Tag Archives: Naval Aviator

14 March 1934–16 January 2017: Eugene Andrew Cernan

Eugene A. Cernan, Mission Commander, inside the Lunar Module Challenger after the third EVA, 13 December 1972. (Harrison H. Schmitt/NASA)
Eugene Andrew Cernan (The Provi of 1952)

Eugene Andrew Cernan was born at Chicago, Illinois, 14 March 1934. He was the second child of Andrew George Cernan, a manufacturing foreman, and Rose A. Cihlar Cernan. Gene Cernan graduated from Proviso East High School, Maywood, Illinois, in 1952.

Cernan entered Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, as an engineering student. He was a midshipman in the U.S. Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C.), and a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity (ΦΓΔ) , serving as treasurer. He was also president of the Quarterdeck Society and the Scabbard and Blade, and a member of the Phi Eta Sigma (ΦΗΣ) honor society and Tau Beta Pi (ΤΒΠ) engineering honor society. He served on the military ball committee and was a member of the Skull and Crescent leadership honor society. During his Midshipman Cruise in 1955, Cernan served aboard the Worcester-class light cruiser USS Roanoke (CL-145). Cernan graduated from Purdue in 1956 with Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering (B.S.E.E.).

Cernan was commissioned as an ensign, United States Navy, 2 June 1956, and was assigned to flight training. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade), 1 December 1957. Lieutenant Cernan completed flight school and qualified as Naval Aviator. He was assigned to Attack Squadron 126 (VA-126) at NAS Miramar, San Diego, California, flying the North American Aviation FJ-4B Fury. On 1 June 1960, Cernan was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

North American Aviation FJ-4B Fury of VA-126, circa 1960. (U.S. Navy)

Lieutenant Eugene A. Cernan married Miss Barbara Jean Atchley, 6 May 1960, at San Diego. Mrs. Cernan was a flight attendant for Continental Airlines. They would have a daughter, Tracy. The Cernans divorced 7 July 1981.

LT E. A. Cernan, 1960

Lieutenant Cernan was next assigned to Attack Squadron 113 (VFA-113) at NAS Lemoore, California. VFA-113 (“Stingers”) flew the Douglas A-4C Skyhawk, and deployed aboard the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19).

Cernan earned a Master of Science Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California, in 1963.

In October 1963, Lieutenant Cernan was selected as an Astronaut for the National Aviation and Space Administration (NASA). He was one of 14 members of NASA Astronaut Group 3, which was announced 18 October 1963.

Gene Cernan was promoted to the rank of commander, United States Navy, 3 June 1966. He flew as pilot of Gemini IX-A, 3-6 June 1966. (Thomas P. Stafford was the command pilot.) The mission included a rendezvous with a Lockheed Agena target vehicle. A planned docking with the Agena could not be carried out because the docking shroud had failed to deploy correctly. On 6 June, Cernan conducted an “EVA” (Extravehicular Activity, of “space walk”). During the 2 hour, 7 minute EVA, numerous difficulties were encountered.

Astronaut Gene Cernan outside the Gemini IX-A capsule in earth orbit, 6 June 1966, (NASA S66-38515)

Commander Cernan was next assigned as the backup pilot of Gemini XII and backup lunar module pilot of Apollo 7.

Gene Cernan was the Lunar Module pilot of Apollo 10, the full rehearsal for the first lunar landing, 18 May–26 May 1969. He flew the LM Snoopy to 47,400 feet (14,445 meters) above the lunar surface at 21:29:43 UTC, 22 May.

Apollo 10 Lunar Module Snoopy photographed by John Watts Young just after separation from the Command and Service Module Charlie Brown. Gene Cernan can be seen in the window on the left. (NASA)

Cernan was promoted to the rank of captain, United States Navy, 10 July 1970. He was next assigned as the backup to Alan B. Shepard as mission commander for Apollo 14.

On 23 January 1971, Cernan was flying a Bell Model 47G-3B-1 helicopter, NASA 947 (N947NA, serial number 6665), on a proficiency flight, when it crashed in the Indian River near Malabar, Florida. The helicopter was destroyed and Cernan was slightly injured. The official investigation reported the cause as a “misjudgement in estimating altitude.” In his autobiography, Cernan wrote,

Without ripples, the water provided no depth perception and my eyes looked straight through the clear surface to the reflective river bottom. I had lost sight of the water.

