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“Stairway To The Stars”
b/ Ella Fitzgerald
The new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) invites test pilots, from around the United States Armed Services to join the newest generation of explorers. Although Alan Shepard was on the list, his invitation was misplaced and he didn’t officially receive an offer to join. Regardless, he was selected to be one of the first seven American Astronauts. Known as the Mercury 7, the group included John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Donald “Deke” Slayton, Malcolm “Scott” Carpenter, Walter “Wally” Schirra and Gordon Cooper. From this prestigious group of highly trained fliers, Shepard was selected to pilot the first flight into space, with Glenn as his backup.
The stakes were raised in the space race on April 15, 1961, when the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and he became the first person to orbit the Earth, flying in space for 108 minutes.
Flight for Freedom
The Soviets beat the Americans by less than a month. Shepard’s launch was initially scheduled for May 2, but was rescheduled twice because of bad weather. On May 5, 1961 Freedom 7 lifted off, carrying Shepard to an altitude of 116 miles (187 kilometers) for a 15-minute suborbital flight. Because of the placement of the porthole windows, the first American in space was unable to catch a glimpse of the stars, and he was strapped in too tight to experience weightlessness. Also, a filter left on the periscope window made the Earth appear black and white.
Although The Soviets had reached the historic milestone first, and Gagarin had achieved a longer orbital flight, Shepard’s suborbital flight still made a significant worldwide impact. Unlike with Gagarin, Shepard’s launch, flight, and splashdown were watched on live television by millions of people. While Gagarin’s name was publicized, many of the details of his flight were kept confidential for more than a decade, including the fact he parachuted to Earth, rather than landing in his spacecraft. Shepard was also ceremonially awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, by president John F. Kennedy.
b/ Allan Harris (2007)
Tom Wolfe’s book that was made into a popular movie, one of the best stories told about NASA’s original seven astronauts and the Mercury program.
• Frank Sinatra w/ Count Basie (St. Louis, MO / 1965)
1947 — The Muroc Army Air Field in California has test pilots fly high-speed aircraft such as the rocket-powered Bell X-1, but some are killed as a result. After another pilot, Slick Goodlin, demands $150,000 (equivalent to $1,683,000 in 2018) to attempt to break the sound barrier, war hero Captain Chuck Yeager receives the chance to fly the X-1. While on a horseback ride with his wife Glennis, Yeager collides with a tree branch and breaks his ribs, which inhibits him from leaning over and locking the door to the X-1. Worried that he might not fly the mission, Yeager confides in friend and fellow pilot Jack Ridley. Ridley cuts off part of a broomstick and tells Yeager to use it as a lever to help seal the hatch to the X-1, and Yeager becomes the first person to fly at supersonic speed, defeating the “demon in the sky.”
Six years later, Muroc, now Edwards Air Force Base, still attracts the best test pilots. Yeager (now a major) and friendly rival Scott Crossfield repeatedly break the other’s speed records. They often visit the Happy Bottom Riding Club run by Pancho Barnes, who classifies the pilots at Edwards as either “prime” (such as Yeager and Crossfield) that fly the best equipment or newer “pudknockers” who only dream about it.
Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Donald “Deke” Slayton, captains of the United States Air Force, are among the “pudknockers” who hope to also prove that they have “the Right Stuff.”
“No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Officials understand, that rather than keep their test program secrect, it would be better for funding if they promoted the most exciting new program.
Cooper’s wife, Trudy, and other wives are afraid of becoming widows, but cannot change their husbands’ ambitions and desire for success and fame.
1957 — The Russian satellite Sputnik alarms the United States. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and military leaders demand that NASA help America defeat the Russians in what was called the Space Race.
The search for the first Americans in space excludes Yeager because he lacks a college degree.
the original seven
Mercury Seven Astronauts
• John Glenn
• Alan Shepard
• Wally Schirra
• Scott Carpenter
• Gordon “Gordo” Cooper
• Virgil “Gus” Grissom
• Donald “Deke” Slayton
April 12, 1961 — Russian Yuri Gagarin, being the First Man In Space, inspires The Mercury 7 to catch up, and surpass the Soviet Union.
May 5, 1961 — Alan Shepard is the first American In Space
(15-minute sub-orbital flight of Mercury/Redstone 3)
February 20, 1962 — John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth (Mercury/Atlas 6). After surviving the fiery re-entry with a dangerously loose heat shield on his capsule, Glenn splashed down a celebrity. After a ticker-tape parade (5th Ave. NYC), he, his fellow astronauts, and their families became the center of pop culture attention, including a Texas-size celebration in the Sam Houston Coliseum to announce the opening of the Manned Space Center in Houston.