National Geographic : 1961 Sep
names for functions: Telemetry, Electrical Power, Environmental Control, Communica tions. We seldom spoke except for our lacon ic responses in the countdown. At intervals the rhythm was shut out when Astronaut Leroy G. Cooper, Jr., switched Augerson and me to the private line which permitted telephone conversation with the pilot. Cooper was serving as capsule com municator in the blockhouse, the same role Astronaut Donald K. ("Deke") Slayton was playing in the control center. "Are You Really Ready?" During one of these moments, at about T minus-6 -minutes, I asked Shepard for an honest answer to an honest question. "Are you really ready?" I asked. He laughed and shouted, "Go!" "Good luck, old friend," I replied. Now it was about 9:30. Shepard had been in the capsule four hours and a quarter; in the suit about six hours and a half. T-minus-25-seconds: The blockhouse lyrics sang: "LOX tank pressurized." "Vehicle power." Now the time was at hand. The umbilical tower dropped away from the Redstone, breaking our direct line connections to boost er and capsule. The bird was on its own pow er and feeding us radio telemetry information. The announcer's voice betrayed excitement as the final words of the liturgy rang through the blockhouse public address system: "Igni tion... Mainstage ... Lift-off!" The word "lift-off" was almost shrill. Then came a softer, calmer voice from the capsule: "Roger, lift-off, and the clock is started." Shepard's timepiece in the capsule now would give him precise readings for the start and termination of each critical function. The booster roared, filling the blockhouse with thunderous noise, a surprising noise, a noise I could feel. But to Shepard it was less noise than he had expected. In his own words, "The lift-off was very smooth." Tapes flew through the recorder before me as I interpreted lift-off data: pulse 124, res piration 30, deep body temperature 99. I did not see the actual launch (page 425); the blockhouse windows are in another room, and I was too busy to look at the four TV screens behind me. Crowds of eyewitnesses did watch from the beach adjoining Canaveral (pages 428-9). Hundreds of reporters peered through binoc 420 ulars on the Cape, and workers on near-by gantries laid aside tools to see this most im portant launching in the Cape's history. The minds of these watchers were filled with the sobering realization that this rocket, this roaring bucket of fire, carried a man, not just a load of instruments. Tears sprang to the eyes of men and women alike, and many found themselves praying. "O.K., Jose, you're on your way!" came Deke Slayton's voice from the capsule com municator's console in the control center. It was a reference to an old joke among the as tronauts about a television spaceman dubbed Jose Jimenez. Flight controllers in Mercury Control Cen ter had taken over the responsibility now. Upward the capsule flew, slowly at first, then fast, faster, fastest. Up through the vibra tion at the speed of sound-Mach 1, Mach 2. Faster still, beyond the roughness of max imum aerodynamic pressures, up into the atmosphere's geography where names like troposphere, stratosphere, ozonosphere, and ionosphere apply. Past Mach 3, Mach 4, the three of them flew-the booster, the cap sule, and Shepard. Past 2 g's, 3 g's, 4 g's, and 5 g's. Explosive Bolts Release Capsule For a few seconds at about Mach 1, when aerodynamic pressure reached its peak, vi bration made the instrument needles appear a little fuzzy. However, the pilot was able to read his meters accurately. Then he re ported, "Smoother now, a lot smoother." He had experienced the only real difficulty of the entire flight. T-plus-142-seconds: "Booster cutoff." The Redstone howling its way down the Atlantic Missile Range became abruptly si lent.* Explosive bolts fired, the clamp ring fell away, the tiny posigrade rockets gave their little 20-foot-per-second push to the capsule, and the g's were gone. "Cap sep is green," the astronaut an nounced. Capsule and booster had separated. The most dangerous moment of the flight had passed safely. There were backup cir cuits designed to ensure firing of the explo sive bolts, and Shepard, who had a personnel parachute, might have survived a high-speed bail-out if the capsule had not separated. But more likely, rocket, capsule, and passenger would have plunged at high speed into the *See "Cape Canaveral's 6,000-mile Shooting Gallery," by Allan C. Fisher, Jr., NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, Octo ber, 1959.