FOUR

First in Space

He drifted between sleep and wakefulness. That’s how it had been most of this night of remembering. They were memories he welcomed, the ones that reminded him of his father, a skilled carpenter who had worked daily to make their wooden home special, and the special memories of his mother. The memories of her smile, of her working in their home, making it warm and comfortable—memories of her kitchen, memories of something good to eat, especially her borscht.

Those were the memories he chose. Not his boyhood memories of the great guns, the ear-splitting thunder of the exploding shells, the earth-shaking rumble of German tanks moving through his hometown; the memories of a boy watching his parents obey the Nazis just so, whenever possible, they could forage for food inside the battlefields.

Only as he was nearing his teens would the other, good memories come—those memories with the welcoming sounds. The airplanes with red stars on their wings followed by terrible fighting, and the tanks pushing into their village, were Russian. The Germans fled, and the Russian tanks stayed. And as quickly as the war ended, young Yuri Gagarin studied day and night in school and at home so that one day he would qualify to become a pilot in the Red Air Force.

In 1955 he was accepted in flight school. Two years later he won his wings, the wings of a jet fighter pilot. He had become an expert parachutist, too, and in 1959 he volunteered for an exciting new program.

Cosmonaut!

He moved through the demanding training at the head of his class, and on April 8, 1961, only four days before this night of memories, his commander gave him the news: “You will be the first. You will travel first into space.”

Until now he really hadn’t believed it; it seemed so unreal. But suddenly Gagarin’s door opened, and it was real enough. They had come to get him prepared. He met with the doctors and the political commissar. Everything moved smoothly. Breakfast was fun. The flight surgeons said he was ready. Sensors were attached to his body, and his backup and close friend, cosmonaut Gherman Titov, helped him climb into his pressure suit and heavy helmet.

Sunrise swept over the launch pad, and Yuri Gagarin stood quietly for several minutes, studying the enormous SS–6 ICBM that would haul him into Earth orbit. No warhead atop this baby. Up there was Swallow, his Vostok spacecraft, weighing more than five tons.

Gagarin stopped on the ramp partway up the stairs to the elevator. He turned to speak to the fortunate group who would witness this dividing moment in history. They stood silently, not wanting to miss a word.

“The whole of my life seems to be condensed into this one wonderful moment,” Gagarin began with humility. “Everything that I have been, everything that I have done, was for this. Could anyone dream of more?”

He waved farewell, entered the elevator, and when they reached the top, Gagarin climbed aboard Swallow. Technicians secured his harness to the specially designed seat. He raised a hand and signaled he was ready. Technicians closed the hatch, and Yuri Gagarin was sealed inside with his destiny.

The countdown moved through its normal stops and starts, checks and rechecks, and then the final minutes…

“Gotovnosty dyesyat minut.”

Two minutes to go…

He braced himself and relaxed his muscles as he felt motors whining. The gantry with the service level was pulling away. He moved with the bumps and thuds as power cables were ejected from their slots in the rocket. He knew what the sounds meant. Now the mighty SS–6 was on its own, drawing power from its internal systems.

He heard a voice shout:

“Zazhiganiye!”

Gagarin needed no one to tell him he had ignition.

His body was suddenly shuddering. The SS–6’s rockets were burning with an explosive fury of 900,000 pounds of thrust. There were twenty main rocket motors and a dozen small vernier control engines firing. The first man to leave Earth headed for an orbital track around his planet.

It was 11:07 A.M. local time.

It was 9:07 A.M. in Moscow.

It was 1:07 A.M. in New York.

America slept.

Only a few in this country’s intelligence groups were aware that on the steppes of Kazakhstan, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was shouting, “Off we go,” bringing smiles and grins to his launch team and flight controllers. With the SS–6 well clear of the launch site, many of those whose duties were completed rushed outside to watch their rocket roar skyward—to see Yuri Gagarin travel faster than any man in history. They watched and jumped and cheered until the rocket was far above the Aral Sea and about to disappear over the eastern horizon.

