“The impact of man in space and man on the Moon has been felt in almost all segments of our society. The astronauts are in every sense explorers who have broadened the limits of mankind’s environment . . .”
On November 19th, 1969, CDR Charles Conrad Jr. and CDR Alan L. Bean became the third and fourth men to walk on the moon. Conrad and Bean were members of the all-Navy crew in the Apollo 12 mission, along with CDR Richard F. Gordon, Jr., the mission’s Command Module Pilot. In the October 1972 issue of Proceedings, Midshipman Second Class Raymon Paul Wiggers, Jr., U. S. Naval Reserve, described the Apollo 12 mission in an article about the Navy’s invaluable role in the United States Astronaut Corps. This detailed history examined the importance of Navy astronauts in the success of NASA’s missions, and speculated on the fate of the space program following the acheivements of the Apollo lunar missions.
In the exploration of a world consisting of island continents surrounded by vast oceans, it is not difficult to understand why explorers have often been men of the sea. Throughout history, the great seafaring nations, using their navies and maritime fleets, have predominated in the great discoveries.
The United States and, in particular, the U. S. Navy have played a major role in probing the earth’s frontiers. It is appropriate, then, that a select team of naval officers, serving as astronauts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is playing such an important part in the opening of space. In the tradition of the many Navy explorers who have preceded them, these individuals, along with their Air Force, Marine, and civilian counterparts, are contributing to the greatest outward drive men have yet undertaken.
From its inception in 1959, the astronaut corps has received widespread publicity, and, while the program itself has often come under fire, many of the men involved have become national heroes. For they have instilled a new sense of adventure into a culture that often seems totally preoccupied with counting its fears.
Over the 14-year period, the team has been comprised of 73 men, most of whom have not received the fame accorded to the more prominent spacefarers. While the American astronaut is generally thought to be an Air Force pilot, the largest percentage of U. S. spacemen come from Navy, Marine, or civilian backgrounds. Much more diversity exists in the corps of astronauts than is assumed by the uninformed observer.
Of the 73, only 39 astronauts are currently active, not including those in NASA staff positions. The ranks have been thinned in recent years by retirements, resignations, and death. Seven “series” or groups of pilots and scientists have been chosen.
The first group selected, the “original seven,” were the justly famed heroes of Project Mercury. They were exclusively military test pilots, chosen for their ability to meet and overcome the unexpected. Group One consisted of three Air Force pilots: L. Gordon Cooper, Virgil I. Grissom, and Donald K. Slayton; three Navy aviators: M. Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, and Alan Shepard; and one Marine: John Glenn. All were destined to fly Mercury missions except Captain Slayton, who was grounded by a heart irregularity, but, with the recent happy news of his return to full health, he has been reinstated as a flight-status astronaut. Of the seven, two—Schirra and Shepard—were graduates of the U. S. Naval Academy.
Group Two was also selected from a pool of test pilots in 1962 when the success of the Mercury flights in 1962 prompted NASA to expand its man-in-space program. Of a total of nine new trainees, three were naval officers: Charles “Pete” Conrad, James Lovell, and John Young. At this time, no Marine aviators were chosen. The new Air Force astronauts included Frank Borman, James McDivitt, Thomas Stafford, a U. S. Naval Academy graduate, and Edward White. Two civilians, Neil Armstrong and Elliot See, both ex-Navy pilots were the first non-military astronauts. Armstrong had been with NASA previously in the X-15 program and was destined to be the first man to set foot on the Moon. Two from this team were Naval Academy graduates: Lovell and Stafford.
The Marine Corps was once again represented in the third group by C. C. Williams who, along with thirdgeneration trainee Charles Bassett, would die before taking part in the exploration of space. Of the 14 in this group, five—Eugene Cernan, Roger Chaffee, Richard Gordon, Alan Bean, and Walter Cunningham (who resigned in 1971)—were naval aviators. William Anders and Don Eisele, both of the Air Force, were Naval Academy graduates as was Theodore Freeman, who died in 1964. For the first time, pilots who possessed ample flight experience, but who were not necessarily test pilots, were selected. Many of the third team trainees had earned their Master’s degree in a field of science or engineering. This trend toward higher education continued as later groups were added.
In 1965, the space agency took a decisive step forward by accepting applications for astronaut training from professional scientists and engineers. Physical requirements continued to be rigid, bur now each new trainee was required to have a doctorate degree in the field of engineering, medicine, or the physical sciences. Although reportedly somewhat dissatisfied with the small number of Group IV candidates available, NASA chose six: one geologist, one physicist, two engineers, and two doctors of medicine. The Navy (and the military as a whole) was represented by Lieutenant Commander Joseph Kerwin, a Medical Corps officer with previous flight experience. Since selection, two of these six have resigned from the program.
