Technology, History, and Place

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The mystique of space relics

Sixty years ago today, on July 21, 1961, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom became the second American to fly into space. Like Alan Shepard in May, Grissom flew a suborbital trajectory, because the Mercury-Redstone booster that he was riding on was not powerful enough to put his capsule, Liberty Bell 7, into orbit. Grissom took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 7:20 in the morning and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean fifteen minutes later.

When Grissom was waiting for the recovery helicopter to come pick him up, the explosive hatch on the side of the capsule blew off. Grissom dove into the ocean as the capsule filled with water, and he nearly drowned as water entered his spacesuit. The recovery helicopter was unable to lift the waterlogged capsule, and the winch operator had to cut the capsule loose. Liberty Bell 7 disappeared beneath the waves and sank to the ocean bottom, more than 15,000 feet below.

That could be the end of the story for Liberty Bell 7, but it isn’t. In 1999, a team led by underwater salvage expert Curt Newport, in the culmination of fourteen years of effort, found Gus Grissom’s capsule on the ocean floor. The team raised the capsule from the depths and whisked it off to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center for conservation by the museum’s division Spaceworks. After conservation—and much media coverage—the Liberty Bell 7 went on a tour of science museums around the United States.

Some views of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule when it stopped in Denver in early 2003. I was lucky enough to see it twice on its first tour.

Some views of the Liberty Bell 7 on tour in Denver in early 2003. I was lucky enough to see it twice on its first tour.

The recovery of Liberty Bell 7 had cost millions of dollars, bankrolled by the Discovery Channel. Conservation cost another quarter-million. What was the point? Why go to the effort? There were a couple of reasons. One of them was that the recovery of Liberty Bell 7 presented a unique opportunity for a museum displaying American space artifacts. Because of an agreement between NASA and the Smithsonian Institution, all flown Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft belong to the National Air and Space Museum. A few of them are displayed in Air and Space’s two museums in the Washington, DC area, and the rest are on loan to other museums around the country. But since Liberty Bell 7 had been lost at sea, Air and Space had no claim on the capsule. Just like for any shipwreck, Liberty Bell 7 belonged to whoever wanted to go to the effort of retrieving it.

Another reason to recover Liberty Bell 7 was rarity. Between 1961 and 1975, American astronauts flew into space aboard a total of 31 Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini spacecraft. That might seem like a lot, but it isn’t when you consider how many cities and science and aerospace museums there are in the United States alone, not to mention the rest of the world. Every science museum would love to have a flown Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo capsule, but not every one can get one. Those that can’t have to make do with dressed-up boilerplates or replicas.

A third reason for going to such great lengths to recover Liberty Bell 7 has to do with how flight, and especially spaceflight, is understood as something magical in American culture. As Joseph Corn explains in The Winged Gospel, the early decades of the twentieth century were a period of widespread enthusiasm for flying in American culture. Americans believed that flight would usher in a technological utopia or millennium. Enthusiasm for flight declined after World War II when airplanes brought death and destruction rather than utopia, and when commercial flying became commonplace and banal.

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for aircraft, as well as spacecraft, persisted among some sub-cultures in the United States. To these people—generally pilot, aviation museum, and airshow types—aircraft made before a certain time (generally, World War II or earlier) were inherently historic, regardless of whether they had had anything to do with any great events. Museum restorationists obsessively preserved every last rivet and cotter pin of an aircraft while refurbishing it for display. Adventurers traveled to the ends of the earth (including the jungles of New Guinea and the ice cap of Greenland) to salvage World War II plane wrecks for restoration, sometimes even to flying condition.

If airplanes were magical and deserved this level of investment into their recovery, then spacecraft were doubly so, because they had flown higher and faster than planes, and were much rarer. Hence the recovery of Liberty Bell 7 at great expense. More recently, Amazon.com CEO and Wernher von Braun wannabe Jeff Bezos commissioned the recovery of the F-1 engines from the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11 to the moon, for much the same reasons as the recovery of Liberty Bell 7.

In a sad irony, while Liberty Bell 7 was recovered at great expense from the ocean depths for restoration and display, another of Gus Grissom’s spacecraft has never been put on display and maybe never will be. Grissom and two crewmates, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were scheduled to fly the AS-204 spacecraft, an Apollo Block I capsule, in early 1967. On January 27 of that year, during a simulation on the launch pad, a fire broke out in the capsule, killing Grissom, White, and Chaffee before the pad crew could get the spacecraft’s hatch open. The disaster prompted the redesign of the Apollo spacecraft into the safer Block II model. The Apollo 1 capsule (as AS-204 is retroactively known) remains in storage at NASA-Langley in Virginia.

