"Don't fuck up, Shepard...": Freedom 7 Blasts Off

On May 5th, 1961, Alan Shepard Jr.  sat on the top of one of Werner Von Braun's Redstone missiles, Freedom 7. The path to that point had been a long one for the astronaut and for NASA. Initially scheduled for late 1960, technical problems with the rocket had pushed the launch back, first to March, then to May. During the course of the delays, the country was shocked when the Soviet Union launched their own rocket, carrying Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, becoming the first man to leave the Earth’s atmosphere to orbit the Earth. Shepard's flight 49 years ago today marked the point when the United States caught up in the space race by bringing a man to space and back again safely.

Shepard's launch into space did not match the same achievements that Gagarin did with his mission onboard Vostok 1 just a couple of weeks earlier: Shepard's flight lasted a mere 15 minutes, travelling just over 300 miles down range, performing a suborbital flight. The United States would not reach that achievement until Friendship 7, several launches later, with John Glenn's flight, where he orbited the Earth three times. While it took the United States a little while longer to catch up to the Soviet Union, Shepherd's launch demonstrated that the hardware that the United States had in place could launch a person into space, although a more powerful Atlas rocket was used to actually reach orbit.

The race to orbit was, in large part, a highly visible element - and reminder - of the Cold War arms race that saw the Soviet Union and United States face off against one another. From as early as the Second World War, scientists and military theorists saw that a ballistic missile would be a powerful, almost unstoppable weapon. Both sides captured German military scientists at the fall of Nazi Germany, and put them to work to create their own missiles. The Soviet Union had a more pressing need, and due to their own difficulties to miniaturize the components in nuclear bombs, built missiles and rockets that were more powerful than their American counterparts. This in turn allowed them to reach space much more quickly than the United States, something that a number of people found troubling.

Shepard’s Redstone rocket was the creation of Werner Von Braun, and Freedom 7's launch vehicle had been extensively modified to accommodate a human passenger. The first stage of a Jupiter-C rocket was added on to allow for extra power to get the rocket out of the atmosphere. As Shepard sat on the top of the rocket, waiting to be launched into space, he recalled that he was sitting on top of a vehicle made by the lowest bidder. The delays in the actual launch of the rocket also demonstrated the complexity and scale of the problems associated with bringing someone into space. Shepard is probably best known for telling Mission Control: "I've been in here more than three hours. I'm a hell of a lot cooler than you guys. Why don't you just fix your little problem and light this candle?" after another hold on the countdown. After the problem was corrected, Shepherd was launched into space.

The launch into space demonstrated two things for the country: that the Soviet Union did not hold a monopoly on space travel. The United States was still behind, but catching up, fast. Secondly, the launch demonstrated that the underlying missile that NASA adapted for space travel worked, and that it could carry a payload a good distance. It was still limited in range, but the milestone showed that once again, the U.S. was on the right track towards putting together a viable Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Repurposed or not, the launch was a good demonstration that the arms race was still ongoing. Additionally, the space program was providing a huge boost in moral for the country: astronauts were national heroes, and their efforts were seen as the pinnacle of American military, political and technological progress.

Shepard’s flight is also the genesis for all American spaceflight efforts. While Yuri Gagarin was the first into space, the successes of Freedom 7 showed that the long efforts of the United States and NASA were sound, and that the technology and training of the program was something that could be continued into the future. The next flight, Liberty Bell 7, piloted by astronaut Gus Grissom, was also a success (although the crew capsule itself was lost shortly after splashdown), and eventually, American space efforts could continue. Shortly after Shepard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy spoke, before a joint session of Congress, stating that the United States should commit to a goal of reaching the Moon before 1970. The United States would reach that goal in July of 1969, and again in November of the same year. While the successes of the Apollo program are widely known, they owe a large part of their successes to Alan Shepard’s first flight into space.

New England Historical Association Recap

On Saturday morning, my father and I drove down to Salem Massachusetts to the New England Historical Association's spring conference, held at the Salem State College. Earlier this year, I had a paper accepted for presentation by the group, and it was time to present it.