Group Five included 19 pilots because, at the time of selection, the program planners envisioned the need for an increasingly large number of new astronauts. The Navy’s six representatives were John Bull (who later resigned for health reasons), Ronald Evans, Thomas Mattingly, Bruce McCandless, Paul Weitz, and Edgar Mitchell, who recently left NASA. Marines chosen included Gerald Carr, Jack Lousma, and Fred Haise, Jr.
James Irwin, who recently retired from NASA, Charles Duke, and Edward Givens, of the Air Force, were the Naval Academy’s graduates on this team. Too, the Air Force’s Don Lind was a former naval aviator, as was civilian Vance D . Brand.
The next set of trainees, Group Six, were, like the fourth group, scientist-astronauts. All were civilian, though Karl Henize, an astronomer, held the rank of lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve. Although 11 were selected, two have since resigned. Unfortunately, it now appears that all of the members of the sixth group, along with some pilots from the fifth, will not have the chance to fly—at least until the space shuttle is developed.
And the final group, the seventh, faces the same predicament. Originally, these fliers were aerospace research pilots assigned to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory project. When it was canceled, seven of the pilots transferred to NASA’s astronaut corps. Of those who transferred, one has retired from the program. Two of the remaining men are naval officers: Robert Crippen and Richard Truly.
Despite the fact that a scientist-astronaut will not fly until the Apollo 17 mission this coming December, 13 out of the 42 remaining astronauts—about one third—are from the fourth and sixth “science” groups. In all, there are 17 civilians in the corps, along with 12 Navy, 10 Air Force, and three Marine astronauts. As the figures indicate, officers of the naval establishment form a substantial part of the whole.
Eight American astronauts have died while in the space program, but none lost his life during an actual space flight. The grimmest of all was the tragic Apollo program fire that took the lives of the first three-man crew: Grissom, White, and Chaffee. White, it will be recalled, was the first American to spacewalk. Less publicized were the three plane crashes which took the lives of astronauts Charles Bassett, Theodore Freeman, Elliot See, and C. C. Williams. None had yet flown in space, but See and Bassett had been designated as the prime crew for the Gemini 9 flight. Air Force astronaut Edward Givens was the victim of an automobile crash before he had the opportunity to participate in a mission.
One wonders why these naval officers and, indeed, all men involved in the astronaut team, devote themselves completely to a program which promises them no more than a single spaceflight every three or four years or (in some cases) none at all. We cannot look to the NASA press releases or the news media coverage for an answer. For, generally, the public has been given a one-dimensional view of the astronauts as a group. No other group of prominent national figures has become more stereotyped.
While conceding their coolness and courage, the public tends to picture these men as being of somewhat shallow character and rather limited creativity. To assume that these pilots and scientists are nothing more than occasionally-erring automatons could not be farther from the truth. Indeed, such fame and honors as the astronaut corps has won have been dearly bought; besides the day-to-day danger, there is the training, largely ignored in news media coverage, that drains both mind and body.
But, just as it is wrong to think of these men as cardboard figures, it would be wrong to look for common denominators among them. They are, in the last analysis, individuals—men of proven merit—whose only real resemblance, one to another, is in their courage and their curiosity. Some may be, as Norman Mailer suggests in Of a Fire on the Moon, “priests of a religion not yet defined or even discovered.” Some may have been drawn to the hardware which the technology has spawned. It is true that the test pilot, typically intrigued with the intricate spacecraft and its systems, would find himself at home in the corps of the astronauts. But, motives aside, this much is certain: all the astronauts are deeply aware of the long-range historical implications of space exploration and all have demonstrated, and must continue to exhibit, a dedication which, while rare on earth, must be commonplace among those who would venture to the planets and beyond.
It is necessary to delve into the history of the manned space program to understand what role the Navy’s contribution of spacefarers has played through the last decade and a half. Three manned spacecraft projects have run their course to the present: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, the culmination. All have been largely successful and each in turn has been bolder, more extensive, and more demanding upon the crews.
Project Mercury, the first step to the moon, began its series of flights in May 1961 with the sub-orbital mission of Shepard and ended in 1963 after an additional sub-orbital test and four succeeding orbital flights. Its main objective was to test man in the space environment. Any further hopes NASA held for space exploration would hinge upon these first elementary missions.
