Langley Air Force Base
January 19, 1961
It was the end of the day, and the astronauts were anxious to go home, but Gilruth had asked them to stay. “I have something important to talk to you about,” he had said that morning. All day they had wondered what it might be. Now they were about to find out. The office door opened and Gilruth walked in. He began talking without preamble. “We’ve looked over all your test results, and taken your own thoughts and opinions into consideration.” Gilruth paused briefly. “Alan Shepard will fly first. Gus Grissom will fly second and John Glenn will serve as back-up pilot.” He didn’t wait for the astronauts to react. He simply shook Shepard’s hand and said, “congratulations, Al,” then he left.
There was a minute of sullen silence. Then John Glenn stood up and walked across the room. He stuck out his hand. “Congratulations Alan,” he said. The others came forward, following Glenn’s lead. Some were more genuine than others.
As it turned out, there was more to the selection of Alan Shepard as the first Mercury astronaut to fly in space, than simply picking a name. In January, 1961, NASA was not ready to announce that Alan Shepard had been selected to fly the first manned Mercury mission. Instead it was announced that Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn were all neck in neck for the first Mercury flight. The astronauts all looked askance at each other when they were informed of this development.
“This is ridiculous,” said an exasperated Glenn.
Grissom agreed. “Have you ever heard of anything so asinine?”
Deke Slayton, hurt that he had not even made the tope three, saw the selection of Shepard in a completely different light. “It makes sense that the brass picked Shepard,” he said. “Shepard’s a Navy man. So is Kennedy.”
It was a complication that Shepard, Grissom and Glenn didn’t need and would have happily done without. Their training was at an advanced stage. They spent much of their time in spacecraft simulators, and in detailed technical briefings where they learned the function of every last weld, bolt and rivet in the spacecraft. The Mercury spacecraft was being built for NASA by the MacDonnell Aircraft Company, in St. Louis. They also visited the factory were the Mercury spacecraft were being assembled and they made a surprising discovery.
“There’s no window,” said Shepard.
“No,” said Max Faget. Faget had overseen the Mercury design process. “We never budgeted for a window.”
Glenn and Grissom looked askance at each other.
“What do you mean you never budgeted for a window?” asked an incredulous Grissom.
Faget looked surprised and bewildered at Shepard, Grissom and Glenn. “Well, come on, guys,” he said defensively. “A window’s really heavy, and the rocket can barely lift the spacecraft as it is. There’s no way we can afford a window.”
“You assume that we care,” said Shepard.
“We want a window,” said Glenn adamantly
Faget sighed in defeat. “Alright, look the first three spacecraft are in the advanced stages of assembly. It would delay the program too much to perform a retrofit, but I promise that we will revisit the plans and design a proper window.” He held up his hands defensively. “I’m sorry guys, but that’s the best I can do.”
Glenn nodded. “That’ll be fine.”
As the pre-flight training continued, Shepard became more and more anxious. The Russians had made no moves in space since Sputnik 2, but everyone was sure that it was only a matter of time until the Russians flew a man in space. The situation was made more complicated by the fact that in the White House the new administration was still finding its footing and wanted a detailed report on the state of the American space program. The situation was complicated further when a January test flight of a Redstone missile didn’t quite go according to plan. The purpose of the sub-orbital test flight was to test the spacecraft’s communication system. The spacecraft’s occupant was a chimpanzee named Ham. Ham had been trained to respond to remote commands sent to the spacecraft from the ground. When he responded to the correct stimulus in the correct way, Ham was to be rewarded with banana pellets. However, a malfunction in the rocket’s turbopumps caused the rocket to fly higher, faster and with a higher G load than the mission profile had called for. Because of the missile’s higher trajectory, the re-entry was also faster and steeper. During the flight, Ham was also subjected to constant electrical shocks. For these reasons, both the the Kennedy Administration, and NASA decided that another unmanned test flight was needed. The delays frustrated Shepard to no end. At one point, he even buttonholed, Wernher von Braun, NASA’s chief rocket designer, saying, “for God’s sake, let’s fly now.” But von Braun, with NASA and the White House in his corner, refused. In April, Shepard’s window of opportunity to be the first human being to fly in space closed.
Langley Air Force Base,
April 13, 1961
It was early in the morning when Shorty Powers was startled awake by the jangling telephone on the nightstand next to the bed. He groaned sleepily, rolled over and picked it up. “Hello,” he said blearily.
“Yes,” said Powers. Now he was getting annoyed. “Who is this?”
“Colonel, my name is John Boyd. I’m a reporter with the New York Times.”
“It’s three in the morning, Mr. Boyd, is there something I can help you with?”
