Wednesday, May 1, 2013

50 Years Ago: Preparing for MA-9

Mercury-Atlas 9 assembled on Pad 14.

After months of delays, the next scheduled flight of the Mercury space program was approaching in May of 1963. The capsule and rocket components had been stacked together on April 22 and engineers continued testing on the flight and life support systems. The launch would take place at Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral in sunny Florida.

Gordon Cooper practicing entry to the capsule.

Although only one would fly, two astronauts continued training for the flight. The prime crew member was Gordon Cooper. He had been selected in November 1962, after NASA officials decided to go ahead with the mission as an all-day test flight to push the boundaries of man's endurance in space. Some engineers worried that it was pushing the Mercury-Atlas program too far. The last mission, Sigma-7 with Wally Schirra had gone very well and some felt it was better to end the program before a disaster could occur.

Raising the Atlas rocket on April 22.

The backup pilot for the flight was Alan B. Shepard, Jr. He had made the first successful flight of an American astronaut on the MA-3 flight on May 5, 1961. His was a sub-orbital flight, lasting only 15 minutes over the Atlantic Ocean. The MA-9 mission was hoped to bring the American program back into parity with the Soviets, who had been able to keep Vostok spacecraft in orbit for a day.

Cooper in the Mercury spacecraft simulator.

With the flight date coming up, Cooper and Shepard trained relentlessly in simulators and flying jet fighters and trainers. The previous 5 missions had given engineers plenty of data that could now be worked into the flight parameters, and its ambitious nature demanded that each test simulation prepare the astronauts for every emergency conceivable. 

A better look at Launch Complex 14, with the MA-9 rocket stack in place.

Launch Complex 14 had been used for all of the Mercury-Atlas missions starting with John Glenn in MA-6. Later, after the conclusion of the Mercury program, it would be used again for launches of the Agena target vehicle during Project Gemini. However, the corrosion of sea salt and the environment took its toll and the pad was later scrapped for safety. Today, a Mercury program memorial stands at the entrance to the site and is a frequent stop on the Cape Canaveral bus tour.

At the LC-14 memorial with my uncle John.

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