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If you like Admiral Alan Shepard's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Daniel Goldin,
Paul MacCready,
John Mather,
Story Musgrave,
Sally Ride and
Chuck Yeager

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Alan Shepard in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Earth Day
The Cosmos

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Alan Shepard
Alan Shepard
Profile of Alan Shepard Biography of Alan Shepard Interview with Alan Shepard Alan Shepard Photo Gallery

Alan Shepard Interview (page: 2 / 4)

First American in Space

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  Alan Shepard

So Mr. Faget, when the Russians launched Sputnik, what impact, what affect did that have on you and the other advanced aviation engineers?

Maxime Faget: Well, when the Sputnik went up, there were a lot of us, not all of us, but a lot of us, maybe about 20 or 30%, who said, "Boy, the rules have all changed. No one wants to fly faster. What you want to do now is to go to orbital velocity. Now you can go forever at orbital velocity, why fool around in the atmosphere?" And of course, that was a big jerk in people's thinking, and a lot of them were not ready to accept it. And those who were thinking about it were still thinking in terms of winged vehicles to go that fast. There were some of them who were thinking in terms of lifting bodies, which we are still fooling with, to go that fast.

There was one fellow at the Ames Research Center, a very prominent man named Harley Allen, who had postulated a very blunt design, for a ballistic missile, as a better way to enter the atmosphere, rather than a sharp-nosed thing. He said, "What's wrong with a blunt body?" I took that idea, and I said, "Yeah, what is wrong with a blunt body?" And I immediately knew I could design a real good capsule based on the blunt body approach. So I spent some time doing that, right at that point.

Was that the breakthrough idea?

Maxime Faget: To me it was.

It was so obvious. But believe me, this wasn't an acceptable solution to most of my colleagues. It was anathema. It was a break with the faith. I was a pariah, you know, as far as they were concerned. But it was the right way to do it. Primarily because anything else but a blunt body -- and a very efficient blunt body from the standpoint of heat -- wouldn't be light enough to be able to get into orbit using an Atlas rocket. I realized that.

I just had to pick the shape that would have the least amount of weight devoted to heat protection. And we had data on all sorts of shapes and it was pretty easy to come up with the one that would give us the lowest amount of heating. It had to be almost as blunt as you could make it.

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
The Mercury vehicle has a small amount of curvature on the front end. The heating is slightly less on that slightly curved front end than on a flat one. Just a little bit, but that's the ideal shape, so that was the one we used. It wasn't any great big scientific breakthrough to find that thing. The data was already existing. All you had to do was get it out of the data files, and go ahead with it.

What other obstacles have you had to overcome to achieve the things that you have?

Maxime Faget: The most difficult thing that I've had to contend with is convincing people -- colleagues or whoever they might be -- that we ought to do something different than the tried and true, to depart from the way we've been doing things. Innovations have to be made, and it's difficult sometimes to sell your ideas. There's always a competition of ideas, and the majority always wants to stay with the present approach.

There was a great deal of difficulty in convincing people that we didn't need wings to fly that fast and that we didn't want streamlined, we wanted blunt. Aeroengineers don't like blunt things, they like streamlined things. You know: "Blunt is beautiful, streamlined is bad."

That's not what they wanted to hear. That was a problem that we dealt with, but the nice thing about the blunt body was that it was not only the lightest thing, it was the simplest thing. Therefore the program could move rapidly. We already had the rockets being developed, so we could move very rapidly on the Mercury vehicle.

The Mercury capsules were so tiny. How did you determine the size of the vehicle?

Maxime Faget: Well, you understand right off, we are trying to keep the thing down to 2,000 pounds, and it had to be pretty small. It had to be a tight thing and, well, you understand I'm small. I'm short, compact, light. So, when I got to designing the damn thing, and putting in my inputs, I had absolutely no motivation to make it very big! My secret hope was that maybe some way or the other I would be able to fly on the thing.

Admiral Shepard, the expression "The Right Stuff" has become part of our vocabulary. Maybe you and the others in the program have come to hate it, but what is the right stuff? What does it take to be an astronaut, to do what you've done?

Alan Shepard: I think first of all you have to be there for the right reason. You have to be there not for the fame and glory and recognition and being a page in a history book, but you have to be there because you believe your talent and ability can be applied effectively to operation of the spacecraft. Whether you are an astronomer or a life scientist, geophysicist, or a pilot, you've got to be there because you believe you are good in your field, and you can contribute, not because you are going to get a lot of fame or whatever when you get back. So that motive has to be there to start with.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

And you have to be a fairly dedicated, objective individual, recognize that it is going to be dangerous, and you are going to spend your time practicing what to do if things go wrong.

