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tv   Oral Histories Mercury Seven Astronaut Alan Shepard  CSPAN  October 14, 2021 11:15am-12:45pm EDT

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history. >> it's a pleasure, sir. it's a pleasure. >> let's begin kind of not at the beginning because there was a beginning before in, but does the date 9 april 1959 mean anything to you? >> well, of course that was one of the happiest days of my life. that was the day in which we all congregated officially as the u.s. first astronaut group. we had been through a selection process, obviously, previous to that time. but that was the day we first showed up officially as the first astronauts of the united states back at langley field, virginia. >> at langley. why langley, i wonder? >> well, of course naca had become nasa in a great big hurried turnaround, as you recall. and the program of astronaut selection and training basically
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was run by the people who worked from langley. originally, of course, we all reported into washington. that was where the initiation, the introduction, the preselection, all that sort of routine went on. and then, as you know, we had physicals elsewhere in the country. once the selection was made, of course we reported to those people at langley field, which was kind of neat for me, because i was already stationed in norfolk, in a job which i didn't like in the first place. i was finally taken out of airplanes and put behind a desk for the first time in a bunch of years. but -- so it was a real easy trip for us. we just didn't even have to move. >> your journey to get through took you through test pilot school, took you through combat
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experience. >> mm-hmm. >> it took you through everything, didn't it? why was that, that nasa decided to pick test pilots, of all things, to fly the first space mission? >> well, i think that it was an immediate realization that we had essentially a new product. it didn't look very much like an airplane. but if you were going to put a pilot in, it was going to have to fly somehow like an airplane. and that when you have a brand strange new machine, then you go to the test pilots. that's what they were trained to do and that's what they had been doing. now, of course, naca had some test pilots. but they were a little bit older. none of them, i don't think, were in a position where they probably could have competed with the varied background of
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test flying, which most of us had. and so the decision was made, i don't know, they say that eisenhower had something to do with the decision because he said, well, yes, we need a test pilot, he agreed with that, naca, nasa now, didn't have very many test pilots, so let's go to the military and see what they have to offer. now, whether eisenhower himself was involved in the decision, apparently the white house was to some degree. >> the point is, of course, you were named. when first you sized up those teammates of yours, i wonder what your first reactions were to the group. >> well, i wondered first of all where these six incompetent guys came from. seriously, it was not a surprise, because several of
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them had been involved in the preliminary selection process. so i was generally familiar with their background. glenn i had known before, cheraw i had known before because of their navy connections. so i knew there was a lot of talent there. and i knew that it was going to be a tough fight to win the prize. >> it was competitive at that time between the seven of you, wasn't it? >> well, it was an interesting situation. because, as i say, i was friendly with several of them. and on the other hand, realizing that i was now competing with these guys, so there was always a sense of caution, i suppose, particularly talking about technical things. now, in the bar, of course, everything changed. but in talking about technical things, there was always a sense
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of maybe a little bit of reservation, not being totally frank with each other, because this very strong sense of competition. >> you were talking about your teammates. there was competition between the seven of you, wasn't there? >> well, you know, it was an interesting situation, getting together with the seven originals for the first time. and of course, having known some of them before, with the navy connections. but yet all of a sudden realizing that here was competition. there were seven guys competing for the first job, whatever that turned out to be, seven guys going for that one job. so on the one hand there was a sense of friendliness and maybe some support. but on the other hand, hey, i hope the rest of you guys are happy because i'm going to make the first flight. >> you were about to move into a whole new world or a whole new
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nonworld up there in weightless space, of which nothing was known. didn't that frighten you just a little bit? what were your thoughts about moving into a new environment? >> i suspect my thoughts generally reflected those of the other chaps. but with me, i think it had to be the challenge of being able to control a new vehicle in a new environment. this is a generalization, but it's something which i had been doing for many, many years, as a navy pilot, as a carrier pilot. and believe me, it's a lot harder to land a jet on an aircraft carrier than it is to land an lem on the moon, that's a piece of cake, the moon deal.
