tv [untitled] May 12, 2012 8:00am-8:30am EDT
programming throughout the week and every weekend, 48 hours of people and events telling the american story on american history tv. get our schedules, and see past programs at our websites. and you can join in the conversation on social media sites. after 30 years of space flight and 130 missions, the space shuttle program has come to an end. this spring, the shuttle's "discovery" and "enterprise" were delivered to their new retirement homes in virginia and new york. "atlantis" is now based at florida's kennedy space center and "endeavour" is scheduled to arrive in los angeles this fall. where it will be on permanent disply. next on american history tv, we revisit the space program's earliest days, as we hear from mercury seven astronaut alan shepard, the first american in space and the fifth man to walk on the moon. he was interviewed as part of the nasa johnson space center oral history project.
this interview was conducted just five months before alan shepard died of leukemia in july of 1998. he's interviewed by roy neal, longtime nbc news correspondent who covered the american manned space program. it's about 90 minutes. >> with alan shepard in pebble beach, california. you can't see the magnificent view, because we have blacked it out so we can have a good tape that would work. and alan, thank you for letting us be here with you for this oral history. >> it's a pleasure, sir. it's a pleasure. >> let's begin kind of not at the beginning, because it was a beginning before this. but does the date 9 april 1959 mean anything to you? >> well, of course, that was one of the happiest days of my life. that was the day in which we all congregated, officially, as the u.s. first astronaut group. we had been through a selection process, obviously, previous to
that time. but that was the day we first showed up, officially, as the first astronauts of the united states back at langley field, virginia. >> at langley. why langley, i wonder? >> well, of course, naca had become nasa in a great big hurried turn around, as you recall. and the program of astronaut selection and training basically was run by the people who worked from langley. originally of course we all reported in to washington. that was where the initiation, the introduction, the preselection, all that sort of routine went on. and then as you know, we had physicals elsewhere in the country.
but once the selection was made we reported to those people at langley field. which was kind of neat for me because i was already stationed in norfolk in a job which i didn't like in the first place. i was finally taken out of airplanes and put behind a desk for the first time in a bunch of years. but -- so it was a real easy trip for us. we just didn't even have to move. >> in your journey to get there, it took you through test pilot school, took you through combat experience, took you through everything, didn't it? >> uh-huh. >> why was that, nasa decided to pick test pilots, of all things, to fly the first space mission? >> well, i think that it was an immediate realization that we had essentially a new product. it didn't look very much like an airplane. but if you were going to put a pilot in, it was going to have to fly somehow. like an airplane.
and that when you have a brand strange new machine, then you go to the test pilots. that's what they were trained to do, and that's what they had been doing. now, of course, naca had some test pilots, but they were a little bit older. none of them, i don't think, were in a position where they probably could have competed with the varied background of test flying, which most of us had. and so the decision was made -- i don't know, they say that eisenhower had something to do with the decision, because he said, well, yeah, we need a test pilot. he agreed with that, naca, nasa now didn't have very many test pilots, so let's go to the military and see what they have to offer. now, whether eisenhower himself was involved in the decision --
apparently, the white house was, to some degree. >> but the point is, of course, you were named. and when first you sized up those teammates of yours, i wonder what your first reactions were to the group. >> well, i wondered, first of all, where these six incompetent guys came from. no, seriously. it was not a surprise because several of them had been involved in the preliminary selection process. so i was genuinely familiar with their background. glen, of course, i had known before, shira i had known before because of our navy connections. so i knew there was a lot of talent there. i knew it was going to be a tough fight to win the prize. >> it was competitive at that time between the seven of you. wasn't it? >> well, it was an interesting
situation. because, as i say, i was friendly with several of them. and on the other hand, realizing that i was now competing with these guys. so there was always a sense of caution, i suppose. particularly talking about technical things. now, in the bar, of course, everything -- everything changed. but in talking about technical things, there was always a sense of maybe a little bit of reservation. not being totally frank with each other. because there was this very strong sense of competition. >> we were talking about your teammates, and i would kind of like to go back over there. there was competition between the seven of you, wasn't there? >> well, you know, it was an interesting situation getting together with the seven originals for the first time.
