strangers found one another, smiled gleefully and offered congratulations on a great launch. One fellow coined it all when he grinned widely and said,
“Gee… I wish they had another one.”
Even the ride home was conducted as a festive traffic jam. People were filled with pride, and in our car the clogged roadway simply gave us more time to chatter about the launch.
I got back to Kmart in time to start my Sunday shift on schedule. Over in the appliance department a small crowd had gathered around the TV sets. One of guys working in that department had thought ahead and set one of the VCRs to record the launch which was playing over and over again as customers stood and watched, over and over again. On that Sunday the folks that I worked with all heard that I had been there and the guys in the appliance department told their customers,
“The guy over there in cosmetics was down there for it,” and pointed toward me.
As I stocked my shampoo, denture cream and glycerin suppositories, dozens of people came up to me and asked “How was it?”
The best I could do was to simply reply that it was indescribable and urge them to go down and see one.
For myself, I simply went about my mindless job with a perpetual smile upon my face. After 31 United States manned space launches, all of which I witnessed on TV while growing up with spaceflight, I finally got to be “there” and “see one!” Nearly a million other people who had crowded the length of the Space Coast that morning were thinking that same thought at that same time. Best of all was the feeling that after more than five years without the ability to launch humans into space, our country was finally back in the manned spaceflight business. It was the most exhilarating feeling of my life up to that point, and I could not wait to see the next Shuttle launch.
Indeed, the dream was alive again.
Saturday, April 10, 2021
A month and seven days following the Flight Readiness Firing, NASA announced officially that the launch date for the first Space Shuttle would be April 10, 1981. Standing there in the Daytona Kmart cosmetics department and wearing my nametag and badly worn tie as I held a price sticker gun, I decided that I was not going to miss it. I told Andy the pharmacist that I was gonna be down there to see it. Andy asked what I was going to do if I could not get the day off?
“I’ll quit the job,” I replied
Knowing I only had a bicycle for my personal transportation he asked, “How’re you gonna get down there?”
I answered that if I could not get a ride, I would ride my bicycle and get as far south as I could. He just shook his head and snickered. The fact was that I had spent nearly my whole life passionately following spaceflight and nearly every bit of that had been sitting in front of a TV set. There was no way I was going to be this close to that piece of spaceflight history and again have to watch it on TV. I was going to be THERE to witness it first hand, even if I had to ride my bicycle. The only problem was that the best eyewitness location for the launch was almost 50 miles away, a bit longer than the distance I usually rode my bicycle.
As luck would have it, launch day for STS-1 happened to fall on my day off, so now my only problem was getting down to the Space Coast. A day before the launch I ventured to the Avion student newspaper office on Embry-Riddle’s campus, and was told that AIAA was chartering two buses to go from the campus to KSC for the launch of STS-1. I hustled down to buy a ticket, but found that the tickets had sold out almost immediately. Dejected, I returned to the newspaper office and began to plot my bicycle ride down US1 to Titusville. I figured it would take me most of the night to get down there, and although riding a bicycle down US1 in the middle of the night to see a space launch may seem a bit nuts, the term “A bit nuts” is denoted on my birth certificate.
Just as I was about to head out and start peddling, my girlfriend of that time stopped me and said that she knew of two guys in her dorm who were driving down. She suggested that we should go to their room and she could introduce me to them. If they had an extra seat, it may keep me from becoming a road pizza on US1. As it turned out the two guys were happy to have me ride along. They were, in fact, both space-buffs just like me and we instantly became friends. Jennings, who owned the land-boat of a car that we drove down in, was from Michigan, just like me, and to this day I consider him to be a good friend. Brian, the other guy, was an expert in everything that flies, and would go on to not only work at the National Air and Space Museum as a photo archivist as well as becoming the author of a most comprehensive book on rockets and missiles, but would also serve as the best man in my wedding seven years later. Together, the three of us headed out that Thursday evening to witness aviation history… or so we thought.
On the trip down toward the launch site we chattered about spaceflight history. Then, as we came within a dozen miles of Titusville, we suddenly saw spaceflight history. Above the trees the darkness was slashed by the crossed white beams of the pad spotlights. Although we could not yet see the shuttle, it was an image that we had always seen in books, magazines and on television. In spite of yourself, it made your heart stop and your jaw drop.