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here you had, yes, a new environment, lem on the moon, ta piece of cake, the moon deal. here you had, yes, a new environment, but for fighter pilots who fly upside down a lot of the time, zero gravity wasn't that big a deal. now, of course none of us, being nonmedics, had thought about the long term effects of zero gravity. but the short term effects of zero gravity were not the challenge to us. the challenge was to be able to fly an unusual craft and provide good, positive thinking control of that vehicle. >> so unusual a craft that there weren't even any training devices or simulators that could simulate the kind of things you were going to do, you had to make them. >> you know, that's exactly correct. in the early days, we really had what we called part task trainers, instead of simulators. something was built to do -- indicate the control system. something else was built to
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indicate the radio systems or some of the instruments. and they were all sort of separated, not the great glorious simulators which we have today. >> what was role of the astronaut in those devices? >> well, i think that the role of simulators then, today, and tomorrow, has to be, you're dealing with individuals who fly unusual aircraft, who conduct unusual experiments, infrequently, because you don't fly in space every day. so there has to be the simulator, which creates -- artificially creates problems for you to train against or train with to learn how to overcome difficulties you may be having with your experiment, difficulties you may be having with the tail of the shuttle or that sort of thing. so simulators are very, very
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important part of space flight and they're also a very important part of commercial aircraft. unfortunately, some of the companies today, the commuter companies, don't require simulator time, which is surprising to me. i think many of the pilots do it on their own. but simulators really are good, because they create a sense of confidence in oneself. if you go up, and the engine quits, and you land safely, you go up and the rocket goes sideways, you get out and come back home and do it again. so there's a lot of confidence created in the simulation business. >> did you, the astronauts, take an active role in designing the spacecraft yourselves? >> yes, we did. and we tried to do it as efficiently as we could. we assigned -- in the early days, with only seven, we assigned an individual to work
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directly with the contractor. and this was all with nasa's blessing, because the nasa engineers were there as well. but primarily from a pilot's point of view, is this handle in the right place? if you have a switch which you have to use to counteract an emergency, is it reachable, is it visible, or do you have to go behind your back somewhere to find the darn thing? primarily, from a pilot's point of view, was our interface. >> then finally, you wound up being the first man to fly in a mercury spacecraft. did you know that was coming, or was it a surprise? as you describe your steps that led up to it? >> we had been in training for probably 20 months or so, toward the end of -- early '61, we all
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intuitively felt that bob gearoth had to make a decision as to who was going to make the first flight. when we received word that bob wanted to see us at 5:00 in the afternoon one day in our office, sort of felt that perhaps he had decided. there were seven of us then. and in one office. we had seven desks around in the hangar in langley field. bob walked in, closed the door, and was very matter of fact. he said, well, you know, we've got to decide who's going to make the first flight. and i don't want to pinpoint publicly at this stage one individual. within the organization, i want everyone to know that we will designate the first flight and the second flight and a backup
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pilot. but beyond that, we won't make any public decisions. so, he said, shepard gets the first flight. grissom gets the second flight. and glenn is the backup for both of these two suborbital missions. any questions? absolute silence. he said, thank you very much, good luck, turned around, and left the room. well, there i am, looking at six faces looking at me. and feeling of course totally elated that i had won the competition. but yet almost immediately afterwards feeling sorry for my buddies, because there they were, i mean, they were trying just as hard as i was. and it was a very poignant moment because they all came
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over, shook me hand, and pretty soon i was the only guy left in the room. >> that's a priceless story, alan. finally, things progressed to the point where you're getting ready for the flight. if i'm remember correctly, there were some holes dealing with that day on the launch pad. let's go back to that day as you remember it. you're getting ready for mr3 as it was loosely labeled. >> the checkout, the compound had been going very well. glenn was the backup pilot and he had been in on all the preflight stuff. the redstone checked out well. we had virtually no problems at all and we were scheduled for i believe it was the 2nd of may. and i was dressed, just about going out the door, when a tremendous rainstorm,
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thunderstorm came over. obviously they decided to cancel it, which i was pleased they did. it was rescheduled three days later. and of course went through the same routine. the weather was good. and i remember driving down to the launching pad in a van which was capable of providing comfort for us and with the pressure suit on and any last-minute adjustments and temperature devices and so on that had to be made, they were all equipped to do that. the doctor, bill douglas, was in there. we pulled up in front of the launch pad. of course it was dark. the liquid oxygen was venting out from the redstone. searchlights all over the place. and i remember saying to myself, well, i'm not going to see this
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redstone again. and, you know, pilots love to go out and kick the tires. and it was sort of like reaching out and kicking the tires on the redstone. i stopped and looked at it, looked back and up at this beautiful rocket. and, well, okay, buster, let's go and get the job done. so i sort of stopped and kicked the tires, then went on in and on with the countdown. there was a time during the countdown when there was a problem with the inverter in the redstone. gordon cooper was the voice communicator in the blockhouse. so he called and said that the inverter is not working in the redstone and they're going to pull the gantry back in and we're going to change it, it's probably going to take about an hour, hour and a half. i said, well, if that's the
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case, then i would like to get out and relieve myself. we had been working with a device to collect urine during the flight that really worked pretty well in zero gravity but it didn't really work very well when you're lying on your back with your feet up in the air like you were in the redstone. i thought my bladder was getting a little full and if i had some time, i would like to relieve myself. so i said -- i said, would you check and see if i can get out and i can relieve myself quickly while they're fixing the -- and he came back, i guess there was some discussions going on outside, it took about three or four minutes, they finally came back and said, no, braun said "the astronaut will stay in the nose cone." i said, all right, that's fine, but i'm going to go to the bathroom. they said, well, you can't do
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that because you've got wires all over your body, short-circuit. i said, don't you guys have a switch to turn off those wires? they said, yes. i said, please turn the switch off. well, i relieved myself, and of course with the cotton undergarment which we had on, it soaked up immediately in the undergarment. and with 100% oxygen flowing through the spacecraft, i was totally dry by the time we launched. but somebody did say something about being in the world's first wetback in space. >> at that time, the whole game was totally competitive, not alone among the seven astronauts, but you were in a race for space with the russians. >> mm-hmm. >> and they kind of beat you to the punch, didn't they? i'm thinking of yuri gregarin when i say that. >> that little race between
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gregarin and me was really, really close. obviously their objectives, their capabilities for orbital flight were greater than ours that particular point. we eventually caught up and went passed them. as you point out, it was the cold war. there was a competition. we had flown a chimpanzee called ham in a redstone mercury combination. and everything had worked perfectly except there was a relay which at the end of the powered flight was supposed to eject the escape tower, because it was no longer needed, separate it from the mercury capsule, and eject it. for some reason, with ham's flight, it fired but it did not separate itself. so the chimp was lifted to another 10 to 15 miles in
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altitude, another 20 to 30 miles in range. there was absolutely nothing wrong with -- anything else wrong with the mission. so our recommendation strongly was, okay, let's put shepard in the next one, everything worked fine. so the thing happens again. no big deal, shepard goes a little higher. werner said no, we want everything absolutely right. so we flew another unmanned mission before gregarin flew, then his flight, and then mine. so it was really touch and go there. if we had put me in that unmanned mission we would have actually flown first. but it was -- it was tight. >> in retrospect, it doesn't seem that important, but at the time i guess it was. >> oh, very important, absolutely. absolutely. >> how important was it? did you say anything publicly or did you just nurse your wounds and get ready to fly again?
