Watching the Space Race: High Expectations and Low Comedy

By Walt Staples

The lights of Deerfield twinkled below as I sat watching the fire. It was the week of deer season west of Blue Ridge and I was counting the days until Thanksgiving that November of 1960. In just three more days, I'd be ten. On the other side of the campfire, Junior glanced at his watch. “Hey, it's about six. Let's go see how the launch went.”

His father, slouched in a lawn chair, said, “You boys go ahead. I'm comfortable.” My father nodded his agreement.

Four of us were in the party that year; me, my father, a friend of his who worked for the government, and the friend's teenaged son, Junior. It had snowed the night after we'd made camp at the spring atop Virginia's Elliott Knob. On the way up to the Knob after seeing my grandmother and uncles, my father had decided that he smelled snow, so we stopped in Craigsville and picked enough groceries to keep us the week.

This deer season was special for me. It was the first in which I was allowed to carry a gun. I carried my father's old Stevens .30-30 bolt-action whose butt stock he'd cut down to fit me. At four foot tall and and about 80 pounds, the Stevens knocked the dust off me every time I fired it, but I figured it'd be worse on the deer's end of the equation. There were a couple of strings attached, though. One of the adults had to be with me and he had to give me the “go” signal before I could take the shot. In preparation before we came down from Northern Virginia, I had had to hit in the target's 10 ring seven out of eight shots. Also, I had to keep all the rifles and shotguns clean.

Inside the tent, Junior pulled the radio from under his cot. It was a special one as it could pick up FM broadcasts in addition to the normal AM, which explained why this small (for its time) radio was slightly larger and much heavier than a boombox. As he snapped it on and we waited for its tubes to warm up, I pulled out the gun cleaning kits, made sure the guns were indeed unloaded, and set to work. After sound began to come out of the speaker, he tuned the radio back and forth until a rich voice said, “...Evening, this is Douglas Edwards with the news. At Cape Canaveral today”--he had our whole attention--”the Mercury-Redstone test did not launch due to technical difficulties. The capsule's escape tower did, however, successfully attain an altitude of some 4000 feet. NASA reports technicians are examining the Redstone booster as we speak. It is expected that this will move the suborbital test launch of the unmanned Mercury capsule into December. In other news, UN troops clashed with Congolese government forces in Leopoldville...” Junior and I looked at each other—huh? The rocket didn't launch but the escape tower worked?


The technicians at Canaveral were indeed examining the Mercury-Redstone, MR-1, but from a very long distance. A very long, safe distance. The reason for their standoffishness was that they had a fully fueled booster rocket sitting on the pad with live batteries and live explosive devices just waiting to make a very spectacular fireworks display.

Until 7 November 1960, MR-1 had been fully two days ahead of schedule. This alone should have had people rubbing rabbits' feet and watching for incoming asteroids. It is an old engineering truism that if things are moving smoothly, you're probably missing something. What the folks at Huntsville and the Cape were missing was that the MR-1 Redstone with its increased tankage and the capsule weighed  more than a normal Redstone. Possibly, they were lulled when things seemed to return to normal with the scrubbing of the 7 November launch because of a drop in helium pressure within the capsule control system. After removing and tearing down the capsule to replace a helium relief valve and hydrogen peroxide tank, and to redo some wiring, the bird was reassembled and readied for launch on 21 November.

Well, it launched...sort of. When ignition occurred, the MR-1 rose majestically to an altitude of approximately 4 inches (10 cm) and the engine cut off. The bird settled back on the pad, no doubt with a thud (with all the racket of the Rocketdyne A-7 engine's initial firing, this, mercifully, was drowned out). The escape tower's engines fired next and the tower, leaving the capsule--that it was supposed to lift to safety--firmly in place atop the booster, rose to 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) and traveled 400 yards (366 meters) downrange—the epitome of “suborbital.” A few seconds later, the cover of the capsule's parachute compartment flew off and the drogue chute deployed, followed by the main chute and, then, the reserve chute; the three of which draped fashionably down over the side of the capsule and booster. Potentially, the entertainment wasn't over yet, as sitting atop 20 tons (18,160 kg) of liquid oxygen, ethyl alcohol—aka: ethanol—and hydrogen peroxide (a unfriendly mix at the best of times) were live retro rockets, explosive bolts, and a number of other pyrotechnic devices outlawed for 4th of July festivities, in addition to fully charged batteries in the ungrounded booster. Piling on yet more joy, the innocent parachute trio hanging over the side, if caught by the wind would topple the booster-capsule combination with unpleasant results. Happily, for Wernher von Braun and the NASA crew, Flatus, German god of winds, apparently relented and the airs stayed calm.

 The next morning, when the batteries hopefully were exhausted, an extremely brave team led by Walter Burke of McDonnell Aircraft Corporation—builder of the capsule—disarmed the pyrotechnics and removed the hanging umbilical cord from the ungrounded rocket.

So, what caused NASA's shortest flight? When the Redstone's engine fired and the rocket began to lift, it moved slower than the original Redstone missile because it was heavier. A modified, too-long ground  (another account says “control”) cable pulled out before the umbilical was pulled away. This caused a relay to trip as the ground plug came out more slowly than on the earlier missile, shutting down the engine. At shutdown, the escape tower thinking that the rocket had reached its normal engine shutoff altitude, blew its explosive bolts and jettisoned itself as no longer needed. The capsule getting an abort message below 10,000 feet (472 meters) began its proper parachute deployment sequence. So, for want of a nail—or in this case, a proper-lengthed cable--NASA ended up with a wrinkled rocket, an altitude record it really didn't want, and egg on its face.

The next effort, MR-1A, involved a Frankenstein's monster made up of parts cannibalized from future missions. As the capsule was undamaged, it was mated with the escape tower from spacecraft number 8, and the antenna fairing from number 10, and seated atop a new booster, MR-3. The MR-1 booster was shipped back to the Huntsville shop and now receives visitors at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

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