Entering the town of Titusville we suddenly discovered that we had no idea where the hell we were going. Where would we park? What about private property? Collectively we decided just to turn toward the river. Driving down Grace Street we hit Riverview Street and the riverbank itself. For a few minutes we cruised up and down Riverview calculating a good place to park. I spotted a county pumping station and suggested we should park near it. That way if any of the locals gave us a hard time, we could just go onto county property. We pulled in, bailed out of the car and just stood there frozen by the sight of the white Space Shuttle bathed in those crossed spotlight beams. For a moment, all three of us were kids again gazing at the wonder of spaceflight.
Snapping out of the Shuttle’s spell for a moment, I saw that it was just after 10 pm and I decided to hike up Grace Street to the Mister Doughnut shop up on US1. There I found a pay phone and I called my folks up in Michigan to ask “Guess where I am tonight?” Being the parents of a rabid space-buff, it was an easy guess for them. When I returned to the car I was amazed to see that in the past 20 minutes, nearly every parking spot along the riverbank near us had been taken, and there were more cars coming. Clearly, there would be no problems with the local residents tonight.
Opening the trunk of his car, the guy who had parked right next to us, revealed a sort of mobile Space Shuttle flight-following station. Attached to the underside of the trunk lid he had a poster depicting each phase of the STS-1 flight profile. He had charts and table that listed each mission event, as well as assorted abort profiles and abort destinations. He had Shuttle cut-away diagrams that detailed every component. Most importantly, however, he had a small portable TV that ran off of his car battery. In 1981 such TVs were not rare, but in our present location his TV was the center of attention.
Several hours into the night I decided to go for a walk up US1 and see what may be happening. The streets were busy as I strolled along, and every sign that could have its letters rearranged had a Shuttle best wishes message. After about a mile or so I came upon the local mall. Even though it was the middle of the night, the parking lot was filled as if it were the day before Christmas. The doors to the mall were propped open and people were coming and going. I went inside and was amazed to see that many of the stores were open and doing a good amount of business. Most noticeable was the local toy store which had set up a table just outside of their door. Upon the table was a cash register and stacks of Space Shuttle models which were apparently selling like crazy.
When I got back to the riverbank everyone was standing around gazing at the distant Shuttle or talking spaceflight. We talked about every aspect of spaceflight past, present and future. Most of us simply agreed that we had no idea as to what STS-1 would do, or what the Shuttle’s future would really be. It was like going to a space-buff convention.
There was, however, only one problem with our space-buff paradise: access to a bathroom.
On a later trip up the road to buy a cup of tea I found out that the guy running the Mister Doughnut shop up on US1 did not mind folks using his restrooms, as long as they bought a doughnut “or somethin’.” When I got back to the riverbank I spread the word and soon folks were strolling up the road to Mister Doughnut and returning “rested” with coffee, or a pastry, or both in hand. STS-1 was already helping the local economy, and the guy running the doughnut shop could testify to that.
Shortly after dawn the countdown hit the first in a series of holds. The TV in our little mobile Space Shuttle flight following station seemed to pick up the local ABC station the best, so we were glued to Jules Bergman and Gene Cernan. The issues started with a fuel cell problem and then a problem with the back-up computer. The guys on the TV knew about as much about the problems as we did, but Bergman kept down-talking the prospect of a launch today. As countdown recycles and holds folded up on one another, Bergman kept talking about NASA officials stating things such as their “…expectation of having to go through multiple launch attempts over several days.”
It was bad enough waiting out the assorted re-cycles in the countdown, but Bergman simply intensified our frustration. We had never seen anything like the Shuttle and at the time of STS-1 we had no idea just how dependant COLUMBIA was on its computers. This was 1981 and desktop computers were just coming out of the “Basic” and “DOS” era. Talk of a misplaced bit or bite gumming up a spacecraft’s launch seemed quite strange. In fact two days later we would be told that a simple timing error of 40 milliseconds between the four primary computers aboard COLUMBIA and the vehicle’s back-up computer was the cause of the problem. It was easily solved the day following the first launch attempt by shutting everything down and restarting the system. That simple re-boot, however, could not be done at the point in the count where we were on Friday morning. So, we were stuck with Bergman throwing the cold water of truth on our protracted hopes for a Friday launch.
“I’m about ready to swim across the river,” Jennings growled, “and strangle Jules Bergman.”
Of course, Bergman was correct in one sense. We were not going to see the Space Shuttle fly today.
Over on NBC, the ever spaceflight-dense Robert Bazell was interviewing Jim Lovell concerning problems in space.
“What was the worst kind of problem that you ever had?” Bazell asked the Apollo 13 commander.
