Launch Complex 5
May 5, 1961
Alan Shepard was too keyed up to sleep very much. Today was going to be the day. He could feel it. He got up and walked to window. He peeked through the blinds and saw a clear sky with bright stars and only a few wisps of cloud. Good, though Shepard, clear weather for the launch. On the other side of the room, John Glenn lay in bed, asleep, snoring softly. Presently the door opened and Bill Williams, the astronauts’ doctor entered.
“It’s time,” said Williams.
Shepard nodded and shook Glenn awake. They showered and shaved. After a breakfast of steak, eggs, toast and orange juice, Shepard walked down the hall to the examination room, where Williams was waiting for him. Shepard had hangnail on one toe, which Williams clipped. He was sunburned as a result of spending a little too much time outside and he had blister near one of the tattoos that the technicians had marked him with so that they knew where to place their biometric sensors. Otherwise, he was in excellent health.
Glenn stopped by the examination room, just as Shepard and Williams were finishing. “Is there anything you need? Anything I can get you?” he asked.
“No,” said Shepard. “Nothing.”
“Alright,” said Glenn. “I’ll see you on the pad.”
Shepard continued down the hall, until he came to another room. He opened the door. Inside several technicians were waiting for him. There was a stainless steel table with a shiny silver spacesuit laid out on it. Shepard walked and sat down in the large chair. The Mercury spacesuit was derived from the US Navy’s Mark IV pressure suit, which had been designed by BF Goodrich for the primitive, unpressurized cockpits of the first generation of jet fighters that had been built by the Navy and the Air Force during and after the Korean War. The spacesuits worn by the Mercury astronauts were made of rubber and perfectly fitted to the contours of the astronauts’ bodies. With some difficulty and the assistance of the three technicians, Shepard was able to worm his way into his spacesuit. Shepard stood up. The spacesuit felt slightly bulky and made movement somewhat difficult, but not overly so. He walked to the door, opened it and stepped into the hall. The corridor was lined with people on either side. When they saw him they burst into applause. He walked the length of the corridor, pushed open the door and stepped outside into the pre-dawn darkness. Waiting for him was a large van, with its side door hanging open. He climbed in and sat down in the specially reclined seat. Gus Grissom was sitting in the seat next to him. Shepard began to feel a surge of adrenaline and felt slightly apprehensive. He had flown thousands of hours in jets of all types. He had flown in combat many times. He had been training for this two years, and yet he couldn’t help but feel slightly nervous at the thought being hurled into space on top of a rocket that had been built by the lowest bidder. The door shut the van’s engine rumbled to life. It pulled out, turned a corner and headed for the launch pad.
For awhile, the tense silence was broken only by Shepard’s portable cooling unit and rumble of the engine. Finally, Shepard decided that if somebody didn’t say something, he would crazy. He turned to Grissom and went into the first Jose Jimenez routine that popped into his head.
“Hey Gus,” said Shepard in his bad Hispanic accent, “do you know what it takes to be an astronaut?”
The astronauts had regaled each other with Bill Dana’s Jose Jimenez skits many times, and knew all of them by heart. “No, Jose,” replied Grissom, “what does it take to be an astronaut.”
“It takes courage,” said Shepard, “and the right blood pressure, and four legs.”
“Why four legs, Jose?” ask Grissom.
“Because,” answered Shepard, “they wanted to send a dog, but thought that would be too cruel.”
Both men laughed.
Grissom was about to say “go blow up.” It was an old test pilot’s invocation, somewhat analogous to “break a leg,” but somehow, it didn’t seem right. Grissom let the words die, unsaid.
The van stopped and the door opened. Shepard got out. High over head, a waning moon shed its dim light down on the scene. The Redstone rocket was bathed bright light from numerous large flood lights. Everything seemed to be surrounded by a hazy blue glow. Shepard stopped in his tracks for a moment. He wanted to say something, something inspirational to all the pad technicians, to thank them for their hard work and for putting up with him through all the long months of gruelling and difficult training, but he found suddenly found that he couldn’t talk. His throat had closed up. Instead, he waved, which was somewhat difficult to do, as his gloves were zippered to his spacesuit at the wrist. Shepard walked over to the elevator at the base of the large A-frame gantry. He got in and rode up to the Green Room. When the elevator stopped and the doors opened, John Glenn was waiting. He was dressed in a pristine white smock and matching cap. Already small, the Green Room was filled with technicians who were taking readings and making final adjustments the spacecraft. Next to the hatch the name that Shepard had chosen for his ship had been stencilled on to the curved black hull, Freedom 7.
Two of the technicians took the rubber overshoes off of his feet, and another took the portable cooling unit. Shepard peered into the spacecraft and found a surprise. Glenn had put a sign that read NO HANDBALL PLAYING IN THIS AREA on the instrument panel. Next to it was a centrefold from a nudie magazine. Shepard laughed and handed them both to Glenn. With some assistance, Shepard squeezed through the tiny hatch and into the cramped spacecraft. Freedom 7 was barely big enough for its occupant, yet for the next hour, numerous heads and hands squeezed themselves into various parts of the tiny spacecraft. Some helped Shepard buckle himself into the custom fitted contour couch. Others plugged his suit into the life support and communication systems, took instrument readings or make final adjustments to one piece of equipment or another. All of them shook Shepard’s hand. An hour later, the pad crew was ready to seal Shepard into the spacecraft. Just before they did, Glenn stuck his head through the open hatch, one last time.
