Chapter Fourteen

Mercury Control

May 5, 1961,

8:55 AM

     Chris Kraft couldn’t help but smile at Shepard’s enthusiasm, and he found himself agreeing with Shepard. Enough waiting, thought Kraft, let’s go. He got on the Flight Director’s loop. “All controllers give me a go/no go for launch.”

            “Booster.”

            “Go.”

            “Surgeon.”

            “Go.”

            “Capcom.”

            “Go.”

            “Retro.”

            “Go.”

            “Fido.”

            “Go.”

            “Guido.”

            “Go.”

            “Environmental.”

            “Go.”

            “Procedures.”

            “Go.”

            “Systems.”

            “Go.”

            “Network.”

            “Go.”

            “This is Flight, we are go for launch.”

Freedom 7

            On board the spacecraft, Shepard heard a voice in his ear begin the terminal countdown. In the background, he heard the sound of fuel flowing from the rocket’s tanks into the plumbing system and into the manifolds. Oh Lord, he thought, please don’t let me fuck up.

            10

             9

             8

             7

             6

             5

            4

            3

           2

           1

            Flames poured from the engine bells of the Redstone rocket with a loud roar. Shepard braced himself in his form fitted seat, remembering the bone crushing centerfuge training. This sensation was different. It was very smooth and Shepard felt as though he was riding in a fast moving elevator. He reached up and pushed a button on the console in front of him. “Lift off,” called out Shepard, “and the clock is running.”

         Deke Slayton’s voice spoke in Shepard’s ear. “You’re on your way, Jose.”

         “Roger that,” Shepard answered, “reading you loud and clear. Freedom 7 is go, fuel is go, cabin pressure is 14 PSI, 1.2 Gs, oxygen is go.”

        “Copy that, Freedom 7,” said Slayton. “You’re looking good.”

          “Acknowledged,” Shepard responded. Through his periscope, which was his only view of the outside world, Shepard saw the ground fall away very quickly. In what seemed like less than thirty seconds, Shepard went from ground level to the altitude of a civilian jet liner. He could see the Cape and everything within a hundred miles of it in a single glance. In no time at all, he could see all of Florida. He kept reading out spacecraft telemetry. “Fuel is go, 5.5 Gs, cabin pressure 5.5, oxygen is go. All systems are go.”

        “Copy that Freedom 7. You are still go.”

         “Roger that,” said Shepard. He flipped a switch and bright sunlight streamed into the spacecraft through his two tiny portholes. A second or two later he felt, rather than heard a dull, muffled thud and then a bang as the escape toward was jettisoned, and the spacecraft separated from the spent rocket.“TOWER JETTISON,” he called out. “CAPSEP is green.”

       “Confirm tower jettison and spacecraft separation,” acknowledged Deke.

       “Turn around has started and the periscope is coming out,” Shepard reported. His perspective changed as the spacecraft performed a 180 degree longditudinal flip, so that the heat shield was facing the proper direction for re-entry. He was at the apex of his trajectory and he felt a new sensation, a sudden lightness, the feeling of being in free fall. If it weren’t for his safety harness, Shepard would have floated out of his seat. He laughed. It was a wonderful sensation. Then he remembered where he was. “Switching over to manual control,” he reported. He took hold of the joystick and tested the reaction control thrusters. “Roll, pitch and yaw are all green,” he reported.

          “Roger that,” said Slayton.

           “I have a beautiful view in the periscope,” said Shepard. Through the periscope he could, he could see the entire eastern seaboard at a glance, from the Florida Keys, all the way to New York. “I can see cloud cover over Florida,” he reported. “Three to four tenths near the eastern coast, all the way up to Cape Hatteras. I can see Okeechobee, and I can identify Andros Island and the coral reefs.” Shepard was flying out over the Atlantic Ocean now and he had brief glimpses of the islands of the Caribbean as they slid into and out of view in his periscope.

         “Freedom 7,” said Deke, “stand by for retro fire.”

         “Copy,” replied Shepard. “Standing by.”