Across the nation every space-buff watching NBC must have chuckled and said, “What!? Is he kidding? He’s asking the commander of Apollo 13 what was the worst problem he ever had?” The laughter must have lightened up the on-going holds and delays.
Since we were watching ABC I missed out on that little meat-puppet moment until it was on the internet decades later. Finally, after what seemed like an entire day of holds and recycles, the word came across the loop that they were going to once again recycle to T-20 minutes and go out and remove the crew. Some two-and-one-half-hours after the scheduled launch time, the effort came to a halt. Shortly after that came the official scrub announcement. Frankly, it was almost a relief. We had all been awake for more than 24 hours and other than a bag of doughnuts that I’d retrieved from Mister Doughnut, none of us had eaten. Everyone up and down the riverbank agreed to meet in the same place Saturday night for Sunday morning’s attempt at a launch.
The next day at work I went into the personnel manager’s office and told Mary Jane, our personnel manager that although I was scheduled to work on Sunday, I would be at the Shuttle launch and if it was late, I would be late too. Unexpectedly, she simply smiled sweetly and said,
“No problem, I understand, have fun.”
It’s funny how folks who live in central Florida have a different view of spaceflight than other people around the country. Of course, most of the country had watched the whole scrub live on TV and from the White House to my parent’s house every American seemed to suffer through the recycles with us.
Most of them, however, were much closer to a restroom than those of us on the riverbank.
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
In addition to the auto-land response DTO, the crew also was scheduled to test the auto-land all the way down the flight path, nearly to the ground. It is worth making a note at this point in the story that the computer’s auto-land software had not yet been written for the final flare, touchdown and rollout. The auto-land software had only been written to the point of intercept of the inner glide slope. For those of you reading who have not flown high performance or heavy aircraft, that sort of an approach may sound like a milk run, but in fact it is not. Most pilots of such aircraft would rather hand-fly it down. Personally, I prefer to hand-fly a turbo prop from about 10,000 feet down and a jet from 18,000 feet down. Every Shuttle pilot I have talked to feels the same way and would rather hand-fly as much as they can all the way down. But in the case of STS-3, Jack Lousma’s DTO was to ring out the auto-land, and so he did.
CDR Lousma executed the testing through reentry and the switchovers appeared to be normal. Then, as directed by the mission profile, he engaged the auto-land at 12,000 feet on the outer glide slope. At that time the Shuttle approach PAPI, a series of lights located beside the runway that gives the pilot visual information concerning his glide slope, indicated two red and two white on a 19-degree glide slope and on center line.
"That was the last time I saw a stabilized airspeed,” Lousma recalled, “although the automatic system controlled OGS (Outer Glide Slope) well, including the transition from OGS to IGS (Inner Glide Slope)."
Unexpectedly the auto-land system made a slight right roll correction, probably to nullify the effect of a right crosswind at that altitude. Then the crew felt the speed brakes close immediately. This was abnormal and allowed the orbiter to accelerate to 285 knots. These “speed brakes” consisted of the rudder splitting in half vertically and hydraulically extending out into the airflow symmetrically to each side and thus providing a high degree of drag. Normally in a hand-flown approach the Shuttle pilots use the speed brakes in degrees to manage the orbiter’s energy and blend airspeed and altitude. As the auto-land computer sensed the speed increase, it opened the speed brakes again to a greater than normal degree. Now the airspeed slowed to a speed which was below a software set-switch that would automatically fully close the speed brakes at 4,000 feet if the speed was too low. The speed brakes were not designed to move suddenly from highly open to fully closed and then back again, but that was what the auto-land was commanding. In this critical portion of the approach the auto-land was over-correcting the travel of the speed brakes. On a manual approach the crew would have closed the speed brakes at 2,500 feet to prevent them from cross-coupling with the pre-flare pull-up at 1,750 feet. On the STS-3 auto-land approach the computer commanded the speed brakes closed 1,500 feet early, which caused an acceleration prior to entering the pre-flare that was carried to the end of the pre-flare.
In short, the auto-land system was causing wide swings of the speed brakes during the most critical portion of the landing, rather than mimicking the inputs of a manual approach. It was later discovered that the software in the simulator that everyone had considered to be the mirror image of the software in the orbiter was not that at all.
As directed in the flight plan, Lousma took over manual control when the orbiter was stabilized on IGS. This took place between 200 and 150 feet AGL. As he took control he noted that the controls “felt different” than they should at that point. The vehicle was carrying more airspeed than normal at that phase of flight. Although he was 5 knots over the gear deploy speed he called for the gear and Fullerton lowered the landing gear. It is important to note here, again for any non-pilots who may be reading this, that deployment of landing gear is normally dependent on speed and not the observations of persons on the ground or the proximity of the aircraft to that ground. In the case of STS-3, to people on the ground it appeared as if the gear had come down low and late. In fact it was deployed somewhat early as the vehicle was 5 knots too fast.
