Say this for Nasa: it has gone where no space agency has ever gone before. Its magnificent four-winged spaceships enable almost anyone, with a few months of training, to fly into Earth’s orbit and beyond. Today, at 50, Nasa can look back at its glory moments — from the Mercury and Gemini programmes, the Apollo moonshots and the shuttle, to robotic planetary probes.
But Nasa’s most remarkable achievement — the launch of America’s first manned spacecraft — also happened to be its most embarrassing. It was May 5, 1961, Cape Canaveral, Florida: Alan Shepard was in his Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, atop a Redstone rocket on the launch pad, waiting for the countdown to end so he could blast off to make history. Just 20 days ago, the Russians had sent Yuri Gagarin into space, and a lot rode on Shepard’s momentous attempt to equal that. The astronaut had been through 120 flight simulations. Yet, no one envisioned the problem he now faced: he had to attend nature’s call. Since the flight would last only 15 minutes, it never occurred to anyone to include a urine receptacle. Shepard’s position in his cramped seat was like that of a driver in an F-1 car that’s been upended to point skywards. This meant, short of removing him from all the hook-ups, little could be done. So, on the day of the first US space flight, as the world watched with bated breath, nervous engineers advised Shepard to “do it in the suit”. It was risky, as introducing liquid in the pressure suit’s pure-oxygen environment could have caused a short circuit. Well, the 98.6 degree sub-dermal rivulet did trigger an increase in Freon — the gas used to cool the suit. Fortunately, the damage wasn’t serious, and Shepard could soon radio anxious controllers to “light this candle!”
Those were the heady Fifties. Nasa’s march since had its heartbreaks: fire, malfunction, astronauts perishing in accidents… But even today, Nasa remains the pioneer who charted humankind’s star trek.