Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 5, 1961: A Red-Letter Date for the Lowest Bidder

Alan Shepard in his Mercury capsule. It’s even less roomy than it appears.

On May 5, 1961, American Alan B. Shepard and his Mercury capsule Freedom 7 rode a Redstone rocket to an altitude of 116 miles above the Earth. While the U.S.S.R.’s Yuri Gagarin had made history less than a month earlier by becoming both the first person in space and the first person to orbit the Earth, Shephard’s journey into space highlighted one of the Russian space program’s most thorough and embarrassing failures: in more than thirty years of operation, from the late 1950s to its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union consistently failed to launch even one single, solitary red-blooded American into space.1
While Shepard followed Gagarin’s spaceflight by mere weeks, Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth occurred nearly three and a half years after the first living creature made the trip. A dog named Laika—which translates from the Russian as “dead frozen space dog”2—was launched into space by the Soviets on November 3, 1957. Public knowledge of the circumstances of her death in space (which was expected and, in fact, inevitable, once she got up there) have evolved considerably over the decades. Official reports at the time stated that she was painlessly euthanized after about a week, before her supply of oxygen ran out; this story was probably not widely believed because for several decades it was just plain silly to believe most anything reported by the Soviet Union.3 Evidence suggests that Laika in fact died only a few hours after liftoff, from a combination of overheating and stress.

We appreciate the effort, comrades, but Don Bluth didn’t mean that
all dogs literally go to heaven. We kinda wish we’d said something earlier.
It took the United States of America more than three years to counter the Soviets’ daring leap forward by launching into space—and, even better, recovering safely—a chimpanzee named Ham, who was quite nearly nearly Laika’s equal in both overall cuteness and utter ignorance of the terrific dangers of his situation.

“People keep handing me fruit, I get to wear underpants, they’re not
making me drink TANG . . . this place is great. I think I’ll. . . . Wait—what?
You want to send me where?”

While Ham’s flight was not without incident—several hours of pre-launch delays were followed by an in-flight loss of cabin pressure, a higher-than-expected peak velocity, and a subsequent return to Earth some 130 miles from the targeted landing area—Ham’s survival and the knowledge gleaned from his flight showed NASA that a larger, less-hairy primate might well survive the same conditions, with the added benefit that he would actually understand the dials and levers in front of him.4

The successes of Shephard’s flight and the flights that followed were built on a foundation of daring, dedication, ingenuity, and even (to some degree) thrift. According to then-NASA flight director Gene Kranz,
“When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, he had replied, ‘The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.’ ”5
NASA, nearly three years behind the Soviet Union at the Launching Ignorant Creatures stage of the space race, had closed the gap to a scant three weeks by the time of Alan Shepard’s flight, and eventually surpassed the Soviets to become the first nation to place a man on the moon.

Forty years later, STS-135, the last launch of the venerable Space Shuttle program, is scheduled for July 2011. No comparable replacement for the shuttle is expected for at least five years, and quite possibly much longer. While space agencies worldwide now generally work in cooperation with one another rather than in competition, and while NASA will still have some limited means of manned space flight, it’s a shame to see that, for perhaps the first time in four decades, American space exploration is taking an undeniable step backward. Perhaps as disappointing is that public interest in keeping the space program going doesn’t seem to be particularly high.

If the best and most noble elements of of humanity, such as Alan Shephard’s courage in the face of the unknown—or of the barely-known but obviously dangerous—can’t manage to keep our interest anymore, maybe NASA needs to bring back the monkeys. Who doesn’t love monkeys? This country would pay through the nose to see monkeys on Mars.6

1. Although they did allow us to chill out at their place back in the summer of 1975, which was pretty cool of them.
2. This is absolutely not true, but we like the sound of it. We don’t speak a lick of Russian.
3. Notable exceptions to this rule were statements such as “Dear Poland, we are coming to visit. See you at about noon. Sincerely, Josef Stalin.”
4. NASA was also keenly interested in finding a telegenic astronaut who could interact with reporters in a way that didn’t involve throwing feces.
5. This quote may be familiar to those of you who were unfortunate enough to have seen Michael Bay’s Armageddon, which incorporates Shepard’s statement into Steve Buscemi’s dialogue in one of the few moments when the movie is not viciously brutalizing the laws of science.
6. Yeah, yeah, we know. Apes are not monkeys.

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