First-Hand:Project Mercury Experience of Rufus Chávez
I graduated in May of 1959 with a BSEE from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. My first employment was with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis, Missouri. McDonnell was NASA’s prime contractor for the manufacture of twenty Project Mercury satellite spacecraft. I worked in the engineering design group on this project.
In mid-1960, I was transferred to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where I was involved in engineering modifications and testing. The Mercury spacecraft were configured to work with either the “Redstone” suborbital rocket or the “Atlas” orbit-capable rocket. I was assigned to the Mercury-Atlas spacecraft testing and the blockhouse launch operations team. Designed changes, modifications and testing occurred over a period of time.
I had the opportunity to meet the original seven astronauts and had special interactions with Virgil Grissom and Alan Shepard. I also had a chance meeting with Dr. Werhner von Braun.
Dr. Werhner von Braun
Some testing of the spacecraft involved a “Pre-flight Checkout Trailer” that was full of specialized instrumentation. Dr. Werhner von Braun and his team of scientists and engineers, who were working on the Redstone rocket, had an interest in this checkout trailer, and requested a site visit to see it. We were informed that Dr. von Braun and his team had scheduled an appointment to visit the trailer. The date and time was set and we (McDonnell engineers) were told to stay away, except for the three or four engineers who were going to make the presentation.
On the scheduled date, our Engineering Manager received word that the “von Braun” team was at the complex gate and on their way - about an hour early! Our Engineering Manager grabbed me and told me to hurry to the trailer and give our guys a heads-up to be ready. I rushed to the trailer, entered and quickly told the guys about the early arrival. I headed to the trailer door to leave but before I could open the door, it swung open and there was “The Man.” He stuck out his husky hand and firmly said, “I’m Dr. von Braun!” I said “I’m Rufus Chávez” and stepped aside as he and his team entered the trailer. I was unable to leave because his team was blocking the door. So I moved to the back of the trailer and waited until the presentation was concluded.
So, I can say that Dr. Werhner von Braun personally introduced himself to me. An experience I won’t forget.
Mercury-Redstone 1 Test Flight
This launch took place on November 21, 1960. I was an observer from the roof of Hangar S. The rocket engine shut down after a few seconds of ignition, the spacecraft’s escape tower separated then the rocket/spacecraft came back onto the pad without falling over. The fully fueled rocket and spacecraft stayed on the pad overnight. The next morning, several McDonnell volunteers, went up to the spacecraft, carefully removed a door, connected a pair of wires and safely disarmed the spacecraft.
Later, it was determined that the rocket/spacecraft went up about 4-inches. After some re-work and testing, on December 19, 1960, this spacecraft was again launched and the test flight was successful.
Mercury-Atlas 2 Test Flight
This launch took place on February 21, 1961 and I was responsible for the spacecraft “Electrical Power Monitor” console in the blockhouse. Initial testing proceeded according to script. Then suddenly all of the spacecraft consoles began to display erratic readings. The countdown clock was halted. We discussed what potential problems might be causing this anomaly. I suggested that a possible cause could be the ground-based umbilical cable connection to the spacecraft. The NASA blockhouse flight director agreed with this as a possible malfunction. He requested that a field technician go up to the spacecraft and check. After a period of time, the console readings went from intermittent to steady. Shortly afterwards the technician’s voice came over the intercom, “loose connection, should be okay now.”
The countdown clock was restarted and we had a good launch. This test flight was a success. Afterwards, the Capsule Flight Director gave me a pat on the back and a special thank you.
Mercury-Atlas 3 Testing
One day while I was performing my work in the blockhouse, Alan Shepard was sitting next to me going over some documentation. A McDonnell person with the publications department approached Alan to tell him that the “Capsule Flight Operations Manual” had been revised and did he have his copy with him. Alan said yes, took it out of his briefcase and handed it to the “Pubs” guy; who then took the contents of the small notebook and tossed it into a nearby trash can. He replaced the contents and handed the notebook back to Alan. I retrieved the discarded manual and asked Alan if I could keep it as a souvenir. He said yes and gladly autographed the first page. I have this special one-of-a-kind souvenir to this day.
