Friday, May 5, 2023


 Flying aboard his Mercury capsule, christened “FREEDOM 7,” Alan Shepard made a sub-orbital hop down the Atlantic Missile Range. Officially the flight was designated Mercury Redstone Three or, more commonly, MR-3. His flight lasted just 15 minutes and 22 seconds. On the ground the news media on both radio and TV really did not quite know how to actually broadcast a spaceflight. After all, they were used to broadcasting political conventions and ball games and this was nothing like that. In fact, considering that the Soviets did their launches in secret, it was like nothing that had ever been broadcast before.


Shepard rode the Redstone for 142 seconds. At that point the engine cut off exactly as planned and the escape tower jettisoned itself simultaneously. Although Shepard heard the event, he did not see any part of it other than the green light that indicated tower jettison. Next, he heard the clamp-ring that held the capsule to the booster blow apart and saw the green light that indicated the event. He also felt what he described as “a little kick in the tail” when the posigrade separation motors fired and separated the spacecraft from the booster.

Now Alan Shepard was flying in space.

Automatically the Mercury spacecraft rotated around to what was known as the “blunt end forward” attitude needed for reentry. From that position Shepard exercised FREEDOM 7’s manual controls in the pitch, roll, and yaw attitudes and reported periscope observations for all of two minutes. Then, at five minutes and 14 seconds into the flight it was time for the retro sequence. The retros fired on time and one minute later the retro package was jettisoned. Shepard heard what sounded like the pack letting go and saw some small bits of debris out the porthole, as well as part of one of the restraining straps, but he did not get an event light indicating the jettison. Instinctively he hit the manual “JETT RETRO” override switch and the green event light illuminated. After years of preparation to fly in space and months of preparation for this specific flight, all of which involved countless problems that could occur, this single little glitch with the retro package jettison light was the only thing on Shepard’s flight that did not go as planned.

FREEDOM 7’s reentry carried a high “G” load and Shepard momentarily soaked up 11 G's – 11 times the force of what a person experiences in normal gravity, or 1 G. The high G loading lasted only a few seconds, after that Shepard simply sat there and dropped into the atmosphere. At nine minutes and 38 seconds into the flight, FREEDOM 7’s drogue parachute deployed and shortly thereafter the main chute deployed normally. FREEDOM 7 splashed down so close to the recovery helicopters that even before Shepard could get a good start at reading his instruments and switch positions as required during the post flight process, the recovery “helo” had already hooked onto the capsule. Concerned that the capsule may be a bit too low in the water, Shepard radioed up and asked the recovery helo to lift FREEDOM 7 a bit higher. As soon as that happened, he took off his helmet, hung it on the hand-controller, reached over his right shoulder and cranked the lever that opened the hatch. He then sat on the hatch sill and grabbed the horse collar that was lowered from the helicopter. Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space was safely landed aboard the carrier USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN, and thus brought the Free World to a standing ovation.


A number of myths and legends have grown around Shepard's historic first flight. From a Hollywood movie that played VERY loosely with the facts, to poorly produced documentaries, to sanitized accounts published by NASA and “LIFE Magazine,” to personal accounts drafted from memories with plenty of wear on them – it is often hard to drum out something close to the actual events. Since my personal account of FREEDOM 7 ranges no farther than my grandma’s TV set and watching the launch at age 4, I figured it would be fun to denote a few of those odds and ends of the mission here.

One commonly held myth is that Shepard reported aspects of his condition and those of his capsule as being “A-ok.”

In fact, Shepard never used the term “A-ok” during the mission. The term “A-ok” was actually popularized by NASA Public Affairs Officer (PAO) John “Shorty” Powers who announced the flight. Yet the term “A-ok” was instantly integrated into the general public’s spaceflight vocabulary. In the early 1960s my parents bought me a little blue jumpsuit with astro-insignias all over it. The one on the right chest was a round white logo that had a red “A-ok” on it.

Many people think that during Shepard’s flight, the public heard his voice calling out readings and making observations as it happened.

In fact, not a single word that Shepard spoke during the mission was allowed to be heard live by the public. Only those who were inside NASA working the mission and had a “need-to-know” were allowed to hear the live air-to-ground transmissions. This may seem amazing today when nearly every word of a spaceflight is broadcast live. Yet, although NASA was far less risk averse in the Mercury days, they were far more image aware. All of the air-to-ground transmissions that the Mercury astronauts broadcast were filtered through PAO Shorty Powers, who then repeated to the public a “NASA-correct” version of what was being said. Later, shortly after the flight, films of the mission had the edited recorded voice track of the astronaut dubbed in and from there on that became the “official version” of the mission. As the Gemini program came into being, the voices of the crew on orbit were allowed to be broadcast- but were normally done so by NASA on a time delay. Reentry and launch air-to-ground was not allowed to be heard live by the public until, believe it or not, Apollo 10. Prior to that, since the live broadcasts were quickly forgotten by the general public, those official films and clips that were later fed to the public soon developed the illusion that everything was always heard live. This became especially engrained in the public after Apollo 10, when all future launches and reentries carried live air-to-ground voice.

The Soviets plotted to liquidate the first American astronaut

Fact- Exactly who would be the astronaut to fly aboard the first Mercury spacecraft was kept a close secret within NASA.

All that was released to the public were the names of the top three choices: Glenn, Grissom and Shepard. It was not until after the scrub of Shepard’s original launch date on May 2 that NASA decided to actually make public his identity as the first United States astronaut to fly. There were very elevated concerns that if the Soviets found out which of the seven Mercury astronauts were actually slated to make the first flight, the Soviets might assign agents to do harm to that individual. This, however was a myth. Historians digging into the KGB archives years later found no such inclination at all by the Soviets.