and, of course, having known some of them before, in the -- with the navy connections, but yet all of a sudden realizing that here was competition. there were seven guys competing for the first job, whatever that turned out to be, that seven guys going for that one job. so on the one hand, there was a sense of friendliness, and maybe some support. but on the other hand, hey, i hope the rest of you guys are happy, because i'm going to make the first flight. >> you were about to move into a whole new world, or a whole new -- not nonworld up there in weightless space. which nothing was known. didn't that frighten you just a little bit? what were your thoughts about moving into a new environment? >> i suspect my thoughts generally reflected those of the other chaps. but with me, i think, it had to be the challenge of being able
to control a new vehicle and a new environment. this is a generalization, but it's something which i had been doing for many, many years. as navy pilot, as a carrier pilot. and believe me, it's a lot harder to land a jet on an aircraft carrier than to land on the moon. that's a piece of cake, that moon deal. but that was part of my life, was the challenge. and here you had yes, a new environment, but you know, for fighter pilots who fly upside down, a lot of the time, zero gravity wasn't that big a deal. now, of course, none of us being -- non-medics had thought about the long-term effects of zero gravity. but the short-term effects of zero gravity were not the challenge to us. the challenge was to be able to fly an unusual craft, and
provide good, positive thinking control of that vehicle. >> so unusual a craft that there weren't even any training devices or simulators. that could simulate the kind of things you were going to do. you had to make them, didn't you? >> you know, that's exactly correct. in the early days, we really had what we called part task trainers. instead of simulators. something was built to indicate the control system, something else was built to indicate the radio systems, or some of the instruments. and they were all sort of separated, not the great, glorious stimulators which we have today. >> what was the role of the astronaut in those devices? >> well, i think that the role of simulators then, today and tomorrow has to be you're dealing with individuals who fly unusual aircraft, who conduct unusual experiments
infrequently. because you don't fly in space every day. so there has to be the simulator, which creates -- artificially creates problems for you to train against or train with to learn how to overcome difficulties you may have with your experiment, difficulties you may be having with the tail of the shuttle or that sort of thing. so simulators are very, very important part of space flight. and they're also a very important part of commercial aircraft. unfortunately, some of the companies today, the commuter companies, don't require simulated time, which is surprising to me. i think many of the pilots do it on their own. but simulators really are good, because they create a sense of confidence in one's self. if you go up and you -- and the engine quits and you land safely.
you go up and the rocket goes sideways, and you get out and come back home, and do it again. so there's a lot of confidence created in the simulation business. >> did you or the astronauts take an active role in designing the spacecraft itself? >> yes, we did. and we tried to do it as efficiently as we could. we assigned -- in the early days, with only seven, we assigned an individual to work directly with the contractor. and this was all with nasa's blessing, because the nasa engineers were there, as well. but primarily from a pilot's point of view, is this handle in the right place. if you have a switch, which you have to use to counteract an emergency, is it reachable, is it visible, or do you have to go behind your back somewhere to find the darn thing?
primarily, from a pilot's point of view, was our interface. >> then, finally, you wound up being the first man to fly in a mercury spacecraft. did you know that was coming, or was it a surprise? can you describe your steps that led up to it? >> we had been in training for probably 20 months or so. toward the end of 1960, early '61, when we all intuitively felt that pretty soon, bob giroth had to make a decision as to who was going to make the first flight. and when we received word that bob wanted to see us at 5:00 in the afternoon one day in our office, sort of felt that perhaps he had decided. there were seven of us then in one office. we had seven desks around in the hangar in langley field.
and bob walked in, closed the door, and was very matter of fact. he said, "well, you know, we've got to decide who is going to make the first flight. and i don't want to pinpoint publicly at this stage one individual. within the organization, i want everyone to know that we will designate the first flight and the second flight and a back-up pilot. but beyond that, we won't make any public decisions. so, he said, "shepard gets the first flight, grisham gets the second flight and glenn is the backup for this two suborbital missions. any questions?" absolute silence. he said thank you very much, good luck, turned around and left the room.
