Schirra’s Stellar Navigation

John Glenn trains in a Mercury simulator, the Mercury Procedures Trainer. Credit: NASA

John Glenn trains in a Mercury simulator, the Mercury Procedures Trainer. Credit: NASA

Simulators have always been an integral part of spaceflight. In the case of the all important reentry and landing phase, simulators were like analogue versions Google Earth: reproductions of landscapes from specific altitudes taught astronauts to look for when lining up their spacecraft for reentry. But as Wally Schirra learned on his Sigma 7 flight, landing simulators can’t prepare you for everything.  [Read more...]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: The Mercury ‘7’s

Each of the Mercury missions had a name followed by the number 7. Alan Shepard flew Freedom 7, Gus Grissom in Liberty Bell 7, John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 (pictured), Scott Carpenter in Aurora 7, Wally Schirra flew Sigma 7, and Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7. Deke Slayton never flew because of a heart condition, but had he flown his mission would have been Delta 7.

So, what’s with all the ‘7’s?  [Read more...]

Shepard: First American in (Suborbital) Space

I’ve talked in previous posts about the first manned Soviet space program, Vostok, and Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. One aspect neither of these posts touched on, however, was the reaction in the United States. Understandably, Americans were less jubilant about Gagarin’s flight than the Soviets. But the feelings of defeat, frustration, and in some cases fear soon disappeared when on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

In the grand scheme of the space race, the first man in space almost pales in comparison to the feat of placing a man on the moon. But the race for manned flight was extremely important in the early 1960s. Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight was, like Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission, the climax of years of preparation and training, and it set in motion a chain of events that set the course of the space race. The flight was a fifteen-minute suborbital hop, officially classified as a pre-orbital training flight, but Americans didn’t care. An American had been in space. (Pictured, Shepard in Freedom 7 the morning of launch. May 5, 1961.) [Read more...]

Not Exactly Rocket Science

A while ago, I talked about NASA’s invention of landing methods for the Mercury program – what to do when finding a solution for an entirely unknown problem. Tied into the question of landing methods for NASA’s first manned program was the design of the capsule. The basic constraints were laid out fairly early on in the program. Mercury would use a ballistic design proposed by Langley engineer Maxime Faget and splashdown in the ocean. This was the simplest method. In returning from space, NASA was content to let gravity do most of the work. (Pictured, Mercury model makers Richard Altimus and Arthur Lohse with model finisher John Wilson. 1960.)

With the basic capsule design set, there remained smaller design questions needing answers. What ballistic design would fare best against the heat of reentry? Throughout the descent stage, would one ballistic shape have better inherent stability than another or would the astronaut have to control the capsule’s attitude all the way down? Once the capsule was in the ocean, would it float? If the astronaut had to get out of the capsule, would it still float with a hatch open? In the 1950s, NASA sought answers to these questions in an age before computer programs could immediately generate answers. And so they did the next best thing. They tested model capsules, each shape designated by a letter, and picked the best design through trial and error. [Read more...]

Sailors, Ships, and Splashdowns

I’ve been posting a lot about landing methods – NASA’s use of splashdowns, why the method was not a long-term solution to the problem of returning from space, and a comparison to Soviet methods. The former, splashdowns, have been a focus of a number of posts. I have previously focussed on the complexity of splashdowns and the significant resources involved as driving force behind NASA’s pursuit of land landing methods with its second-generation manned spaceflight program. But this only tells half the story. A look at the numbers of men and ships involved offers a different illustration of the reasons to pursue a land landing method. (Pictured: The crew of the USS Champlain cheer on Alan Shepard following his Freedom 7 splashdown, 1961.) [Read more...]

Designing the Perfect Astronaut

The experimental, creative, and at times imaginative nature of the Mercury program has always fascinated me. The program and the decision that preceded it answer a totally unique question: what do you do when you suddenly need to put a man in space and you have no previous experience to build off of? [Read more...]