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>> oh, no, as you know, we had a lot of differences of opinion about things in the program. not only the design, but some of the scheduling. most of that was kept pretty quiet. most of it was resolved. and very little -- very little that have came out in public. it was always, you know, sort of a joint decision. >> then, as time went on, you started lobbying for another flight in mercury. but mercury was cut a little short because there was the pressure of something else. >> you are not surprised that i wanted to fly again, are you? >> not at all. >> mr. neal. >> not at all, mr. shepard. >> no, as a matter of fact we had -- after cooper finished his
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day and a half orbital mission, there was another spacecraft ready to go. and my thought was to put me up there and just let me stay until something ran out, until the batteries ran down or until the oxygen ran out or 'til we lost the control system or something, then just sort of open-ended kind of a mission. and so i recommended that. and they said that they didn't expect to hear anything else from me. but i remember when cooper and his family and the other astronauts and families were invited to the white house for cocktails with jack kennedy, we stopped at jim webb's house first and had a little warm-up
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there. and i was politicking with webb, and i said, you know, mr. webb, we could put this baby up there in just a matter of a few weeks, i mean, it's all ready to go, we have the rockets. and just let me sit up there, you know, see how long it will last, get another record out of it. well, he said, no, i don't -- he said, i really don't think so, i think we've got to get on with gemini. i said, i'm going to see the president in a little while, do you mind if i mention it to him? he said, no, but you tell him my side of the story too. so i said all right. so we get over there and we're all sipping our booze, get some of our taxpayer money back, drinking at the white house. and i get kennedy aside and i said, there's possibility we can make another long duration mercury flight, maybe two or maybe three days, and we would
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like to do that. he said, what does mr. webb think about it? i said, webb doesn't want to do it. he said, well, i think i'll have go along with mr. webb. >> made you realize the power behind the throne. >> at least i tried. >> yeah. so instead, you started then getting ready to fly in gemini, another whole new ball game. >> yeah. yes, it was very fortunate, of course, that i was chosen to make the first gemini mission. tom stafford, who is a very bright young guy, was assigned as co-pilot. and we were already into the mission, already training for the mission. we had been in the simulators, as a matter of fact, several different times. i'm not sure whether we looked at the hardware in st. louis or
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not, prior to the problem which i had. the problem i had was a disease called menuire's, due to fluid pressure in the ear. they tell me it happens in people who are type "a," hyper, driven, whatever. unfortunately what happens is it causes a lack of balance. it causes dizziness, in some cases nausea as a result of all of this disorientation going on up there in the ear. fortunately it's unilateral, it was only happening to me on the left side. but it was so obvious that nasa grounded me right away. and they assigned another crew for the first gemini flight.
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so there i was, what do i do now? do i go back to the navy? do i stick around with the space program? what do i do? i finally decided that i would stay with nasa and see if there wasn't some way that we could correct this ear problem. several years went by. there was some medication which alleviated it. but i still couldn't fly solo. can you imagine, the world's greatest test pilot has to have some young guy in the back flying along with you? i mean, talk about embarrassing situations. but as a matter of fact, it was stafford, it was tom stafford who came to me, said he had a
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friend in los angeles who was experimenting with correcting this meunier's problem surgically. i said, great, i'll go see him. i set it up, i went on out there. the fellow said, yeah, we do, what we do is make a little opening there and put a tube in so that it enlarges the chamber that takes that fluid pressure and in some cases it's worked. and i said, well, what if it doesn't work? he said, well, you won't be any worse off than you are, except you might lose your hearing, but other than that. so i went out there under an assumed name. >> what was the name? >> oh, it was polis, i think, victor polis. and the doctor knew and the nurse knew but nobody else knew. so victor polis checks in, they
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run the operation, they runt surgery. it's not that traumatic, obviously, because after about a day i was out of there. of course it was obvious when you look at the big ball of stuff over my ear when i got back home. but nasa started looking at me, several months, several months, several months went by, and finally said, yes, all the tests show that you no longer are affected by this meunier's disease. so there i was, having made the right decision. >> i think we better backtrack a little because obviously this is going to bring you into direct discussion about a fellow named deke slayton. we haven't established the fact that deke, like you, was knocked out of flying. let's go back over that, because that happened in the mercury days when deke was getting ready to fly. >> deke had already been
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assigned to follow john. >> right. and suddenly he got bumped from his mercury flight. that was a heart condition, wasn't it? >> yeah. there was a lot of controversy about that, because it was a heart murmur or a palpitation, some irregularity. but one which was not obvious. i mean, it was not a continuous kind of thing. it was not as if he was getting ready for cardiac arrest or anything like that. it was just occasionally he would have a little twitch down there. >> but a real blow. i wonder what your reaction was to it at the time and if you can give us a little background on it. >> well, back in those days, as we have discussed before, we were still highly competitive. there were still seven guys going for whatever flight was available next.
