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Veterans inside the Mercury-Redstone blockhouse from which Alan Shepard's rocket was launched: (from left) Terry Greenfield, Ike Rigell, Kelly Fiorentino, Frank Bryan, Milt Chambers, and Curly Chandler. (Michael R. Brown)

The Candle Lighters

Alan Shepard was brave enough to ride the Mercury-Redstone rocket. These guys were brave enough to light it.

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The door to the Redstone blockhouse at Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 5/6 is made of half-foot-thick steel, and it takes some tugging to pull open. The walls are reinforced concrete, and the narrow windows—slots, really—are multiple panes of bulletproof glass. Just outside, a short walk away, is the launch pad, where a slender, eight-story rocket stands with a Mercury capsule perched on top—a close match to the one that Alan Shepard rode to become the first American launched into space.

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On a sunny day last September, 50 years and a few months after Shepard’s May 5, 1961 flight, eight men, most in their 80s, pile out of a van and enter the dark, seldom-visited bunker, now a stop on a NASA tour. At first glance it could be a bunch of retirees on vacation. But these guys don’t need a tour guide. They used to work here. I’ve come along to hear them reminisce about a time when they and their co-workers sent the first astronauts into space.

Inside, still adjusting our eyes from the Florida sunshine, we stop at a blowup of an old black-and-white photo on the wall. “Look at that,” says Ike Rigell, pointing his cane at the figures seated at a launch console. Three of the men in the picture are in our party. “That’s me. That’s you, Curly.” Wernher von Braun is in the picture too. According to the caption, it was taken shortly before Shepard’s launch.

In the photo, the young men appear to be studying a list of procedures. “We didn’t usually do that,” says Rigell. “We weren’t very paper-oriented.” Everybody laughs.

We move farther into the blockhouse, which has the original consoles, with dials and old-fashioned gauges, preserved behind plexiglass. “Primitive,” somebody mutters. “They’ve done a lot of rearranging,” says Rigell, looking around.

“What kinds of computers did you have in here?” I ask. More laughter. “Did we have computers?” One of the men points to the bank of gray consoles. “Milt, you stood there. Frank, you were over there.”

 

IN NOVEMBER 1960, John F. Kennedy was a newly elected president, Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never” was on the radio, and America was in a race with the Soviet Union to launch the first man into space. Reaching orbit would require a modified Atlas, the nation’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, which had been in service for only a year. First, though, NASA wanted to test its new Mercury capsule, with an astronaut inside, which a smaller rocket, a Redstone, would loft to an altitude of just over 100 miles. The flight would last only 15 minutes, and the capsule would splash down in the ocean near the Bahamas.

The Redstone was a battlefield missile with a 200-mile range, about the same as that of the Iraqi Scuds made famous a generation later in the first Gulf War. Standing 83 feet tall and weighing just six tons without fuel, the Redstone and its more powerful variants—Jupiter and Juno—were direct descendants of the V-2 weapons Germany developed during World War II. They were even built by the same people—Wernher von Braun and his band of German rocket engineers, who had surrendered to the Americans at war’s end and now worked for the U.S. Army as its Space Age artillery unit.

Among the expatriates were Kurt Debus, Hans Gruene, and Albert Zeiler, all of whom had been with von Braun since the early 1940s, when they launched V-2s from the Baltic coast site of Peenemünde. In 1950, the German rocket team moved from Fort Bliss, Texas, to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where they immediately began hiring young American engineers to help build and launch ballistic missiles.

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