Sixty years ago: a dramatic end to the longest Mercury

May 16, 1963: Faith 7 (Mercury-Atlas 9) descends towards splashdown in the Pacific after a 34-hour flight.


It’s May 16, 1963, and you’re Gordon Cooper about to begin a second day in orbit aboard  Mercury capsule named Faith 7.  You’d slept so deep that when you wake, for a moment you don’t know where you are.  After maybe 5-6 hours sleep through five orbits.  Now on orbit 14 over Australia, 21 hours 22 min. since launch. you call to the Muchea tracking station, “Hello Muchea capcom, Faith 7 here . . .  I’m awake now.  Just thought I’d check in with you.”

“Roger, how was your sleep?”

“Very good.”

They ask for a status update.

“Everything is nominal here…  My status is excellent.”  And you’re fat on fuel.  It’s reading 69 percent automatic thruster system and 95 percent in the separate manual system.

You check out my thrusters, then it’s back to work.  Photography if the prime focus through the next three orbits, horizon pictures, dim-light night shots, infrared images.  Starting with orbit 16, Faith 7 begins retracing the orbital path of the beginning of the flight, taking you over more or the worldwide tracking sites.  Passing over the Cape, you tell them, “Man, all I do is take pictures, pictures, pictures. . .  I’m not complaining, ha, ha ha.”

You never tire of looking at the sunsets.  The sun appears bluish-white like an arc lamp as it goes down, spreading as it hits the horizon.  Orange above a blue band, deepening into a gold-orang

Everything hums along perfectly, another textbook flight.  Until the 19th orbit.  

Over the Pacific, far from tracking range, of course, when it happens.  You’re preparing for the nightside of the orbit by dimming warning lights so that you see outside.  When you do, the 0.05 g indicator lights up.  It signals that the capsule is returning to earth, sensing the first wisps of gravity, five-hundreds of a g.  Has the orbit decayed to the point you’re coming down.  No, you don’t feel it.  It must be a faulty indicator.  Yet the failure has consequences.  It signals the autopilot to switch into re-entry mode where it enters a stabilizing roll, like a rifle bullet.  You quickly pull the fuses to the 0.05 g logic circuitry.  And maintain manual control.

A half hour later, coming in range of Hawaii.  “Wonder if you would relay to the Cape a little situation I had happen and see what they think.  While turning my warning lights off and back to dim, my 0.05g telelight came on . . .”

Ten minutes later, 29 hr. 45 min. into the flight, tracking at the California site verifies that you, indeed, are still in a good orbit.  Mercury Control at the Cape devising a series of tests of the system.  They want to know if the 0.05g logic will properly establish the roll after retrofire.  You’ll still have to make a manual retrofire, positioning the capsule by the window view, but then you can turn control over to the autopilot for the fiery descent.

You test the system, engaging the fuse switches on orbit 20, over the Pacific Ocean tracking ship where John Glenn serves as capcom.  The autopilot again latches into the descent sequence.  You run more tests to check the roll rate the system establishes.  You confirm that, yes, the system will work properly for the descent itself. 

Other problems are mounting.  A slight oxygen leak in the cabin, and carbon dioxide levels are rising towards a level that could leave you impaired.  

Thirty-three hours into the flight, beginning your final orbit.   And the problems have not ceased.   Out of contact with a ground station, your main ASCS (automatic control system) inverter, the device that converts the direct current of the batteries into alternating current, blows a fuse.  You switch to the backup inverter, but it won’t come on line.  The autopilot is dead.  

You laconically speak into the tape recorder: “Well, things are beginning to stack up a little. ASCS inverter is acting up, and my CO2 is building up in the suit.  Partial pressure of O2 is decreasing in the cabin.  Standby inverter won’t come on line.  Other than that, things are fine.”

Coming into contact with the Zanzibar station you tell them, “I have a little item for you.  My ASCS ac inverter has failed, so I will be making a manual reentry.”  You will not only have to firing the retros, but guide the capsule throughout its descent.  

Faith 7 is slowly dying, system by system.  The cause of the cascading short circuits?  Likely due, although you don’t know it, to condensation in the cabin from a leaky waste water pump.

You prepare for retrofire well in advance, aligning the capsule’s position by the glow of Shanghai through the clouds.  Dawn brings you into range of the Pacific tracking ship.  John Glenn asks, “How’s the window attitude?  Does it check OK?”

“Right on the old gazoo.”

“That’s the way, boy.  OK, our procedure, Gordo — I’ll give you the one-minute hack before retrofire and then a 10-sec. count to retrofire.”

“Roger, that’s fine.  . . . I’ll shoot the retros on manual, and I’ll reenter on fly-by-wire.”

“Roger, OK.”

“I’m looking for a lot of experience on this flight.”

“You’re going to get it.  OK, one minute to go on my mark.  Stand by — mark.”

It’s 33 hrs. 59 min. 24 sec. since launch.  Glenn chants the final seconds to retrofire: “. . . 4, 3, 2, 1 – fire.” 

“Roger, a green one there.”   The three retros ripple fire in a staggered start.  The capsule tries to buck as each rocket ignites in sequence, but you hold her steady, a relaxed touch.  “I think I got all three.”  

Glenn, ‘How did your attitude hold, Gordo?’

Still laconic, understated, you answer “Well, pretty fine.” 

“Good show, boy, real fine.  Looks like they came off right on the money on time.”

You jettison the retropack, set up the stabilizing roll.  Biting into the atmosphere, you watch one of the retro straps, still attached after the retros were jettisoned, burn away.  Manual all the way, doing it better than the autopilot.  Better than the last flight.  You bring her down just 7,000 yards from the recovery carrier, the Kearsarge.  And call, “I’d like to come aboard the carrier if they will give permission to an Air Force troop.”

“Permission granted.”  You’re going to stay in the capsule They estimate 45 minutes to reach  the capsule and hoist it aboard.   On deck, they blow the side hatch, and there you are, looking out, a two-day growth of beard and big smile on your face.

A flight of 34 hours 20 min. 20 sec., more than all previous Mercury flights combined, is complete.  Have we’ve stretched the Mercury design as far as it’ll go?   At least one person wants to stretch it further.   That person is Alan Shepard.

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