On board, in spite of his constantly increasing weight under the pull of gravity, Gagarin maintained steady reports. He was young and muscular, and he absorbed the punishment easily. The acceleration generated a force of six times normal gravity.

Gagarin now weighed more than a thousand pounds.

Suddenly, he heard and felt a loud jolt, then a series of bumps and thuds as the protective shroud covering Vostok was jettisoned. Through his portholes, he looked out at a brilliant horizon and a universe of blackness.

His sightseeing was short lived.

His rocket shut down on time.

All was silent.

Then more jolts and thuds as his spaceship was released from its rocket’s final stage.

The miracle was at hand. Gagarin, in Swallow, had entered Earth orbit.

Those on the ground listened in wonder to the cosmonaut’s calm reports of what he was feeling, how his equipment was working. Then he went silent as a never-before-known sensation overwhelmed him. He was feeling the magic of weightlessness, feeling as if he were a stranger in his own body. Up or down had no meaning. He was suspended. He was being kept from floating only by the harness strapping him to his seat. About him papers and pencils drifted.

He shook his head to clear his mind. He reported the readings of his instruments. He checked Swallow’s critical systems. All was okay. Now he could continue his tales of what he saw and felt: “The sky looks very, very dark and the Earth is bluish.” He told those on Earth about the startling brightness of the sunlit side of their planet. And by the time he had raced through a rapid orbital sunset and marveled at the wonders of a night in space, he was through an orbital sunrise, nearing the end of his single scheduled trip around Earth.

It was time to come home and Gagarin relaxed his body, exercised his fingers in his gloves, and began monitoring the automatic systems that were turning Swallow around, setting the ship up for retrofire.

Suddenly, he was rammed hard into the back of his contoured couch. The retro-rockets had ignited. He smiled. Everything was working perfectly. Wham! There it was. He had felt the sharp explosion, and Swallow and its electronics pack were now separated from the equipment module.

Around the world in eighty-nine minutes, not eighty days.

That was all. He was coming home, flying backward. Swallow was plunging downward into thickening atmosphere, and he felt weight again. It was building from the hammering deceleration. He was a passenger inside a blazing comet. Outside, he could see flames, thickening and becoming intense as friction from the atmosphere heated his spaceship to 4,000 degrees. Inside, Gagarin was enjoying temperatures in the comfortable 80s.

Six minutes later, Swallow had slowed to subsonic speed, and at 23,000 feet the escape hatch blew away. The first man into space was now seeing blue skies and white clouds again as ejection rockets beneath his seat fired, sending him and his contour couch flying away from Swallow.

He and his couch were all that were left, and Gagarin watched as the stabilization chute billowed upward. Everything was working perfectly, and for ten thousand feet he rode downward before separating from the ejection seat and deploying his main parachute. He opened his helmet’s faceplate as he drifted through puffy white clouds and took deep breaths of the fresh spring air. What a marvelous ride!

On the ground, two startled peasants and their cow watched the white-helmeted man drift from the heavens. Gagarin hit the ground running. He tumbled and rolled over, jumping to his feet to gather his parachute. The first man in space unhooked his harness and looked up to see a woman and a girl staring at him. The cow decided to keep grazing.

“Have you come from outer space?” asked the astonished woman.

“Yes, yes, would you believe it?” the first cosmonaut answered with a wide grin.

Within months, Yuri Gagarin shared his memories of his historic flight with my colleague Martin Caidin when Caidin was writing cosmonaut Gherman Titov’s book. Titov was Gagarin’s backup, and he orbited Earth a full day. He named his book I Am Eagle.

The ringing phone was not welcome. Especially at 3:42 A.M.

I reached for the noisy necessity. “What?” I barked.

The voice at the other end was soft, polite. “Jay, this is Jerry Jacobs on the desk.”

“Uh-huh, sorry, Jerry.”

“Have you heard?”

“Heard what?”

“The Russians have put a man in orbit.”

“You’re kidding.” I sat straight up, rubbing my eyes. “How many orbits?”