The Last Man on the Moon, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, Chapter 25 at Page 258

Captain Eugene A. Cernan, U.S.N., in the cockpit of NASA 947, a Bell 47G-3B-1, as it hovers in ground effect, circa 1971. (NASA)

Gene Cernan’s third space flight was as commander of Apollo 17, 6–19 December 1972, with Ronald E. Evans as Command Module pilot and Harrison H. Schmitt as the Lunar Module pilot. Cernan and Schmitt were on the surface of the Moon for 3 days, 2 hours, 59 minutes, 40 seconds. During that time they made three excursions outside the lunar lander, totaling 22 hours, 3 minutes 57 seconds.

Apollo 17 was the last manned mission to the Moon in the Twentieth Century. Gene Cernan was the last man to stand on the surface of the Moon.

Eugene A. Cernan at the Taurus-Littrow Valley during the third EVA of the Apollo 17 mission. (Harrison H. Schmitt/NASA)

Gene Cernan retired from the United States Navy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1 July 1976. According to his NASA biography, Cernan had logged 566 hours, 15 minutes of space flight.

In 1987 Cernan married Jan Nanna (née Janis E. _) at Sun Valley, Idaho. She had two daughters, Kelly and Daniele, from a previous marriage.

Captain Eugene Andrew Cernan, United States Navy (Retired) died at a hospital in Houston, Texas. His remains were buried at the Texas State Cemetery at Austin, Texas.

Eugene Andrew Cernan (NASA)

© 2018 Bryan R.. Swopes

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John Herschel Glenn, Jr., Astronaut (18 July 1921–8 December 2016)

John Herschel Glenn, Jr., NASA Project Mercury Astronaut. (Ralph Morse/LIFE Magazine)

John Glenn, one of the original seven astronauts selected by NASA for Project Mercury, was a personal hero of mine. As a young boy growing up in Southern California, less than three miles from Rocketdyne’s engine test stands in Santa Susana, I followed the progress of all the astronauts. I recall having a map pinned to my wall, showing the orbital path of Friendship 7 as Glenn made his historic three orbits of the Earth. All of the astronauts, and the X-15 test pilots at Edwards, were heroes to me, but for some reason, John Glenn was special.

John H. Glenn, Jr., Pilot. (John Glenn Archives, Ohio State University)

John Herschel Glenn, Jr., was born at Cambridge, Ohio, 18 July 1921, the first of four children of John Herschel Glenn, a plumber, and Clara Teresa Sproat Glenn. The Glenn family resided in New Concorde, Ohio. Glenn attended New Concord High School, graduating in 1939, and then enrolled at Muskingum College, also in New Concord, where he majored in engineering. While in college, he learned to fly.

Soon after the United States entered World War II, John Glenn enlisted in the United States Navy as a Naval Aviation Cadet, 28 March 1942. He transferred to the Marine Corps while still in flight training, and after qualifying as a Naval Aviator, was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 16 March 1943.

On 6 April 1943, Lieutenant Glenn married Miss Anna Margaret Castor, also from New Concorde. They would have two children, Carolyn Ann Glenn and John David Glenn.

In October 1943, Glenn was promoted to First Lieutenant. Initially assigned as a transport pilot flying the Douglas R4D-1 Skytrain with Marine Utility Squadron 315 (VMJ-315) in the Pacific, he was transferred to Marine Fighter Squadron 155 (VMF-155). He flew 59 combat missions with the Chance Vought F4U Corsair in the Marshall Islands.

Lieutenant John H. Glenn, Jr., USMCR, flying a Chance Vought F4U-1 Corsair with VMF-155, 1943. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum/John Glenn Archives, The Ohio State University)

In 1945, Glenn was assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 218 (VMF-218), again flying an F4U-4 Corsair, patrolling China with the 1st Marine Division. Lieutenant Glenn was promoted to the rank of Captain in July 1945.

In 1946, Captain Glenn, was transferred from the USMCR to the regular Marine Corps, retaining his temporary rank. On 7 August 1947, the rank of Captain was made permanent.

Captain Glenn served as an advanced flight instructor at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, from June 1948 to December 1950. With the Korean War, Glenn was assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 311 (VMF-311), which flew the Grumman F9F-2 Panther.