Rear Admiral Alan Shepard holds the distinction of being the first American in space. As the pilot of Freedom 7, he was rocketed into a long ballistic arc over the Atlantic on 5 May 1961. The Air Force’s Virgil Grissom flew a similar mission the following July. On 20 February 1962, Marine John Glenn entered Earth orbit as the third man to do so—after Soviet cosmonauts Gagarin and Titov. The flights of Navy pilots Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra followed, and Air Force flier Gordon Cooper completed the final and most demanding mission of the project in May of 1963.
Project Gemini, which followed as an extension and refinement of Mercury, was planned as the phase in which two-man crews would rehearse the techniques necessary for manned lunar landing missions. Main objectives, such as rendezvous and docking, spacewalking, changing orbits, precision re-entry, and enduring lengthy stays in space, were emphasized. In contrast to the more conservative pace of the Mercury flights, Gemini proceeded with ten missions in the span of 18 months—from March 1965 to November 1966. In this project, Navy astronauts continued to play an important role in space exploration. John Young served as Grissom’s copilot on the first Gemini mission, GT-3, and later commanded Gemini 10. Pete Conrad was pilot aboard Gemini 5 and Command Pilot of GT-11, with rookie Richard Gordon as his second. Veteran Wally Schirra returned to space as commander of Gemini 6, and James Lovell took his first trip into space aboard Gemini 7. Later, Lovell was to command GT-12. Eugene Cernan was pilot for Gemini 9.
After the terrible fire in January 1967 that caused the deaths of the first Apollo crew, the first American three-man space shot was delayed until October 1968. Although manned moon landings were planned to be achieved in this project, the first flights of the series were allotted to the testing and familiarization of the hardware. Before lunar touchdown was attempted, Apollo 7—the first manned Apollo—served as a test of the Command Service Module configuration. Apollo 8 served as a mission of endurance in the lunar environment. Apollo 9 was a test of the Lunar Module in Earth orbit, and Apollo 10 was the final test in Moon orbit. Then, with AS-11, the landings began. The first two sites were selected for their accessibility—the Sea of Tranquility and the Ocean of Storms respectively. Starting with Apollo 13, rougher and more interesting terrain was chosen for landing targets. However, of the originally-planned 10 lunar landings, only six will now be realized because of funding cutbacks and the failure of AS-13. AS-14 was rerouted to Apollo 13′s site, the highlands North of the Crater Fra Mauro, and AS-I5′s landing crew explored an area bordering the Apennine mountains and Hadley Rille, far above the lunar equator. Returning to the Moon’s middle latitudes, Apollo 16 was targeted for the highlands near the crater Descartes. Apollo 17, concluding the program, will be launched this coming December. Its site will be the Taurus-Littrow area, which is in the northeastern quadrant of the lunar Earthside.
Captain Walter Schirra commanded the first Apollo mission, AS-7, and thus established the precedent for other Navy astronauts to play an important role in the moon flight crews that followed. James Lovell, veteran of two Gemini flights, was the Command Module Pilot aboard Apollo 8 and Spacecraft Commander of the ill-fated AS-13. John Young and Eugene Cernan both flew aboard Apollo 10, and the all-Navy crew of Apollo 12 consisted of Conrad, Gordon, and Alan Bean, a third group rookie. Alan Shepard returned to space after a decade, in command of AS-14, and his Lunar Module Pilot was Edgar Mitchell of the Navy. Commander and Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 16 shot were John Young and Ken Mattingly, respectively. Eugene Cernan and Ronald Evans, along with civilian geologist Harrison Schmitt, will be the crew of the last Apollo flight, AS-17.
The Skylab Project, originally named more prosaically the Apollo Applications Program, will commence some four months after the return of Apollo 17. Employing a space laboratory in Earth orbit, three crews of three men each will live up to two months therein, conducting various scientific and medical investigations. The space station will be a modified third (S-IV-B) stage, from a conventional Saturn V rocket, and, despite the simplicity of its design, it will be about three times as roomy as the Russian Salyut orbiting lab. On 30 April of next year, the Skylab will be boosted into orbit and, if all proceeds well, the first crew will follow one day later aboard a standard Apollo Command Service Module atop a smaller Saturn IB launch vehicle.
The first to work inside the lab will be the all-Navy crew of Pete Conrad, Paul Weitz, and the first American space doctor, Joseph Kerwin. Mission Commander Conrad will be making his fourth flight into space; his last was the Apollo 12 moon landing mission. For 28 days, the three astronauts will conduct scientific and medical experiments with the equipment carried aboard the craft. Another Apollo 12 veteran, Alan Bean, is scheduled to lead the second Skylab team on a 56-day stay soon after the first crew returns. His co-workers will be two rookies, Marine aviator Jack Lousma and engineer Owen Garriott.
