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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.

By the first week of May 1961, they were ready. The known problems had been solved and all systems triple-checked. “I felt comfortable,” says Greenfield, looking back. “I would have flown on that Redstone.”

The silver-suited astronaut rode to the pad in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, May 5, 1961. He had been through this suspense three days earlier, when the launch had to be scrubbed due to weather. On that morning the First Astronaut’s identity was a mystery to the American public. But for this second try, NASA decided to reveal that it was 37-year-old Navy Commander Alan Shepard.

Recalling the scene 50 years later, the Mercury-Redstone veterans, all of whom were on duty that morning, remember that they and their colleagues would drift in and out of the blockhouse, depending on what was happening in the countdown. Rigell still has a chart showing all the people who worked on the MR-3 launch. It lists 68 names, but there were at least 75 in the blockhouse, including observers like von Braun. Most of the people in the back rooms were from the STG and McDonnell, including astronaut Gordon Cooper, who in the hours before launch was communicating with Shepard along with other STG team members.

Standing at the narrow window, looking out at the rocket, were Peenemünde veterans von Braun, Debus, and Zeiler. It was Zeiler who, at the critical moment of liftoff, would intently watch the color and shape of the exhaust flame, his finger on an abort button, which could instantly shut down the engines if he saw something amiss.

As usual, the launch was preceded by holds in the countdown. Nothing memorable for the missile firing team, but for Shepard, alone in the tiny Mercury capsule, anticipating a ride that no American had ever experienced, it was intense. In the last two hours of the count there were six holds, including one to evaluate the weather and switch out a power supply, and another to check computer synching between the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the Mercury Control Center.

Finally, at 9:34 a.m., with all the issues resolved, a firing command was sent that initiated a 35-second sequence of closing valves, pressurizing the tanks, and igniting the engine. Later, in a postflight press conference, a reporter asked Debus who pushed the button. “I’ve said many times there is no button [at the time of liftoff],” he answered impatiently. “It wouldn’t be proper to single out any one individual.” The guys in the blockhouse agree that no one button was more important than any other. But the person who sent the firing command on that day was Jack Humphrey.

You can read in the NASA histories what happened next: how Shepard’s 15-minute flight went flawlessly, and how it prompted a young president to commit the nation to a moon landing that many of the men in this room devoted their careers to—and today look back on with pride. But before we leave the blockhouse, I want to hear about another moment shortly before liftoff, when Shepard uttered one of the most famous lines in the history of space exploration. With less than three minutes left until launch, exasperated by yet another hold, he barked: “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle!” In the film version of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the scene is played as caricature: a brave astronaut scolding a bunch of fussy nerds in lab coats, one of whom has a comical German accent.

Here’s what really happened in the LC 5/6 blockhouse: The count was stopped because the propulsion regulator indicated a pressure increase. One of the members of the firing team, Andy Pickett, noted the reading and flicked a switch a couple of times to open and close a vent valve until the pressure returned to normal. The hold lasted only a minute. Not a big deal.

As for Shepard, nobody on the firing team even heard him—he wasn’t on their voice loop. I ask the Redstone veterans: “If you had heard Shepard complaining to ‘light this candle,’ would you have cared?” Slight pause. Then Greenfield answers: “No.” And everybody laughs.

Tony Reichhardt is an Air & Space senior editor. He also wrote “Dropping in on Mars.”

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