Light this Candle

05/05/2011

Alan Shepard, the first American in Space (Image Source: NASA)

What is it, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle … and wait for someone to light the fuse?

Tom Wolfe

On the 5th of May 1961, Alan Shepard was launched from Cape Canaveral Florida, on a sub-orbital mission as the first US manned spaceflight.

After more than four hours in the capsule due to a seemingly never ending series of technical problems Shepard urged mission controllers to, ‘…fix your little problems and light this candle!’ 

As to what he thought about in those four hours before launch? Apparently that all the components of his ship were built by the lowest bidding contractors…

Mercury 7 clears the tower (Image Source: NASA)

After launch he flew to an apogee of 187 km and 486 km down range to a splash down in the Atlantic Missile Range in a near perfect flight. In fact after the flight the capsule was found to be in such good condition that it was re-used on another flight.

Shepard later admitted that immediately prior to launch he told himself, “Don’t fuck up, Shepard…”. This was subsequently mis-quoted in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff as, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me fuck up”, but by the time this was corrected in the public record the  mis-quote had become the stuff of legend and is now famously known as “Shepard’s Prayer.”

During the flight Shepard was able to control his spacecrafts attitude via yaw, pitch and roll thrusters, unlike Gagarin whose flight control was completely automatic.

Recovery of Mercury 7 (Image Source: NASA)

He went on to participate in Gemini and Apollo programs, leading the Apollo 14 mission to the moon.

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References

1.  NASA, Proceedings of a Conference on Results of the First US Manned Sub-orbital Space Flight, 6 June 1961., US Dept of State Auditorium, Washington DC, US Government Printing Office Washington DC.