The paper is entitled 'The Military Roots of Manned Spaceflight and the Cold War', my master's capstone paper that I graduated from Norwich University's School of Graduate Studies with, and I was placed on a panel called Cold War Politics in the United States and Mexico, along with two women: Julia Sloan out of Cazenovia College with her paper: 'Placating the Left by Vilifying the United States: Mexico's Domestic Foreign Policy 1959-1979' and Matra Crilly from Simmons College with 'Returning to Republican Motherhood: The DAR's Postwar Strategy Against Communism', two excellent presentations that I learned a lot from over the course of each presentation.

My paper, as the title suggests, looks to the background developments in the military/political sphere that allowed for the proper conditions for manned spaceflight on the part of the United States and the Soviet Union. This largely starts from the Second World War, where rocket scientists found an ample supply of funding in Germany as Hitler worked towards building new weapons to use against the Allies. With the fall of Nazi Germany, rocket scientists defected or were captured by the United States and the Soviet Union, who in turn used them to create their own weapons. With the introduction of the nuclear bomb to the battlefield, missile and rocket technology proved to be a highly effective (after quite a bit of perfection) method for delivering them, and as such, each country began to build more and more missiles to counter the other. Ultimately, space became the ultimate high ground, and highly public programs that sent people into space were created, eventually leading to the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon. My presentation went well, I thought, and I was able to stay within my allotted time of twenty minutes. (There was a little prompting of time, with cards)

The following two presentations were pretty interesting. Julie Sloan spoke on Mexico during the Cold War, which I knew nothing about. Apparently, there was a move on the part of the government to use public perception to move against the United States, capitalizing on old grudges over lost territory and worries over American imperialism to stay in power. While the country never became a communist style government, it did support fellow Latin American countries during that time period, including Cuba.

Marta Crilly also spoke about Communism, in this instance, with the way the Daughters of the Revolution sought to move against communist agents and teachings within the United States in a very scary way: seeking to promote patriotism over learning, and shunning anything remotely 'un-American' in the post-World War II era. The group, of which members could join only by proving that they had a direct link to members of the Revolutionary army during the 1776 War for Independence. Discussion turned to some observations of similar other organizations within the United States throughout its history, combating immigration during the 18/19th centuries and to the modern day, with the current Tea Party movement.

Our Moderator, Avi Chomsky, noted at the beginning of our panel that this seemed to be a selection of papers that had been thrown together linked only by their connection to the Cold War, with three very different elements. In light of this, she worked to pose several questions to the three of us that would help us put our papers together at some basic elements: What was communism, what was the Cold War, how was Cold War Policy made and how did the Cold War impact Latin America?

The three of us tackled the first question, with help from the audience: for me (the first two questions were wrapped up here), Communism and the United States was not really a war of ideologies: it was a conflict of two governments, and as such, the Cold War was really about domination. Ideology in this instance was a force that was used to get the citizens of each country in line with shared interests to diametrically oppose the other. Marta joined in here noting that the perception of Communism was an extremely vague definition, as looked at through the eyes of the DAR: it was essentially anything that was considered un-American. Someone in the audience brought up the point that this is similar to rhetoric about the current administration being a socialist: the definition is perhaps deliberately vague, enough to get anyone very annoyed. Julia also noted that there were similarities taken in Mexico at the same time: America was seen through a certain lens at this point in time, fueled by a large number of old grudges, pushed to certain perceptions by policymakers.

Throughout the discussion, I've realized that I've never really looked at how Communism was looked at through the lens of the space race: certainly, there is an amount of irony with the United States using NASA, a publicly funded venture, as a symbol of American economic, technological and military might against Communism. Certainly, there was a number of the above perceptions about communism from the astronauts themselves, as well as a mix of motivations from the rocket makers themselves, looking more for scientific achievement over politics. Within this context, I think that even more so, the Cold War was less about ideology and more about two large nations looking for a larger influence in the world around them for their own benefit. In George Friedman's The Next 100 Years, he notes that nations will work towards their own interests, and at times, global chaos, rather than order, is far better for a nation, despite potentially stirring up national security concerns. In this is some truth: nations will act to preserve themselves. In the Cold War, the United States faced a massive and united foe: The Soviet Union. Their opposing ideology allowed for the nations to gather their people in a fairly united front, but at the end of the day, ideology really mattered little, just national concerns.

