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state: first draft
last update: 2000 January 20

Eddie Hive: First Man in Space

5. The Lucky Charm

By Kevin Kelleher



At 10 hours 28 minutes and 39 seconds to liftoff Eddie realized that one word described working for NASA, and that one word was stress. On December 19, 1960, at roughly ten and half hours to liftoff, the countdown was halted. One of the fuel pumps in the upper stage was giving out funny signals. Eddie said to himself, "For THAT they stop the countdown? One lousy little fuel pump?" But he knew better than to say it out loud. Any of the technicians, engineers, administrators or even keyboard operators who were standing nearby would have laid into him with a dozen reasons why. Each with a worst-case scenario of how dangerous and irresponsible a launch with a faulty fuel pump could be.

Eddie himself wasn't feeling any stress, but he felt alone in his calmness. He had never seen so many bare jangling nerves in his life. All around him people were pacing, drumming their fingers, biting their nails, drinking yet another cup of gut-wrenching coffee. Eddie saw one man take three draws from a cigarette before realizing it was unlit. Things were never this way at Eddie's pre-NASA flights.

It was hard to understand: it seemed like NASA just had bad luck with rockets. Here was a man who'd been in space twice and was ready to go again -- and who WOULD have gone again if NASA hadn't stepped in -- yet all he'd seen of NASA was disasters. It was an objective fact that 1960 was a terrible year for the space program, but from Eddie's point of view the change from Fleiss' unknown successes to NASA's spectacular failures was like going from day to night.

When it came down to it, the only positive achievements in 1960 were that the Russians put two dogs, Strelka and Belka, in orbit and that the Americans sent three white mice, Amy, Sally and Moe, in a suborbital arc. That summed up the plus side of 1960.

On the negative side there was a lot more to say. It seemed like the bad news started coming in to NASA right about the time that Eddie arrived. First of all, in May, when Eddie began as an unofficial NASA astronaut, the Russians shot down our flashy new high-altitude spy plane, the U-2, and took its pilot, Gary Powers, alive.

Aside from the embarassment, diplomatic and otherwise, the news was highly demoralizing to NASA. Not that they had anything to do with the U-2 -- not at all. The real bad news was that the Russians used a new surface-to-air missile. No one knew they had it, and -- worse yet -- we didn't have anything comparable. A new missile. Once again it seemed the Russians were in the lead.

Then, at the end of July Cape Canaveral was crowded with VIPs, politicians, press, television, film -- in short, the world and his wife were there. The MA-1 stood majestically on its launch pad shedding white cryogenic fumes while loudspeakers everywhere counted down the hours, minutes, and finally seconds to liftoff. Waves of fire poured from the bottom of that giant. The ground trembled orgasmically. Slowly the rocket lifted, slowly it accelerated. Ever faster, ever higher, it climbed into the dark, rainy sky, roaring and burning. Soon it rose so high as to seem directly overhead. Every neck bent back to witness the ascension, when -- Armagheddon itself! The missile exploded in an unforgettable self-consuming nova. It was like the creation of a star or a preview of the end of the world. No one was hurt, but it sure made one hell of an impression.

Then in November came the MR-1, a Redstone, just like Eddie had flown. NASA, emboldened by Eddie's successes, decided to call back the entire cast of witnesses: the VIPs, the media, the military, and so on.

At first it was all the same: the countdown, the waves of fire, the earthquake-like trembling. Then as the rocket rose slowly into the air, the roaring and shaking abruptly stopped, the flames ceased, and the rocket settled back on its launch pad. A complete astonished silence followed, and more than one mouth fell open. It was later determined that the rocket had risen six whole inches in the air, but the laugh was not over yet. The silence was pierced by a loud POP! as if the cork was shot from a gargantuan bottle of champagne. At that, the capsule separated from the rocket and flew high into the air, propelled by the escape tower. At 4000 feet a little parachute opened and the capsule floated gaily to earth.

Opten nearly lost his grip. He watched the silly parachute descend and wished for a way to shoot it down. "Can we blow the damn thing up?" he asked an engineer, who stared back in open- mouthed horror. Opten shouted his question a second time and the engineer replied, "It's not equipped for self-destruct -- it's supposed to carry a man."

These mammoth failures were broadcast on TV and recorded faithfully on film -- yet these were only the publicized failures. There were a lot of reasons for chewing nails at NASA today.

Maybe if NASA had known how badly things were going for the Russians, they might have felt a little better. It was true what Opten told Hive, that we only heard about the Russian successes. Maybe there was something in the stars in 1960, some cosmic influence that tied us even more firmly to this planet and closed our sky to outgoing traffic. In any case, it was a terrible year for the Russians as well.