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and slayton had been chosen to make the second orbital mission after glenn when he had this heart murmur. as i say, it wasn't anything real noticeable. it was continuous. it showed up once in a while. but it made the medics very nervous. and even after fairly exhaustive tests showed that it was not repetitive to the point where it would have interfered with the mission, there was a sense of, well, we just can't take a chance on anything, on the hardware or the astronauts. so he was grounded, flat grounded. and at that point the feeling of competitiveness with deke turned into one of camaraderie, one of feeling sorry for him, a sense of, you know, well, let's get
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you back on the schedule, old buddy, somehow, because you really felt sorry for him at that point, because he no longer was competitive. but on the other hand, to have a guy in that position, in knowing how tough that could be to him. so he was grounded. obviously the benefit for us was to have somebody -- some one of us who could immediately become a spokesman, because he had decided to stay on. i think he had resigned his air force reserve at that point, i'm not sure. but i think so. anyway, somebody who could speak for the group and not, you know, have to worry about some of the ins and outs of training. so there was an obvious
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advantage having him as a leader and as a spokesman of the group. >> and so he became, what, chief of the astronaut office? what was his title? >> i think yes, chief of the astronaut office. >> that was a job that eventually you wound up with, by title. >> yeah, things were changed around, of course. >> once you went into gemini, all of a sudden there were two of the seven that had been grounded, deke and al, what a team. how did it come about that you wound up becoming chief of the astronaut office while deke by this time had assumed quite some power as head of astronaut affairs? >> well, as i indicated earlier, i decided to fight this many years to stay with nasa. and during the time period when i was grounded, i could become very, very useful in the
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astronaut training business. and i suppose that we really had grown, if you consider the number of chaps that were involved in the simulators, for example, in the suiting procedures, taking care of the suits and so on, direct supporting facilities for the astronauts, there were really quite a number of people involved. so they decided to make it a separate division. deke was the head of that decision and i was given the job specifically of the care and feeding of these astronauts, in charge of their training, helping deke with crew assignments, that sort of thing. >> was it deke primarily that got you the job or was it just the fact that you had all the qualifications? how did that work? >> well, i think it was just --
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it was just a matter of saying what do we need. when i became grounded and informed nasa i was going to stay there, then we had two guys that really could have -- either one of us could have done the job. one little difference, i think, perhaps, that i knew i was going to somehow -- something was going to happen soon with me, i was either going to get the ear fixed or i was gone. with deke, i think that he was more or less resigned at that stage to the heart murmur business. the medics would keep giving him a bad time about that. i think it was really that deke was probably more of a long term commitment than in my particular
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case. so i think that's really why -- and we talked it over with craft and gearoth and they sort of agreed that was >> you two had quite a reputation for running a tight ship. >> of course, deke and i were both mad because we were grounded. we'd both been training as astronauts. we knew where every skeleton was in the whole process, and we just wouldn't let those guys get away with anything. i mean, we knew what they had to do and we knew how they had to do it, and if they weren't doing it, we would bring them in and tell them about it. maybe i was a little more forceful than i would have been normally, because being grounded. i believed they called me the
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icy commander or some friendly term like that. >> steely eyed? >> oh, yeah. we knew where all the skeletons were. >> and knowing that, in a very peculiar way, from a nasa point of view, perhaps it was for the betterment of the space program that you and deke both were doing what you were doing at the time you were doing it. did you ever think of that? >> well, i think certainly there was a need for coordination. there was need for representation at executive level. other chaps could have done the job perhaps equally as well or perhaps even better. but it seemed like -- it seemed like we turned out some pretty good crew. >> i don't think anybody could fault the selection of crew, alan, all the way through the "gemini" program and all the way to "apollo," and it was the time
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of "apollo" by which time you had finally located through stafford's ministrations as you described earlier, a way to treat the meniere's syndrome in los angeles, and suddenly the skies opened again for alan shepherd. or did they? you had to get back into the program, didn't you? >> well, of course, when nasa finally said i could fly again, i went to deke and said, we have not announced publicly the crew assignment for "apollo 13." i have a recommendation to make. and i had picked two bright young guys, one of them a ph.d. and one of them a heck of a lot smarter than i was. and made up the team to go to -- for an "apollo" flight. and i said, i would like to
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recommend that i get "apollo 13" with stu russo as command module and ed mitchell as lunar pilot. deke said, i don't know. let's try it out. so, we sent it to washington. and they said, oh, no way. wait a minute now, shepard has to be at least as smart as the rest of these guys, maybe a little smarter. and they said, yeah, we know that, but it's a real public relations problem. here this guy had just gotten ungrounded and all of a sudden, boom, he gets premiere flight assignment. so, the discussion went on for several days and finally said, all right, we'll make a deal. we'll let shepard have "apollo 14." give us another crew for "apollo 13." and so that's what happened. >> oh, and did it ever, because suddenly "apollo 13" on its way to the moon ran into huge
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problems. i wonder what you thought when the problem developed and what did you do during that time period. >> well, of course, the immediate thought was how do we get these guys back. obviously right from the start, it was the end of a landing mission. no question about that. but it was -- it was interesting to see the entire system, the entire system, being flushed out, being made to come back with any kind of a recommendation. of course, kraft and gene kranz were the guys that held everybody together on this thing. and said, look, we've got to find a way to bring these boys back. failure is not an option. and as you well know, the whole