Captain John H. Glenn, Jr., USMCR, a fighter pilot of VMF-311, examines some of the 714 holes in his Grumman F9F-2 Panther. (U.S. Air Force)

Captain Glenn few 63 combat missions with VMF-311. He was promoted to the rank of Major, 28 June 1952. He served as an exchange officer with the U.S. Air Force, flying a North American Aviation F-86F Sabre with the 25th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing at K-13, an air base at Suwon, Republic of Korea. In July 1953, Glenn shot down three enemy Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15 jet fighters.

Major John H. Glenn, Jr., United States Marine Corps, standing with his North American Aviation F-86-30-NA Sabre, 52-4584, “MiG Mad Marine,” at Suwon, Korea, July 1953. (John Glenn Archives, The Ohio State University)

Major Glenn trained at the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School at NATC Patuxent River, Maryland, in 1954, and from 1956 to 1959, was assigned to the Bureau of Aeronautics, Fighter Design Branch.

On 16 July 1957, Major Glenn flew a Chance Vought F8U-1P Crusader from NAS Los Alamitos, on the coast of southern California, to Floyd Bennet Field, Brooklyn, New York, in 3 hours, 23 minutes, 8.4 seconds, averaging 725.25 miles per hour (1,167.18 kilometers per hour). Thomas S. Gates, Jr., Secretary of the Navy, presented Major Glenn the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Major John H. Glenn, Jr., United States Marine Corps, with his Vought F8U-1P Crusader, Bu. No. 144608, after his record-setting flight, 16 July 1957. (U. S. Navy)

Major Glenn was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, 1 April 1959. He was selected as an Astronaut with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Project Mercury and joined the NASA Space Task group at the Langley Research Center. Lieutenant Colonel Glenn was the senior officer and the oldest member of “The Mercury 7.”

The Mercury 7. Front row, left to right, Walter H. Schirra, Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glen, Jr., and Scott Carpenter. Back row: Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper. (NASA)

At 9:47:39 a.m., Eastern Standard Time (14:47:39 UTC), 20 February 1961, Mercury Atlas 6 lifted off from Launch Complex 14, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Cape Canaveral, Florida. This was the third launch of a manned Mercury spacecraft, and the first time that an Atlas rocket had been used.

Aboard the Mercury was John Glenn, making his first space flight. He had named the capsule Friendship 7. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had each made a suborbital flight, but Glenn was going into Earth orbit.

Each orbit took 88 minutes, 19 seconds. The spacecraft’s altitude ranged from 100 miles (161 kilometers) to 162.2 miles (261 kilometers).

During the 4 hour, 55 minute, 23 second flight, Friendship 7 orbited the Earth three times, and traveled 75,679 miles (121,794 kilometers). John Glenn was the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. (Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had orbited the Earth 12 April 1961.)

After re-entry, the capsule parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean, splashing down only six miles from the recovery ship, USS Noa (DD-841).

Launch of Mercury-Atlas 6 from Launch Complex 14, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, 14:47:39 UTC, 20 February 1962. (NASA)

When the Space Task Group was moved to the Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston, Texas, in 1962, John Glenn was involved in the layout and design of spacecraft cockpits and function of controls. On 16 January 1964, John Glenn resigned from NASA. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel in October 1964, then he retired from the Marine Corps 1 January 1965, after 23 years of military service.

Glenn worked in private industry for several years before beginning a career in politics. In 1974, he was elected to the United States Senate, representing his home State of Ohio. He served in the United States Congress from 24 December 1974 to 3 January 1999.

John Glenn wasn’t finished with spaceflight, though. From 29 October to 7 November 1998, Senator Glenn served as a NASA Payload Specialist aboard Space Shuttle Discovery (OV-103) during Mission STS-95. At the age of 77 years, John Glenn was the oldest person to fly in space.

During his two space flights, John Glenn orbited the Earth 137 times. His total time in space is 10 days, 49 minutes, 25 seconds (240:49:25).

In late November 2016, Glenn was admitted to Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center at Columbus, Ohio. He died there, 8 December 2016, at the age of 95 years.

John Herschel Glenn, Jr., Naval Aviator, Fighter Pilot, Test Pilot, Record-setter, Astronaut. Colonel, United States Marine Corps. United States Senator. American Hero.

Godspeed, John Glenn.