         5

         4

         3

        2

         1

         Shepard felt the staccato bursts of the retrorockets strapped to the underside of the heat shield. “Retro One. Retro Two. Retro Three.” He flipped a switch. “Setting RETRO JETTISON to ARM.”  There was a dull boom, as the retro pack was jettisoned. Inside the cockpit, the RETRO JETTISON indicator light remained dark. “I do have a light,” Shepard reported. “I heard a noise and saw the strap falling away. I am switching to MANUEL OVERRIDE.” He flipped up a clear plastic cover and pushed the red button beneath it. The green RETRO JETTISON light came on.

      “Copy that, Freedom 7,” Deke said. “Confirm manual override.”

       “I am retracting the periscope and switch to fly-by-wire,” said Shepard. “Going to re-entry attitude. He could feel the spacecraft beginning to slow as the leading edge of the heat shield bit into the atmosphere. He found himself becoming increasingly heavy, as the spacecraft dropped deeper and deeper. As the spacecraft dropped deeper and deeper into the atmosphere, friction began to build up on the face of the heat shield, to the point where it began interfere with the communication system. Shepard could hear the static crackling in his ear and he switched to the spacecraft’s UHF antenna. “Control, Freedom 7, com check. Please respond.”

      “Copy that, Freedom 7,” answered Deke. “We read you five by five.” The channel was still statickey, but much improved.

      “Acknowledged, Control,” said Shepard.

       By this point, Shepard felt as though he weigh several hundred pounds. The G forces were building very rapidly. He watched as the G force indicator jumped from one G to three, and from three to six to nine, all in the space of about ten seconds. It was like having an elephant stand on his chest. Ok, he thought, Ok. Shepard’s eyes flicked to the altimeter. He was dropping rapidly, from brushing the edge of space a little more than minute ago, he was already passing through 45,000 feet and dropping like a rock.

       40,000 feet.

       35,000 feet

       30,000 feet.

       Shepard heard Deke’s voice in his again. “Capcom, Freedom 7, how do you read?”

        “I read you loud and clear, Deke,” replied Shepard. The spacecraft jerked and slowed. The DROUGE DEPLOY light blinked on. The altimeter read 21,000 feet. “The drogue is green and the periscope is out.” Through his periscope, Shepard could see the sun and clouds and the azure waters of the Atlantic. At 15,000 feet the snorkel was extended. Shortly after that, Shepard felt another tug. The MAIN CHUTE DEPLOY light clicked on and the spacecraft began to sway gently from side to side. Shepard keyed his mike. “Cardfile 23, Freedom 7, do you read?”

       A voice spoke in Shepard’s ear. “Freedom 7, this is Indian Capcom, how do you read?”

       “Indian Capcom,” responded Shepard, “I read you five by five. I am at 7,000 feet my main chute is green, my landing bag is green and my peroxide is dumped. Please relay to Cardfile 23. Do you copy?”

       “Copy that, Freedom 7.”

        A different voice crackled in Shepard’s ear. “Freedom 7, Cardfile 23. Do you copy?”

       “Cardfile 23, this is Freedom 7,” said Shepard “I am at 1,500 feet, my peroxide is dumped, the landing bag is on full and my chute looks good.” Shepard slid open the clear lexan visor on his helmet and began to disconnect him self from the spacecraft’s life support system. With a thump, and a splash, the spacecraft struck the surface of the water. Shepard heard gurgling noises, sea water worked its way into the unpressurized equipment spaces behind Shepard’s seat through gaps in the hot hull plates, as they contracted in the cold sea water. He also heard the steady thud of a helicopter. “Freedom 7, this is Cardfile 23. I have a hook on your spacecraft. Are you ready to come out?”

       “Standby, Cardfile 23,” responded Shepard. He finished disconnecting himself from the life support and communication systems. “Freedom 7, Mercury Control, please respond.”

        Deke’s voice spoke in his ear. “Control, Freedom 7, we ready you loud and clear. What is your status.”

        “My status in A-OK,” replied Shepard. “Preparing for spacecraft egress. This is Freedom 7 signing off.”

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