Probably they were hurt more that year because their plans were more ambitious. They wanted to get near Mars, and 1960 would have been a good time to do it. If they could send a powerful enough rocket on the right trajectory, it could make a near pass by Mars, before sailing out into deep space. The time was short -- a "window" of opportunity was open in late September and early October. Once that window shut, it would remain closed for roughly a decade, so Khrushchev was hot to hit it.

Virtually no one knew that when Khrushchev made his visit to the UN headquarters in New York -- a visit he made famous by pounding the table with his shoe -- he had little models of Soviet spacecraft in his briefcase. He was waiting for the word from Siberia that the Mars launch was a success. Instead he was told that two rockets fizzled out on the pad. Khrushchev extended his stay and said (although not exactly in these words) that come hell or high water, he wanted a Soviet rocket to fly by Mars this year! The pressure was on, but the rockets just wouldn't ignite. Khrushchev was forced to come home without showing off his models. The window was still open, though, and Khrushchev bore down hard. The Soviet scientists could have told NASA a few things about stress. More than one of them may have felt, as Opten would have said, that it was just a technological circus stunt, but it would have impressed the entire world and once again left the US in the dust.

October 23rd was the last possible day -- the window was about to close: Mars would begin moving further away. Khrushchev was screaming on the phone. They had to make one last shot. The tension was high. Pure adrenaline radiated through the atmosphere. Throats were dry, no one could sleep or eat. Finally the countdown hit zero. Ignition! But nothing happened. No flames, no roar, no movement. It looked like another dead rocket. Field Marshall Mitrovan Nedelin, the man in charge of the launch, looked out of the bunker and saw red. He thought, "This window will close on my neck," and, before the phone from Moscow could ring, he started barking out orders. "Get out there and see what's wrong with it! You, you, you and you! That thing's got to fly today, and it WILL fly today!" He personally led the group of technicians on the march toward the silent steel cylinder.

We hear it said sometimes of a man who falls from a height, "He was dead before he hit the ground," but how do we know? How can we know what a man saw, heard or felt in the last milliseconds before a sudden and unexpected death? Perhaps his perceptions and all his inner world accelerate at a pace that we the living cannot even imagine, let alone simulate. Just so, we can say that Nedelin and his technicians died instantaneously when the rocket exploded. And that probably they never knew what hit them. Yet perhaps they saw the flash, understood what it meant, and saw death himself riding on that firey ball like a skeletal warrior on a stallion of fire.

In plain language, the rocket exploded and they died. To this day there is no official word on the number of the dead. Estimates start at fifty and run into the hundreds.

It was a major setback but the world heard nothing at all about it. The Soviet program was crippled by the loss of personnel, the damaged launch pad, the shock and the stress, but more bad news was on the way.

Even with the handicaps caused by the accident, they managed to launch Sputnik 6 with two dogs on board at the beginning of December. After 24 hours in orbit, they began re-entry, but the capsule came in at too high an angle. The capsule, the dogs, everything, burned, disintegrated. There wasn't so much as a handful of dust left.

The stress, the failures, the pressure from above, were incredible -- more than a man should have to bear. The day after the loss of Sputnik 6, Korolev, the unknown genius of the Soviet space program, very nearly the one man to whom all its success was due, suffered a massive heart attack and was hospitalized. The doctors also found that he was suffering from kidney disorder, probably the result of the conditions and diet in the labor camp where he and other engineer/prisoners were developing Soviet rocketry.

The news might have lightened the picture a little for NASA, but it would have been a rather morbid cheer. It wouldn't erase the Soviet's lead, however, and it wouldn't change the gamble that today's flight represented. And it was a gamble that could pay big for somebody if NASA failed again.

You see, everybody wanted missiles. All the branches of the American military wanted to be in charge of missile development, but NASA was specifically created for civilian missile development, an idea that set some military men to sharpening their teeth. While it was still true that any missile was a potential weapon and that if one agency worked on development all would profit, yet none of them could forget that money was involved. And money flow in the government has some specific laws. One: if you want a budget increase next year, you have to spend hard this year. Two: what goes to another agency cannot come to you. Three: the pie will never be big enough to share. And so the men at the Pentagon who said, "NASA is taking food from my baby's mouth," were praying today for another dramatic failure.

Their intentions were no secret. When, at 10 hours, 28 minutes and 39 seconds the unmanned launch was halted, while three technicians suited up and approached the huge steel pillar to check out a fuel pump, the rest of NASA stood helplessly by, waiting, watching a military sword form in the air above them, ready to hack NASA to pieces and with it, their jobs. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, no way to relax, unwind or stretch out.

