A few minutes before 9am on the morning of Friday 5th May 1961 Alan Shepard was lying on a couch. He wasn’t as relaxed as most people are in that situation and there were a number of reasons for this.
Firstly he was in the rather claustrophobic surroundings of a tiny conical metal capsule, less than two meters in diameter on the outside and definitely smaller on the inside. Secondly, this capsule was sitting on the top of a 20 metre tall missile which was full of tens of thousands of litres of highly explosive rocket fuel. Thirdly, when that fuel was ignited, he and the rocket would be watched on live TV by approximately 45 million Americans.
However, despite the fact that the situation outlined above would have caused most people’s stress levels to disappear off the chart, his biggest problem was more basic and something probably every human experiences at some time in their life. He had a full bladder and no way to empty it. He was lying on his back strapped into the couch, so he couldn’t even cross his legs.
The Long Wait
Shepard was just about to become America’s first man in space. He had set off for the launch pad just before 4am and the hatch of the Mercury capsule was closed at 6.10am with launch planned for 7.20am. The Redstone missile which was about to send him 120 miles straight up into space didn’t have the greatest record of reliability and the launch countdown was repeatedly put on hold as various technical problems were solved. His last opportunity to use a toilet had been after breakfast at about 2am, before starting the long procedure of putting on his spacesuit.
Shepard was wearing a spacesuit which was basically a development of the pressure suits worn by pilots flying planes at very high altitude. The outside of the suit was metallic silver and pictures of Shepard and the other six Mercury astronauts wearing their shiny suits had featured magazines and newspapers across America. The spacesuits made them look both heroic and futuristic – just what the American public wanted to see.
But Shepard’s flight was only due to last about 15 minutes, so no one had thought there was any need to include any bathroom facilities in his suit.
As he grew increasingly uncomfortable, Shepard radioed the launch centre to ask to be removed from the capsule in order to let nature take its course. Werner von Braun, the German born rocket scientist in charge of the launch came back with a firm no. The last thing he needed was for his rocket to be ready but with a missing astronaut.
So Shepard had only one solution left to him. He radioed again – could he pee in the suit? Again the answer came back no. Inside the suit Shepard was attached to four electrocardiograph pads, a respirometer and a rectal thermometer (ouch!). These would record his vital signs and how he reacted physically to the changing conditions of the flight. Urine inside the suit would cause short circuits and possibly even shocks that could injure or incapacitate Shepard.
The increasingly desperate astronaut radioed a third time. He had to go; could they switch the medical monitoring off? There was a delay as von Braun and the launch team held a discussion before finally cutting the power to the electrodes and giving Shepard permission to relieve himself.
As his bladder emptied, gravity took its course and the wee formed a pool under his back. At this point, as well as a long “Aaaahhhh”, he uttered the words “I’m a wetback now!”
Shepard may no longer have been bursting but he must have been very uncomfortable; which probably explains why his response to the announcement of another delay – this time due to rising fuel pressure – was curt “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”
A few minutes later at 9.30am the countdown resumed and at 9.34am the rocket finally left the launch pad. Fifteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds later the capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and the first manned American spaceflight was over.
After the flight
The successful flight was a huge boost for the morale of Americans who had spent the previous three and a half years watching increasingly successful Soviet space flights whilst the USA struggled to catch up. Yuri Gagarin had become the first person to orbit the earth a few weeks earlier, but at least after Shepard’s flight America seemed to be not too far behind the Russians.
On this return Shepard was a national hero. New York, Washington and Los Angeles all held parades in his honour and President Kennedy presented him with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. NASA managed to avoid any leaks (apologies for the pun) about Shepard’s call of nature and it only became more common knowledge with the publication of Tom Wolfe’s book ‘The Right Stuff’ in 1979.
Hurried changes to the spacesuit were made before Gus Grissom made the second sub-orbital Mercury flight in July 1961 (basically he wore rubber pants!) and a more sophisticated system introduced for the longer orbital flights that followed.
Shepard’s Later Career
Alan Shepard was scheduled to go into space again on the first Project Gemini flight, but early in 1964 he was diagnosed with Menieres disease. This disrupts the sense of balance and Shepard had his flight status withdrawn.
Following surgery, Shepard’s ear problem was corrected and he returned as an active astronaut in May 1969. His second flight lasted approximately one thousand times longer than his first. As commander of Apollo 14 in 1971 he became the fifth person to walk on the moon and the first to play golf there. Shepard left NASA in 1974 and died of leukaemia in 1998 at the age of 74.
Alan Shepard’s capsule, named Freedom 7, is currently (until December 2015) on display at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. His spacesuit is part of the collection at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC, but at the time of writing (April 2015) it is not on display. I hope they gave it a really good clean before putting it into storage.