“One,” Jacobs said. “Get on it.”

“I’m moving, boss.”

I replaced the phone in its cradle, patted a disturbed young bride of seven months on her derriere, and leapt out of bed. I had only one thought: NASA could have had Alan Shepard up there three weeks ago.

I hit the on button on the radio. Jo groaned and pulled the covers over her head as excited voices spoke of Yuri Gagarin, of Earth orbit. I splashed water on my face, shaved, quickly brushed my teeth, and while putting most of my clothes on I went out the door. Following the six-minute drive, I was in the office.

I phoned Colonel John “Shorty” Powers, the spokesman for the Mercury Seven. I wanted to know if the astronauts had a statement, and if NASA had scheduled a news conference.

“Morning, Shorty,” I said in my most pleasant voice. “Sorry about the hour.”

He definitely wasn’t a morning person.

“Morning, my ass,” he growled. “Whatta you want?”

“The reaction? NASA’s reaction to the Russians orbiting a cosmonaut?”

“Fuck you, Barbree, we’re asleep here,” he yelled, slamming the phone in my ear.

I laughed and went on the NBC Radio Network with the following:

Overnight the Russians put a man into space, and Colonel John Powers, the spokesman for the Mercury Seven Astronauts, tells me “NASA’s asleep.” The space agency will wait to hear about man’s first flight into Earth orbit over eggs and bacon.

Colonel Powers’s “NASA’s asleep” remark made the same headline in some of the morning papers.

But more important, it got action, and NASA powers were all over Colonel Powers. “We need a clear-cut statement by the Mercury Seven for the press.”

Colonel Powers jumped out of bed, and the space agency was talking. The astronauts were allowing they were disappointed, but made certain to offer sincere congratulations to their fellow cosmonauts for a terrific technical feat. And once again John Glenn galloped to NASA’s rescue on his white steed. The seeds of a politician were already sprouting in John. He was honest to a fault, and he knew precisely what to do: be blunt and truthful.

“They just beat the pants off us, that’s all,” he told the flock of reporters. “There’s no use kidding ourselves about that. But now that the space age has begun, there’s going to be plenty of work for everybody.”

The question of who was the first human in space would never mean that much. Not really. When Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, the guesswork vanished. But would Shepard fly? Given Gagarin’s success and the overwhelming power of the Russian rockets, there were suggestions in Washington that the U.S. man-in-space program be dropped. The never-finish-anything-you-start bunch were crying that the United States could never catch the Russians now, so why waste the time and effort and money?

If ever the country’s new President needed to take a bold step, now was the time. John Kennedy called in NASA’s best minds. “I want you to tell me where we stand. Do we have a chance of beating the Russians by putting up an orbiting laboratory? Or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man?”

“Yes we do, Mr. President. We can beat them to the lunar surface. We can plant the first flag on the moon. The American flag.”

Kennedy was just as direct. “GO!”

Five weeks after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, America was ready.

Three hours before scheduled launch on May 2, Associated Press photographer Jimmy Kerlin spotted Alan Shepard suiting up, and the name of the first American in space was out.

Shepard was relieved.

But there was no flight that day. Low clouds rolled in, and Walt Williams scrubbed the launch. The flight operations director wanted a clear view of Shepard’s Redstone all the way through burnout.

Alan Shepard slips into his Mercury capsule, named Freedom Seven, for launch. (NASA).

Three days later, May 5, 1961, the countdown moved into its final minute, and I could hear my own voice grow with anticipation as I told our NBC audience this should be it. My co-anchor, Merrill Mueller, and I were in and outside our broadcast trailer with a continuous audio report of everything happening. We had been airing all of NASA’s reports live and I reported, “Everything looks good. The weather is go, and Mercury Control says Alan Shepard and his Freedom Seven are go.” Then I switched. “Now for the launch of the first American in space, here’s the final countdown from Colonel John ‘Shorty’ Powers in Mercury Control.”

“This is Mercury Control. Alan Shepard and the range are green…”

T-minus seven, six, five…

Alan Shepard braced his booted feet against Freedom Seven’s floor.