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system was vibrating. any corner of the manufacturing processes, the vendoring processes, nasa's people, everybody was working toward a solution for this problem. as it turned out, there was more than one solution. i mean, there were several different areas of engineering had to be addressed and corrected. and i think that it's probably nasa's finest hour, when you think about it. i think that certainly from a pilot's point of view, it was just as an important event as stepping on the moon on "apollo 11." >> you had the next flight. did you approach it with fear,
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trepidation, or did you approach it with the knowledge that you probably were going to make a pretty good flight out of it thanks to what had been learned from "apollo 13." which way was it? >> well, i think that people have -- i know people have expressed the opinion that it might have been a little bit more dangerous to fly on "apollo 14" than it would have been had there not been "apollo 13." but recognized that almost a total redesign had to be done. well, not necessarily redesign, but a total reassessment of the package had to be done, to find out specifically why the thing blew and to fix that, to look for similar situations throughout the service module. but, again, to reassess the
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whole scheme of things. you know, in missions like that, when you're in basic research, there are always decisions along the way that, well, maybe we should fix this particular piece of equipment because the chances it might fail are 1 out of 100. on the other hand, it's only a small part of a huge process scheduled to go at a certain time, and if this fails, we have the crew to back up. there's always these little decisions to be made. so, obviously part of the assessment process of "apollo 13" had to be to go over those decisions again. now did we have the time to make some corrections of these 1 in
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100 chants -- chances of failure? and, of course, several were made in addition to the corrections of the basic problem. so, it's a feeling of security, and we obviously were part of the process. >> by that time, too, i had forgotten, you had been through the trauma of "apollo 1." and the fire and the redesign of that occasion. let's go back over that for a moment or two. >> talk about feelings. >> because that must have been a tough one. >> of course, "apollo 1" came as a real shock, no question about it. it came as a shock because it was unexpected. and i'll get into the reasons for it being unexpected a little bit later. but to lose a crew in a ground test, i mean, they're still sitting there on the ground. to lose a crew really woke everybody up. and that was important. because all of us, every single
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one of us -- and deke and i discussed this, unfortunately, after the fact. but we were part of a group that had gone through "mercury," had gone through "gemini," manned, we're leading, we're beating the russians, you know, nothing can go wrong. and it had led to a sense of false security, no question about it. deke and i remember talking about it. gus would come back and he had a complaint about this. he said this is the worst spacecraft i've ever seen, complained about that, and, of course, he was complaining to engineers as well as to deke and to me, but deke and i insidiously became part of the problem because we said, okay, gus, go ahead, make a list of this stuff, and we'll see that it's fixed by the time you fly.
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not that we'll see that it's fixed before they stick you back in there for a test where you're using 100% oxygen. see, there was that sense of security, sense of complacency that everyone has, including myself and including deke. i think some people felt that sense of responsibility, neglect, bad decisions more than others, more personally affected by it more than others. but i don't believe more than just a few hardheads that didn't feel in the long run that they were part of the problem. >> as it worked out, perhaps
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because of "apollo 1," "apollo" went on to be a hugely successful series of flights. >> oh, yeah. i don't think there's any
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and he said, in his damn yankee accent, here, shepard, i give you this medal that comes from the ground up. jackie is sitting there, she's mortified. originally louise and i were supposed to go to the ceremony and then leave town. jack said, no, i want you to come back here and let's talk about your flight. so we had the reception from the
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hill go back to the oval office with the heads of nasa there and the heads of the government. jack, of course, was there, lyndon johnson was there. there is a picture of me sitting on the sofa, jack is in the rocking chair, and i'm telling him how i was flying the spacecraft, and he's leaning forward listening intently to this thing. we talked about the details of the flight, specifically how man had responded and reacted to being able to work in the space environment. and toward the end of the conversation, he said to the nasa people, what are we doing next? what are our plans? and they said, well, there were a couple of guys over in the corner talking about maybe going to the moon. he said, i want a briefing. just three weeks after that mission, 15 minutes of space, is when kennedy made his
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announcement. folks, we are going to the moon, and we're going to do it within this decade. after 15 minutes of space time. now, you don't think he was excited? you don't think he was a space cadet? absolutely. absolutely. people say, well, he made the announcement because he had problems with the bay of pigs, his popularity was going down. not true. not true. when glenn finished his mission, glenn, grissom and i flew with jack back from west palm to washington for glenn's ceremony, the four of us sat in his cabin, and we talked about what gus had done, we talked about what john had done, we talked about what i had done, all the way back. people would come in with papers to be signed, he said, don't worry, we'll get those when we get back to washington. the entire flight. i tell you, he was really, really a space cadet, and it's too bad he could not have lived
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to see his promise. >> when he first made that announcement, what was your personal reaction? >> oh, we were delighted. we were delighted. but there was a little bit of a gulp in there because -- because he put -- he put a time cap on the deal. and i don't think that any of us thought that we would be able to make it within -- that was 1961. within 8 1/2 years. but anyway, delighted, but a little bit of, well, maybe -- maybe the president is a little enthusiastic. >> well, we finally got up to that point where we were into "apollo," and what was your choice, you and deke, what was your best bet as to which would
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be the first flight to make a manned landing on the moon? >> well, i suppose that we felt that the schedule as it was laid out after we rescheduled the "apollo 8" mission, we felt that missions 9 and 10 adequately demonstrated the lunar module's capabilities, that we really deep down inside felt that we could make it. we could have very good possibility of making it on the first try. >> and, of course, you did. >> of course, we did. >> and then along came 14. we were just along about at that point when we changed tapes a while back. because now you had picked your team. you had sweat out "apollo 13," and you were ready to fly. must have been a big moment when you were ready, waiting for takeoff.
