Was NASA’s First Launch Delay its Most Significant?

In January 1961, the pieces of the manned spaceflight puzzle were slowly coming together. NASA had a capsule, astronauts to ride inside it, and rockets to launch it. The capsule had even successfully launched on top of the rocket. The missing piece was the ‘go’  for a man to ride inside the capsule, but timid flight surgeons and rocket engineers were playing it safe. Had they been a little more bold, Alan Shepard could have been history’s first man in space. Instead, Wernher von Braun’s concern that his Redstone rocket might explode secured Shepard’s position as the first American in suborbital space. (Left, Alan Shepard on the morning of his May 5, 1961 suborbital flight.)

Of Men and Monkeys

The human factor of spaceflight was one the biggest concerns in the beginning of 1961. No one was entirely sure what would happen to a man in space. High altitude balloon tests that kept test pilots at near orbital altitudes for hours confirmed the environment wasn’t hazardous so long as the astronaut was properly protected. High altitude flights in aircraft like the X-15 had confirmed that men could survive short bursts of weightlessness.

It was prolonged exposure to weightlessness that doctors were most worried about. Would an astronaut be able to swallow food in space or would he starve? Would his eyes, floating free from their bodily supports, change shape and impair his vision? If the disorientation from weightlessness left him physically impaired, could NASA guarantee his safe return? No one wanted to put a Mercury astronaut into space before they knew they could get him back home safely. The Mercury astronauts were national heroes, and no one would throw their support behind the organization that kills a hero. (Right, Ham in training. Photo credit: Life.)

So NASA practiced on chimps since they’re physiologically similar to humans. Doctors devised tests for these primates that would approximate the tasks of an astronaut in orbit. The logic was simple. If the chimp survived and performed well, a man could go next. If the chimp didn’t, then it was better to have sacrificed a chimp than a man in the first wave of the space race.

Ham the chimp, whose name is an acronym for the Holloman Aerospace Medical Centre that prepared him for his flight, was the first primate launched in preparation for NASA’s manned spaceflight effort. His flight was based on the first suborbital missions planned for the Mercury program: Ham would launch on a Redstone rocket, rise 115 miles on a ballistic flight path safely cocooned in a custom made cabin inside a Mercury capsule, then splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. During his short flight, he would pull whichever one of three levers in front of his face that corresponded with a light. If pulled the correct lever, he would get a banana flavoured pellet and a sip of water. If he pulled the wrong lever, he would get an electric shock to the bottom of his feet.

Ham’s task of pulling levers was more or less equivalent to the astronauts’ role as systems monitors in the Mercury capsule. Granted, the astronauts could control their attitude while Ham couldn’t, but the basic functions were close enough to satisfy the doctors. If Ham could manage his task, the astronauts could manage theirs. (Left, another shot of Ham.)

Medical concerns weren’t the only ones going into this flight. There were technical concerns, too. The German-engineered Redstone rocket had a “hot engine” meaning it devoured its available fuel incredibly fast, so fast that Wernher von Braun described it as the hottest engine he ever tested. This complicated coordinating the launch abort system, the series of rockets that would pull the capsule free from harm if the rocket exploded. It had to be disengaged by the time the rocket burned through its fuel or the change in velocity would trigger the system. The problem was, a malfunctioning abort system that fired too early or late was almost as dangerous as one that didn’t fire at all.

To reduce the risk of the abort system misfiring, flight engineers decided to program a time for the system to shut down and jettison from the capsule. It would be armed only during launch. The hottest Redstone von Braun had tested ate through its fuel in 139 seconds, so to be safe engineers programmed the abort system to shut down and jettison after 137 seconds.

The Great Chimp Adventure

Ham’s MR-2 mission launched on January 31, 1961 and rose smoothly for two minutes and 17 seconds. Then things got dicey. The Redstone devoured its fuel in just 134.5 seconds. Sensing a change in the rocket’s engine chamber pressure before its preset shutdown time, the still active abort system sprung to life and fired. The small rockets propelled Ham away from the Redstone and carried him to a peak altitude of 157 miles. A few seconds later, the cabin’s environmental system malfunctioned and lost pressure. Ham was safe inside his personal pressurized capsule, but he wasn’t spared the problems of an electrical malfunction. Whether he pulled the correct lever or not, he got a shock to the soles of his feet. (Right, the launch of MR-2, the second Mercury-Redstone flight that carried Ham on a bumpy ride. 1961.)