Eddie was calm, it's true, but only because he had no responsibility. It's true he knew that rockets could fly and that eventually NASA would get the knack, but the truth is that had nothing on the line that day. He was only there to watch.

Werner von Braun was watching Eddie and observed his calm. In von Braun's estimation Eddie had the typical test pilot mentality, which was essentially a sense of personal indestructability. Without that sense, how else could a man climb atop a rocket?

von Braun was nearly as calm as Eddie, but his calm was of another order. He, one of the fathers of rocketry, had seen more explosions and failed launches that anyone else on the Cape that day. He knew that NASA would put a man in space, that rockets would fly to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond. He knew that he would participate in all these achievements and that success was simply a matter of trial and error. von Braun's calm was like that of a professional actor or professional gambler: it had the tension of readiness but none of the soul-scattering fear or insecurity that was rippling across the Cape that morning. If the launch didn't go well? How would von Braun fare? He would continue to work on rockets for the army, as head of the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The military would always be interested in rockets and von Braun was the premiere expert in the free world. He would always have work, opportunity, funds... no matter what the political climate.

von Braun was a practical man, a man of experience, and knew that Soviets were not infallible. The news of their failures and difficulties could have only confirmed what he already knew must be the case: trial and error is an unavoidable part of the process. He knew beyond a shadow of any doubt that he and other engineers and technicians were capable of developing rockets to circle the earth, moon, mars, deep space if need be. It was only a question of time, trials, research. Political pressure made it difficult, but that could be managed, too. It was all part of the game. He knew that many of those around him feared for the continuance of NASA, but he didn't share those fears. One of the higher-ups at NASA had said to him that very morning, "If this one doesn't go, we can just kiss it all goodbye." von Braun smiled gently and told the man not to worry. "It will fly," he said, "and even if it doesn't we'll weather the storm somehow. It's important to keep trying, never give up. We can do it, you know."

Sometimes working for NASA was like a diet of nothing but coffee.

When the three technicians arrived at the foot of the rocket, one of the men in the control center had a morbid recollection from his boyhood. He and his friends used to play with firecrackers. One good game was to light one and put an empty tin can over it so that when the thing blew the can would go flying into the air. The morbid element was introduced at school, where teachers cautioned exactly against that game, saying that there were times that the firecracker didn't go off and some little boy went to lift the can and see... the explosion was delayed, however, and the little boy lost his hand. The moral was, obviously, to not play with firecrackers, even if there were a dozen other safe solutions like knock the can over with a rock from a distance. Unfortunately, today, there was no sort of rock that could be thrown to see what was wrong with the fuel pump. Instead, three little boys were sent to lift the can and look.

In the midst of the fear, tension, and uncertainty, von Braun pulled a set of photos from his pocket and looked at them for the twentieth time, sure that sooner or later he'd understand. There was nothing else to do at the moment. While three technicians checked the little gizmo, maybe adjust it, the rest of NASA, along with the VIPs in the stands, and the public at home watching the launch from their living room TV sets, could only wait. von Braun was not about to waste his time drumming his fingers or running his hands through his short blond hair.

Barden, one of the engineer/administrators, ran to von Braun, straining to appear casual while tension radiated from every muscle. Barden was a picture of anxiety verging on despair. "What's your prognosis on the launch, Doctor?" he blurted and swung his arms like a chimpanzee.

"What?" von Braun replied, distracted. "Oh, it'll be fine. You'll see, it'll be fine. The thing will go." Then he smiled in spontaneous and genuine joy at Barden. "Will you do me a favor? Ask Hive to step over here."

"Sure," Barden said and shuffled off a few paces before he turned back suddenly. "You're not nervous at all, are you? I mean this is just like another day to you, isn't it?"

The great German scientist shrugged. "It's only a matter of time," he replied, "before rocket flights are as common and casual as coffee. When you tell your grandchildren that you remember when the first Mars colony began, they'll ask you if there were cars back then, and electric lights. It's all going to happen, you'll see. This, today, will be a part of it."

Barden nodded and finally smiled, reassured. "Don't forget about Hive," von Braun reminded him. "I want to talk to him."

There was some kind of magic in that man, that big blond Aryan rocket scientist. Somehow he made it easy for people to believe not only that man could go to the stars but that we BELONGED there. That the only reason we weren't there already was just because we hadn't thought of it sooner. There were no insurmountable problems; there was no barrier of impossibility. It was just a technical matter, like trying to find the right sail for your sailboat. When you stood near Wernher von Braun you were ready to declare it: yes, we can do it! We can build a rocket and go -- anywhere! Tokyo, Mars, the Moon, Alpha Centauri...