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>> well, i think that -- in retrospect, the obvious advantage here was that "apollo 13" gave us more time to train, no question about it. not that we would not have had enough, but it gave us a little higher level of comfort with that extra training time. i think obviously the changes to the spacecraft were good ones. not only the changes which related directly to the explosion, but others that were made as well. there was a lot of confidence. as i said -- as i said, i picked a couple of bright guys to go along with me, and there was really a lot of confidence.
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gene cernen, of course, was my backup. the funny story about cernen. we were at the point, i think we were approximately four or five days away from liftoff, scheduled liftoff. we were all in quarantine, of course, on the cape. at that time we had to do 21 days before, 21 days after routine, because of the bug stuff. and cernen was out early in the morning flying helicopter. because we all -- the commanders used helicopters to train. and, you know, the last few hundred feet of the landing. so, we're having breakfast, and we knew gene was out flying helicopter. all of a sudden, the door opens, and in walks cernen. he is absolutely covered with soot. he's got scars on his face. we said, cernen, what happened?
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he had been flying the helicopter over the river which was absolutely calm that early in the morning, like a mirror, and he had been distracted by something or other, because he was looking at the land instead of the water, and he flew that helicopter right into the water. nosed over, blades all over the place, tail, rotor blades all over the place. fire because the tanks -- the gas tanks, or saddle tanks on that dinky little chopper, they split. and there was fuel all over the place. cernen is going down like this. and, of course, being a good navy-trained pilot, he knew how to cope with, you know, being under water, so he got out and he swam to the top and realized he was in fire, so he splashed around like this and took a deep
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breath and swam a while and came up and splashed around some more and swam a while. finally got out of the smoke and flames and all that stuff. somebody -- somebody had seen the crash obviously and, of course, the banana river, you know, isn't that big a deal. but he came on the shore. came out, and there he was. and just totally bedraggled, so he looks at me as my backup pilot and said, okay, shepard, you win, you get to go. >> alan, you're now on the moon. you've gotten there on "apollo 14." and i wonder what the feelings were and -- >> you got to let me tell the story about how i got there? >> oh, yes, of course. >> well, actually, the flight had gone extremely well. we had one or two problems. docking problem earlier. a problem with the -- something floating around in the abort
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switch, which closed, made as if we were pushing the abort switch closed. all of these were taken care of. now we're on the way down, flying up on our backs like this with the engine pointing that way. slowing down and getting gradually more steeper and more steeper. we had a ruling that the computer had to be updated by the landing radar. the reason being is that while you're on your back, obviously you can't see the ground, you can't see the mountains, you can't see the rocks or anything. so, we had a rule that said if the landing radar is not updating the computer by the time you're down at a level of about 13,000 feet, then you have to abort. you have to get out of there. well, the landing radar wasn't working. and so they called us up and said your landing radar is not working. we said, thank you very much, we're aware of that. and a little bit further on they
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said you know what the ground rule is about aborting if you're not at 13,000 feet. well, yeah, we knew that. finally some bright young man over in the corner said, hey, the landing radar is working, but it's locked up on infinity. have them pull the switch, reset it, see if it works. so, we pulled the circuit breaker, put it back in, and sure enough, the landing radar came in. shortly after that we got cleared to land, and it's sort of a, man, that was close kind of routine. as soon as we pitched over, there was beautiful picture just the way i had seen it hundreds of times from the scale model. came on down. made a very, very soft landing. as a matter of fact, soft enough so that even though we landed on a slight crater like this, the uphill leg didn't crush like it's supposed to. we had crushable material on the landing.
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so, you know, it was slight right wing down. perfect landing. shutting off the switches, and ed mitchell turned to me and said, alan, what were you going to do if the landing radar had not been working by 13,000 feet? i looked at him and i said, ed, you'll never know. >> well, there you were -- >> i would have gone down. >> of course. >> oh, yeah. i'd come that far. you see, ed, for example, had not been in the simulator, landing simulator at all. it was my job to land. and i'd done hundreds of these things, i knew if i could see the surface, man, i could get down. maybe not exactly where we were supposed to, but i could get down close to it, and -- >> and so you would have made the landing under any circumstances. you would have busted the rules. >> i would have at least -- at least been able to take a visual look. i would have pitched over and
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taken a visual look and then made a decision. >> fair enough. well, we finally have you on the moon. mission accomplished, or was it? tell me about what you and ed did on the moon, as you remembered it. what were the highlights? >> well, it's -- of course, the first feeling was one of a tremendous sense of accomplishment, i guess, if you will. tremendous sense of realizing that, hey, not too long ago i was grounded. now i'm on the moon. there was that -- there was that sense of self-satisfaction you think immediately. but then that went away, because we had a lot of work to do.