In the end, the conference was quite a bit of fun. I had spent several days reworking my presentation, pouring over books and sources to refresh myself, so having that aspect over with was a relief. I enjoyed sitting in on a couple of other papers and presentations, and enjoyed the historical discourse around me. With my presentation, I joined the New England Historical Association, and I suspect that I'll be attending future conferences in the very near future. Many thanks to my father for both driving me down and attending my presentation, as well as Dr. Steven Sodergren from Norwich for sitting in and asking a couple of very good questions. Similar thanks goes out to my fellow panel mates, for their work and very interesting talks.

Yuri Gagarin and the Space Race

"Dear friends, known and unknown to me, my dear compatriots and all people of the world! Within minutes from now, a mighty Soviet rocket will boost my ship into the vastness of outer space. What I want to tell you is this. My whole life is now before me as a single breathtaking moment. I feel I can muster up my strength for successfully carrying out what is expected of me."

Forty Nine years ago today, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin lifted off as part of the Vostok 1 mission onboard the Ласточка (Lastochka - Swallow), becoming the first human being to leave the Earth, completing a single, 108 minute orbit before successfully touching down in the Soviet Union. As the U.S.S.R. had done with Sputnik-1 two years earlier, Gagarin ensured that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in the forming space race, with the United States just behind.

In the early days of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had begun to clash in highly public displays of technology, with roots going back to the beginnings of the Cold War. At the end of the Second World War, the two countries were on a collision course with opposing ideologies. As Germany collapsed, Nazi scientists were grabbed by both sides to determine how to best gain a new weapons technology that the German military had begun to work on and implement: missiles. For the Soviet Union, this was an essential development. The country was ravaged by war, with millions dead, and a massive conventional military to clothe, feed and train, while the United States, untouched, possessed the technology to directly strike targets within Russian borders. Missile technology would further the Soviet's reach and allow them to threaten US allies at first, then the mainland.

As the weapons race continued with both the United States and Soviet Union creating and testing Nuclear warheads, a smaller race began between the nations to build bigger rockets, which could in turn bring around a better and faster missile that could strike anywhere on the planet. As part of this race, the Soviet Union successfully launched its first satellite, Sputnik-1, throwing the United States into a panic, perceiving the instrument as a direct threat to the country's security, despite gestures from President Eisenhower, that satellite technology was not the key indicator of a country's technical superiority. Despite his attempts, it would be months before the United States could successfully follow the Russians into orbit.

The key to the Soviet's success was simple: they had started earlier, but because they had trouble miniaturizing parts for their own nuclear bombs, larger and more powerful rockets had to be built to carry their payload into orbit and back. Thus, the addition of a human passenger by 1961 was a technical possibility. Gagarin's flight occurred just days before US Astronaut, Alan Shepherd Jr. took off on board Freedom 7 on May 5th. The successes with the Vostok mission signaled an escalation of the space race between the two countries: over the next decade, their respective space agencies would work tirelessly to outdo the other, with spacewalks, number of orbits, people in space and eventually, the first to the moon. While the United States eventually won the space race by reaching the moon in 1969, the early Soviet victories underscored the differences in attitudes towards defensive doctrines in both countries. The United States was reluctant to shift its air force to a deterrent based system, while the Soviet Union essentially had no choice. As a result, they were able to gain a short lead in the race to orbit, as both countries experienced a space industry that was pushed along by military and political developments.

Gagarin never flew in space again. He was grounded by Soviet leadership, who used him as a public relations tool to bolster moral in the country. In 1968, he died in a plane crash while on a routine training mission. His legacy, however, is one of great importance: the first human to leave the planet, something equal, if not greater in importance to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.