"Certainly, we could aim for Mars as easily as the Moon. The technical problems are on a par; one is not more difficult than the other. In fact, there are members of my staff who've pushed hard to bypass the Moon altogether and head straight for Mars. However, a decision had to be made..."

The man had vision. His vision had scope and breadth. Certainly Barden felt reassured, but he didn't realize that von Braun's remarks went far beyond this single day, this single launch. von Braun's way of thinking included the disasters, the collosal failures: this is how we learn. The man was not afraid of risk, and absolutely had no fear of failure. The man who could organize and carry out the escape to freedom of 100 V2 rockets and 100 German rocket scientists during the collapse of Hitler's government was not about to be caught with all his metaphorical money on one single launch. His plans took in decades at a glance.

§

"It would be good to have Fleiss here," von Braun said. "He's a genius, you know. I'm telling you he'll be one of the fundamental names in rocketry."

"Maybe, but he's not here, and anyway he's a communist. That in itself is almost as big a problem as rockets that don't fly."

von Braun could have told the man a good many things about politics and science, but he let it go. Instead he said, "You know he was going to use that thing" he gestured to the Redstone sitting on its launch pad "to put Hive in orbit?"

"In orbit? That's impossible! It doesn't have the thrust!"

"He had some modifications to make."

"I'll say."

"His modifications would have supplied the thrust."

The other man was silent for a stretch. "You're serious?" he asked "You don't just mean he had an idea--"

"He had plans. There was something half-begun on that last rocket Hive was supposed to fly. It was something he expected to have finished and ready to fly two weeks after he was stopped."

"Have you looked at the modifications he'd already finished?"

"Yes, but there was really nothing to see. Almost all of what had been done was preparatory: he'd mainly laid open the plumbing. It looked like he planned to work on the coolant pump and the rocket nozzle, but I don't know in what way. There were other sections open that it was impossible to say what he planned to do. Add something? Who knows?"

"Did he leave any notes? Instructions to techs?"

"None of them know anything worth anything. A lot of them are just plain incompetent. It was when I talked to them that I realized what a genius Fleiss is -- if he could use a crew of such ignorant apes to put a man in space -- well, it means it did it all himself."

"Notes?"

"He left a mountain of notes -- all in illegible handwriting. I've been looking at it for months, and still can only make out a word here and there. If you want to take a crack at it, you're more than welcome."

"Did you ask Hive?"

"He doesn't know a damn thing. He just sat on the rocket -- that's it. He barely knows how the rocket works, let alone Fleiss' modifications. And he can't make heads or tails of Fleiss' handwriting."

"What a pair!"

"Yes, a strange pair, Fleiss and Hive. But they got into space first. Isn't it odd? Listen, I wanted to ask what Fleiss was doing before he worked on the rocket?"

"He was teaching graduate physics at some university someplace until he lost his job for being a communist. Then it seemed he worked as a civil engineer in the midwest for about ten years."

"Did he publish his texts on rocket propulsion and spacecraft during those ten years?"

"Yes, and thanks to them he got his job on the secret tests."

"You know," von Braun said, musing, "I was looking at the records of those secret tests. He didn't do so well before Hive came along. Do you they had to rebuild the launch pad three times as a result of exploded missiles? And there's an incredible crater that's only a mile from a major highway."

"Holy cow!"

"But then Hive came. There was one successful unmanned launch -- and then Hive went up."

"You think Hive was some kind of catalyst?"

"I think he might be some kind of good luck charm. Maybe it was enough to put Hive on top of the rocket to keep it from blowing up. Some people have a very strong fate, you know, and before it's their time to die, they're invincible."

"Well that's great," the other replied, "but we have to have something more dependable to get these things up." And with that he left.

All systems were go. The rocket looked good. All indications were go. Countdown. Ten nine eight seven six five four three two one IGNITION!

The bright flames and white smoke poured from the base of the rocket. It rumbled and roared, and shook the ground beneath Eddie's feet. He could feel the roar and power of the rocket in his body. He knew, just as von Braun knew, from some technological instinct that this one was going to go. Sure enough, slowly, slowly, the rocket lifted. It was a slowness that could hardly be believed. A man could walk at the rate that thing lifted itself. But it kept on rising, and as it rose it flew ever faster. The higher it rose the faster it flew. In a minute it was directly overhead. Just the point where the MA-1 had blown apart. It passed that point and kept on rising.


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