Another result of the higher speed was that the touchdown point was now farther down the runway than desired. Like any good test pilot, Lousma negated the error by simply planting the aircraft on the runway. It is important here to also note one thing about the Shuttle that a lot of people do not understand. When rolling with all of their wheels (two main with a total of four wheels and the nose gear with its two wheels) on the ground the Shuttle orbiters had a negative Angle Of Attack (AOA). Thus during the landing rollout after the main gear was on the ground and the vehicle began to slow the nose would drop through from a positive AOA, to a neutral and then to a negative AOA very rapidly. The pilot was required to compensate by consciously "flying" the nose down to the ground. Originally the orbiter’s nose gear had been designed with a longer strut to compensate for this characteristic, but a subsequent weight scrub had negated that idea. Lousma was well-prepared for this characteristic, but as COLUMBIA's main gear contacted the runway the nose immediately began to go down. The plan, however, had been for the CDR to hold nose up and perform aerodynamic braking from the point of touchdown until slowing to 165 knots. Instead, the COLUMBIA's nose gear was now headed toward the runway at 220 knots. Instinctively, Lousma made a quick pitch-up input with the rotational hand controller, but the nose continued down. He immediately entered a second input which was greeted with a rapid nose up response. He corrected by putting an additional nose down response and this time regained authority and the nose wheels were placed on the runway. The orbiter rolled to a stop 13,723 feet down the runway.
It was later discovered that there was a divergence in the longitudinal contrast software for the Shuttle’s landing configuration. That, combined with the additional speed that the auto-land system had left the orbiter conflicted with the gain setting in the software. This caused the fly-by-wire system to impose an abnormal delay between the pilot’s inputs into the hand controller and the movement of the control surfaces. In simpler terms, (engineers please forgive me for this simplification) the first stick input to counter the dropping of the nose was delayed because the software sensed that the orbiter was going too fast for such a command to be executed. Then when the second input was made the software added it to the first command and then that total was transmitted to the control surface which responded by commanding the total movement to the aerodynamic control surfaces. Lousma had nothing to do with this process other than making intuitive corrections. Had he done nothing, the nose gear would have hit the runway at 220 knots and may very well have been damaged or sheared off.
Of course to the uninformed observer, such as most reporters in the TV news media and some present-day Internet "experts," it appeared as if Lousma had botched the landing. In one good example of this misconception CBS news’ reporter Terry Drinkwater hyperbolized on the evening news that day by reporting that this was;
"The Shuttle’s least perfect landing." He then went on to further to mindlessly exaggerate; "The landing gear is programmed to come down when the spacecraft slows to 311 miles per hour, (270 knots,) but when the speed finally dropped to that, the COLUMBIA was extremely low. There were only 5 seconds between wheels down and touchdown. Close! Next, as the nose seemed to be gently settling, suddenly it lifted again. Then apparent control, but the force of the forward speed and the weight on the nose gear was close to its tolerance." He added that this was,"...likely caused by of a gust of wind or more likely a computer error, or pilot mistake."
Frankly, the only parts of that statement that were correct was the gear speed and the term “computer error.”
Thus began the myth of the "wheelie landing."
Some people then and now picture Jack Lousma in a state of embarrassment immediately after the landing of STS-3. In fact, quite the opposite is true. He was happy and excited and somewhat tickled that on this test flight, during the entry, approach and landing, the crew had uncovered a series of flaws in the auto-land system as well as the impact of those flaws on the software for the fly-by-wire system. Those problems could now be corrected so that future Shuttle pilots would not experience the same problems. That was the purpose of his flight: to test. It is also worth denoting the fact that on the previous two flights, as well as all of the ALT flights, the crews had only tested the auto-land for very brief periods of flight, and no one prior to STS-3 had tested it all the way down to the IGS, let alone exercised it as had been done by the STS-3 crew. This was flight test at its best and the results improved future missions.
Yet, even as of this writing, more than three decades
after STS-3, you can look on YouTube and find videos of the “wheelie landing.”
And if you have a strong stomach, you can read the moronic comments about it
left by people whose total flight experience extends no farther than their
computer’s keyboard, and whose research into the event goes no farther than
repeating the quips that others have posted.