Senator John H. Glenn, Jr., NASA Payload Specialist, 1998. (NASA)

© 2016 Bryan R. Swopes

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4 November 1923

Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, jr., United States Navy, photographed 19 September 1923. (Library of Congress)
Lieutenant Alford Joseph Williams, Jr., United States Navy, photographed 19 September 1923. (Library of Congress)

4 November 1923: At Mitchel Field, Mineola, Long Island, New York, Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, Jr., United States Navy, flew a specially-constructed Curtiss R2C-1 Racer to a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course, averaging 429.03 kilometers per hour (266.59 miles per hour).¹

Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, Jr., United States Navy, with a Curtiss R2C-1. (FAI)
Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, Jr., United States Navy, with a Curtiss R2C-1. (FAI)

Two R2C-1 Racers was built for the U.S. Navy by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company of Hammondsport, New York, and were assigned serial numbers A6691 and A6692. They were single-place, single-engine biplanes with a wooden monocoque fuselage and fabric-covered wings. Curtiss had made every effort to reduce aerodynamic drag, including the use of surface radiators on the wings to cool the engine. The airplane was 19 feet, 3 inches (5.867 meters) long with a wingspan of 22 feet (6.706 meters). The biplane had an empty weight of 1,692 pounds (767 kilograms) and gross weight of 2,112.3 pounds (958.1 kilograms).

Curtiss R2C-1 Racer A6692, with Alford Joseph Williams, 17 September 1923. (Curiss Aeroplane and Motor Company/National Air and Space Museum Archives NASM-CW8G-M-0271)
Curtiss R2C-1 Racer A6692, with Alford Joseph Williams, 17 September 1923. (Curiss Aeroplane and Motor Company/National Air and Space Museum Archives NASM-CW8G-M-0271)

The R2C-1 Racers were powered by a revolutionary 1,209.610-cubic-inch-displacement (19.813 liter) water-cooled, normally-aspirated Curtiss D-12A dual overhead camshaft (DOHC) 60° V-12 engine with four valves per cylinder. The cylinders and water jackets were cast as a monoblock and a drop-forged crankshaft with seven main bearings was used. A Stromberg NA-75 carburetor supplied the air/fuel mixture. The engine turned a two-bladed forged aluminum propeller designed by Sylvanus A. Reed. This fixed-pitch propeller had very thin blades which allowed it to turn at high speed without adverse sonic effects. The D-12A drove this propeller without gear reduction (direct drive, hence the “D” in the engine’s designation). The D-12A was specifically modified as a racing engine and did not have a power rating for normal service, however, it nominally produced 507 horsepower, with a 520 horsepower maximum. It was capable of operating at 2,500 r.p.m. The Curtiss D-12 was 56¾ inches (1.441 meters) long, 28¼ inches (0.718 meters) wide and 34¾ inches (0.882 meters) high. It weighed 678.25 pounds (307.65 kilograms).

Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, Jr., with a Curtiss R2C-1. (FAI)
Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, Jr., with a Curtiss R2C-1. (FAI)

Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, Jr., born at Bronx, New York, 26 July 1891, the first of four children of Alford Joseph Williams, a stone cutter, and Emma Elizabeth Madden William. He entered Fordham University in 1909, graduating with an A.B. degree. In 1913 Williams entered the university’s School of Law. He played professional baseball for two seasons with the New York Giants. Williams was 5 feet, 10 inches (178 centimeters) tall, weighed 145 pounds (66 kilograms), and had light brown hair and blue eyes.

Williams enlisted as a private in the New York National Guard, 4 March 1913. He was assigned to Company E, 7th Infantry. When the United States entered World War I, Williams, by then working as a machinist, joined the United States Naval Reserve Force (U.S.N.R.F.) as a seaman, 2nd class, and was trained in aviation at the Naval Aviation Detachment, Massachussetts Institute of Technology; the Naval Air Station, Bayshore New York; and at Pensacola Florida. During training he was promoted to Chief Quartermaster, Aviation. Williams was commissioned an Ensign,  December 9, 1918.

Ensign Williams served as a gunnery and primary flight instructor at Pensacola, Florida before being assigned as a test pilot at the Naval Air Station at Hampton Roads, Virginia. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade), 1 April 1919, and to lieutenant, 1 July 1920. He remained at NAS Hampton Roads until being detached to fly high speed airplanes for the Pulitzer Trophy races. As of 9 October 1922, Williams had a total of 1,042 flight hours.

