Skip navigation

There’s a quote, variously attributed to John Glenn, or Alan Shepard, or possibly John Glenn QUOTING Alan Shepard, about waiting for liftoff in his Mercury capsule, “feeling as good as anyone could while sitting on top of a rocket built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

I always heard it was Glenn, but I’ve been wrong about a bunch of other things, and The Internets don’t seem to know for sure exactly who said it, or exactly what the words were or in what order. It’s a great line, though, so I’m going to go with “attrib uncertain.”

In any case, when you’re standing in what amounts to NASA’s Museum of Space Exploration looking at Gordon Cooper’s “Faith 7” Mercury capsule
the first thing that pops into your head is “Where did these guys keep the kind of balls it took to DO this?”

I’ve seen a couple of the other capsules and it always surprises me just how TINY they are. Officially a Mercury capsule is a little less than 7 feet long and a little over 6 feet across. Most of that was taken up with equipment and electronics, though. There’s barely enough room for the pilot, and stretching the legs just ISN’T in the program.

For perspective: imagine being strapped into a phone booth (or a coach class airline seat) for several hours, zooming around a hundred and twenty miles up at ungodly thousands of miles per hour… and being expected to do a full range of experiments and observations all the while. If the astronauts weren’t volunteers we’d call it torture. Rocket Science isn’t for wimps. (Just for perspective, “breathable air” stops at a bit less than five miles up, and if you blow a seal, there’s no way to hitchhike back down.)

The idea of slithering into that silver space suit and then climbing into that little tin can on top of one of these things to get blown 120 miles out into the middle of nowhere was appealing as hell to my 8-year-old geek self, but that was a while back. At this point, reality has led me to different dreams, and I think I’d have to pass. I’m not ten feet tall, bulletproof, and invincible any more. I look for different (not quite so adventurous) adventures now….

Still, at the time, this was THE cutting edge of science, literally the best anyone had, and the rickety old crate always looks ricketier in the mirror. But still, Rocket Man had big brass ones.

And it was a tight fit.


The thing hanging just to the right of the capsule in that top frame is a replica of Explorer 1, the US’s first orbital satellite, launched in early 1958. It was designed by a scientist, James Van Allen, to detect cosmic rays. It worked, which is why we now know about the Van Allen belts, magnetic fields that block some of the aforementioned cosmic rays from hitting the earth. (Educational content… Most of you probably learned something you’d forgotten you ever knew.)

Beside that, in its own panel, going even further back in time, is a replica of Robert Goddard’s first liquid-fueled rocket, an amazingly primitive thing made of insulated metal tubing and imagination. It used gasoline and liquid oxygen as propellant, and flew about 184 feet, peaking at about 41 feet altitude. This was 1926. Every space rocket the US has ever launched calls this one “grandpa.” (With a variable number of ‘greats,’ of course, but this truly WAS the Alpha point. It all starts here.)

I remember reading about this when I was very small… six or seven or so. I’d never been able to figure it out from the picture, but seeing it “live” I realize that the reason I’ve never been able to figure out how it worked is that the information I had was wrong. The propulsion unit is at the top; the bottom is simply fuel tanks. Now it makes more sense. And it’s still seven kinds of awe-inspiring.
Dreams DO count.

One Comment

    • Holly Glen Gearhart
    • Posted 06 Aug 14 at 0449
    • Permalink

    It was Alan Shepard

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: