The Candle Lighters

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

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)
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William “Curly” Chandler was raised not far from Huntsville, and at the time was working in Chattanooga for the Tennessee Valley Authority—just the kind of large technical organization von Braun targeted for recruiting. Chandler went for an interview one weekend while visiting home, got the job, and talked it up to his buddy Ike Rigell, another Alabama native, who had fought with the Marines at Saipan and Iwo Jima. In 1951, Rigell was 28 and had recently graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an electrical engineering degree, courtesy of the GI bill. He and Chandler were among the first hires for von Braun’s Huntsville operation. Both ended up working on every Redstone launch, starting with the first, in 1953.

Soon thereafter, others in our group of Mercury-Redstone veterans arrived in Huntsville. Terry Greenfield started at Redstone’s fabrication laboratory, the “Fab Lab,” in 1955, when he was still in the Army, and stayed on after he was discharged. John Twigg arrived in the spring of 1956, a GI with an engineering degree from Johns Hopkins. Frank Bryan, with a physics degree from the University of Texas, started in Huntsville in 1957, the year the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.

Von Braun had been lobbying to do that very thing since 1954, but had been held back, in part because the Eisenhower administration worried that launching the country’s first scientific satellite on a weapon would have bad PR fallout. Before the Mercury program came along, space was still a sideline for the Huntsville team. Their main business was building, testing, and deploying short-range Redstone missiles and intermediate-range Jupiters to Army units in Germany and U.S. and NATO troops in Turkey and Italy. (The Turkish Jupiters would become a bargaining chip in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.)

Although the Redstone was designed and built in Huntsville, the Army’s firing range was in Florida. Based at Cape Canaveral, the group of seasoned rocketeers, working at what was then called the Missile Firing Laboratory, numbered about 500 by the time of the first unmanned Mercury launch, in 1960.

Their boss was Kurt Debus, a Peenemünde veteran with a fencing scar on his cheek from his student days at the Technical University in Darmstadt. Frank Bryan remembers Debus always wearing a black hard hat around the launch pad. Bryan and the other Mercury-Redstone veterans recall the Germans with great respect. They speak of their bosses’ team spirit, their fairness, their engineering smarts. “The best thing we ever did was get the Germans over here after the war,” says Rigell.

One policy they admired was Debus’ practice of not punishing people for mistakes—if they admitted them. “We got rid of a lot of our problems, what we called phantoms, by owning up to mistakes,” says Chandler. He recalls one time when a rocket on the pad suddenly lost power, then just as suddenly got it back. “We had a janitor who was cleaning the trenches out where the cables were. He had disconnected one cable, then quickly reconnected it. We would have ended up replacing all the cables if that janitor hadn’t told us what he had done. He was working for a contractor, and they were going to fire him. But Dr. Debus told them not to.”

Team members trusted one another, and each man knew his system down to the last wire. There were no consultants or technical contractors. “Those cables that go over to the rocket? We put ’em in,” says Rigell. “If you opened the black box, we did it.” Later on, as the rockets became bigger and more complex (and many in this group went on to work on the Apollo program’s Saturn V), the procedures would become more formal and documented. But in the Redstone days, says Greenfield, “it was people, not paper.” On launch day, “nobody had a call sign. It was just your name: ‘Curly, is the inverter okay?’ ”

Not that there weren’t failures, or, as Chandler prefers to think of them, “learning experiences.” There was the time in 1954, on the third Redstone launch, that the rocket exploded at liftoff, blowing debris through a cable trench back into the blockhouse. In July 1959, a Juno went up for five seconds, did a U-turn, and came down in a fireball not far from the blockhouse, where TV journalist Edward R. Murrow was inside, cameras rolling, filming a segment for his new show, “CBS Reports.”

Maybe it was the explosions that inured the team to the dangers of their business. Standing next to the Redstone at Launch Complex 5 last September, some of the veterans recalled how casually they behaved around fueled rockets. “We used to walk out here when there was oxygen flowing all over the pad, and your clothes would get saturated with it, which was very dangerous in itself,” says Tom Allen, who worked on the Redstone’s program control device. “We didn’t ever think about that.” Chandler nods: “I think God protected us, I really do. We did a lot of things that were very, very unsafe—putting ladders up against the vehicle, getting ground static—a lot of things could have happened. All you needed was a spark.”

Frank Bryan recalls one time when he was on the launch pad, watching liquid oxygen vapor swirl around in little balls near the base of the rocket. “Somebody had told me you could stomp on those things and make them pop. I was doing that, stomping on these little balls of LOX. Albert Zeiler [a senior German, who headed mechanical and propulsion engineering for the Redstone] came up and said, ‘You stupid kid, you’re going to blow your foot off.’ ”

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