Appointed the Navy’s chief test pilot, he was considered to be a protégé of Rear Admiral William A. Moffet. This placed him in the center of a rivalry between Moffett and Captain Ernest J. King (later, Fleet Admiral). While Moffett was in Europe, Captain King had Lieutenant Williams transferred to sea duty. Williams was angry and in an ill-considered action, resigned his commission.

In 1925 Williams married Miss Florence Wright Hawes of Georgia.

During the 1930s, Williams requested and received a commission as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was soon promoted to the rank of major. However, Major Williams publicly advocated a separate Air Force, and for this he was forced to resign from the military.

Williams wrote Aviation from an Airman’s Standpoint, which was published in 1934.

Williams later served as Aviation Sales Manager for the Gulf Refining Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He commuted with a Grumman G-58A Gulfhawk (a civil version of the F8F Bearcat fighter).

Al Williams retired from Gulf in 1951, and passed away 15 June 1958. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Alford J. Williams, Jr. with his Grumman G-58A Gulfhawk, NL3025. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
Alford J. Williams, Jr., with his Grumman G-58A, NL3025. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

¹ FAI Record File Number 8753

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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21 October 1959

Gerald Huelsbeck
Gerald Huelsbeck

21 October 1959: McDonnell Aircraft Corporation test pilot Gerald (“Zeke”) Huelsbeck was killed while test flying the first prototype YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bureau of Aeronautics serial number (“Bu. No.”) 142259.

The McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142259, takes off at Edwards Air Force Base during preparations for Operation Top Flight. (McDonnell Aircraft Corporation)
McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II Bu. No. 142259 takes off at Edwards Air Force Base during preparations for Operation Top Flight. (McDonnell Aircraft Corporation)

In October 1959 the Navy tried, a bit prematurely, for its first world record with the F4H. McDonnell test pilot Gerald “Zeke” Huelsbeck, flying near Edwards AFB, was testing various flight plans for a high-altitude zoom, looking for one to recommend to the Navy test pilot who would fly the record attempt. Huelsbeck was flying the very first F4H prototype when an engine access door blew loose, flames shot through the engine compartment, and the F4H crashed, killing Huelsbeck. (Over the next three years of the F4H-1 test program three aircraft were destroyed and three crew members died, all preparing for record flights.)

Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems by Glenn E. Bugos, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1996, Chapter 5 at Page 101.

Gerald Huelsbeck
Test Pilot Gerald Huelsbeck with a prototype McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II. Huelsbeck is wearing a Goodyear Mk. IV full-pressure suit. (McDonnell Aircraft Corporation)

The flight control system of the YF4H-1 was damaged by the fire and went it out of control at high speed and into a spin. Zeke Huelsbeck did eject but was too low. His parachute did not open. The prototype crashed in an open area near Mt. Pinos in the Los Padres National Forest,  Ventura County, California, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) southwest of Edwards.

McDonnell YF4H-1 Bu. No. 142259 was the first prototype Phantom II. It had first been flown by Robert C. Little at Lambert Field, St. Louis, Missouri, 27 May 1958. The Phantom II was designed as a supersonic, high-altitude fleet defense interceptor for the United States Navy. It was a two-place twin engine jet fighter armed with radar- and infrared-homing air-to-air missiles.

Gerald Huelsbeck was born in Wisconsin, 16 April 1928, the third child of Walter Andrew Huelsbeck, a farmer, and Irene M. Voigt Huelsbeck. He attended Carroll College (now, Carroll University) in Waukesha, before joining the United States Navy as a midshipman. He completed flight training at NAS Whiting Field, Florida, and was commissioned as an ensign, 2 June 1950.

In 1950, Ensign Gerald Huelsbeck married Miss Mary Jean Hillary, who had also attended Carroll College. They would have two children.

Huelsbeck was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade), 2 June 1952. Assigned as a fighter pilot during the Korean War, he flew 54 combat missions in the McDonnell F2H Banshee.

While flying in the Navy, Huelsbeck experimented with helmet-mounted cine cameras:

. . . He took a standard gun camera, added a couple of gadgets, and attached it to his helmet, The camera is electrically driven and able to take about two minutes of film with a 50-foot magazine. . . “I spent some time doing ‘hand camera’ work in Korea,” he recalls. “You know, after 54 combat missions, you don’t like to think about crashing while trying to take a picture.”

