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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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."

More than half the names on that June 1958 MISS briefing chart would in fact fly the X-15: Armstrong, Rushworth, McKay, Walker, and Bob White. The rest were stars at Edwards Air Force Base. Bill Bridgeman, a test pilot for Douglas Aircraft, had taken his company's Skyrocket nearly to Mach 2 in 1951, and was even quoted by Heinz Haber in Man in Space: "I pick a spot in the sky, and I imagine I'm going right on through a hole, out of the earth's orbit. Am I driving this airplane or is it taking me somewhere? I am awed and apprehensive."

Air Force Captain Iven Kincheloe had already been dubbed "Mr. Space" by the press for piloting the Bell X-2 rocket plane to a world's record of 126,200 feet in 1956. Two weeks before his name appeared on the MISS weight chart, he had tested a science fiction-y spacesuit called the Mark I in a simulated flight to 100 miles. If anyone was primed to be the first space pilot, Kincheloe was. But a month later, he crashed to his death in an F-104 over the Mojave Desert.

As for Crossfield himself, "Yes, I was interested [in making the MISS flight]," he says. "However, I wasn't pushing it." He had his hands full with the X-15, and was still holding out hope that an orbital version would fly someday. Besides, Lovelace and others joked that they would blackball him if he volunteered. "I was too independent," he says. "I had a bad habit of turning off the radio if I didn't like the help I was getting from the ground."

In the end, it turned out to be neither the Holloman crowd nor the rocket plane pilots who became the first men in orbit. All this time, another, stronger undercurrent had been flowing, which led to the creation of a new civilian space agency and put the Air Force out of the man-in-space business. Immediately after opening shop in October 1958, NASA set about picking candidates for Project Astronaut, soon renamed Mercury, which was essentially the MISS concept in new clothes.

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