The unexpected peak in Ham’s altitude exposed him to a much higher g-forces than the 17gs flight directors had anticipated. The change in flight path also affected his splashdown point, bringing him almost 50 miles downrange from his intended impact point. It took three hours for recovery crews to find and pull the soaked and sputtering chimp from the water; the ostensibly sealed capsule turned out to be quite leaky. Ham wasn’t happy when he was finally removed from the cabin; the official Mercury program history belie his rage, saying only that “it became visually apparent that he had no further interest in cooperating with the spaceflight program.”

Ham survived the problematic flight, but the malfunctions dealt a serious blow for the astronauts. The results did little to quell the fears of conservative doctors and engineers who remained wary of putting a man through the same bumpy ride. The doctors argued that Ham’s performance hadn’t been 100 percent perfect so further training and testing was needed. The Redstone’s engineers were embarrassed and concerned by their rocket’s performance. Von Braun called for a number of engineering changes and one more unmanned launch to make sure the rocket was truly safe for a man.

The Internal Struggle

Al Shepard disagreed. He was in line to make the first Mercury flight and didn’t think delaying the mission would do any good. He reviewed the telemetry data from Ham’s flight –  the Great Chimp Adventure as he called it – and saw that it was a pretty bumpy ride. Uncomfortable, but survivable. That Ham didn’t die was enough for Shepard. He wanted to fly immediately and beat the Soviets into space. Flight director Chris Kraft was of the same mind. But flight surgeons and rocket engineers stood firm in their opinions and became an obstacle between the astronaut and his mission. (Left, Shepard the morning of launch. May 5, 1961).

Unfortunately for Shepard and much to Kraft’s chagrin, Von Braun was king where rockets were concerned. He wanted another unmanned test and he got one. Kraft didn’t hide his displeasure and demanded that the test flight take the designation MR-BD for Mercury-Redstone Booster Development. He wanted to make it clear that the problem had nothing to do with the capsule or the astronaut. It was a rocket test, firmly on von Braun’s shoulders.

Kraft saw no technological benefit to the unmanned test; he saw it only as a delay in getting an American in space. He took his plea for a manned launch on the next Redstone directly to James Webb, NASA’s administrator who joined the agency when Kennedy became president. Webb considered Kraft’s argument but ultimately decided in favour of another unmanned Redstone launch. Politically, this was less risky than a possibly fatal manned flight. A dozen unmanned launches were worthwhile, he said, if it increased the odds of a safe first manned Mercury mission.

On March 24, Shepard watched the rocket he wanted to ride launch. It went up without a hitch and he was given a go for launch sometime in early May.

In the early hours of April 12, Shepard got a call. The man on the line told him Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had made one full orbit around the Earth and returned safely. Shepard’s shock gave way to fury. Not only had the Soviet Union put a man in space before the United States, but a few nervous engineers had cost him the historic title of being the first man in space. All Shepard could think was that he could have been up three weeks before Gagarin. (Right, the very successful launch of MR-BD on March 24, 1961.)

Impacts of the Launch Delay

The story of Shepard’s missed launch opportunity brings up some really interesting questions. If Shepard had launched on March 24, what would the 1960s have looked like? Would NASA have pressed on in space at the impressive pace it did, and would we have gone to the Moon? Or would beating the Soviets into orbit have been enough? Would those four years between Sputnik and Shepard’s flight have been the extent of the space race?

For argument’s sake, imagine nothing between October 4, 1957 and March 24, 1961 was different save Shepard making the first flight. I suspect NASA would still have gone to the Moon. The infrastructure for Apollo was already in place, albeit in a preliminary and ill-defined form. The Moon is also something we all see almost every day.  It’s too present in our society to ignore and the draw of visiting our closest neighbour is too great. But an Apollo program without a space race would likely have looked very different. Without the ‘race’ aspect of reaching the moon, NASA’s lunar program might have progressed at a much slower pace, closer to the 20- or 30-year timeframe typically associated with a manned mission to Mars. Or, perhaps bureaucracy would have stepped in right away and killed NASA before it could send any astronauts beyond Earth orbit. (Left, Shepard walking out to his Redstone on May 5, 1961. Photo Credit: Time.)