The Apollo 1 capsule before the fire.

The Apollo 1 capsule before the fire. (NASA photo)

The prime crew of Apollo 1 posing with a model of their capsule (L-r): Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. (NASA photo)

The prime crew of Apollo 1 posing with a model of their capsule (L-R): Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. (NASA photo)

The original hatch of the AS-204 capsule was displayed at Kennedy Space Center in 2017, alongside an example of the redesigned and easier-to-open Apollo Block II hatch. This was the first time that any part of the capsule had been displayed publicly. (NASA photo)

The original hatch of the AS-204 capsule was displayed at Kennedy Space Center in 2017, alongside an example of the redesigned and easier-to-open Apollo Block II hatch. This was the first time that any part of the capsule had been displayed publicly. (NASA photo)

America’s first astronauts, instant heroes

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The second person to fly into space—and the first from the United States of America—was a 37-year-old Navy test pilot from New Hampshire named Alan Shepard. He soared into space on a suborbital hop aboard a Mercury-Redstone booster sixty years ago today, on Wednesday, May 5, 1961.

Alan Shepard was one of seven test pilots selected in 1959 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as its first class of astronauts. While the Soviet cosmonauts trained in utmost secrecy and anonimity, NASA’s Original Seven Mercury astronauts lived in the glare of spotlights and flashbulbs. They had their public debut at a dazzling press conference on April 9, 1959 in Washington, DC, and they appeared regularly in the press in the following years.

An important aspect of the Mercury astronauts’ celebrity was the LIFE Magazine contract. In a controversial move, the seven astronauts signed a contract with America’s leading photography and news magazine for exclusive rights to their stories. LIFE photographers and writers followed the astronauts in their training, public relations, and home lives. Staff writers ghost-wrote first-person accounts of the astronauts’ experiences, including their flights into space. These accounts were edited into a book, We Seven, published by Simon & Schuster in 1962. The book covers the first four missions in the Mercury series, but misses the last two, by Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper.

The celebrity of the Mercury astronauts revealed much, but it also obscured much else. Thanks in large part to the LIFE contract, the public could take intimate looks inside the astronauts’ home lives and ride along with them in their capsules into space. But by focusing on the astronauts, the media coverage glossed over the way in which the people who would ride in the capsule were just a small part of an undertaking much bigger than themselves. True, there could be no manned spaceflight without men to fly into space. But the Mercury program also never could have happened without thousands of other engineers, mathematicians, physicists, technicians, factory-workers, flight controllers, publicists, helicopter pilots, Navy frogmen, and other men and women working at NASA centers, other supporting government agencies, and civilian contractors.

The astronauts’ fame also made the men into something more than they were: engineers and test pilots engaged in an exacting technical endeavor. The fame turned the astronauts into superheroes.

The definitive chronicle and deconstruction of the Mercury astronauts’ hero-dom is Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff. Based on extensive interviews and crafted with Wolfe’s insightful wit, the book portrays an America hungry for heroes in the Cold War. Yet while the book deconstructs the legend of the macho hero-astronaut, it also does much to perpetuate it, as does its 1983 film adaptation.

For Alan Shepard himself, fame would be fleeting. After his flight, he was featured in LIFE magazine, invited to the White House, and fêted and ticker-taped around the country. But even though he was the first American to enter space, he would soon be upstaged by his colleague John Glenn, who passed into the realm of legend after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.

Alan Shepard at White House

Picture: Alan Shepard and his wife Louise at the White House on May 8, 1961, when America’s first man in space received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy. (Source: JFK Library, AR6569-H.)

The cosmic traveler

Sixty years ago today, for the first time in history, a human boarded a rocket and flew into the cosmos beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The first-ever traveler into space was a 27-year-old Russian pilot named Yuri Gagarin, and he embarked on his cosmic journey from the Tyura-Tam missile range in the Kazakhstan region of the Soviet Union.

By any measure, Gagarin’s flight was a remarkable technical accomplishment. In a matter of decades, Russia had gone from an agrarian country ruled by Europe’s last autocrats to the world’s first space power. In the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet engineers had made modest progress with developing rockets, primarily for military use but also to pursue the dream of human spaceflight first expressed by Russia’s pioneering space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who died in 1935. After World War II, captured German rockets and some German engineers provided valuable technical knowledge to the Soviet rocketry program. In the late 1940s, the Soviets flew copies of the German V-2 missile, which they called the R-1. Later, they modified the design of the R-1 into the higher-performance R-2 missile, then set about to make their own wholly original designs. By 1957, the Soviets had the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7. After a couple of successful test launches, an R-7 deposited into orbit the world’s first artificial satellite, PS-1 or Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957.

