Even before NASA was created, civilian and military labs were in search of spacemen.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, September 2000
(Page 2 of 4)
The launch of Sputnik on October 4 changed everything. Suddenly each of the military services knew exactly how to send someone into space, and quickly. The Navy's Manned Earth Reconnaissance (MER) program would orbit an inflatable, winged reentry vehicle by 1960. Wernher von Braun, at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, proposed a joint services project called "Man Very High." He had watched the Air Force balloon flights with great interest, and he invited Simons and Kittinger to Huntsville to discuss modifying their Manhigh capsule for a Redstone rocket. Simons came away excited, but by April the proposal had been shot down. Von Braun repackaged it as the Army-only Project Adam, a ballistic, suborbital shot up to 150 miles, with a man crammed inside a cylindrical pressure vessel much like Manhigh's. He even tried selling it as a way to move soldiers quickly around the globe using missiles. But Project Adam, too, ground to a halt.
The only scheme that gained any real momentum in 1958 was the Air Force's Man in Space Soonest, which would use first a Thor, then an Atlas booster, to put a blunt capsule in orbit. The MISS concept would later morph into NASA's Mercury project, and several of Mercury's guiding spirits were involved as advisors, including Max Faget and Robert Gilruth of Langley Field in Virginia, a research center operated by the civilian National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. By March 1958, MISS was the subject of frequent high-level meetings, and David Simons and John Stapp were among those doing the briefing.
At one such meeting at NACA's Ames center in California, Simons outlined a program of Manhigh-style balloon flights that could help train the pilots for MISS. (An Ames official wrote in the meeting minutes, "Should I call him a pilot or a biological specimen?") Stapp recommended that the first man in space be either an engineer with medical training or a medical man with engineering training.
Because they'd been thinking about it for years, the doctors were the experts when it came to assessing the risks of spaceflight. By 1958, they had pretty well dismissed most of the worries, but a few unknowns remained. In his 1953 book Man in Space, Heinz Haber of the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph, who with his brother Fritz had designed Donald Farrell's space simulation chamber, wrote that weightlessness "will be the most dismal and the strangest" effect awaiting the first travelers beyond Earth.
But the medical researchers did not have this line of inquiry to themselves. As early as 1950, Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield, the North American Aviation test pilot who would fly the first X-15, had both tried a method of simulating zero-G invented by the Haber brothers-taking an aircraft on a steep climb, then coming "over the hill" to achieve half a minute of weightlessness. In the 1950s, just about every hot pilot tried the technique at least once, according to Crossfield. Joe Kittinger flew many such runs at Holloman with David Simons on board as a researcher, and both enjoyed the feeling. So did Crossfield, who liked to do his weightless runs upside down.
Crossfield had done other "extreme" tests, including pulling 9 Gs in a centrifuge, and was happy to report no pilot-related show-stoppers for his X-15 rocket plane, which was being designed to climb much higher into space than Manhigh had, if only for a few minutes. Despite his sanguine assessment of the risks, some scientists—not serious researchers like Stapp, whom he respected, but outsiders—continued to predict dire consequences for the first astronauts. "I think some of those guys were just looking for big government contracts," he scoffs today.
It wasn't just intellectual dishonesty that bothered Crossfield. He feared that the worry-warts would kill the X-15 before it got off the ground. In the post-Sputnik scramble, he and others at North American had proposed an advanced orbiting version of the rocket plane as a way to achieve "man in space soonest." That idea had been rejected in favor of the MISS ballistic capsule. Now Crossfield saw the whole thing being turned over to the medicine men and the missileers, who he perceived as having a "great disdain for wings and pilots."
In April 1958 he was asked to serve on a group chaired by Randy Lovelace, a leading figure in aerospace medicine, to set guidelines for human factors and crew training for the fledgling space program. Crossfield did his best to steer the conception of an astronaut away from "passive biomedical subjects" and toward the kind of test pilots who were lining up for the military's X-15 program. The panel's final report, issued in October, called for potential crew members to be checked out in ground simulators, centrifuges, balloon capsules, "and finally in supersonic aircraft such as a two-place X-15."