American Manned Spaceflight at 50

Fifty years ago, NASA propped astronaut Alan Shepard, one of seven men initially chosen for Project Mercury, atop a Redstone rocket and shot him into space for a fifteen-minute suborbital ride. (See Arizona State University’s new digital archive of this event HERE.)

If we were still at Kennedy Space Center this week, we’d have attended some of the commemorative events there. Astronaut and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden offers these words about Shepard’s historic ride in Freedom 7: “I was a teenager at the time and just sorting out the field of study I wanted to pursue. Though I never dared dream it growing up in segregated South Carolina, I was proud to follow in Alan’s footsteps several years later and become a test pilot myself. The experiences I’ve had would not have been possible without Alan’s pioneering efforts. The inspiration that has created generations of leaders to enlarge our understanding of our universe and to strive toward the highest in human potential was sparked by those early achievements of our space program. They began with Freedom 7 and a daring test pilot who flew the ultimate experimental vehicle that May day 50 years ago.”

Mercury Spacesuit (Astronaut Hall of Fame)

If we were still at KSC, we also might have some extra tidbits about the progress toward a launch date for Endeavour’s final mission. We know the load control assembly (LCA) box that was the source of last week’s launch scrub has been replaced. Both the box that was removed and the box that has been inserted into the aft area of the space shuttle are being tested to determine whether the problem was with the LCA or lies outside that box. Doug’s question at Monday’s launch status briefing pushed Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses to address the possibility that the source of the problem was upstream in one of the nine systems the box supports.

The earliest launch date would be May 10, but the management team won’t set a firm date and put launch preparations back into motion until they know they have located the real source of the problem. Anna’s question at that same press briefing was about how long a delay needs to be to make sending the crew home the appropriate move. Since the crew needs to be back at KSC for about four days to get ready for launch, we’ll probably know tomorrow whether May 10 is too optimistic. If the source of the problem remains undetermined, or if repairs beyond the LCA are necessary, the launch date will continue to slide with each passing day. (See a more detailed description of the repair process HERE.)

Alan Shepard on May 5, 1961

Yesterday at Lofty Ambitions, we wrote about risk, and we’ll have Part 2 of “Radioactivity and Other Risks” tomorrow. In the meantime, one way to define the delay in the launch of STS-134 is as a result of risk management. The space shuttle always flies with risk, but the management team refuses to launch with unknown risk. Unknown risk is unmanaged risk.

Risk was on Alan Shepard’s mind fifty years ago as well. According to Life Magazine and other sources, the first American in space was asked for his thoughts on that Redstone rocket upon which he was perched. He responded, “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.”


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