Fact- Shepard’s FREEDOM 7 spacecraft was unique because it had a manually opened hatch.

The hatch itself was closed with 70 bolts, but was released from the inside by way of a mechanical handle located over Shepard's right shoulder. Spacecraft 7 was the only manned Mercury capsule equipped with this hatch, which weighed 82.23 pounds. The other manned Mercury spacecraft all saved weight by having a pyrotechnically removed hatch, which weighed just 22.9 pounds.

Myth- “What a beautiful view”

His spacecraft also differed from the other manned Mercury vehicles because it was equipped with two portholes rather than a forward forward-facing window. That forward facing window, however, ate up a large part of the weight saved in the use of the light weight pyrotechnically opened hatch.

Shepard can be heard during the flight describing the “Beautiful view” seen through his periscope. That was a myth concocted by Shepard himself. Remember, FREEDOM 7 was the only manned Mercury spacecraft that did not have a “pilot’s” window. Instead, the spacecraft had two portholes located approximately where the astronaut’s elbows would be. It was nearly impossible for a pressure-suited astronaut with a helmet on to see much of anything through those portholes. Like most of the manned Mercury spacecraft, however, Shepard’s had a periscope. The periscope was a handy tool, and the Mercury crews liked it. As Shepard waited through a series of pre-launch holds, he had nothing to do other than look out through the periscope. At sunrise, as the vehicle sat on the pad, the sun shined directly into the periscope, so Shepard put in a dark gray filter to cut down the glare. Unfortunately, when he remembered to remove the filter prior to launch, as he reached out for it the pressure gage on his wrist contacted the “Abort” button. Shepard immediately decided that he was not going to monkey with those filters anymore because initiating a pad abort, with the escape tower pulling the capsule away from a perfectly good booster because you were messing with periscope filters, would be hard to explain in the debriefing. During his flight, there was a specified point where he was supposed to look through the periscope and make a report. Dutifully, he deployed the periscope and discovered that the dark filter heavily obscured what he could see.

“I really couldn’t see a damned thing through it,” he confided to Gus Grissom after the flight, “so I just gave the same weather report that I’d been given in the preflight briefing and called out some known landmarks.”

In fact, if you read the actual weather briefing given to Shepard before the launch and compare it to what he broadcast back to the ground it is almost word-for-word the same – with a few well-known landmarks thrown in. In the transcript of his recorded debriefing, Shepard is evasive about this part of the flight and finally resorts to answering questions about his ability to see landmarks by simply saying “I don’t remember” repeatedly. In that same debriefing he does, however, remember every other tiny detail about the flight. Hummmmm.

Myth: The pre-launch thumbs up

In that near-fictional movie titled “The Right Stuff,” Shepard is shown stepping from the transfer van at the launch pad, stopping and looking up at the booster then giving a big “Thumbs Up.” He did stop and look the booster over, but he never did the thumbs-up. Additionally, the movie shows him stepping from the recovery helicopter onto the carrier deck and having his first footprints on the deck outlined in yellow paint. That never happened either. Of course, those are just two of a large number of errors in that movie.

Facts- Oil derrick and Surfside 5

The service gantry used on Shepard’s Mercury Redstone was a former oil derrick that was disassembled and trucked to Cape Canaveral during the early 1950s. It was set up at the newly established Launch Complex 3 & 4 to service the Army’s first Redstone tests. The gantry was moved on common railroad rails in order to clear the rocket. Sometime between March of 1955 and April 1955 the tower was lowered, and the gantry was moved to the Army’s new Vertical Launch Facility. It was there that the gantry serviced FREEDOM 7’s launch vehicle.

Early image of Redstone IRBM and the service tower used for Freedom 7 several years later.

Shepard’s launch gantry also had a special enclosure constructed on it that would surround the Mercury spacecraft and keep out the rain and the sun plus most of the sand and dust. The enclosure was air conditioned by a 10-ton machine and today would be called a “White Room.” In 1961, however, there was a TV show that ran on ABC every Monday night starring Troy Donahue, Van Williams, Lee Patterson, Diane McBain and Margarita Sierra. The private eye type plots were set in Miami and the show was called “Surfside 6,” so the folks at the pad decided to call their white room “Surfside 5.”

It is also true that Shepard peed in his spacesuit while on the launch pad. The flight had been planned for just 15 minutes, so there would be just over four hours between the time Shepard was zipped into his space suit and zipped out of his space suit; and a good pilot can hold his water for that long. Unfortunately, assorted launch delays lengthened that time and the astronaut’s bladder began to send signals insisting on being de-tanked. After some discussion, it was decided to cut the power to his bio-medical equipment and allow Shepard to wet his pants. On the next flight a sort of diaper arrangement was improvised.

So, although the flight of FREEDOM 7 was a historic event that was planned to the smallest detail, there were still some odd aspects to it. The legends and myths about the flight grew on their own, unfortunately aided by TV and movie producers who knew and cared nothing about spaceflight.

Although Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called the flight of FREEDOM 7 “a flea’s jump,” Shepard’s flight was 100% successful. To many Americans it was a grand-slam home run scored in a game of spaceflight with the Soviets where we had previously been hitting foul balls and striking out. The flight helped influence President Kennedy to set the nation’s course toward a landing on the moon. Additionally, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs political disaster the previous month, the FREEDOM 7 mission was the first major positive political event in the Kennedy administration. Overall, May 5, 1961, was a very good day in the free world… oddities, myths and legends aside.

For detailed accounts of all of the Mercury flights, check out Wes' book HERE
 Or get an autographed copy HERE



1 comment:

  1. Excellent article, do we know if Shepard really uttered the phrases "Light this candle", and the infamous astronaut's prayer or are these another artifact of the cinema version of The Right Stuff?