First Up?

Even before NASA was created, civilian and military labs were in search of spacemen.

David G. Simons prior to the second Manhigh flight in August 1957. (USAF)
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The briefing chart, once stamped "SECRET" but now turning yellow in a NASA archive, shows a smooth curve with the names of nine test pilots plotted according to their weights. At the lower end, between 150 and 175 pounds, are Bob Walker, Scott Crossfield, Neil Armstrong, and Robert Rushworth. Sloping from there up to 200 pounds, straining the limit of how much human payload an Atlas rocket could lift into space, are Bill Bridgeman, Alvin White, Iven Kincheloe, Bob White, and Jack McKay. The top of the chart reads "CREWMAN AVAILABILITY." It was presented on June 25, 1958—eight months after Sputnik and four months before the birth of NASA—to Air Force officials making hurried plans to put a "Man In Space Soonest," as the secret project was called. On this particular summer day, to this particular briefer, these nine guys seemed most likely to become the first people in orbit.

Other names that might just as well have been included but weren't: David Simons, Joe Kittinger, Clifton McClure, maybe even Airman 1st Class Donald Farrell. All had done experiments in preparation for spaceflight in the late 1950s, and all had reason to believe, if only for a while, that they might take mankind's first leap off the home planet. As it was, MISS never flew, and only Neil Armstrong went on to become what we now think of as an astronaut. But in 1958 the question of who-or even what type of who-would be the first spaceman was far from settled.

To a casual newspaper reader, an obvious pool of candidates would have been the volunteer test subjects at places like the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field in Texas, which had been dabbling in space-related research for several years. In February 1958, for example, a 23-year-old airman from the Bronx named Donald Farrell was locked in a chamber with an artificial atmosphere for seven days, long enough to simulate a moon flight. U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, happy for any good news about America's loser of a space program, gushed over Farrell's endurance test, and the New York Times pronounced him "in one sense, the first 'space traveler.'"

Working at the same time in New Mexico was a group of space researchers with an even more adventurous bent. The unspoken motto at Holloman Air Force Base's Aeromedical Research Laboratory was "Never do unto others what you wouldn't first do yourself." So there was Colonel (and Dr.) John Paul Stapp—a graduate of the School of Aviation Medicine who had been Chuck Yeager's flight surgeon when he broke the sound barrier-pulling 46 face-squashing Gs on a "rocket sled" in December 1954. Designed to test how much force a pilot ejecting from high altitude could withstand, the sled was based on a German design. During his historic run, Stapp accelerated to 632 mph in five seconds, then slammed to a stop one and a quarter seconds later. Joe Kittinger, a try-anything test pilot and safety officer assigned to Holloman, was flying a T-33 with a cameraman in back to photograph the run from overhead, but he couldn't keep up. Even today, Kittinger calls Stapp "the bravest man that's ever been."

If so, he was in good company at Holloman. In 1955, Stapp asked a young biomedical researcher on his staff named David Simons, who had spent two years launching animals to the edge of space, if he'd be willing to make the trip himself. Simons said yes, and Project Manhigh was born. Kittinger made the first ascent inside the tiny Manhigh capsule-a Jules Verne contraption suspended from a 200-foot helium balloon-in June 1957. He was followed by Simons on a full-up, day-long flight two months later, and by Air Force Lieutenant Clifton McClure, a gung-ho volunteer, the following year.

As a scientist, Simons wanted to see for himself what it was like "up there"—what the stars and the clouds looked like, and how humans would fare on this strange new frontier. Inside his phone-booth-size capsule he reached Manhigh's top altitude of 101,516 feet, which put him above 99 percent of the atmosphere, high enough to see the blackness of space and the curve of Earth below. At the end of his 32-hour ordeal, which he found alternately exhilarating and terrifying, he dropped down in a South Dakota field and was greeted by a farmer, just as Yuri Gagarin would be in the Soviet Union four years later.

Kittinger, the most daring of all, did Simons one better with Project Excelsior in 1960, jumping from the open gondola of a balloon at 102,800 feet, still the world's record altitude for a parachute jump. On the way down, he became the only person to exceed Mach 1 in a freefall. Near the end of the jump, after his main parachute opened, Kittinger could be heard on the voice tape repeating, "Thank you, God, thank you."

While the official report for Simons' Manhigh flight says it was "intended to investigate the human factors of space flight," most of the Holloman space research was tolerated by skeptical Air Force brass only because of its applicability to high-flying airplanes like the U-2. Even as late as 1957, says Kittinger, "space was a dirty word" in the Pentagon.

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.

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