Looking at the Soviet Union’s technology in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine any mission launched after Shepard becoming the first man in space that could have sparked the same fear in the US that prompted the race to the Moon. Without that push, it’s possible that NASA would never have experienced the peak in productivity and inflated budget it did in the mid-1960s. Without that launch delay, it’s possible the current landscape of space exploration, and by extension our understanding of the universe, would be very different.

Kennedy pledging the nation to a landing on the Moon by the end of the decade before congress. May 25, 1961.

Suggested Reading

Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Moonshot. Virgin Books, 1994

Chris Kraft. Flight. Plume, 2001.

Gene Kranz. Failure is Not an Option. Berkley, 2000.

Newsreel about Ham’s flight, “Trailblazer in Space,” that glosses over some details.


  • Sonny says:

    Cool article! I read as well that this incident influenced NASA to go ahead with the Apollo 8 mission: sending the first manned Saturn V launch straight to the moon!

  • Reblogged this on Possibly Nonsense and commented:
    Very interesting

  • David Shomper says:

    “(Ham) was the first primate launched as part of NASA’s manned spaceflight effort.”

    While not launched in a Mercury capsule, Able and Baker were launched by NASA in 1959, 2 years before Ham:

  • Joseph Nebus says:

    Beg pardon, but I wonder if you have a citation for the bit about Ham’s name being an acronym for the Holloman Aerospace Medical (Center). Animals In Space: From Research Rockets To The Space Shuttle by Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs doesn’t offer a definitive origin of the name, and can only suggest that maybe it derived from Lt Col Hamilton Blackshear. (Ham’s name, when the Air Force purchased him from the Rare Bird Farm of Miami, was apparently “Chang”, and was changed for fear of giving the impression of an ethnic slur, according to Burgess and Dubbs.)

  • Perhaps Shepard making it into space first would have spurned the Soviets on to the moon?

    • Joe T says:

      I think you are right on with this one. Had we gone first, perhaps the embarrassment to the Soviets would have increased their desire to beat us, and hit us where it really counted, by getting to the Moon before any American could.

  • Kristi says:

    Very much enjoying your posts. Thanks!

  • Very interesting piece!!! I even have 2 of the mentioned books. I do no recall a mention to it in “Failure is not an option” But i will look for it again…

  • Tihomir says:

    Very interesting article. A great example of how an apparent failure can have positive consequences and lead to great achievements on the long run.
    Thanks for your blog! Please keep posting!

  • Michael O'Brien says:

    mostlymonochrome says: (May 5, 2012)

    ”Perhaps Shepard making it into space first would have spurned the Soviets on to the moon?”

    Has mostlymonochrome never been acquainted with the word ”spurred”?
    When one spurs (for instance) a horse, one assumedly envigorates the horse.
    When one ”spurns” something, one rejects it.

    Einstein was right. Human ignorance knows no bounds.

  • Paul G says:

    I’m old enough to remember all of those flights and the x-15 precursors. I even have a book written after Sputnik but before that time suggesting we could have beat Sputnik. See”Whatever happened to Project Orbiter?”

    What I seem to remember most was the pre-publicity on all our launches, and the fact that the Soviets never announced their intentions beforehand. That made two big differences in the two competing space programs. (1) We needed to be extra careful after so many rockets seen bursting into flames on TV, especially in the Manned Spaceflight regime, and(2), if the Soviets were ready and willing to take the extra chances their secrecy afforded them, they only needed to beat us by a day or so to make their coupe. I suggest some more research into how well prepared they were to to take that chance just after Ham’s flight. When it became clear to them that we were going to launch another chimpanzee, they may have had a bit of breathing space to get Yuri up and down safely. I am still in awe that they launched Yuri with no way to get his capsule safely back on the ground. That he had to eject in the air, and parachute to earth perhaps far, far from any rescue vehicles was quite amazing.

  • joncr says:

    Followed today’s link from 3QuarksDaily over here.

    The speculation that a successful flight by Shepard before Gagarin would have slowed or halted the space race seems unjustified. Shepard’s flight was sub-orbital, a very brief flight of 15 minutes or so. The flight in no way compared with Gagarin’s flight, and was perceived that way at the time. When Shepard did fly, it served to remind us how far behind we still were.

  • […] There are a lot of moments in NASA’s history where a different decision – say, canceling a launch or adding an item to a mission – could have radically reshaped history. One of the more interesting decisions was NASA’s choice to run an additional unmanned Mercury flight in March of 1961. Had it been manned, Al Shepard would have beaten Yuri Gagarin into space. […]

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