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but i'll never forget that moment. another moment which i will never forget is after ed followed me down and we had set up some of our equipment, taken the emergency samples. we had a few moments to look around. to look up in the black sky, totally black sky, even though the sun is shining on the surface, it's not reflected, there's no diffusion, no reflection, totally black sky, and seeing another planet, planet earth. planet earth is only four times as large as the moon. so, you can really still put your thumb and your forefinger around it at that distance. so, it makes it look beautiful. it makes it look lonely. it makes it look fragile. you think to yourself, just
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imagine the millions of people are living on that planet and don't realize how fragile it is. i think this is a feeling everyone has had and expressed it in one fashion or another. but that was an overwhelming feeling, in seeing the beauty of the planet on the one hand, but the fragility of it on the other. >> being alan shepard, of course, shortly after that golden moment, you decided you'd play a little golf. >> i didn't decide to play a little golf. oh. that is a long story. i will not tell the whole story. >> tell us what you think might be all right. because it is a very famous story, and i'm sure a lot of people would like to hear your version. >> well, as you know, so far i'm
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the only person to have hit a golf ball on the moon. probably will be for some time. and being a golfer, i was intrigued before the flight by the fact that the ball with the same club head speed will go six times as far. it will -- its time of flight, i won't say stay in the air, because there's no air. its time of flight will be at least six times as long. it will not curve, because there's no atmosphere to make it slice. or hook. i thought, what a neat place to hit a golf ball. when i went to bob gilruth to tell him i wanted to hit a couple of golf balls. of course, absolutely no way. and there was a series when i explained that it was not a
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handle that we used that we pulled out, put a scoop on the end and scoop up samples of dust with. and that was already up there, would be thrown away. then we had a club head which i had adapted to snap on this handle and two golf balls for which i paid, two golf balls and the club, at no expense to the taxpayer, okay? the thing that finally convinced bob was, i said, boss, i'll make a deal with you. if we have screwed up, if we have had equipment failure, anything has gone wrong on the surface where you are embarrassed or we are embarrassed, i will not do it. i will not be so frivolous. i want to wait until the very end of the mission, stand in front of the television camera, whack these golf balls with this makeshift club, pull it up, stick in my pocket, climb up the ladder, close the door and we're
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gone. so, he finally said okay. and that's the way it happened. >> in full view of a huge worldwide audience, of millions of people, who have never forgotten to this day, alan shepard still is perhaps best known as the guy who played golf on the moon. >> well, it was designed to be a fun thing. fortunately it is still a fun thing. the club, the makeshift club, is with the u.s. golf association in their museum. there has been absolutely no commercialism tried -- well, there's been absolutely no commercialism. one company tried to say it was their golf ball, and we cut them off very quickly. so, it's been just a totally fun thing. >> and still is, yeah. now some general questions, if we may, i guess we have to get you home.
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because you've played golf, now you pulled up the hatch and you came back. and after that it wasn't too long thereafter that you finally decided you'd completed your run with nasa. you moved on to other fields. >> well, as you recall, of course, the only scheduled missions were the skylab missions. the crews were already assigned. the soviets' crews were already assigned, so it was going to be a long -- >> deke finally got his shot at it. >> we were so pleased. we were so pleased, bless his heart. can you imagine having to learn to speak russian to be able to go into space? that's above and beyond the call of duty. but he did it. i'm not sure the russians understood him, but he did it. we were really so pleased and so happy for him. >> i'm remembering you were with me on television, because you were doing a job as a consultant
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on-the-air talent when the landing was accomplished and we were thinking, my, deke, they all look great. brand and stafford, they all look great. little did we know they'd been dosed with nitric acid, was it? remember after the fact that they thought they had inhaled something or another, maybe some vapors from the ejection system, and they were in kind of bad shape for a short while. >> i'd forgotten whether there was a leak or what happened on that deal. we'd have to look that up. >> we'll look that up, we'll forget it now, because obviously it's unimportant. it's their flight. their stuff. anyway, okay, general thoughts, then. john glenn is about to fly again. you and he are pretty close to the same age. i wonder what your thoughts are about john flying. >> well, john's a couple of years older than i am.
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i believe he's 77. but i'd been saying for years that the taxpayers didn't get their money's worth out of glenn because he made one flight and immediately went into the congress. and as a taxpayer, i objected to that. i've been telling john this for years and years. i called him up the other day after the announcement, and i said, john, i'm glad that you're going to give me one more flight for my tax dollars. i think it's good, quite frankly. obviously there are a lot of things about how weightlessness treats individuals and the person's reaction to weightlessness is a function of the amount of exercise or lack thereof, general physical conditioning and the kind of things that one really needs to know if you're going to be on a long-term mission.