The R-7 had the power only to launch small payloads into orbit, but a modified version with an added upper stage could launch a spacecraft big enough to carry a man. The rocket and the spacecraft were both dubbed Vostok (“East”). The spacecraft consisted of two parts: a spherical crew compartment and a cone-shaped instrumentation module. The crew compartment carried the cosmonaut (“traveler to the cosmos,” a Soviet or Russian astronaut) into space and back down into the atmosphere, while the instrumentation module was designed to separate from the crew compartment and burn up in the atmosphere on reentry.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union were preparing to launch people into space in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the two countries took different approaches to their programs in many respects. One of these was publicity. As I’ll write about next month on the anniversary of the first American’s flight into space, the US government conducted its space program in full view of journalists and the public, and the first astronauts were made into instant celebrities.

The Soviets, on the other hand, operated their program in the utmost secrecy. They didn’t even announce the launch of Sputnik 1 until after the satellite had completed its first orbit of the Earth. (Meanwhile, the first American attempt at launching a satellite, Vanguard 1, blew up on television.) While the American astronauts blinked in the daily glare of spotlights and flashbulbs, the first group of Soviet cosmonauts were selected and began training in secret. As the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin would become a celebrity—paraded in Red Square in front of adoring Soviet crowds and sent on international tours—but it was only after his launch that the public even knew his name.

Because of this secrecy, the Soviet public and the wider world could only know about Vostok and other early programs through Soviet propaganda, which portrayed every cosmonaut as a model communist and every mission as a triumph of socialism. It would not be until thirty years after Gagarin’s flight, with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, that the archives would start to open, giving researchers the chance to view actual documents rather than propagandistic distortions.

In the intervening thirty years, as Asif Siddiqi notes in the preface to his book Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974, early Soviet space accomplishments had become mythologized in Russia and dismissed in the West as mere background to the first American landing on the moon in 1969. “It is not surprising that this is so,” Siddiqi writes. “With little film footage, paranoid secrecy, and no advance warning, the Soviets themselves were mostly responsible for consigning these events into that blurry historical limbo between propaganda and speculation. They eventually lost any claim to resonance that they might have had otherwise.”

As the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, April 12 is celebrated as Cosmonautics Day in Russia and by some space enthusiasts around the world as Yuri’s Night (although if you ask me, I prefer to call it Cosmonautics Day). There will certainly be official commemorations of the anniversary in Russia today, and just as certainly there won’t be any commemoration of it on an official level in the United States. Rather than seeing the flight as a human accomplishment—the first time in history that a member of our species left this planet—Americans continue to view Gagarin’s flight through the lens of Cold War competition.

The Space Race continues to dominate American perceptions of the Space Age, even though there has been far more cooperation than competition between Russia and the United States in human spaceflight. The Space Race lasted at most thirty-four years, from the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even during the period of competition, US-Russian cooperation in space began with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. After the fall of the Soviet Union, space cooperation continued with Shuttle-Mir in the 1990s and the International Space Station from 2000 to present. Rather than seeing Yuri Gagarin as a Cold War enemy, it’s time for Americans to start thinking of him as a future friend in space.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project American and Soviet crews

The first joint US-Russian space program was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, launched during the period detente in the Cold War. A Soyuz spacecraft from the USSR and an Apollo spacecraft from the United States linked up in orbit and the crews exchanged greetings and visited each other’s spacecraft. This is a group photo of the two crews, the Americans on the left in brown and the Soviets on the right in green. (NASA photo)

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project illustration

An illustration of the Apollo spacecraft (on the left) linking up with the Soyuz in ASTP. (NASA photo)

Space shuttle Atlantis docked with space station Mir

Space shuttle Atlantis docked with Russian space station Mir during the Shuttle-Mir program, July 1995. The Shuttle-Mir program ran from 1995 to 1998. (NASA photo)

Expedition One crew in Red Square

After Shuttle-Mir, joint crews took up residence on the International Space Station, starting in November 2000. Here the Expedition One crew are seen visiting Red Square in Moscow. The Russian crew members are on the left and right and the American member is in the center looking at the camera. (NASA photo)

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