God Speed, John Glenn

On February 20th, 1962, John Glenn Jr., atop an Atlas rocket, became the third American to leave the Earth’s surface, on his way to fulfill the core objective of the Mercury Project: orbit the Earth and return safely. His flight was met with joy from the people United States, who idolized the seven Mercury astronauts, as this mission would allow the United States to finally catch up to the Soviet Union, who had not only beaten America to space with Sputnik, but they also put the first man into orbit just a month before the American's first astronaut, Alan Shepard Jr.

The first two Mercury missions were undertaken by American astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, demonstrating that the United States could not only send men into space successfully, but that they could repeat the experiment. However, where the United States had been overtaken by Soviet Union Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was orbital flight, something that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hoped to catch up with during the Friendship 7 Mission.

The mission came at a crossroads with the development of the space race, and at particularly chilly relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Much of NASA’s pitch to Congress depended upon a Soviet lead in the race to orbit, something that the US would meet up with when it came to the Friendship 7 mission, and diplomacy at the time was intertwined with international arms agreements and cooperation with US allies. (Walter McDougall, And the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, 365.) At this point in time, the United States and the Soviet Union were still at the early stages of the Space Race, where both countries had strategic interests in space, namely with the use of spy satellites. As the race progressed, objections to most arguments were dropped. (McDougall, 348). Within this context, it’s hardly a surprise at the reaction to the success of Friendship 7, but also the drive that the Mercury Seven astronauts displayed during their training. There was an acute awareness that the space program was an element of the nation’s security, something that acted as a more visible deterrent for both countries, as an indicator of technological sophistication. (Francis French and Colin Burgess, Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965, 138).

The Friendship 7 mission itself was delayed from its original December 20th, 1961 date, due to technical and weather related issues. There were numerous launch attempts, all resulting in a count-down halt, until February 20th, where there were only minor technical delays and a break in the weather, allowing for a launch. (French, 140). At 9:47 in the morning, the rocket roared to life, and Glenn was on his way to orbit.

This marked the first time that an Atlas Rocket was used to launch a human in the space program. The two prior Mercury flights were powered by Von Braun’s Redstone Rocket (William Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, 326), which allowed Shepherd and Grissom into space, but only on ballistic trajectories. The Atlas Rocket, which was also used to launch nuclear missiles, was powerful enough to bring Glenn to an orbital altitude. The Atlas, first proposed in 1946, was now the survivor of an intense inter-rivalry fight between the United States Army, Navy and Air Force. (Neil Sheehan, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, 222-223)

Glenn’s flight started off better than expected, with a perfect launch, but once the spacecraft reached orbit, a warning light indicated that the heat shield had come loose on Friendship 7, which could mean that the spacecraft and astronaut would burn up in orbit upon re-entry. Mission control ordered Glenn to conduct several tests designed to confirm the nature of the problem, but at that time, he wasn’t told of the issue, but knew that at that point, something was wrong. Glenn was able to conduct three orbits of the Earth, and as the spacecraft reached the point of reentry, Mission Control instructed the astronaut to leave the retropack in place, to keep the heat shield in place should it be loose. After a hair raising trip back to Earth, Friendship 7 landed near the USS Noa. Technical follow-ups with the spacecraft revealed later on that the heat shield had in fact remained in place, and was never loose in the first place: a faulty microchip had malfunctioned, giving off a signal that the spacecraft was in trouble. (French, 146)

The success of the mission helped to fulfill a couple of functions with the US’s image in space. The first aspect was concerned with catching up with the Soviet Union’s achievements in space. With the flight of Friendship 7, the United States had caught up with the Soviet Union in terms of space technology, matching Yuri Gagarin’s flight just 10 months earlier. But the successful flight helped to demonstrate the capabilities of the Atlas rocket once again. While the rocket had been used in a fairly public demonstration with an orbit of the Earth in 1958, Glenn’s use of the rocket to reach orbit was something that was looked upon by millions from around the world. After the mission, Glenn and Friendship 7 went around the world in what was called the 4th orbit, no doubt as a calculated public relations tour that helped to underscore the technological abilities of the United States. (Burrows, 342)

