Technology, History, and Place

Series: 1961: The First Men in Space (Page 1 of 2)

Seventeen sunrises (plus another 21,915)

The fourth man to fly in space—and the second to orbit the Earth—was Gherman Titov, a 25-year-old pilot from western Siberia. He flew in space sixty years ago today, and his flight lasted a full day, or seventeen orbits of the Earth.

By any account, it was not a great flight. Titov spent much of the flight nauseated by spacesickness. He also tried sleeping, but he had trouble falling asleep and was annoyed by his arms as they floated in front of his face. After 24 hours in space, his spacecraft reentered the atmosphere. As the capsule was descending by parachute, he ejected to land separately under his own parachute. (Human legs are good shock-absorbers, and the Vostok landed too fast for humans. Gagarin had ejected in the same way four months earlier.)

Gus Grissom’s flight had been essentially a repeat of Alan Shepard’s, but Titov’s flight was much longer than Gagarin’s—seventeen times longer, to be exact. This reflected the Soviets’ ambitious approach to spaceflight in 1961 and for the next several years. The Soviets did not want to use their limited resources repeating their previous accomplishments. Instead, every subsequent mission had to be a major step beyond the previous mission. Thus, the next Soviet flight after Titov’s was a dual launch: in August 1962, Vostoks 3 and 4 were inserted into similar orbits 24 hours apart, the first time that more than one man had been in space at the same time. The following June, the Soviets made another dual flight, but with a twist: the pilot of Vostok 6 was Valentina Tereshkova, the first and only woman to fly into space until the 1980s. The pilot of Vostok 5, Valery Bykovsky, set a duration record of five days.

As the Soviet flights became more ambitious, they also became riskier. In October 1964, the Voskhod 1 mission flew three cosmonauts into space in a heavily modified Vostok capsule. In order to fit three men into a capsule that was originally designed for only one, the Voskhod had no ejection seats and the crew did not wear spacesuits, both of which had been important safety features on the Vostok. Had there been a problem with the booster early in launch, the three men on Voskhod 1 would have been doomed with no chance of escape. Similarly, they couldn’t eject out of the capsule at the end of the mission. Instead, the parachute system needed to have retrorockets to slow the capsule down to a safe speed just before impact with the ground. Lacking the resources to build a test article for the Voskhod parachute system, the OKB-1 design bureau took Gherman Titov’s Vostok 2 capsule out of a museum and refitted it with the new system. In a drop test at the Feodosiya testing range in Crimea, the new parachute system failed and the Vostok 2 capsule slammed into the earth at high speed and broke into pieces.

The engineers at OKB-1 diagnosed the problem with the parachute system, and the Voskhod 1 flight went ahead successfully but with considerable risk. The following March, the second Voskhod flight was another risky but ultimately successful mission. Alexei Leonov climbed out of an airlock and became the first person in history to walk in space, just two-and-a-half months before an American, Ed White, did the same thing on the Gemini 4 mission.

By this point, the Soviet piloted space program had begun to run out of momentum, and the Americans took the lead with ten increasingly complex and successful Gemini missions. It was not until two years after Voskhod 2 that the next Soviet space mission flew on an all-new spacecraft, the Soyuz. Although Soyuz 1 was probably less risky than either of the Voskhod flights had been—because the Soyuz had a launch abort rocket—the mission ended in tragedy when the descent module’s parachutes failed to deploy before landing. The spacecraft’s one crewman, Vladimir Komarov, died on impact.

President Kennedy visits with American astronaut John Glenn (L) and Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (R) at the White House in 1962. At 25, Titov was the youngest person ever to fly into space. In 1998, John Glenn would become the oldest spacefarer, flying on the Space Shuttle at age 77. (Source: JFK Library)

President Kennedy visits with American astronaut John Glenn (L) and Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (R) at the White House in 1962. At 25, Titov was the youngest person ever to orbit the Earth. In 1998, John Glenn would become the oldest spacefarer, flying on the Space Shuttle at age 77. (Source: JFK Library)

It has been sixty years since the first men flew into space. Sixty years is a long time—longer than the median age of the human species (31 years) or the median ages in Russia (39.6 years) and the United States (38.1 years). A minority of the Earth’s population was alive in 1961, and it’s worth reflecting here what that might mean to us as humans.

The pioneering spacefarers of 1961 are all gone now. They died in pairs: two later in the sixties from terrible accidents, and two around the turn of the millennium from disease or old age. Gus Grissom was the first to die; as mentioned in the previous post, he perished in the Apollo 1 fire on the launchpad on January 27, 1967. Yuri Gagarin died a year later in the crash of a MiG-15 jet. Alan Shepard died of leukemia in 1998. Gherman Titov succumbed to cardiac arrest in 2000 at the age of 65.

A lot can change in sixty years, and a lot has. Despite continued tensions between Russia and the United States in the twenty-first century, the Cold War is over, and so is the Space Race. The two leading space powers have cooperated in spaceflight for more than a quarter century. The International Space Station has been continuously crewed by both Russians and Americans since November 2001. Although the ISS agreement is set to expire in 2024 and the future of spaceflight cooperation remains in doubt, US-Russian space cooperation has continued throughout the tensions between the two countries in recent years.

If politics can change in sixty years, then so can culture. I am not equipped to evaluate how Russian culture has changed in six decades, but I can say for certain that American culture has changed immensely in the same amount of time. With immigration reform in 1965, the American population has gotten a good deal more diverse than it was in 1961. In the same time, American culture has had to become more tolerant of diversity (recent backlash against diversity notwithstanding).

This was not the case in the early sixties. As seen in both the book and film versions of The Right Stuff, Alan Shepard delighted in imitating the character José Jiménez, created by comedian Bill Dana. José Jiménez was a Latino astronaut with a thick accent and dull wits. Shepard imitated José Jiménez so much that the other astronauts started to call him by that name. When Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone lifted off on May 5, 1961, Deke Slayton radioed from launch control, “You’re on your way, José!”

In the sixties, for Anglo-Americans like Alan Shepard, the idea of a Latino flying into space was a joke in and of itself. This is, of course, no longer the case. Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and other Hispanics and Latinos have been flying into space since the 1980s. The José Jiménez character was only funny because it was based on negative ethnic stereotypes. The José Jiménez scenes in The Right Stuff are positively cringe-worthy today. (To his credit, Bill Dana retired the character in 1970, only nine years after Shepard’s flight.)

These cultural and political changes over the past six decades highlight something that is all too easy to miss in our discussions about spaceflight: spaceflight belongs to the past as well as the future. So much of our discourse about spaceflight imagines it as futuristic—science-fiction becoming real. Vostok and Mercury were indeed futuristic in their day, but like the Cold War and Bill Dana’s José Jiménez character, they now belong to the past.

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.)

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