well, there i am looking at six faces looking at me. and feeling, of course, totally elated that i had had -- that i had won the competition. but almost immediately after feeling sorry for my buddies. because there they were. i mean, they were trying just as hard as i was. and it was a very poignant moment. because they all came over, shook my hand, and pretty soon, i was the only guy left in the room. >> that's a priceless story, alan. finally, things progressed to the point where you're getting ready for flight. and if i remember correctly, there were some holes dealing with that day on the launch pad. let's go back to that day, as you remember it. you're getting ready now for mr-3 as it was loosely labeled. >> yeah, actually, the countdown
had been going very, very well. of course glenn was the backup pilot and he'd been in and out on the preflight stuff. the red stone checked out well. we had virtually no problems at all, and were scheduled for i believe it was the 2nd of may. and i was dressed, just about going out the door, when there were tremendous rain storm -- thunderstorm came over. and obviously, they decided to cancel it, which i was pleased they did. it was rescheduled for three days later. and, of course, went through the same routine. the weather was good. and i remember driving down to -- to the launching pad, in a van, which was capable of providing comfort for us, and with the pressure suit on and any last-minute adjustments and
temperature devices and so on that had to be made. they were all equipped to do that. the doctor, bill douglas, was in there. we pulled up in front of the launch pad. of course, it was dark. the liquid oxygen was venting out from the red stone. search lights all over the place. and i remember saying to myself, well, i'm not going to see this red stone again. and you know, pilots love to go out and kick the tires. and it was sort of like reaching out and kicking the tires on the red stone. because i stopped and looked at it, you know, to look back and -- and up at this beautiful rocket. and i thought, well, okay, buster, let's go and get the job done. so i sort of stopped and kicked the tires, then went on in. and on with the countdown.
there was a time during the countdown when there was a problem with the inverter in the red stone. gordon cooper was the voice communicator in the block house. so we called and said that the inverter is not working in the red stone, and they're going to pull the gantry back in, and change inverters and probably going to take an hour, hour and a half. and i said, well, if that's the case i would like to get out and relieve myself. we had been working with a device to collect urine during the flight that really worked pretty well in zero gravity, but it really didn't work very well when you're lying on your back with your feet up in air like you were on the red stone. and i thought, my bladder was getting a little full, and if i had some time, i would like to relieve myself. so, i said -- i said, gordon, would you check and see if i can
get out, you know, and relieve myself quickly while they're fissioning the -- and gordo came back and i guess there were some discussions going on outside. it took about three or four minutes and finally came back and said, no, he says the astronaut will stay in the nose cone. so i thought, well, all right. that's fine, but i'm going to go to the bathroom. and they said, well, you can't do that because you got wires all over your body and they will short-circuit. i said, don't you guys have a switch that turns off those wires? and they said, yeah. i said, would you please turn the switch off? well, i relieved myself, and, of course, with the cotton undergarment which we had on, it soaked up immediately in the undergarment, and with 100% oxygen flowing through that spacecraft, it was -- i was totally dry by the time we launched. but somebody did say something
about being in the world's first wet vac in space. >> at that time the whole game was totally competitive, not alone among the seven astronauts, but you were in a race for space with the russians, and they kind of beat you to the punch, didn't think you? thinking yuri gagarin when i say that. >> yeah, that little race between gagarin and me was really, really close. obviously their objectives, their capabilities, for orbital flight were greater than ours at that particular point. we eventually caught up and went passed them. but as you point out, it was the cold war. there was some competition. we had flown a chimpanzee called ham in a redstone mercury combination, and everything had
worked perfectly, except there was a relay which at the end of the powered flight was supposed to eject the escape tower, because it was no longer needed, separated from the mercury capsule, and ejected. for some reason with ham's flight, it fired, but it did not separate itself. so, the chimp was lifted to another 10 to 15 miles in altitude, another 20 or 30 miles in range. there was absolutely nothing wrong with -- anything else wrong with the mission. so, our recommendation, strongly, was, okay, let's put shepard in the next one. everything worked fine. so, the thing happens again, no big deal, shepard goes a little higher. they said, no, we want everything absolutely right. so, we flew another unmanned
mission before gagarin flew. then his flight, and then mine. so, it was really touch and go there, if we'd put me in that unmanned mission, we would have actually flown first, but it was -- it was -- it was tight. >> in retrospect, it doesn't seem that important, but i guess at the time it was. >> oh, very important. absolutely. absolutely. >> how important was it? can you say anything publicly, or did you nurse your wounds and get ready to -- >> oh, no. as you know, we had a lot of differences of opinion about things in the program. not only the design, but -- and some of the scheduling. but most of that was kept pretty quiet, and most of it was resolved. and very little, very little of that came out in public. it was always, you know, sort of a joint decision.