The Indianapolis Star, Vol. 53, No. 116, Tuesday, 29 September 1955, Page 4 at Columns 2–4

Lt. (j.g.) Huelsbeck in teh cocpit of a Grumman F9F. A small motion picture camera is attached to his flight helmet (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
Lt. (j.g.) Huelsbeck in the cockpit of a U.S. Navy fighter. A small motion picture camera is attached to his flight helmet. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

He was serving with VF-11 at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, when he was selected for the United States Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, in July 1953.

“Zeke” Huelsbeck left the Navy in 1955 to accept a position as a test pilot with the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, St. Louis, Missouri. After several months, he was assigned as an experimental test pilot and project pilot of the F4H program.

At the time of the accident, Zeke Huelsbeck was the most experienced pilot flying the F4H.

Gerald Huelsbeck was 31 years old when he died. He is buried in New Berlin, Wisconsin.

McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142259, at Lambert Field, St. Louis. (McDonnell Aircraft Corporations)
McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142259, at Lambert Field, St. Louis. (McDonnell Aircraft Corporations)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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3 October 1962, 12:15:12 UTC, T minus Zero

Mercury-Atlas 8 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 3 October 1962. (NASA)
Mercury-Atlas 8 lifts off from Launch Complex 14, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 12:15:12 UTC, 3 October 1962. (NASA)

3 October 1962: At 08:15:12 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time, Commander Walter M. Schirra, Jr., United States Navy, lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard Mercury-Atlas 8 (MA-8). This was the fifth U.S. manned space flight and the third orbital flight.

The spacecraft, which Wally Schirra had named Sigma 7, entered a low earth orbit with the altitude varying from 84 nautical miles (156 kilometers) to 154 nautical miles (285 kilometers). Each orbit took 88 minutes, 54.6 seconds.

Schirra experimented with the manual flight control systems, took photographs and performed spatial-orientation exercises. There were some difficulties with the cooling of his pressure suit.

Wally Schirra took this photograph of Earth while in orbit over South America, 3 October 1962. (Walter M. Schirra, Jr./NASA)
Wally Schirra took this photograph of Earth while in orbit over South America, 3 October 1962. (Walter M. Schirra, Jr./NASA)

Sigma 7 completed 6 orbits and at T+8:52, fired the retro rockets to de-orbit. Reentry was successful and Sigma 7 landed within 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) of the primary recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge (CVS-33).

The Mercury spacecraft, named Sigma 7, was built by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, St. Louis, Missouri. It was the 16th Mercury capsule built. Designed to carry one pilot, it could be controlled in pitch, roll and yaw by thrusters. It was 9 feet, 7.72 inches (2.939 meters) long, and, bell-shaped, had a maximum diameter of 6 feet, 2.5 inches (1.885 meters). The spacecraft weighed 2,700 pounds (1,224.7 kilograms) at launch.

Wally Schirra, wearing a B.F. Goodrich full-pressure suit, is helped into the Sigma 7 Mercury capsule. (NASA)

The rocket, a “1-½ stage”, liquid-fueled Atlas LV-3B, number 113-D, was built by Convair at San Diego, California. It was developed from a U.S. Air Force Atlas D intercontinental ballistic missile, modified for use as a “man-rated” orbital launch vehicle. The LV-3B was 94.3 feet (28.7 meters) tall with a maximum diameter of 10.0 feet (3.05 meters). When ready for launch it weighed 260,000 pounds (120,000 kilograms) and could place a 1,360 kilogram payload into Low Earth orbit. The Atlas’ three engines were built by the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation, Canoga Park, California. The XLR89 booster had two 150,000 pound thrust chambers, and the LR105 sustainer engine produced 57,000 pounds of thrust. The rocket was fueled by a highly-refined kerosene, RP-1, with liquid oxygen as the oxidizer.

Schirra was the first astronaut to wear an Omega Speedmaster chronograph during spaceflight. (Omega Reference No. CK2998). The Speedmaster would become flight-qualified by NASA, and the Speedmaster Professional is known as the “moon watch.”

Sigma 7 is on display at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, Titusville, Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center.

Wally Schirra commanded Gemini 6A during the orbital rendezvous mission with Gemini 7. Later, he commanded Apollo 7, an 11-day orbital mission.

Captain Walter M. Schirra, Jr., USN, died 3 May 2007 at the age of 84 years.

Commander Walter M. Schirra, Jr., United States Navy. (NASA)
Commander Walter M. Schirra, Jr., United States Navy. (NASA)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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