Sunday, March 21, 2021
The following is an excerpt from the book "Growing up with Spaceflight- PROJECT MERCURY" and is protected by Copyright 2015 Wes Oleszewski, no part may reproduced without expressed permission or the author.
MR-BD- UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
When asked what kind of fuels it took to get the United States to the Moon, few average folks can give the correct answer. Those who are space-buffs or who actually are a part of the aerospace industry can usually name off the propellants such as LOX, RP1, LH2 and assorted hypergolic fuels. Although they are correct, they often leave out one critical fuel without which no human would ever have set foot on the lunar surface. The “fuel” that was required in the greatest quantity was... political fuel.
On March 24, 1961, an event took place that, through completely unintended consequences, would open wide the political fuel valves. It was the flight monikered as “MR-BD.” Completely unknown to those outside the program, yet destined to significantly affect the space history books, this single launch caused a good deal of animosity inside Project Mercury. Thus, it became an event that is often overlooked, and deliberately shunned by NASA itself because MR-BD caused the dominos of history to fall away from the favor of the United States and into the direction of the Soviet Union. People working on Project Mercury soon saw its effect as causing their immediate embarrassment in the press and in the eyes of the public. The result of the MR-BD colored the USA as being in "second place" in the “space race.”
Because the MR-BD mission was injected
into the flight schedule, Alan Shepard’s flight was pushed back nearly two
months. That allowed the Soviets to place Yuri Gagarin into orbit two weeks
ahead of Shepard’s flight
, and in the eyes of the world “win” the glory of
having put the first man into space. To many at NASA, the MR-BD was seen as an
unnecessary schedule slip that cost them the prize of being first.
With the hindsight of a historian, however, MR-BD can be viewed very differently.
MR-BD was an acronym that stood for “Mercury Redstone – Booster Development." It was an extra flight that famed German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team insisted must be placed into the schedule of the Mercury Redstone test flight series leading toward Alan Shepard’s suborbital mission. In the original schedule, Shepard’s MR-3 mission was supposed to launch during the third week of March. If the Soviets did not pull a red rabbit out of their hat Shepard would become the first man in space and thus “win” the space race for the United States. The problem was that all three of the previous unmanned Mercury Redstone launch attempts had run into a series of small problems with serious and, in two cases, embarrassing consequences.
When the first Mercury Redstone, MR-1, attempted to launch it had a mismatch in a two-pronged plug that pulled out of the base of the booster at the instant of liftoff. That plug was designed so that when it pulled out, as the booster began to lift from the launch ring, one prong, being one-half-inch shorter than the other, would disconnect first. On all previous Redstone's that had not been a problem because none of them had been wired the same as the manned version. In this case, the two prongs disconnected 20 milliseconds apart. Although that time span seems extremely brief to a human, in the area of electronics where electrons flow at the speed of light, 20 milliseconds is a very long time. The Mercury Redstone’s automatic system sensed the difference and shut the engine down. With that, the booster simply set back down onto the launch ring. But the electronic brain was still working and it saw this as a normal shutdown, as if the vehicle was in flight, so it automatically jettisoned the escape tower! With the escape tower gone and no acceleration being sensed, the capsule’s programming told it to go into recovery mode and it then deployed the main and reserve parachutes which popped out like corks. To say that this was embarrassing would be something of an understatement.
MR-1A was the next attempt and although it appeared to fly normally, later data analysis would show a critical problem. The carbon vanes that jutted into the exhaust flame to steer the Redstone showed an unexpected vibration. The frequency and the magnitude of that vibration grew very near to the predicted lifespan of the servo motors which moved the vanes. Loss of one of them could have easily resulted in the loss of vehicle control. It was determined that the vibration was caused simply by “…the lowered second bending frequency of the Mercury-Redstone booster-capsule configuration.”
MR-2 was next and would carry Ham the chimp. At first the flight looked normal, but for reasons that were unapparent at the time, the booster was ascending too steeply and depleting its fuel at a higher than normal rate. This was caused by the thrust controller’s servo control valve being stuck in the full open position. The result was that the propellant fully depleted at exactly 137 seconds into the burn. That was 5.5 seconds before schedule and .5 seconds prior to where the integrating accelerometer was set to arm. The Abort Sensing Implementation System (ASIS) sensed the anomaly and commanded an abort, firing the escape tower and pulling the Mercury spacecraft and Ham the chimp away from the booster. Instead of an expected maximum 12 G acceleration, Ham got hit with abort-level acceleration. He splashed down 137 miles farther downrange than planned and took about 17 G’s in the process.
