Titov Widens the Gap

Despite the loss of Liberty Bell 7, the Mercury-Redstone phase of the program had been so successful that there was little reason for keeping it alive. The termination of the manned suborbital flights had seemed predictable after Gagarin and certain after Shepard. A month and a half before Grissom flew, the Space Task Group had decided to cancel the fourth such flight, MR-6. Silverstein and Gilruth also had considered canceling the third flight, MR-5, to concentrate on Mercury-Atlas operations. But Silverstein believed that data obtained from Grissom's MR-4 should be appraised before deciding whether to bypass the MR-5.

Besides, at that time the subject was politically sensitive. Since three astronauts were training for the Mercury-Redstone missions, the public expectation, expressed in Congress and through the press, was that there would be at least three manned Redstone flights. But if Mercury-Atlas could be expedited, an astronaut making three orbits would eclipse the cosmonaut who had made one orbit.

On August 7, 1961, all such hopes were erased by the day-long, 17- orbit flight and successful recovery of Cosmonaut Gherman S. Titov. When the U.S.S.R. announced its spectacular second space flight, some Americans were filled with awe, some with admiration, and some even with fear, while a few expressed only scornful disbelief. At 9 a.m., Moscow time, on August 6, 1961, the Soviet pilot rocketed into orbit aboard Vostok II. The space voyage of this 26-year-old Russian covered 17.5 orbits and took 25 hours and 18 minutes.58

After the data gathered from the Grissom flight had been evaluated, NASA and Space Task Group managers decided that little could be gained from any further Mercury-Redstone missions. On August 14, Paul Purser drafted a termination recommendation for Gilruth's submittal to Silverstein. Purser pointed out that the Redstone had done well its job of qualifying the spacecraft, astronauts, and most other critical aspects of the operation. Mercury-Redstone also had validated the various training devices, and it had uncovered many technical problems, none of which appeared to be insoluble before an American orbital flight.59 Now it was time to turn to the principal Mercury-Atlas problem areas, such as explosive hatch, inverter heating, oxygen usage rate, control system linkage, and egress training, and to cope with the more complex Atlas program. [378] Four days later, on August 18, NASA Headquarters publicly announced that the objectives of the Mercury- Redstone program had been achieved, and that accordingly it was canceled. Six days later, Joachim P. Kuettner, Mercury-Redstone Project Chief at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, told his subordinates that the Redstone must now be retired after helping gain a toe hold on space.60

Several accounts of the Soviet manned space feats indicated striking similarities in cosmonaut and astronaut selection and training. The Russians were chosen by a strenuous selection program, which was much like the American procedure, but their selection emphasized youth and stamina, rather than flight experience and engineering. Soviet training, like American, employed the human centrifuge, altitude chamber, isolation,technical systems study, and personal physical training. Also, three pilots trained in competition for the first flight, Titov being Gagarin's backup pilot on Vostok I of April 12. Gagarin's and Titov's accounts of liftoff and orbital flight described the same phenomena - g-load buildup, vibrations, and impressions of weightlessness.

Titov was reported to have exercised manual control. This transliteration was taken in some circles to mean that he changed his orbital plane, but the Mercury experts believed that Titov's manual control was for attitude only, like that exercised by Shepard and Grissom. Titov reported sleeping seven hours or more, and some translations indicated that he was awakened by his weightless arms floating. This last claim was too much for David Lawrence, a syndicated columnist, who suggested that the flight might have been a hoax. But the members of the Space Task Group never doubted the authenticity of either Vostok I or Vostok II. Too much was similar. Although only two or three people in the Space Task Group could read Russian, the reports translated from Soviet journals seemed to correspond to their own experience.