“Happy landings, Commander,” he said. He shook Shepard’s hand, and Shepard gave him a thumbs-up. The pad technicians lowered the hatch into position and bolted it in place. Their work done, the ground crew and Glenn evacuated the launch pad. It was at that moment that they realized that they had just sealed a man into the nose cone of a ballistic missile.
Inside Freedom 7, Shepard was trying to get comfortable his cramped environment. He was just starting to run through his pre-flight checklist when a voice crackled in his ear. “Jose? Jose, do you read me?”
“Roger, Deke,” answered Shepard. “I read you five by five.”
Deke was the Capsule Communicator, Capcom, for Mercury Mission Control, a few miles away. “Roger,” he said. “Don’t cry, too much Jose.”
By this time, Shepard had buttoned up inside Freedom 7 for close to an hour. He looked at the watch strapped to the outside of his spacesuit. It was almost 7:00 AM, which was the planned time for the launch. Shepard keyed his mike. “Launch control, this is Freedom7, please respond. Over.”
“We read you, Freedom 7. Go ahead. Over.” It was Gordo Cooper.
“Launch control, what seems to be the problem? It’s 7:00. Is there something I need to know? Over.”
“Freedom 7, the countdown has been held for weather.”
“Launch control, this is Freedom 7,” said Shepard, “please repeat your last transmission. Did you say weather?”
“No, you heard correctly, Freedom 7,” said Cooper. “There is a cloudbank coming in off the ocean over your position. The count has been held to let it pass.”
“Goddamnit,” Shepard swore.
Shorty Powers cut in on the air-to-ground loop. “Watch your language,” he warned. “Everything you say is going out live.”
“Copy that,” said Shepard.
Thirty minutes later, the count resumed, however, it was held again, not long after that when an electrical inverter failed and needed to be replaced, which took nearly an hour. The count resumed again after that stopped twenty minutes later when the computer that processed the spacecraft’s telemetry developed a glitch. As the delays continued to mount, so did Shepard’s frustration.
Three hours after being sealed into his spacecraft, Shepard began to feel it. His bladder was full. Oh hell! he thought. I knew shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee this morning. He keyed his mike. “Freedom 7 to launch control, please respond.”
“This is launch control,” said Cooper. “Go head Freedom 7.”
“Gordo,” said Shepard, “I have to go. Badly.”
“Standby, Freedom 7.”
In the blockhouse, Cooper couldn’t believe what he had just heard. He pushed a button on his console. “Flight, this is Capcom.”
“Go Capcom,” said Flight Director Chris Kraft.
Cooper relayed the substance of Shepard’s problem.
Kraft conferred with Wernher von Braun who was sitting next him, listening in on all the communications loops.
“No,” said von Braun emphatically. “Absolutely not.”
“Capcom, this is Flight. That’s a negative on that request.”
“Copy that, Flight,” said Cooper. He relayed Kraft’s decision to Shepard.
On board the spacecraft, Shepard was not happy at this news. “Goddamnit,” he swore. “Cooper, you tell them to bring the gantry back in and get me to the head, otherwise, I’m going to have to go in my suit.”
“Flight,” said Bill Williams, “this is the Flight Surgeon.”
“Go,” said Kraft.
“ If he relieves himself in his suit, there is a possibility that he could short out the biometric instrument package. He could electrocute himself, Flight.”
“Roger that,” said Kraft. He relayed this information to Cooper.
“Flight, Capcom,” said Cooper. “He’s been in there for over three hours. Why not just pull him out?”
After conferring with von Braun for a minute or two, Kraft came back on the line. “That’s a negative on that,” he said.
Cooper thought for a minute. “Flight, Capcom. What if we turned off the power to those systems. He could relieve himself without the risk of electrocution.”
“Stand by, Capcom,” said Kraft.
“Flight Surgeon, Flight.”
“Go ahead Flight,” said Williams.
“We’ve had a suggestion from Capcom to turn off the power to the biometric instruments,” said Kraft. “Shepard would be able to relieve himself without the risk of electrocution.”
“We’re a go on that flight,” he said.
“Copy that, Flight Surgeon.” Kraft turned to von Braun, who he knew was listening in on the conversation. “What do you think, Wernher?”
“I concur,” responded von Braun. “The risk is acceptable.”
“We’re a go on that manoeuvre, Capcom,” he said.
“Roger that, Flight,” acknowledged Cooper.
On board Freedom 7, Shepard heard Cooper’s voice in his ear. “Freedom 7, Launch control, please respond.”
“Launch control, this is Freedom 7, go ahead.”
“Freedom 7, we have a solution for your problem. We are turning off the power to the medical instruments. When you’ve dried out, we’ll turn them back on again. Do you copy?”
“Roger that,” answered Shepard.
“Freedom 7, we are turning off the power now,” said Cooper.
Over the open communications loop, Cooper heard a loud “Ahhhhhh!”
Shepard felt the cool wetness pooling in the small of his back and seeping into his heavy cotton underwear. Ten minutes later, after he had dried out sufficiently, the medical instruments were turned back on, and the countdown resumed. The countdown proceeded smoothly for the next hour. At two minutes before launch, the count was held again. This time, it was a problem involving the pressure valve in the rocket’s liquid oxygen fuel tank. Resetting the valve would require scrubbing in the mission and postponing the launch, again, or trying to vent the excess pressure from the fuel tank.
Shepard had been sitting in the spacecraft for nearly four hours, and he was fed up. He keyed his mike. “Launch control, Freedom 7.” Shepard didn’t wait for a response. “I’m cooler than you. Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle!”