>> then as time went on, you started lobbying for another flight in mercury, but then mercury was cut a little short because there was the pressure of something else, wasn't there? can you discuss those pressures? >> you are not surprised that i wanted to fly again, are you? >> not at all. >> mr. neal? >> no, not at all, admiral shepard. >> as a matter of fact, after cooper finished his day and a half orbital mission, there was another spacecraft ready to go. and my thought was to put me up there and just let me stay until something ran out, until the batteries ran down or until the oxygen ran out or until we lost a control system or something. then just sort of open-ended kind of a mission. and so i recommended that. and they said that they didn't expect to hear anything else
from me. but i remember when cooper and his family and the other astronauts and families were invited to the white house for cocktails with jack kennedy, you know, we stopped at jim webb's house first and had a little warm-up there, and i was politicking with webb, and i said, you know, mr. webb, we could put this baby up there in just a matter of a few weeks. i mean, it's all ready to go. we have the rockets, we have -- and just, you know, let me sit up there and, you know, see how long it will last, get another record out of it. well, he said, no, i don't -- he said, i really don't think so. i think we've got to get on with "gemini." i said, well, i'm going to see
the president in a little while. you mind if i mention it to him? he said, no. but you tell him my side of the story, too. so, i said, all right. so, we get over there and we're all sipping our booze, and we get some of our taxpayers' money back drinking at the white house, and i got kennedy aside, and i said, there's a possibility we could make another long-duration "mercury" flight, maybe two, maybe three days. and we'd like to do that. he said, what does mr. webb think about it? i said, webb doesn't want to do it. he said, well, i think i'll have to go along with mr. webb. >> made you realize the power behind the -- >> at least i tried. >> yeah so, you were talking about getting ready to fly in "gemini." another whole new ball game. >> yes. it was very fortunate, of course, that i was chosen to
make the first "gemini" mission. tom stafford, who is a very bright young guy, was assigned as copilot, and we were already into the mission, already training for the mission. we had been in the simulators as a matter of fact several different times. i'm not sure whether we looked at the hardware in st. louis or not. prior to the problem which i had. the problem i had was a disease called meniere's, it is due to elevated fluid pressure in the inner ear. and they tell me it happens to people who are type "a," hyper, driven, whatever. unfortunately what happens is it causes a lack of balance. it causes dizziness, in some cases nausea as a result of all
of this disorientation going on up there in the ear. fortunately it's unilateral, so it was only happening with me on the left side. but it was so obvious that nasa grounded me right away, and they assigned another crew for the first "gemini" flight. so, there i was. what do i do now? do i go back to the navy? do i stick around with the space program? what do i do? i finally decided that i would stay with nasa and see if there wasn't some way that we could correct this ear problem. several years went by.
there was some medication which alleviated it. but i still couldn't fly solo. can you imagine the world's greatest test pilot has to have some young guy in the back flying along with him? i mean, talk about embarrassing situation. but as a matter of fact, it was stafford who was -- it was tom stafford who came to me, said he had a friend in los angeles who was experimenting correcting this menieree's problem surgically. and so i said, gosh, that's great. i'll go out and see him. so, he set it up. went on out there. fellow said, yeah, we do. what we do is we make a little opening there and put a tube in so that it enlarges the chamber that takes that fluid pressure, and in some cases it's worked. and i said, well, what if it doesn't work?
he said, well, you won't be any worse off than you were, but you might lose your hearing, but other than that. so, i went out there under an assumed name. >> what was the name? >> oh, it was polis, i think, victor polis. and the doctor knew and the nurse knew, but nobody else knew that -- and so victor polis checks in, and they run the operation, run the surgery. and it's not that traumatic, obviously, because after about a day, i was out of there. of course, it was obvious when you look at the big ball of stuff over my ear when i got back home. but nasa started looking at me, several months, several months, several months went by and finally said, yes, all the tests show that you are no longer affected by this -- by this
meniere's disease. so there i was, having made the right decision. >> i think we better backtrack a little here. because obviously this is going to bring you into direct discussion about a fella named deke slayton and we haven't established the fact that deke like you was knocked out of flying, so let's go back over a little of that, particularly because that happened back in the "mercury" days when deke was getting ready to fly. >> right. >> and i wonder when you first heard. >> yeah, deke had already been assigned to follow john, uh-huh. right. >> and suddenly he got bumped with his "mercury" flight. that was a heart condition, wasn't it? >> yeah. there was a lot of controversy about that. because it was a heart murmur or a palpitation. some irregularity. but one which was not obvious. i mean, it was not a continuous kind of thing. it was not as if he was, you know, in