Four…

Shepard had his hand up near the stopwatch on the panel. He had to initiate the timer at the moment of liftoff in case the automatic clock failed.

Three…

Left hand on the abort handle. The escape tower was loaded.

Two…

Shepard took a deep breath.

One…

One last reminder to himself: “Okay Buster, make it work.”

Zero…

Shepard heard Deke Slayton sing out, “IGNITION!”

Rumbling far beneath him. Pumps spinning at full speed. Fuel gushing through lines…Alan Shepard tensed his body.

His rocket had been lit.

“LIFTOFF!” Slayton called.

Freedom Seven swayed.

“You’re on your way, José!” Slayton shouted, referring to a comedian friend who had a routine called “The Nervous Astronaut.”

“Roger, liftoff, and the clock has started,” Shepard called out. Now he felt the power. “This is Freedom Seven. Fuel is go. Oxygen is go. Cabin holding at 5.5 PSI.”

Now he was in his element. This was what Alan Shepard was born to do. He was the quintessential test pilot. He was the most relaxed, most assured person along the entire spacecoast.

Streaking toward the flaming Redstone in F–106 jets were astronauts Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra. They were geared to chase and observe the Redstone as long as they could before it sped from sight. Tracking and search planes cruised from low-level to stratospheric heights, and the sea was dotted with swift boats and navy ships, all coiled to spring toward Freedom Seven’s rescue if needed.

At the center of Cape Canaveral’s fifteen thousand acres was a makeshift press site crowded with trailers, television trucks, prefab offices, bleachers, high viewing stands, camera mounts, a blizzard of antennas, and a snake forest of cabling along the ground. The fourth estate was linked to sending and receiving facilities in every major city around the planet. NBC itself was hooked up to sixteen networks worldwide including the BBC and the armed forces, and my broadcast partner, Merrill Mueller, and I were reporting every single thought and fact we could muster as others screamed, “Go! Go! Go!” while Freedom Seven climbed higher and higher into space. Tough and grizzled news veterans unashamedly cried as they pounded fists on wooden railings, against their equipment, against the defenseless backs of their compatriots in support of Alan Shepard.

Beyond the Cape, along the causeways and beaches and lining the roadways, a great army had assembled to witness an epochal moment in history. Half a million men, women, and children in cars, in RVs, on trucks, on motorcycles, on trailers, on anything that would roll had gathered, nudged, pushed, shoved, and squeezed as close as they could to the security perimeters of the Cape to watch and, most important to them, to shout encouragement.

Two thousand–plus journalists stood fast on the press-site mound watching Alan Shepard rocket into space. (USAF).

They went mad at the sight of the Redstone breaking above the tree line; their combined chorus of hope and prayer was almost as mighty as the roar of the rocket.

Throughout the area now referred to as the spacecoast, people left their homes to stand outside and look toward the Cape. They stood atop cars and trucks and rooftops. They left their morning coffee and bacon and eggs in restaurants to walk outside. They left beauty parlors and barbershops with sheets around their shoulders. And on the ocean itself, surfers ceased their pursuit of waves and stood on beaches, transfixed.

Fire was born, the dragon howled, and Redstone levitated with its precious human cargo. That was but the beginning. When the bright flame came into view, even before the deep pure sound washed across the towns and beaches, something wonderful happened.

Men and women sank slowly to their knees, praying. Others were crying.

Time stood still.

Flame lifted Alan Shepard higher, faster. And up there, all alone, America’s first astronaut was pleased. Not bad at all, he thought. This is smoother than anything I ever expected. Hang in there, guy, he told himself. It’s going beautifully.

Then, he spoke to Mercury Control. “This is Freedom Seven. Two-point-five-G. Cabin five-point-five. Oxygen is go. The main bus is twenty-four, and the isolated battery is twenty-nine.”

A comfortable, assured “Roger” came back from Deke Slayton.