You take that initial attitude of believing you can do it, and you build a lot of confidence, because -- particularly in the simulators -- if you respond to two or three horrible emergencies during the course of a morning, and do that day in and day out for weeks and months, it's a tremendous confidence-builder. Some people could probably say it's brainwashing in its best form. But there is a total confidence at the time of launch, because of the initial attitude, and because of the training philosophies -- coping with contingencies.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What kinds of things were the seven of you subjected to in the training process? What were they looking for? What were they doing to you?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: All of us trained for physiological response. We wanted to be in great shape, we wanted to be able to cope with zero gravity, we wanted to be able to cope with accelerations and decelerations and so on. So all of us trained so that we were probably in the best physical condition we had ever been in up until that point. Beyond that, in the early days we all were given certain areas of responsibility. For example, because of my naval background, I was assigned to be responsive to the engineers on recovery in the water. Contingencies, what do you do if the thing sinks? That sort of stuff. Others were involved in the tracking system. Others were involved in propulsion systems of the rocket as a specialty area. We worked with the engineers in the design and construction and testing phases in those various areas, then we would get back together at the end of the week and brief each other as to what had gone on. So even though we were there competing with each other for the first ride, we were still acting as a team, and helping each other in those days.

Mr. Faget, can you remember Alan Shepard in those days? Why was he chosen to go first?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Maxime Faget: Dr. Gilruth and Charlie Donovan picked the astronauts, and decided who would go first. I knew Shepard was an excellent astronaut, and I was very pleased to have him go, but I would have been pleased with any of them. They all were pretty cocky, very confident. When the astronauts came on, we brought them right into the program. When we had a failure in one of our tests, they'd participate in all of our design reviews, all of our troubleshooting reviews. There were no secrets from them. As a matter of fact, they initiated some design changes, which we did in order to satisfy some of their concerns.

When we started off, we thought the Atlas could put about 2,000 pounds into orbit. So our design weight at the initiation of the program was 2,000 pounds. That was our goal. We had to build it at 2,000 pounds, and it was very challenging. I don't know if you've ever seen the actual article, but it's tiny. You can barely squeeze a man into it. It had the hold five pounds of pressure, and we filled it full of oxygen, because we did not want to put that extra structural weight which would take a full atmospheric pressure. The heaviest thing in a pressure vehicle are windows. So we had two small windows in the original design. They were round like portholes. My submarine experience had something to do with this. On a submarine you don't have any windows, you have a periscope. We gave them a set of optics that were similar to a periscope, down on the control panel, that they could look out and navigate by. They could look into and get a moving picture of the earth below them as they orbited.

Along side of that we had a map of the earth, and a program device that would scroll that map through a viewing area, so that they would be able to compare where they were with that moving map, to make sure that they were on track, or to give them reassurance that the capsule was on track. And we thought that was -- or at least I thought -- that was pretty good. They could look out through these little port holes, you know. That was not acceptable. They didn't think that was good at all.

So one of the big design changes was to put a window in the front here, which added some weight. By the time we actually flew, instead of weighing 2,000 pounds, it weighed about 2,700 pounds. Fortunately, as the Atlas was developed, we improved its performance, so it didn't have any trouble carrying the full weight. I think a great number of changes to the Mercury capsule would not have happened if the Atlas had not been improved. Originally we didn't have a fast-opening hatch. You had to push the parachutes out of the way and go out the top. We added an internal parachute as well as the two parachutes on the outside. The astronauts were involved in the program decisions from the time they came on board. I think it was the right way to do it.

Admiral Shepard, you were given a parachute to take along on that ride, weren't you? Why did you have a personal parachute in addition to the escape tower rocket?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: It was sort of a last-minute decision. There was some concern that the escape tower might not separate from the top of the space craft. You wouldn't be able to get the parachutes out if the escape tower was still on. So we carried a little chest pack. We practiced, and there was enough time to hook the chest pack on, undo the straps, open the door, jump out, and come down in a personal parachute. It was just a tertiary means of getting out.

It sounds to me like there wasn't any room for panic in this business.

Alan Shepard: That's right. People have said over the years, "Boy, you really must have been scared." Fortunately, I wasn't scared. Nervous, but not frightened to death. Because if you have a person there who is petrified, he is not going to be any good as pilot, as a backup, as an observer, or whatever his function is going to be. You have to be trained to the point where you absolutely are not panicked.

NASA had a few mishaps with their first test firings, didn't they? You couldn't have been 100% sure that this Mercury space craft was going to work when you stepped into that day.

Alan Shepard: That's very true.

I think all of us certainly believed the statistics which said that probably 88% chance of mission success and maybe 96% chance of survival. And we were willing to take those odds. But we wanted to be sure that if there were any failures in the machine that the man was going to be there to take over. And to correct it. And I think that still is true of this business -- which is basically research and development -- that you probably spend more time in planning and training and designing for things to go wrong, and how you cope with them, than you do for things to go right.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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