Alexander Samokutyaev


May 5, 2011 is the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard becoming the first American and second person to travel into space.

Shepard was originally slated to perform the mission in October 1960, but unplanned preparatory work delayed the launch so many times that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat him into space on April 12. When he finally got the go-ahead on May 5 for the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission, he said to himself, "Don't [screw] up, Shepard." A paraphrased version of this later became known as "Alan Shepard's Prayer."


The space capsule Freedom 7 launches into space atop a Redstone rocket 50 years ago. NASA photo.

Launch and Recovery Systems Contractors

After the flight, he noted, "It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract."

The contractors he spoke of included McDonnell Aircraft (which later became McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing), which manufactured the Freedom 7 capsule Shepard travelled in. The capsule is now the centerpiece exhibit of the Naval Academy Visitor Center in Annapolis, Md.

The Mercury-Redstone launch vehicle which lofted the Freedom 7 capsule was manufactured by Chrysler and was based on the Redstone liquid-fueled ballistic missile, the most reliable missile at the time. 

After the launch and 16-minute mission, a Sikorsky HMM-262 Seabat retrieved Shepard from the Atlantic Ocean, in one of the iconic photos from the mission:


A Marine HMM-262 Seabat helicopter retrieves Alan Shepard after his historic first American manned spaceflight on May 5, 1961. NASA photo.

Human Spaceflight and Computing

Though the launch systems were most visible part of the program, in retrospect, perhaps the most important contractor for the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission was IBM, which was hired to process flight data and to provide mission control with real-time updates and critical flight parameters. Art Cohen, the lead IBM engineer on the project, noted that the mission was "the first real-time data processing entry.
Mercury Project

A schematic of the Mercury-Redstone Mission. NASA photo.

In Shepard’s 1998 oral history [PDF] of his career, he credited NASA computer work and contract money spent preparing for early missions to setting advanced modern computing technology in motion. While noting that computers would still exist, he said "We wouldn't be at the position we are today without that tremendous [impetus] that NASA had in making the computers."

Commemorating History

NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission by releasing a stamp yesterday showing Shepard, his space capsule and rocket. Donato Giancola and Phil Jordon were contracted to design the stamp.

In his message commemorating the 50th anniversary, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden singled out contractors, writing, "With our support and assistance, commercial companies will expand access to that rarefied area Alan Shepard first trod for America, allowing NASA to focus on those bigger, more challenging destinations and to enable our science missions to peer farther and farther beyond our solar system." 

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TUCSON - The NASA Shuttle Endeavour will launch no earlier than May 10, NASA confirmed in a news release today.

Technicians are now retesting a newly-installed power distribution box, replaced after a faulty one was removed Tuesday morning from the art compartment of the shuttle, NASA says.

Mark Kelly, husband of injured U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords, is the commander of the mission originally scheduled to launch last Friday, but he and his team were turned around as they drove up to the launch pad after the problem was detected.

Technicians are performing additional testing to figure out whether the failure came from the power distribution box, called the Load Control Assembly 2, or from another system.

Stay tuned to News 4 Tucson and KVOA.com for continuing updates on the shuttle mission, and follow NASA Kennedy Center on Twitter for the latest information: @NASAKennedy.

In a development that has space shuttle Endeavour starting to look a lot like the 4 month Discovery saga, NASA has announced yet another delay to the STS-134 mission. The latest time table: Endeavour will not lift off until May 16 at the earliest. For NASA and space enthusiasts the world over, this is yet another blow to pride as another shuttle is continually being grounded by mechanical trouble.

What was once one of the most hyped-up space missions in years suddenly became became a non-event on Friday, April 29. Space shuttle Endeavour, which was scheduled to lift off at 3:47pm EDT that day, was delayed because of mechanical problems with a heater on a backup power unit. In its initial statement, NASA estimated a weekend repair, with the shuttle being able to take off the following Monday. Unfortunately, repairs could not be completed in time, causing a further delay.

Now, as that week-long delay approaches its end, NASA made another announcement, this time stating that Endeavour will not lift off until May 16 at the earliest.

As for specifics regarding the problem, two heaters designed to keep the auxiliary power unit from freezing in space are not working properly. In terms of impact on the mission, the auxiliary power unit that failed is used to power the shuttle as it goes through the all-important stage of atmospheric reentry, which is, after launch, the most dangerous part of any shuttle mission. Without the heaters to keep it warm, chances are that the power unit itself would freeze and thus be rendered unable to operate.