Glenn’s flight was a success for the space program, achieving the goals of the Mercury program: send a human to space and orbit the Earth. The mission demonstrated that the United States could replicate their earlier successes on preexisting hardware, and also demonstrate that the Soviet Union did not necessarily have the final say on spaceflight. But, it also showed that there were issues in command between the crew of the spacecraft and Mission control, issues that would occur later: who would be in charge of the spacecraft in the event of an emergency? In this instance, Mission Control was able to work out possible solutions to the perceived issue on Glenn’s flight, but future missions would strain the ties. Despite that, the Friendship 7 mission was widely celebrated for its contributions to the advances in American spaceflight, allowing the United States to catch up to the Russians and eventually, overtake them in the race to the Moon.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi & the Dawn of a Nuclear Era

On Monday, the only survivor of both atomic blasts over Japan during the Second World War, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, passed away at the age of 93, according to an obituary by the New York Times this morning. Together, the two bombs are thought to have killed an estimated 150,000 people, with millions more in the years after due to the effects of the blasts.

The bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the war were the product of a massive scientific and military research project known as the Manhattan Project, which completely altered the way that the military would operate strategically over the coming decades. Much debate still rages on about the background motivations of the bombing. As I've been working with the Norwich University Military History degree, I've read numerous entry essays from prospective students on a number of topics, and the motivations behind the atomic bombs is by far the one that I see the most.

The decision to bomb the Japanese at the end of the war, was not a singular issue, but rather a very complicated one, where Truman had to weigh both the immediate effects that the bombs would have, as well as the repercussions of such an attack. There are many arguments that argue for one side or the other, that the bombs were dropped as a last resort to end the war and prevent a mainland invasion by US forces, which would have been incredibly costly to both the Japanese and the Americans. On the other hand, it has been argued that the bombs were a political demonstration to a rising Soviet Union by a growing United States, to show the extents of US power. Again, this has quite a bit of merit to it. So, why not both? In this instance, Truman had the option to not only demonstrate the extent of US power to a potential rival, but also showed that the nation would use it if needed, and by doing so, helped to end the Second World War. The arguments about whose lives were more important, US soldiers or Japanese civilians and military, is one for another time, but a nation will act in its own interests - in this instance, it was in the United States’ interest to end the war and establish itself as a dominant global military power.

Atomic warfare is by its very nature very different than so called conventional warfare. A very good example can be found in the early days of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union's problems in the years following the Second World War. Faced with massive infrastructure damage and tens of millions of people killed in the war, the country was burdened by a massive conventional army - an expensive investment that was rendered largely useless by the advances that the United States Air Force enjoyed. In several demonstrations over the years, General Curtis Lemay flew bombers over Moscow and other Soviet cities in a demonstration that the United States could easily wipe out the country. As a result, the Soviet Union began to research missile technology, as well as nuclear technology, as a way to counteract US power. The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz has noted that with any new advance in offensive force, there tends to be a defense constructed to counteract it. During his time, this was seen in advancements in artillery and fortifications. In the nuclear era, this translated from bomber and air superiority to missile counter defenses and the threat of mutually assured destruction, commonly known as MAD.

As such, warfare of the Cold War was different from the Second World War, because neither country was ready to commit to the literal destruction of the world. Nuclear weapons, because of their awesome, destructive power, held both nations in check. Smaller conflicts around the world didn't involve the two nations actively fighting each other, at least officially, but through proxies, in a delicate game of power. There were close calls, to be sure, but the greatest measure of success was that the remaining major conflicts, such as Korea and Vietnam, were carried out by larger conventional forces, rather than nuclear ones.

Mr. Yamaguchi had a fairly unique view of the dawn of this new era of warfare. While he most likely wasn't the only survivor of both blasts, he is the only one that is officially acknowledged to have been a survivor of both. His story is an interesting one, and shows not only the power of these weapons, but also the consequences that come with their usage. Fortunately, their use has only been demonstrated once during wartime, and hopefully, Mr. Yamaguchi's vantage point will never again be witnessed. However, however horrible the deployment of these weapons were, one needs to keep in mind that the dropping of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was far more than an isolated event - they ushered in a new era of the world, fundamentally changing the balance of power for the rest of the century, and in all likelihood, helped, in part, to avoid even worse conflict.