“Yes, Colonel there is. We’ve just had confirmation that the Russians have launched a man into space. Would you care to comment sir?”
“Why don’t you call me back in the morning,” said responded Powers. “We’re all asleep down here.” It was not until after he had hung up the phone that Powers realized the momentousness of Boyd’s news and what he had just said.
The next day, the astronauts and the President were peppered with questions by the press. Shepard was staying at the Starlite Hotel, in Cape Canaveral. When he was told the news by someone from the Public Affairs Office, he immediately turned on the TV to see thousands of jubilant Russians swarming Red Square in honour of their new space hero. Shepard slammed his hand down on the table so hard that he actually left a dent in the surface and the NASA press people were afraid that he’d broken it. John Glenn, once again acting as the astronauts’ unofficial spokesperson, was forced to go before the press and concede victory to the Soviets. “They just beat the pants off us, that’s all,” he said. “There’s no use kidding ourselves about that.”
Later that afternoon, President Kennedy also made a statement for the press. “We are behind,” he said in his distinct Boston drawl. “And it will be sometime before we catch up.”
April 14, 1961
The White House,
The non-descript looking government car pulled through the White House gates. It passed under the portico, but didn’t stop. It turned a corner and stopped in front of a side entrance. James Webb and Hugh Dryden got out of the car. They walked inside, where they were met Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy’s Chief of Staff. “Mr. Webb, Mr. Dryden, thank you for coming. Please come with me, the President is anxious to meet you.” Without looking back, Sorensen led Webb and Dryden down a long, wide corridor. Their shoes clacked on the highly polished marble floor. Original artwork, much of it over a hundred years old hung on the walls. After awhile, they entered the West Wing and Sorensen escorted them into the Oval Office.
President Kennedy was waiting for them in his rocking chair in between the two long sofas that dominated the middle of room, in front of the large mahogany desk. The President stood up as they entered and walked across the room to greet them. He extended his hand, which they took with a polite, “Mr. President.”
“Welcome to the White House,” said Kennedy. “This is my science advisor, Jerome Wiesner.”
Dryden and Webb shook hands with Wiesner.
Kennedy gestured to the sofas. “Please sit down.” They all sat. Kennedy seated himself in his rocking chair and began speaking without preamble. “I have to say gentlemen I am surprised that Russians were able to get the drop on us like this. What happened?”
“Mr. President,” began Webb, “the Russians’ rocket technology is somewhat more primitive that ours. This due is in large part their more primitive nuclear weapons program. Their weapons are bigger, so they need to build bigger missiles to launch them.”
Dryden jumped in. “A capsule is naturally going to be much larger and heavier than a satellite. The Russians have heavier launchers, so they were able to get to a manned mission before we were.”
“I see,” said the President. “How are we planning to respond to the Russians?”
“We plan to have a man up on a short flight in early May,” responded Webb.
“I think the better question,” interjected Sorensen, “how do we leapfrog the Russians?”
“What about putting up a laboratory of some kind,” said Kennedy. “Would that be possible?”
“It would be possible Mr. President,” answered Webb, “but not advisable.”
“Why is that?” asked the President.
“Because they would beat us,” answered Dryden.
“How so?” asked Soresen.
“If we got into a heavy lifting race with the Russians,” replied Webb, “which is all that launching a space station demonstrates, we would lose for at least five years.”
“I see,” said the President, mulling this information over. “If you were in my position, what would your response be?”
“A moon race,” said Webb.
“The moon?” asked Wiesner sceptically. “Is that even possible?”
“Mr. President,” said Dryden, “As of right now it’s no more possible for them than it is for us, but with effort, it could be done.”
“What do you mean by effort?” asked Kennedy.
“I mean at least a decade of concerted national effort,” replied Dryden. “To put things in context, it would be roughly equivalent to the Manhattan Project in scale.”
“I see,” said Kennedy, mulling over this information as well. “Exactly how much would this cost?”
“We have projected the cost of such an undertaking as coming in at somewhere between fifteen and twenty billion dollars.”
Sorensen gave Kennedy a significant look. “Ploughing twenty billion dollars into the economy would make us very popular,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” said Wiesner. “Politics aside, I just don’t see a motivation for this. All we are going to get for our money is rocks. Why not send up a probe to bring some back and send them on a world tour? I don’t see why we would need to spend twenty billion dollars, or risk a man’s life to do that.”
“Mr. President,” said Webb, “I must respectfully disagree with that opinion. I think that the moment that a man sets foot on the moon would a watershed moment in human history.”
President Kennedy appeared to be pondering Webb’s words. He was silent for several seconds then he stood up. “Thank you gentlemen,” he said, shaking their hands again. “You’ve given me much to consider.”