Shepard was at two-and-a-half times his normal weight. So far the flight had been a piece of cake. Flame beneath the Redstone grew longer as the outside air grew thinner. He was through the smoothest part; he was running into the rutted road, the barrier he had to defeat before he could leave the atmosphere behind.

Redstone was pushing with hammering raw energy into the reefs of Max Q, the zone of maximum dynamic pressure where the forces of flight and ascent challenged its structural soundness.

Buffeting began, an upward gutsy climb for the Redstone over invisible deep and jagged potholes. Shepard’s helmet slammed against his contoured couch and inches before him, the instrument panel became a blur.

A thousand pounds of pressure, for every square foot of Freedom Seven, was trying to crack the capsule like an eggshell. He was being pounded from all sides and for a split second Shepard considered calling Slayton, but instantly changed his mind. He reminded himself any sort of transmission at this point could be interpreted as fear, and it could send Mercury Control into a tizzy. It might even trigger an abort by someone overzealously guarding his safety.

The Redstone slipped through the hammering blows into the smoothness beyond. Out of Max Q. Shepard grinned. He still had all his teeth, and he keyed his mike.

“Okay, it’s a lot smoother now. A lot smoother.”

“Roger,” Slayton said calmly.

It was time to smile.

Louise Shepard stared at the television, watching the rocket magically lift her husband into space. She tried desperately to hear, but their girls were out of control, wild, cheering, and shrieking at the top of their lungs.

That was their father in that rocket.

This was their moment.

And her moment, too. She smiled, bringing a hand to her lips. “Go, Alan,” she said quietly and only to herself. “Go, sweetheart.”

Mercury Control called out the time hack. “Plus two minutes…”

Alan Shepard was now twenty-five miles up and gaining speed, headed into high flight with the forces of gravity mashing him down into his couch.

Damn it hurt, but it felt terrific. What a ride! He keyed his mike: “All systems are go.”

Freedom Seven’s flight was prime time for radio and television news coverage, and we were enjoying every moment. The listeners were so many they were not countable, and I was blessed to be on the air with the unflappable Merrill Mueller, a veteran’s veteran. He’d done his newscasts through raging battles in World War II, and he’d been the voice that reported the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in 1945 from the deck of the USS Missouri. Losing his cool was not an option.

We had a thousand things to say about Alan Shepard, his family, the mission, the Redstone, Freedom Seven. But we’d never seen a man disappearing into bright sunlight—a single point of silvery flame leaving Earth.

Merrill was the master, but we had been on the air all morning and we both were running dry on things to say. Our voices fading, Merrill swallowed hard. Then the master found one last masterful thought…

“He looks so lonely up there…”

The sixteen worldwide NBC Radio networks fell silent.

The rocket’s thrust increased Shepard’s weight sixfold, and he found it difficult to speak. The growing force of gravity squeezed his vocal cords and he drew on experience, on the techniques he had mastered catapulting off carriers in fighter jets. Slayton heard him clearly.

He was struggling, but he was smiling broadly inside his helmet. End of powered flight was near.

Three, two, one, cutoff!

The Redstone stopped burning.

Above Shepard’s head a large solid-propellant rocket fired, spewing thrust from three canted nozzles. These broke connecting links to pull the escape rocket and tower away. They were no longer needed.

Next, more rockets fired, and Freedom Seven separated from its Redstone. A new light flashed on the instrument panel.

“This is Seven. Cap sep is green.”

Shepard and Freedom Seven were on their own, moving through space at more than four thousand miles per hour.

“Roger,” Slayton confirmed.

Mercury Control had its ears on. They wanted to hear what it was like to be up there.

Well, first, only seconds ago Shepard weighed a thousand pounds. Now he weighed less than a thousandth of a pound.

“I’m free!” he shouted.

“Does Louise know?” Deke joked.

Alan laughed and moved within his restraints to feel the freedom of weightlessness. It was…well, hell, it was wonderful and marvelous and a miracle. That’s what it was. Were he not strapped in, he would have floated about in total relaxation. No up, no down, and as John Glenn had posted on the capsule’s instrument panel before Alan entered, “No handball playing in here.” A missing washer and bits of dust drifted before him. He smiled.