Although NASA officials later displayed a healthy Ham as proof of a successful flight, the fact was that this had been an abort, pure and simple. The flight was actually aborted during boosted flight by the triggering of the ASIS. The fact that the chimp had survived was actually immaterial. Had Shepard or any other of the seven Mercury astronauts been onboard that flight, the Soviets, as well as American critics of the program (some of the most vocal of whom were actually advising President Kennedy), would have been quick to point out that all NASA had done was boost the capsule to the point where the mission was aborted by the automatic system designed to save the astronaut’s life.
In the wake of the growing laundry list of little failures, the von Braun team decided that another unmanned flight was required to test the fixes for the problems. Members of the Space Task Group, which if you will recall were the engineers charged with building the foundation of NASA’s manned space efforts, chose to ignore the von Braun team’s list of launch vehicle issues. The STG deemed the problems to be minor. Thus, the STG recommended to NASA headquarters that Shepard’s MR-3 mission should “go” according to its original schedule and launch in March. Even decades later, former members of the STG hold to their original position. In his autobiography "Flight" former Mercury flight director Chris Kraft states
“The Germans were embarrassed by the Redstone’s performance on MR-2, and by their failure to predict its fuel flow.”
Of course he ignores the fact that a
stuck servo control valve nullified any fuel flow predictions made by “…the
Germans…” or anyone else. One thing he does get right, however, is his
statement that the STG gang was “furious” when von Braun insisted on another
test. Shepard himself recalled in his
autobiography "Moon Shot" that the problem was a
simple relay and nothing more, which is also far from being factual.
In fact, in their March 20, 1961, memorandum addressing the problems with the first three Mercury Redstone flights, the STG itself cited a total of nine different issues as presented by the von Braun team at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama. They were: 1) Rudder and carbon vane vibration, 2) Instrument compartment vibration, 3) Thrust controller, 4) H202 tank pressure regulator, 5) Cutoff arming timer, 6) Roll abort sensor, 7) H202 system controller, 8) Man-hole LOX leak, and 9) Velocity integrator. It is easy to see that the issue was a chain of malfunctions that caused the flight of MR-BD to be placed into the schedule. NASA Headquarters agreed. MR-BD would fly in late March of 1961.
So put off was the STG over this
decision that they refused to allow the von Braun team to designate the flight
as MR-2A or MR-3 and, again according to Kraft’s book, they forced “the
Germans” to use MR-BD as the moniker. They also refused to allocate an actual
flight version of the Mercury capsule and denied the use of a live escape
tower. Instead the MR-BD was topped with a used boiler-plate Mercury capsule
from the Little Joe 1B mission and an inert escape tower. Nearly a half century
later, Kraft still referrers to the MR-BD as being “…von Braun’s unnecessary Redstone test.”
In aviation, or aerospace, the way that you prevent an accident or a catastrophe is when you see a chain of circumstances or failures that may lead to the accident; you break the chain. You recognize the related issues as they add up and correct the problems. In the case of MR-BD that is what the folks at MSFC did. The flight of MR-BD went off smoothly as every one of the fixes made by the von Braun team worked. Now the stage was set for the first manned Mercury Redstone flight.
By delaying the schedule, the MR-BD inadvertently played directly into the hands of the Soviets. On April 12, 1961, they launched Gagarin’s Vostok spacecraft and claimed the title of having put the first man into space. They had the illusion that this milestone would be a morale-buster for the United States and those people in the West. The Soviets, however, were badly mistaken.
There is nothing Americans hate more than losing, and coming in second is considered as just being the first one to lose. America’s new president, John F. Kennedy, had campaigned on the notion that the United States was falling behind the Soviets in many areas, especially spaceflight. It was an easy point to make considering the indifferent posture the Eisenhower administration took toward manned spaceflight. Yet, the shockwave that went through the American public due to the Vostok mission’s success now gave Kennedy the perfect opportunity to fulfill his campaign rhetoric.
Across the United States the idea that “the Russians are beating us” became entrenched among the public at large. In Congress, members heard from their home districts as the “What are you going to do about it?” questions came from every corner. Kennedy now had the political fuel needed, not only to set the course of the United States toward the Moon, but also to gain the public inertia required to actually accomplish that goal over time.
Had the STG, Chris Kraft, Alan Shepard, et.al, gotten their way and had Shepard flown before Gagarin, Americans would likely have thrown up their collective hands and said “We Won! The space race is over!” And it may very well have been the end as the political fuel to go beyond Project Mercury would have quickly evaporated.