One of Titov's publicized problems caused concern among NASA and Space Task Group medical specialists. Before entering his rest period, Titov complained of feelings "akin to seasickness" and became nauseated. He had to be careful not to move his head too swiftly in any direction. After sleep, his nausea apparently abated; it finally disappeared completely when Titov began to feel reentry pressures. NASA aeromedical advisers suggested that the first American in orbital flight ought to guard against, watch for, and test out this peculiar physiological reaction reported by Titov and the Soviets.61

Psychologically, the Russian Vostok feats created some uneasiness in the United States. Many people admired the Soviet's technological proficiency but were concerned by the strategic implications. The fact that Titov's orbital track in a near-polar plane carried him over the United States three times was alarming to some people. In spite of the fact that the decision for the accelerated space program was confirmed, the term "space lag" began appearing more frequently in the press and in the statements of some Congressmen. Criticism of NASA, the departed Eisenhower administration, and even the Kennedy administration mounted. After the Gagarin flight, for example, Democratic Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri caustically pointed to the years of indecision that had so long delayed the Saturn launch vehicle. After the Titov flight, John W. Finney, aerospace and science writer for the New York Times, pictured Washington officialdom as carping over NASA's "easy pace" in implementing the lunar landing program outlined by President Kennedy. No specifications for a lunar spacecraft yet were evident; no agreement on the route to take or on the necessary launch vehicle had been reached. But these were mostly NASA Headquarters worries; the primary task of the Space Task Group still lay ahead. Regardless of the fact that Mercury could now only duplicate the feats of the Vostoks, Project Apollo, the manned lunar-landing project, depended upon Mercury Mark II (later named Gemini), the two-man rendezvous and docking project; and Gemini depended upon the fulfillment of Mercury; in turn, that depended upon the strength and stability of Atlas. The day Titov came back to Earth, NASA's Space Task Group announced candidly, if not calmly, that the first try at putting an American in orbit might slip unavoidably into January 1962.62


58 Gherman Titov, 700,000 Kilometres Through Space: Notes by Soviet Cosmonaut No. 2 (Moscow [1962]); Titov and Martin Caidin, I Am Eagle! (Indianapolis, 1962), based on interviews with Wilfred Burchett and Anthony Purdy.

59 For three final reports on the Mercury-Redstone program, see "Final Report Mercury Redstone Project Launch Operation," Marshall Space Flight Center, May 28, 1962; "The Mercury-Redstone Project," MSFC Saturn/Apollo Systems Office, June 1964; and Jerome B. Hammack and Jack C. Heberlig, "The Mercury-Redstone Program," paper No. 2238-61, read before American Rocket Society, Oct. 9-15, 1961. See also memo, North to Deputy Dir., Space Flight Programs, NASA Hq., "Mercury Status Items for Project Review Meeting, June 27, 1961," June 22, 1961.

60 Purser, Aug. 15 memo; memo, Gilruth to Silverstein, "Recommendations on MR-5 Flight," undated; Aeronautical and Astronautical Events of 1961, 40; memo, Joachim P. Kuettner to Eberhard Rees et al., "Final Disposition of Mercury-Redstone Project," Aug. 24, 1961; David S. Akens, Paul K. Freiwirth, and Helen T. Wells, History of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, Ala., 1960- 1962), 7, 19. In an interview on April 12, 1965, Grissom stated that some of the astronauts wanted to proceed with MR-5 because the launch vehicle and spacecraft were about ready.

61 Titov, 700,000 Kilometres Through Space, 60-79, 91-124; Titov and Caidin, I Am Eagle! 166-200; Pavel Barashev and Yuri Dokuchayev, Gherman Titov: First Man to Spend a Day in Space (New York, 1962), 93-102; Newport News Daily Press, Aug. 9, 1961.

62 Stuart Symington, "Why We Lag in Space," speech, U.S. Senate, June 26, 1961; John W. Finney, "Capital Worried by Lags in Plans on Race to Moon," New York Times, Aug. 13, 1961; Vern Haugland, "NASA Hopes to Put Mercury Astronaut in Orbit by Next December or January," Newport News Times-Herald, Aug. 7, 1961.


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