No rush of wind crossing the skin of Freedom Seven despite its speed. No friction. No turbulence. Outside, the silence of ghosts reigned.

But inside, his Mercury capsule had its own pressurized atmosphere where ghosts were real. They made their own sounds. Inverters moaned. Gyroscopes whirred. Cooling fans spun. Cameras snapped. Radios hummed. They were the voices of Freedom Seven.

Alan Shepard took to space with fierce pleasure as he felt Freedom Seven slowly turning around, and he realized it was time to go flying. He wrapped his gloved right hand around the three-axis control stick.

“Switching to manual pitch,” he radioed Mercury Control.

“Roger.”

He moved the stick. Small jets of hydrogen peroxide gas shot into space from exterior nozzles. Instantly he felt the reaction as the capsule’s blunt end raised and lowered in response to his commands. He couldn’t believe how easy Freedom Seven was to fly. It was doing precisely what he asked.

“Pitch is okay,” he reported. “Switching to manual yaw.”

“Roger. Roll.”

Again Seven moved on invisible rails. Shepard wasn’t just a passenger. He was flying his spacecraft, controlling its attitude. “Finally,” he shouted aloud, “we’re first with something!”

He checked his flight plan.

Fun time, he smiled, moving to look through the periscope at the Earth below.

Damn, he cursed.

While on the launch pad he had checked the periscope and stared into a bright sky. Immediately he had moved in filters and now, looking through the scope, instead of a brilliant blue Earth, he saw only a gray planet.

He reached for the filter knob and as he did, the pressure gauge on his left wrist bumped against the abort handle. He chastised himself. Sure, the escape tower was gone, and hitting the abort handle might not be a problem, but this was not the time to play guessing games.

Shepard looked again through the periscope. Even through the gray, the sun’s reflection from Earth below was enough to give him a picture.

“On the periscope,” he radioed. “What a beautiful view!”

“Roger.”

“Cloud cover over Florida, three to four-tenths on the eastern coast, obscured up through Hatteras.”

Shepard spoke of the rich green of Lake Okeechobee’s shores and the spindly curve of the Florida Keys. He shifted his eyes to see the Florida panhandle extending west and saw Pensacola clearly. On the horizon he caught a glimpse of Mobile and said, “There, just beyond, just out of my view is New Orleans.” He gazed across Georgia, to the Carolinas, and saw the coastline of Cape Hatteras and beyond.

Then he looked straight down and studied the Bahamian islands through broken cloud cover. “What I’d give,” he said, “to have that filter out of there so I could see the beautiful green Bahamian waters and coral formations around those islands.”

He was now at his highest point, 116 miles. He reminded himself he had duties. Freedom Seven, obeying the intractable laws of celestial mechanics, was swinging into its downward curve, calculated to carry Shepard directly to the navy recovery teams waiting for him in the waters near Grand Bahama Island.

He was on the stick again, moving Freedom Seven to the proper angle to test-fire the three retro-rockets. “Five, four, three, two, one, retro angle,” Mercury Control confirmed.

“In retro attitude,” Shepard reported. “All green.”

“Roger.”

“Control is smooth.”

“Roger, understand. All going smooth.”

“Retro one,” Shepard shouted. The first rocket fired and shoved him back against his seat. “Very smooth,” he added.

“Roger, roger.”

“Retro two.” Another shove backward.

“Retro three. All three retros have fired.”

“All fired on the button,” Mercury Control confirmed.

The weightless wonderland vanished. Gravity was back. Freedom Seven was plunging into the atmosphere.

“Okay. This is Freedom Seven… my g-buildup is three…six…” His voice began to falter. “Nine…” he grunted, using the proven system of body-tightening and muscle rigidity to force the words through his throat.

“Roger,” Slayton acknowledged.

“Okay…Okay…” Shepard’s voice rose as the intensity of the struggle increased. Eleven times the normal force of gravity, getting close to “weighing” a full Earth ton. But he had pulled eleven-g loads in the centrifuge, and he knew he could keep right on working now.