Naturally, one of the most-hyped space missions in years, if not decades, has gone from being day-to-day to week-to-week.

First reason for the hype: wounded Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords, who just happens to be married to NASA astronaut Mark Kelly who, by sheer chance, just so happened to be the already-named STS-134 commander prior to the Tucson shooting. After Giffords was shot, there arose intense media speculation over what Kelly would do: would he fly or skip the mission to be with his, at the time, gravely injured wife? As things turned out, Giffords has made a surprising recovery, so much so that not only did Kelly decide to fly, but that Rep. Giffords herself will be at Kennedy to watch the launch.

As a second added piece of drama to an already big story, the First Family was planning to be in attendance for the launch. In a surprising bit of trivia, this will mark only the third time a sitting president has witnessed the liftoff of a manned space mission. The two previous times: Richard Nixon in 1969 and Bill Clinton in 1998. For a nation that prides itself on being a leader in space, the fact that only two sitting presidents have ever watched a launch is rather surprising.
In conclusion, with the mission status now anything but certain, stay tuned here and to other space news websites for updates.

Continue reading on Examiner.com: All systems are no-go, NASA delays space shuttle launch at least another week - National Space news |

Space Shuttle Mission: STS-134


President boards Air Force One 

Image above: President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida after his visit and tour of Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

The crew members for space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission are Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Gregory H. Johnson and Mission Specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori.

During the 14-day mission, Endeavour and its crew will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and spare parts including two S-band communications antennas, a high-pressure gas tank and additional spare parts for Dextre.

Final flight of Endeavour pushed back due to heater glitch.

 The space shuttle Endeavour.

Victoria Jaggard
at Kennedy Space Center

National Geographic News

Published April 29, 2011

Hours before its planned liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space shuttle Endeavour had endured pouring rain and nearby lightning—but was still on target for launch, based on weather conditions.

Instead, it was a problem with a line of small heaters that ultimately forced NASA to scrub today's 3:47 p.m. launch attempt.

NASA's next try will be no earlier than Monday morning, launch officials said today.

A planned launch of an Atlas V rocket from Kennedy on May 6 means that the shuttle lift-off can push to no later than May 4.

After that date, the next possible launch attempt for Endeavour wouldn't come until May 9.

Shuttle Delayed by Heater Failure

Endeavour's crew of six veteran astronauts, led by mission commander Mark Kelly, had already boarded their bus for the launch pad when the scrub was announced at 12:19 p.m. ET.

The trouble was caused by failed heaters in one of the shuttle's auxiliary power units (APUs), which provide hydraulic power for the craft's engine nozzles, landing gear, and other moving parts used in flight.

The APU hydraulics are driven by a fuel called hydrazine, Mike Moses, NASA's launch integration manager for the shuttle program, said today during a press briefing.

Without heaters, hydrazine could freeze in the chilly environment of space, creating buildups of frozen fuel. This could cause problems during atmospheric reentry, as thawing chunks of hydrazine could trigger leaks of combustable fuel.

The shuttle does have two other APUs, and if one had failed after launch, "it would not have been a bad day," Moses said. Flight engineers have contingency plans in place to safely shut off a malfunctioning APU.

But since the issue was discovered before launch, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach made the decision to scrub.

"We don't like lifting off without redundancy, especially in a critical system like this one," Leinbach said.

(Also see "Space Shuttle Launch to Put Giant Ray Detector in Space.")

Despite Scrub, Obama Makes Space Center Visit

To troubleshoot the problem, engineers first have to empty the shuttle's giant external fuel tanks—which had been filled just this morning with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen in preparation for launch.

When the tanks are empty—they take 24 hours to drain fully—technicians will be able to safely access the shuttle's avionics bay at the back of the craft to determine the extent of the APU glitch.

The problem could be a faulty thermostat, which would be relatively quick and easy to fix, Leinbach said. But if the thermostat isn't to blame, the glitch may trace to a switchbox called the load control assembly (LCA).

If something is wrong with the LCA, Leinbach said, the fix would be more expensive and time-consuming, possibly pushing the launch to May 9, at the earliest.

In the meantime, the shuttle crew has gone back into quarantine—remaining in special quarters to prevent contracting any illnesses before flight.

The delay means the crew will have a few days more to relax and spend time with their families before Endeavour makes its final flight.

The astronauts also enjoyed a post-scrub meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, who arrived at Kennedy this afternoon with his family as part of a planned visit to see the launch.

"Hopefully we can lure him back for another launch in the future," said Kennedy Space Center director Robert Cabana.