Watching the Space Race: Suborbital Radio Days

by Walt Staples

It was the merry month of May, and I was greeting it in my usual fashion—that is to say, coughing my head off. There is something of early May that doesn't like me and, I must admit, I ain't real fond of it either. My mother and I had pulled into a parking place outside Springfield Pharmacy to pick up a new prescription which was sure to cure what ailed me (yeah, right, just like the last six or eight) and a model kit and a couple of comic books to sooth my un-fevered brow (okay, the lady knew the way to a grumpy ten-year-old's heart).

We had been half-listening on the old Buick's radio to the chatter from Cape Canaveral as the newsmen tried to keep each other and their audience from sliding into terminal ennui while yet another hold on the countdown crawled by. NASA had been trying to get Freedom 7 off the pad since the 2nd of May, and the cancellation the day before hadn't inspired much hope in us that the bird wouldn't continued to hang fire on this Friday morning, 5 May 1961. Just as my mother reached for the key to cut the engine off and put the broadcasters in Florida out of their misery, somebody said, “We have go at countdown.” The two of us leaned back against the wide bench seat; okay, we'd play along a tad more. We were rewarded with “T-minus ten-nine-eight-seven”—and on down to liftoff. We sat entranced staring at the front of the AM radio with its missing station selection button.

It seemed like a couple of years later that the announcer reported “splashdown”--a new word--for Alan Shepard, the first American to “ride the stack,” and that both astronaut and Mercury capsule were safely aboard the carrier. At that point, life returned to its more-or-less normal course--at least until the next launch.

The U.S. had been doing a slow burn since Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Air Force senior lieutenant, had become the first man to orbit the Earth on 12 April 1961. It was galling to always be following the Soviets' tracks. So far, the closest an American had come to spaceflight, were the pilots of the X-15 program out at Edwards AFB skipping along the vague boundary between the atmosphere and space. It was spaceflight, sort of, but pretty much unsatisfying to the citizenry.

At 09:34 Eastern Time, we finally got a biped that didn't chatter and pick up things with his feet into space, if only for a few minutes. The launch vehicle was one of von Braun's Redstones (the basis for the Jupiter-C/Juno 1 that lofted Explorer 1 into orbit three years before). The entire flight lasted a bit over 15 minutes from launch to splashdown off the Bahamas. The Mercury capsule measured 81 inches (32 cm) long by 74.5 inches (29.5 cm) in diameter at its widest--the reentry heat shield--and had sat atop the 63 foot (19 m) tall Redstone.

The word is, that originally, NASA was going to go for a totally automatic flight system like the reported Soviet practice, the astronaut more along for the ride rather than piloting the Mercury capsule—the “Spam in a can” school of spaceflight. There are various versions of why this was changed, but Alan Shepard was able to control the Freedom 7's movements in three axis. The flight had lasted 15.5 minutes, traveled 302 miles (486 km), and reached a max altitude of 116 miles (187 km). The time from splashdown to astronaut and capsule arriving on the USS Lake Champlain's deck was around 11 minutes—a speedy performance which would not be equaled again any time soon on later flights. Especially not with Gus Grissom's following suborbital Liberty Bell 7 flight on 21 July 1961or that of the first American to orbit, a “Mig-Mad Marine,” five months after that.

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