Chapter Seven

The Lovelace Clinic,

Albuquerque, New Mexico,

1959

     Alan Shepard walked through the front door of the Lovelace Clinic. In the large lobby there were several dozen other men milling around. They all appeared to be in their mid to late 30s and were all dressed in civilian clothing. That didn’t hide their military bearing, the crew cuts or the rings from West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs. Like them, Shepard was here because he had responded to an advertisment that NASA had placed in Aviation and Space Technology Weekly. The ad hadn’t said very much, only the agency was looking for highly qualified combat veterans and test pilots for a series of experimental flights. Intrigued, Shepard had responded, along with thousands of others. Those had been whittled down to 500 and broken into two groups of 250 candidates who had received instructions to report to the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico where they were to undergo extensive medical tests. Shepard threaded his way through the throng and walked up to the reception desk.

            “Can I help you?” asked the nurse.

            Shepard pulled an envelope from pocket inside his jacket. “Number 26,” he said. He had been given that number with assurances that the nurses would understand and instructions not to use his name. He handed her the envelope. She opened it and pulled out the piece of paper inside.

            “Ah,” said the nurse, “Right” She made a notation in the book in front of her. She opened a drawer and handed Shepard a clip-on badge with the number 26 on it. “Please have a seat,” she said. “Your number will be called in a little while. Please do not talk to any of our regular patients.”

            Over the course of the next seven days, Shepard, along with the others, who included John Glenn, Jim Lovell, Pete Conrad, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton and Gordo Cooper, just to name a few, was subjected to the most extensive and invasive series of medical tests imaginable. There were enemas, barium X-rays, sensory depravation tanks, breath tests and blood samples. There were some tests that completely threw the candidates for a loop. None of them could fathom why the doctors wanted to do a sperm motility count, and there were other tests that just seemed to be downright sadistic.

Shepard would never forget walking into the testing room and sitting down at the metal table, only to have his left arm grabbed and held in place by one nurse, while a second one strapped it down. Shepard was unable to suppress grunt of pain as the nurse slid a large needle into the fleshy part of his hand. Attached to the needle was an electrode, which was in turn attached to a generator. The nurse threw a switch was a loud snap and slowly began to turn a large dial. Shepard felt an electrical tingle crawling up his arm. It made the hair on his arm stand on end, but otherwise, it was not unpleasant. The pleasant tingling sensation didn’t last long, however. As the voltage increased, Shepard felt the muscles in his forearm begin to twitch. Then his hand began to convulse. It opened and closed as if it had a mind of its own. Shepard watched his hand in bewilderment, wondering what they could possibly glean from this. All the while, the two nurses stood in a corner, calmly making notes a clipboard. After several minutes that seemed much longer than they actually were, the generator was shut off, the needle was pulled out of Shepard’s hand and he was allowed to leave, cradling his numb and throbbing hand.

The Dolly Madison House,

Washington DC,

1959

            The 500 original applicants for Project Mercury were initially reduced to 110, and then whittled down to 69. The remaining 69 candidates were summoned to Washington DC for yet more physical and mental tests. They also learned the purpose for which they had undergone such rigorous and invasive medical tests.

            Dr. Robert Gilruth stepped on to the stage in the auditorium of the Dolly Madison House. Tall and balding, he exuded the air of a university professor, not a pioneer on the cutting edge of space research.  He surveyed the men in front of him for a brief second. Then he spoke. “Gentlemen, thank you for coming. I know that you’ve been through a lot to get to this point, and I imagine that you are curious as to what this is all about, and that is what I am here to tell you.” He paused, letting that sink in. “The National Air and Space and Administration, in response to the recent Soviet space success, is in the process of designing and building a vehicle capable of taking a single human occupant into space.” On cue, a table with several large models was wheeled on to the stage. “Allow me to introduce you to Project Mercury. The Mercury spacecraft stack will consist of the Mercury capsule, and the Redstone and Atlas rockets. The Mercury flight program will consist of several phases. The first phase will consist of a series of flights designed to test the spacecraft’s overall flight characteristics and the escape system. The next phase will utilize the Redstone rocket to test the spacecraft’s heat shield and ensure that the spacecraft will survive the stress of launch and re-entry. The third phase will ensure that the spacecraft is safe for its human occupants. Man-rating the Mercury capsule will involve a series of test flights utilizing chimpanzees in place of the pilot. The final two phases of the program will be the manned sub-orbital and orbital missions, and that’s where you come in. You are here because we are seeking seven uniquely qualified individuals for these flights. All of you here today have at least some of the qualities that we are looking for, but we are seeking a unique combination of skills and abilities. I am aware that some of you have expressed frustration with the testing process. You are free to drop out at any time. If you want to continue with the program, then please stay.”

            In the audience, Alan Shepard felt his eyebrows go up in surprise. Space flight, so that’s what all this is about, he thought. Like everyone else, he had avidly followed every development in what the media was now calling the Space Race. There had been speculation that the Soviets might try to orbit a spacecraft with a human pilot, particularly after their success with Sputnik 2, but so far it had only been speculation, and now it seemed that the United States was hoping to beat the Soviets to the punch.

            “Well, that was not the briefing that I expected.”

            Shepard was startled out of his thoughts. It was man sitting next to him who had spoken. He must have realized that Shepard was staring at him, because he held out his hand and said, “John Glenn, United States Marine Corp.”

            Shepard took the proffered hand and shook it. “Alan Shepard, United States Navy.”

            “So what do you think of all this?” asked Glenn.

            “Well its not what I was expecting, that’s for sure,” responded Shepard. “My orders were to report here for a technical briefing concerning a new landing light system.”

            Glenn nodded. “I was expecting a technical briefing concerning Soviet air to ground radar systems.”

            “So, spaceflight,” said Shepard thoughtfully. He was trying to grasp the implications of just what he had gotten himself involved in. “Are you going to stay with the program?” he asked Glenn.

            “I don’t know,” answered Glenn. “On the one hand, I signed up to fly, and this seems like a formidable technical challenge, but one the other hand….” He trailed off. Shepard knew exactly he was thinking and finished his thought.

            “We are career officers,” he said, “and in line for a flag officer’s billet one day. If we get mixed up some sort of egghead outer space project we may never live it down, and come to regret it.”

            “That is true,” said Glenn thoughtfully, “but still, there is something to be said for pushing the envelope.”

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