Chapter 14

Climax of Project Mercury

[461] WALTER M. Schirra, a naval aviator who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his combat missions over Korea, received his most important assignment to date on July 27, 1962. It was the flight plan for Mercury-Atlas 8, a six-orbit flight that was to qualify the spacecraft and man's endurance for an extended spatial mission. A new plan, revised slightly for yaw-reference experiments using the periscope, was delivered on August 8. This was almost 60 days before the mission, allowing the period for training that Scott Carpenter had recommended. Carpenter had received his MA-7 document late, and major revisions had been inserted almost until launch day. Although Schirra's flight plan was altered in September, it did escape a thorough last-minute rewrite.

MA-8 was to be an engineering flight, in contrast with the exploratory nature of Glenn's flight in MA-6 and the developmental and scientific nature of MA-7. Schirra was expected to concern himself largely with the management and operation of the spacecraft's systems to conserve hydrogen peroxide attitude control fuel and electrical power. The MSC planners had examined the minute-by-minute details from launch to recovery in the interest of spacecraft endurance and had programmed only a few experiments that would require fuel or electrical power. The pilot was to try to observe a ground xenon light of 140-million candlepower at Durban, South Africa, and four flares of 1-million candlepower each that would be launched near Woomera, Australia. The only other experiment requiring astronaut participation included some weather and terrestrial photography as the pilot sighted targets of opportunity. Besides these experiments, several passive test devices were superimposed on the spacecraft's exterior. Eight ablation panels, consisting of several types of material, were fused onto the afterbody's beryllium shingles, and a white paint patch was brushed on the capsule's side for still more evaluations of spatial thermal effects on various materials.1

Early in August, Schirra trained energetically for a targeted September launch; spacecraft No. 16 was almost ready for a simulated flight in Hangar S; and Atlas No. 113-D had arrived at the Cape. Then on August 11, the Soviet Union, [462] without prior announcement, launched Vostok III. NASA leaders, who had endured much needling on the space gap since Gherman S. Titov's 17-orbit flight, a little more than a year earlier, grimly read the press reports. The five-ton Vostok spacecraft, with Major Andrian G. Nikolayev aboard, was in an orbit with a 156-mile apogee and a 113-mile perigee, inclined (as usual for Vostoks) at 65 degrees.

The "gap" seemed to become a "gulf" the following day, when Vostok IV, carrying Lieutenant Colonel Pavel R. Popovich, shot into an orbit with an apogee of 157 miles and a perigee of 112 miles. Soon after the second launch, Nikolayev reported that he had sighted Popovich's spacecraft. Western tracking stations variously reported that the two craft were as close as 3 and as far as 300 miles apart. Intercepted communications between Nikolayev (code-named Falcon) and Popovich (Golden Eagle) caused serious speculation that the Vostoks might try to rendezvous, but apparently no such attempt was made.

On August 15, Nikolayev landed after 64 orbits and more than 95 hours in space. Popovich touched down six minutes later, after 48 orbits and more than 70 hours' flight.2 The U.S. decision to accelerate the space program called for by President Kennedy in May 1961 seemed more than validated to most critical observers. Meanwhile engineers who were designing what became the Gemini vehicle for rendezvous with an orbiting Agena rocket studied the possibility of adding a space-maneuvering capability to Mercury. On August 24, Kenneth S. Kleinknecht, the Project Office chief, reported that such an innovation would require at least 400 pounds of additional spacecraft hardware and fuel. Upon hearing this, Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., the Mercury flight director, dourly observed that this added weight might dangerously degrade the capsule's chances of reaching orbit, but Robert R. Gilruth asked Kleinknecht to continue his studies. A few days later the Mercury Project Office and the Flight Crew Operations Division handed the MSC director a joint proposal for maneuvering an orbiting Mercury spacecraft close to a passive Echo-type satellite. But because of time, weight, and safety considerations, Gilruth and his management lieutenants rejected the proposal, abandoned the idea of a maneuverable Mercury spacecraft for the time being, and turned back to the more prosaic but essential business of preparing for the modest doubled-distance, six-orbit flight slated for Walter Schirra.3


1 Memo, Richard E. Day, to Management Analysis Office, "Monthly Activity Report, Flight Crew Operations Division," July 30, 1962; memo, Warren J. North [to Management Analysis Division], "Activity Report, Flight Crew Operations Division," Aug. 28, 1962; "Flight Plan for MA-8/16," NASA/MSC, Aug. 7, 1962; "Postlaunch Memorandum Report for Mercury-Atlas No. 8 (MAŚ8)," NASA/MSC, Oct. 23, 1962, Part I, "Mercury Scientific Experiment Panel: Abstract of the Proceedings at the MA-8 Meeting," MSC, July 19, 1962.

2 House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 88 Cong., 1 sess. (1963), Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1962 (Washington, 1963), 148, 153; "A Space Gap? And How!" Washington Daily News, Aug. 13, 1962; "Orbiting Reds Nearing Each Other, Western Ground Observers Report," Washington Post, Aug. 14, 1962; "Soviet Prestige in Space," Washington Evening Star, Aug. 19, 1962; Seymour Topping, "Russian Astronauts Only 3 Miles Apart on Closest Paths," New York Times, Aug. 22, 1962.

3 "Minutes of the Senior Staff Meeting," MSC, Aug. 24, 1962; memo, North [to Management Analysis Division], "Activity Report, Flight Crew Operations Division," Sept. 23, 1962. A rather complete series of proposals for the maneuvering Mercury spacecraft, including pictures of possible configurations, is contained in "Mercury Maneuvering Proposal," NASA/ MSC, Aug. 29, 1962.


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