He did.

“Coming through loud and clear, Seven.

“Okay,” came the grunt.

“Okay…” They noticed the change in his voice. Lower pitch. The g-loads were fading.

“Okay…this is Seven, okay. Forty-five thousand feet. Uh, now forty thousand feet.”

Shepard was through the gauntlet. He had handled the punishing g-forces, the eye-popping deceleration, and 1,230 degrees of blazing reentry heat. He felt just dandy because during the scorching dive, his cabin temperature hit a peak of only 102 degrees while inside his suit the temperature rose to only 85. Just nice and toasty, he thought.

His altimeter showed 31,000 feet when Slayton’s voice reached him again. “Seven, your impact will be right on the button.”

Great news. Flight computations were perfect. So were the performances of the Redstone and the spacecraft. Freedom Seven was heading directly for the bull’s-eye on the Atlantic recovery-area target.

“This is Seven,” Shepard called. “Switching to recovery frequency.”

“Roger, Seven, read you switching to GBI.”

Slayton was eager to cut the hell out of Dodge as fast as he could. Shepard laughed aloud. He knew Gus would be right there with Deke, and the two would be burning sky, blazing their way to Grand Bahama Island so they could be on the ground when he arrived.

“Seven, do you read?” came a new voice on the GBI line.

“I read,” Shepard called back.

He was aware the flight wasn’t quite over. He still had to reach water in good shape. That meant the parachute system had to work.

Perfectly.

Above him, panel covers snapped away in the wind.

“The drogue is green at twenty-one, and the periscope is out.”

Down went Freedom Seven and Alan Shepard. The altimeter unwound and aimed for ten thousand feet where the main chute was to open. If it failed, well, he already had a finger on the “pull like hell ring” that would release the reserve.

“Standing by for main.”

Freedom Seven continued like the champ it had proven to be. “Through the periscope,” Shepard would later say, “I saw the most beautiful sight of the mission. That big orange-and-white monster blossomed above me so beautifully. It told me I was safe, all was well, I had done it, all of us had done it. I was home free.”

“Main on green,” he reported. “Main chute is reefed and it looks good.”

Freedom Seven swayed back and forth as it dropped lower. Compared to moments in his immediate past, Shepard was tiptoeing gently toward the ocean instead of crash landing a jet fighter on a carrier deck.

He opened his helmet’s faceplate. Quickly he disconnected all hoses and snaps. He wanted nothing to impede a hasty exit just in case the water landing went haywire.

He braced himself for–

SPLASHDOWN!

“Into the water we went with a good pop!” Shepard said, laughing over a drink with me later. “Abrupt, but not bad. No worse than the kick in the butt when I’m catapulted off a carrier deck.”

The spacecraft tipped on its side, bringing water over the right porthole. He smacked the switch to release the reserve parachute that kept the capsule top-heavy. He was thinking about the chimp’s near disappearance beneath the ocean. He began checking the cabin for leaks. He was ready to punch out at the first sight of the wet stuff pouring in.

The water didn’t come, and he stayed dry. Shifting the center of gravity worked, and the capsule came back upright.

Planes roared overhead. “Cardfile Two Three,” he called. “This is Freedom Seven, would you please relay all is okay?”

“This is Two Three; roger that.”

“This is Seven. Dye marker is out. Everything is okay. Ready for recovery.”

Green dye spread brilliantly across the ocean surface from Freedom Seven.

Seven, this is Two Three. Rescue One will be at your location momentarily.”

It went like another practice run. Rescue One was overhead. Shepard opened the hatch, grabbed a harness dropped from the helicopter, and was winched aboard.

Rescue One turned for the prime recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain, and lowered itself gently onto the deck. “This is the best carrier landing I’ve ever made,” Shepard laughed.

He couldn’t wait to tell Deke and Gus and John and Gordo and Scott and Wally all about it.

They, the Mercury Seven, had done it!

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!