Final Preparation for MR-3

The Space Task Group had decided to train Shepard, Glenn, and Grissom especially for the MR-3 mission because the competitive field had to be narrowed for this particular mission to allow the remaining astronauts to prepare for ground support jobs and the Mercury-Atlas orbital missions. Shepard's activity chart for February 1961 shows that he spent 18 days at Cape Canaveral becoming oriented to spacecraft No. 7 and its peculiarities. Long before the final phases of pilot preparations came about, Shepard and Walter C. Williams had insisted that the designated astronaut must become an integral part of the preflight checkout activities. So, based on this procedure, Shepard and Glenn acquired the special feel of No. 7's attitude control system in hangar checkouts. When the capsule was placed in the altitude test chamber, Shepard went along for the "ride" and exercised the environmental control system.

The most valuable operational training the astronaut received before his mission came from sessions in two McDonnell-built, Link-type trainers, one at Langley and the other at the Cape. These devices were first called "procedures trainers" and later "Mercury simulators." Here the space pilot, supine in a mockup capsule, rehearsed the flight plan for a specific mission. The trainer instruments were capable of being tied in with computers at the Mercury Control Center. Overall operations team practice welded ground controllers and astronaut into a unit. Although not devoted exclusively to the MR-3 mission, the simulators were in use 55 to 60 hours a week during the three months preceding the flight of Freedom 7. During the entire training period, Shepard "flew" 120 simulated Mercury-Redstone flights.5

For an eight-week period immediately preceding the flight, the rehearsals became even more exacting. In preparing for the altitude chamber runs at space equivalent altitudes, the astronaut was examined in preflight physicals, fitted with medical sensors, including a rectal thermometer, and helped into his 20-pound pressure suit. The pilot and his medical attendants then went through the mission as realistically as conditions would allow, conducting pressure and medical checks.

Another carefully rehearsed phase of the program consisted of the transfer [345] of the pilot from his quarters on the balcony of Hangar S to the transfer van, the ride to the pad, and simulated flights with the astronaut sitting in the actual spacecraft. Countdowns were conducted while controllers manned their consoles. The first two rehearsal "flights," held on April 18 and 19, kept the service structure, or gantry, against the vehicle, and the capsule hatch was not closed. But the next day, on a third simulated mission, the hatch was closed, the gantry was pulled away, and the spacecraft was purged with oxygen as if an actual mission were in progress. Training like this and in the procedures trainer continued until two days before the scheduled flight.6

Three purposes were served by this extensive training program. The astronaut became intimately familiar with the role and voice of each person supporting the mission. He acquired more physical and mental familiarity with all of the associated hardware. And he was made even more aware of the day-to-day status leading to launch date. The operations team benefited by having the astronaut attend the team's technical briefings. These discussions covered both the spacecraft and the launch vehicle and included mission reviews held the week before launch.

On the eve of the launch, a briefing was conducted exclusively for the astronaut, with specialists in each system reporting on final readiness. Walter J. Kapryan presented the capsule and booster status; Robert B. Voas reviewed astronaut flight tasks; Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., briefed the astronaut on flight control and network status; Robert F. Thompson told him of recovery procedures; and Ernest A. Amman gave him the forecast on weather conditions. Next morning, L. Gordon Cooper, blockhouse communicator, obtained reports from key operations personnel and gave the astronaut his final ready- room briefing before he ascended the gantry. Plans for the postflight debriefing sessions, wherein the student astronaut would become the teacher of his preflight instructors, were also laid out in detail by the end of April.7

The planning of recovery operations was as important as any other phase of the mission. Rear Admiral F. V. H. Hilles, in command of the experienced flotilla of eight destroyers known as DesFlotFour, worked with another flag officer, G. P. Koch, aboard the carrier Lake Champlain, on the tactics for this mission. STG's primary strategy was to recover both man and capsule by using land-based Marine helicopters for launch-site abort situations within about 80 miles of the Cape and carrier-based helicopters in the primary recovery area, within a hundred-mile radius. Makeup of the recovery force was similar to that for MR-2, with tiered groups of men and equipment, beginning at Cape Canaveral, ready to cover all contingencies - abort, normal flight, or overflight. The main recovery force of ships was deployed in an elongated pattern 500 miles down along the range. It consisted of the carrier, eight destroyers, and one Atlantic Missile Range radar tracking ship. The helicopters again were manned by Marine Air Group 26, a veteran recovery unit.8

Some innovations were added to the recovery plans as a result of experience [346] gained in the MR-2 chimpanzee flight. For one thing, there was still the possibility that Freedom 7 might overshoot its landing target, in which case the time factor could be vital. Obviously a highly mobile unit was desirable. Walter Williams, operations director, requested an amphibian SA-16 aircraft with a pararescue team as an emergency rescue measure. Two such teams were provided, adding the support of the Air Rescue Service and Navy frogmen to Project Mercury.

