Chapter 13

Mercury Mission Accomplished

[411] Prospects looked bright to the managers of Project Mercury at the beginning of 1962. In store was Mercury-Atlas 6, scheduled as a manned orbital flight and viewed by some as a salvage operation for America's space prestige. If one of its citizens, Marine pilot John Glenn, journeyed successfully through space on a multi-orbit global mission, the United States would at least begin matching the pace set by the Soviet Union. Although a 3-orbit trek would by no means equal the 17-orbit, day-long voyage of Gherman S. Titov, the imminence of the mission had helped to allay national uneasiness somewhat. The notion that the manned orbital launch should be made in 1961 to coincide with Russian feats in the history books subsided with the end of the old year; 1962 was now here. Whatever regrets the American people had harbored over the numerous delays in Project Mercury, they seemed reconciled to schedule slippages if safety demanded them.

But the new year was barely three days old when the news media learned that the announced launch date of January 16 had been postponed until January 23, at the earliest, because of technical problems in the booster fuel tanks. With each succeeding delay, and there would be several more, journalists and Congressmen became a little more critical and fidgety. Once again, as on several previous occasions, the press spoke of the "space gap," and doubts were raised by some writers that the Mercury undertaking would ever succeed. A senior member of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Republican James G. Fulton of Pennsylvania, apparently subscribed to this feeling when he remarked, after viewing a January 27 MA-6 launch attempt, that the Mercury spacecraft and Atlas booster could be described as "a Rube Goldberg device on top of a plumber's nightmare." President Kennedy disclosed at a news conference on February 14 that he too shared the general disappointment voiced about delays in the program, but he added that the decision to go or not to go should be left to the "group who are making the judgment." Moreover, he reaffirmed his faith in the NASA Mercury team: "I'm going to follow their judgment, even though we've had bad luck."1

[412] Statements issued by the Manned Spacecraft Center's operations team after each postponement of the MA-6 mission were terse and technical, and their frankness in reporting the reasons for these delays prompted some favorable news comment. The Wall Street Journal commended NASA for its open information policy, and pointed out that anything but "Candor at Canaveral" could only hurt the "national image." In response to their persistent and sometimes annoying questions, reporters were quietly told that this mission had been in the planning processes for almost three years and that a few more days' or weeks' delay was of little consequence if confidence in its success could be raised another notch. This acceptance of the situation by the Cape launch crew and operations team stemmed from the program's composite flight test experience. John Glenn, knowing all of this, enjoined the press representatives covering the event not to worry:2

This mission has been in preparation for a long time. I can't get particularly shook up about a couple of days' delay. As a matter of fact, I'm so happy to have been chosen to be the pilot for this mission that I'm not about to get panicky over these delays. I learned very early in the flight-test business that you have to control your emotions - you don't let these things throw you or affect your ability to perform the mission.
The Mercury team alone knew what had to be right to make it go.

Back in October 1959, the MA-6 flight, possibly carrying a chimpanzee in spacecraft No. 18, had been scheduled for launch in January 1961. But the fortunes or misfortunes of manufacture and the ensuing flight test program forced many schedule slippages, redesignation of flight order, and capsule configuration changes to meet altered test objectives. According to an April 1960 chart, the first manned orbital attempt (originally MA-7) was slated for a May 1961 launch. Six months later the planners moved the target date for this mission to July, and after a similar interval they foresaw October as the likely launch date. NASA Headquarters' approval of the proposal to add one-day missions to the Mercury flight series required further schedule alterations. Several spacecraft had to be modified for the flights of longer duration. Spacecraft No. 13 was allocated to the MA-6 mission, replacing No. 18, which now was entered into the modification cycle. In spite of all this shuffling, as late as October 1961 the program managers held hopefully to an anticipated manned orbital liftoff within 1961. MA-6, instead of MA-7, the managers indicated, would carry the first astronaut into orbit, providing the MA-5 chimpanzee flight succeeded in November.3

A host of manufacturing changes had delayed the progress of spacecraft No. 13 as it traveled through the McDonnell production and checkout line. Number 13, beginning to take form in May 1960, also met with the usual fabrication problems its predecessors had faced during assembly. On October 10, for example, McDonnell reported to the Space Task Group that a shortage of environmental control system components had completely halted work on the capsule's interior. [413] At the end of January 1961, however, the company had started a three-month test shakedown of the vehicle. Shortly after the completion of this work the failure of the MA-3 mission on April 25 had forced a rearrangement of spacecraft allocations, and McDonnell had been told by the NASA planners to redesign No. 13 for the initial manned orbital mission. The factory finished and delivered the spacecraft to the Cape on August 27. Four months later, after a thorough checkout by the Manned Spacecraft Center's (formerly Space Task Group) Cape team, on January 2, 1962, it was mated to its launch vehicle, Atlas 109-D.4

These had been some of the trials that made planning and scheduling difficult occupations, especially in a program that had been so often under national scrutiny. Therefore, the successive MA-6 launching delays logged in the early days of 1962 simply were noted and accepted, and the planners met to decide when they could be ready to try again.

1 Washington Post, Jan. 4 and Feb. 3, 1962; Walter C. Williams, interview, Houston, Aug. 23, 1965; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 88 Cong., 1 sess. (1963), Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1962, 15-16.

2 Washington Evening Star, Feb. 4, 1962; New York Times, Feb.4, 1962; Washington Post, Feb. 6 and 19, 1962; Shirley Thomas, Men of Space (Philadelphia, 1962), V, 29-30; "MA-6 Advisory," 5 p.m., Feb. 15, 1962.

3 Space News Roundup, MSC, I (Feb. 7, 1962); "Project Mercury Status Report No. 4 for Period Ending Oct. 31, 1959," STG, 41; "Project Mercury Status Report No. 6 for Period Ending April 30, 1960," STG, 37; "Project Mercury Status Report No. 8 for Period Ending Oct. 31, 1960," STG, 41; "Project Mercury Status Report No.10 for Period Ending April 30, 1961," STG, 37; "Project Mercury Status Report No. 11 for Period Ending July 31, 1961," STG, 37; "Project Mercury Status Report No. 12 for Period Ending Oct. 31, 1961," STG, 34. The flight schedule chart in October 1961 showed an MA-6 alternate mission. This meant that if the Enos (MA-5) flight had not succeeded another chimpanzee mission, designated MA-6, would have been flown.

4 Paul E. Purser, compilation of excerpts from messages regarding spacecraft No. 13; Ms., George F. Killmer et al., "Project Mercury Technical History - Preflight Operations," MSC Florida Operations, Dec. 30, 1963, 107-111.

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