Mercury-Atlas 3 Test Flight
On April 25, 1961, I was a member of the blockhouse launch team, responsible for the spacecraft (capsule) “Electrical Power Monitor” console. About 40 seconds after take-off, the rocket/spacecraft was going off course and the range safety officer issued a destruct command. The spacecraft “Escape System” fired the explosive bolts on the clamp ring that coupled the spacecraft to the rocket. Then, the escape tower rockets fired and propelled the spacecraft a safe distance from the rocket as it exploded. The tower was jettisoned, the parachutes opened and the spacecraft safely descended to the ocean. A helicopter recovered the spacecraft.
Alan Shepard was in the blockhouse during this launch. After the rocket explosion, we all stayed motionless at our respective stations. Alan went to the periscope, in the blockhouse, and verbally began to describe the rescue operations. He actually seemed upbeat! We waited in the blockhouse while the fire department put out all the fires in the area and made sure all was safe.
Afterwards, we left the blockhouse and went to a conference room in an adjacent building for a de-briefing session. After the blockhouse personnel presented what they had observed, it was tentatively determined that a gyroscope in the rocket may have failed. As the moderator was ready to end the session, Alan requested to address the group. He said that he noticed all the sad faces because of the failure, but he actually was satisfied with the test because we had never had a dynamic test of the escape system, and today we did. He then pounded his fist on the podium and said “I’m ready to go on the next flight.” THE RIGHT STUFF!
Mercury-Redstone 3 “Freedom 7”
This launch took place on May 5, 1961. I was an observer from the roof of Hangar S. This was a suborbital flight. The Redstone rocket and spacecraft performed as designed. The spacecraft, with Alan Shepard on board, was propelled down range and he became the first American to go into “space.”
Virgil I. “GUS” Grissom
On one occasion, during a short break, I had coffee with Gus. I mentioned that I had not seen him in quite a while and what had he been up to. He said he had been training on the centrifuge and that he did not enjoy that because it really made him sick. A down to earth honest expression!
Mercury-Redstone 4 “Liberty Bell 7”
This launch took place on July 21, 1961. I was an observer from the roof of Hangar S. This was a suborbital flight. The main part of this flight went as desired. However, there were complications with the landing in the ocean. Virgil Grissom was safely rescued and became the second American to go into “space.”
Mercury-Atlas 4 Test Flight
This launch took place on September 13, 1961. This was an unmanned flight that made one orbit around the earth. The test was successful.
Sometime after this launch, I left the space program and took a job in Houston, Texas. I now regret leaving at this time. I wish I had stayed with Project Mercury to its conclusion.
Mercury-Atlas 6 “Friendship 7”
This launch took place on February 20, 1962. John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. I was working in Houston on this day and observed the launch on TV. A documentary video, “Friendship 7 (Mercury 6) 20th February 1962” was made of this flight and footage previously recorded, that included me, was used.
This YouTube video can be be seen here:
If you are interested in seeing a very-very young me, watch and listen closely from 1:30 to 3:30.
Currency in Flight with “Friendship 7”
Prior to the Friendship 7 flight, someone got an idea of how to get unique souvenirs of this historical first American in space flight. An envelope containing U.S. currency was placed inside the spacecraft. This was done with John Glenn’s permission. After the flight, the currency package was retrieved and safely stored.
After John Glenn’s celebratory parade, he returned to Cape Canaveral and authenticated fifty-two currency bills with certificates, each with the unique currency serial number. Many other team member signatures were added, including several astronauts.
Sometime later, a good friend of mine with McDonnell came to visit me in Houston and gave me one of these special souvenirs that he had reserved for me. To this day, I have this very unique souvenir.
The U.S. was in a race against Russia to put the first man in space. Working on Project Mercury involved many long hours of hectic and serious work. My time working on Project Mercury was for about 28 months. For a young engineer, 22 to 24 years old, this was one helluva experience!
- Rufus Chávez
- February 2019