The third and last group will consist of three astronauts who have yet to fly in space: Marine Gerald Carr, the commander; Air Force pilot William Pogue, also from the fifth group of trainees; and engineer Edward Gibson. Like the second crew, they will stay in space for up to 56 days.
This rapid Skylab program (if all goes as planned) will be completed by the end of 1973. This project may signify the last American manned space effort until the development of the space shuttle in the latter part of this decade, for Congress has been cutting back its funding of NASA.
There are those who have always held the strong conviction that the extensive thrust to the Moon was but the beginning of an evolution that must continue to grow and develop for years to come. Unlike most persons, these individuals, true believers in a faith more explicit than Mailer can imagine, have thought upon the exploration of a seemingly infinite universe. Unperturbed by the caution inherent in scientific method, they have already begun to chart a path for man to the nearer of the other worlds. But politics and the grim realities of the commitments and priorities of the present all combine to cloud these hopes. The President’s decision to back the development of the space shuttle was a victory, albeit a shallow one, for the space program. An increasingly penurious Congress may not stop the project, but could submerge the issue in controversy for a long span of time.
The shuttle, in essence, will be a manned, winged rocket which has the potential at last for opening wide extensive exploration above the atmosphere. Dramatically reduced, along with the costliness of expending a huge rocket booster for each mission, will be the danger and discomfort of conventional launchings and re-entries. Such a vehicle, which can carry passengers as does a commercial jet, which can repair defective satellites and conduct an Earth survey from orbit, which can land at a normal jet airport and be readied for relaunching, is a key to the establishment of a truly permanent space commitment. But it is not the decisive factor; as yet, the most important keys lie out of reach.
Hopes of the continuing development of the manned space program depend upon the establishment of permanent manned space stations and new, efficient, high-velocity space engines just as surely as they are tied to the reusable rocket-plane.
The most accessible designs for the powerful highthrust rocket of the future call for a system that causes the heat generated by a thermonuclear core to expand supercooled gas out of a nozzle—not unlike air escaping from the open neck of a balloon. NASA, with its limited funds, has built earthbound prototypes of the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA). Unhappily, the space shuttle decision has swept aside most of the NERVA funding, and the project proceeds at a crawl with its limited objectives.
No more promising is the outlook for the orbiting of laboratories accommodating up to 12 men. Although planners once acknowledged such space stations as a logical followup to Skylab, all now know that a long, unproductive hiatus seems to be the fate of this program for the foreseeable future.
And, of course, the Moon, once the most tantalizing target in the eye of the adventurous, will be out of the reach of spacefarers for, probably, years to come. Although the American public apparently believed in the solemn necessity to reach the moon fast, and first, it did not see fit to commit itself to much more than the initial act of superficial exploration.
Thus, the future of the astronaut corps seems bleak. Shuttle missions, at first, anyway, probably will be flown by the astronauts who remain—although their responsibility will dwindle. Beyond the beginning of the next decade, the mood of the Congress and the public may or may not change. The 1970s may be remembered as a dry waiting period for U. S. spacefarers. The extent of the drought, and whether or not it will cause this nation’s exploratory drive to wither and die, cannot yet be absolutely predicted. Those pilots and scientists who have savored space at least once will have a sense of satisfaction to cling to if the public interest in the universe continues to wane. But those who have trained and waited without reward or fulfillment are likely to become increasingly bitter.
The short history of this country’s space program has been filled for the most part with clear advances and the optimism born of success. The impact of man in space and man on the Moon has been felt in almost all segments of our society. The astronauts are in every sense explorers who have broadened the limits of mankind’s environment; no doubt they regard the past decade and a half as a time of hectic accomplishment but, just as surely, they must have their private doubts about the uncertain future.
The Navy men who have become astronauts have taken part extensively in the majority of America’s space flights. Their futures are less promising than before; yet, these men are, by their very nature, optimists. And the optimist might view the days ahead as simply a period of pause, which will be followed by a new surge that will fulfill their most expansive dreams.
Whatever position this nation takes in the years to follow, the Navy will be a strong contributor to it. As it has supplied pilots and specialists to the space program in the past, so it may again; for the need of capable leaders will become apparent whenever exploration by men is undertaken. As the navies of other nations of the past have produced men of discovery who have benefited civilization, so the U. S. Navy has the capability of producing the men of the future who will intelligently carry through the resurrection of this nation’s sense of curiosity and adventure.