A second change involved communications. When the spacecraft was near impact it passed below the radio horizon; Williams reminded the Air Force Missile Test Center commander that continuous voice communications with the astronaut in the final moments of flight and after impact required a communications relay plane. The Air Force assigned a communications aircraft, code-named Cardfile 23, to the mission.9

The helicopter recovery technique was perfected late during the astronaut preparation period. According to the original helicopter recovery procedures, the chopper would lift the spacecraft with the pilot inside and ferry both to the ship. John Glenn protested that the danger in this procedure to both astronaut and helicopter pilots was too great in case trouble developed during the operation. He strongly recommended further review. After much study and practice of procedures, STG decided at a conference on April 15, 1961, to use helicopters as the primary mode of recovery. The helicopter would arrive, hover over the spacecraft, and talk with the pilot by UHF. The helicopter copilot would snip off the capsule's high-frequency antenna, snare the capsule recovery loop, and raise the vehicle slightly out of the water. By this time the astronaut would be completely out of harness and the hatch would be clear of the water. Then the astronaut would open the side hatch, crawl through, and catch a second sling lowered from the helicopter. The helicopter would hoist both astronaut and spacecraft and carry them to the main recovery ship.10

Since a man was to be aboard this flight, another vital part of the planning activities involved weather reporting and surveillance. Beginning in June 1960, Francis W. Reichelderfer, chief of the United States Weather Bureau, had promised to Administrator Glennan and provided for the Space Task Group full meteorological support for Project Mercury. By mid-April 1961, a special weather support group, consisting of three units under Kenneth M. Nagler, was utilizing every resource of the Bureau (including the satellite Tiros II) to forecast the weather accurately for STG.11

Before MR-3, the seven-man Miami forecast unit, headed by Jesse R. Gulick, analyzed reconnaissance data on weather conditions for 200 miles beyond the planned launch and recovery areas. Weather Bureau aircraft from Miami overflew the area at altitudes of 5000 to 20,000 feet, then, three hours before launch, dipped down below 1500 feet. The flight plan followed a box pattern, with the amount of surveillance dictated by weather conditions at a particular point. The recovery ships were integrated into a weather-reporting mission, [347] making reports at assigned times and providing special surface observations, such as sea state and wind velocity, at the critical time near launch. Weather observers at the launch site also kept a careful watch on air and seawater temperatures, relative humidity, cloud cover, and winds.12

As the flight date neared, STG personnel briefed the ship crews of the recovery force. Martin A. Byrnes, Robert Thompson, and Charles I. Tynan, Jr., of STG found the naval crews not wholly trained in the specifics of this particular mission. So they immediately initiated a brief education program, giving talks, providing reading material, and showing motion pictures of the MR-2 chimpanzee flight. Tynan also carefully briefed each man charged with capsule-handling duties on his particular role. To cradle the recovered capsule the Navy had constructed 20- by-25-foot dollies and topped them with old mattresses. Then aeromedical teams arrived, prepared sick bay areas, and briefed the ships' medical personnel. After one medical group found that two members of one of the destroyers had recently contracted hepatitis, the crew members of that ship were barred from donating blood, even in an emergency. Byrnes, who felt that the recovery-force briefings should become standard procedure for succeeding flights, said that the Navy was pleased with the pep talks.13


5 House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 2 sess. (1962), Aeronautical and Astronautical Events of 1961, 7; "Individual Astronaut Monthly Training Schedules, Sept. 1960-Feb. 1961," undated; Donald K. Slayton, "Pilot Training and Preflight Preparation," in Conference on Medical Results of the First U.S. Manned Suborbital Space Flight: A Compilation of Papers, NASA in Cooperation with National Institutes of Health and National Academy of Sciences (Washington, 1961), 95.

6 "Pilot Preparation for MR-3 Mission," undated; Carmault B. Jackson and Richard S. Johnston, "Astronaut Preparation and Activities Manual for MR-3," NASA/STG, Dec. 1, 1960.

7 Memo, Sigurd A. Sjoberg, et al., Flight Operations Div., STG, to Assoc. Dir., "Astronaut Briefing and Debriefing for MR-3 Mission," April 4, 1961; letter, Walter C. Williams to Comdr., Air Force Missile Test Center, re personnel at Grand Bahama debriefing, April 26, 1961.

8 NASA News Release 61-99, "Mercury-Redstone 3 Press Conference, Cape Canaveral," May 5, 1961; memo for files, Martin A. Byrnes, STG, "Recovery MR-3," May 11, 1961; "MR-3 Recovery Operations," anon., undated. R/A G. P. Koch directed recovery operations in the impact area. His supporting ships and their commanders were: carrier, Champlain, Capt. R. Weymouth; destroyers, Decatur, Cdr. A. W. McLane; Wadleigh, Lt. Cdr. D. W. Kelly; Rooks, Cdr. W. H. Patillo; Sullivans, Cdr. F. H. S. Hall; and Abbott, Cdr. R. J. Norman; and radar ship (DDR) N. K. Perry, Cdr. A. O. Roberts. The recovery force again included the P2V aircraft under Cdr. R. H. Casey, Jr.

9 Letter, Williams to R/A F. V. H. Hilles, March 14, 1961; letter, Cdr., Air Force Missile Test Center, to Hilles, "Mercury Air- Ground Voice Relay and Real-Time Display in AMR Telemetry Aircraft," March 21, 1961.

10 Message, [Cdr. DesFlotFour] to STG et al., April 19, 1961; memo, Sjoberg et al., to NASA Assoc. Dir., "MR-3 Postflight Debriefing of Alan B. Shepard," Aug. 22, 1961. As it turned out, the same helicopter pilot team (Marine Lts. Wayne E. Koons and George F. Cox) that practiced with the three astronauts in the special training team effected the water recovery of the first suborbital spaceman. Wayne E. Koons and James L. Lewis, interview, Houston, Sept. 16, 1965.

11 Letter, F. W. Reichelderfer to T. Keith Glennan, June 9, 1960; memo, Williams to Maj. Gen. Leighton I. Davis, "Meteorological Support of Project Mercury," Aug. 31, 1960; Reichelderfer to Gilruth, April 18, 1961, with enclosure, "Status of Weather Support for Project Mercury, April 1961."

12 "Operations Requirements No. 1904, Mercury-Redstone Launch," Feb. 15, 1961.

13 Byrnes memo.


Previous Next Index