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the more you find out, the better shape you'll be in. so, he's a good data point. he thinks he's in pretty good shape, and he probably is, but his bones are still more brittle obviously, and i'm sure that there will be some lessons learned, even during that short period of time. looking at his general physical conditioning. before and after. i think -- you know, i think it's a good thing. i think we'll learn something from it. >> you think you'd like to fly again? >> oh, of course, i would. of course, i would. unfortunately i'm not in top health at the moment. >> well, that's just a subject of time. >> yeah. >> you've talked some here about nasa managers, but i'd kind of like to run down a little bit,
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get some evaluations from you about some of the people we've been talking about. for example, jim webb. >> well, you know, it was interesting, being involved with the old naca and then the nasa during the formation period, because naca obviously was a group of engineers basically. they didn't have a political-type administrator. but when webb came along, i mean, what a fresh breath he was. he knew all the ins and outs of washington. he knew which chords to play. and not that he was a lobbyist by any sense of the imagination, he didn't have to be. he had a great package, men in space. and he played it well. he really did. he did us a great favor.
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certainly responding so quickly and so rapidly to kennedy's really surprising decision to go to the moon. he did a good job. jim did a good job. but as i said before, you know, he came to him with a technical request. got turned down. so at least, you know, he had some engineering knowledge there somewhere. >> well, speaking of engineering knowledge, let's take bob gilruth. i. >> i liked bob, i really did.>>. because bob had been in the aviation business forever, and being right there at langley, seeing him, not every day, but seeing him frequently, and talking to people who had been with him in the old naca days
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and what he had done, he's just a remarkable, remarkable gentleman. and i think that he was really sort of a hands-on kind of guy, too. i obviously appreciate his decision to let me make the first flight. but he never told me why he made that decision the way he did. i've asked him several times over the years, and he's always said, well, you were just the right man at the right time. but i'm sure that he was very personally involved in that selection process. there were some suggestions from some of the other folks in the program that maybe he had made a mistake in the decision, that
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there might have been someone else who qualified better. but he did not change his mind. so, he's one of my heroes. >> how about chris kraft? >> i like chris. i like chris. you know, it -- i guess we were really closer in the early days when he was the flight director, we were all in that little building down there at the cape. and i think i felt perhaps closer to him then, but you could see the decision-making process that he went through. and you knew that he was not making any sloppy decisions, that they'd been very well thought through. >> george lopes?
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>> i didn't really know george that well. never really worked directly with him. as you know, that particular stage in the game, george came along later. and actually, deke worked with him more than i did. >> how about wernor von braun? >> he was an interesting guy. we never were together very much. by i do remember as i'm sure the rest of the original seven, we had dinner at his house one night with him and everhart reis and we went to a little hillside where they built their own observatory, and we took a look at the moon through a telescope. here you are with a great rocket scientist and he's showing you what the moon looks like from a telescope. >> you know, it seems strange, but to the public at large, bob gilruth was lost in limbo and wernor von braun stands in line as one of the prime movers. i wonder what your evaluation
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would be to that? >> i think that's true. i think that his entire life had been and was dedicated to aviation and space. and he basically was an engineer. i think that perhaps von braun obviously was an engineer, but i think von braun had been involved in political aspects over in germany, where maybe it was a matter of survival. and i think he dealt with the public more easily than gilruth did. it came more naturally to him. and as a result i think that in the final analysis, the general public knew more about von braun
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than they did about gilruth. but those of us on the inside, particularly the manned space aspect of it, i think owe a lot more to gilruth than we do to wernor. >> i think part of it was that wernor was a salesman of ideas. he was out selling the concept of the lunar mission? >> i think so. i think he almost felt that he had to. maybe -- maybe he felt the same way we did. yes, it was a great idea. but he might have been concerned a little bit with the pressure of the schedule. that may have been the reason. i don't know. >> here's one that comes right out of the gang at houston. what are some of the worst things that happened after your selection as an astronaut? what are some of the worst
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things that happened? >> the worst things? oh, well, obviously -- and this was not a fault of the system. but obviously being grounded was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. >> when you were running the astronaut office, what was the most difficult thing that you ran into there? do you remember anything being as particularly difficult during that time in office? >> i think that -- let me say that while i was head of the astronaut office, that it was my responsibility the care and feeding of very enthusiastic, very intelligent, very dedicated, motivated bunch of guys.
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there were jealousies in the ranks, people being jealous of so and so, particularly being chosen for flight or backup position or support group position, and there were instances where really harsh discussions were taken. and so to straighten things out i said, look, deke and i are running this program and this is the way it's going to be run and we're sorry but eventually you'll be treated fairly. there were some that still feel they weren't but a small percentage, hopefully. >> looking back on it what do you think now of the "life"
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magazine contract -- good, bad, or indifferent? you don't have to answer that one if you don't choose to. >> well, i don't know. with respect to the contract we had with "life" magazine, i think there's a little ambivalence there. first, it was attractive to us because it provided controlled access to the press, especially on personal things, personal relationships within, within
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the household, personal feelings, the wives, how did you feel about your husband going into space and that sort of thing. none of us had been involved in any of that sort of publicity or recognition before, and in the early days it got to be a little bothersome, quite frankly. so this -- i think at the start it appeared to be a way to get around -- around that. and so it was -- it seemed to be welcomed from that point of view. but then the criticism came about the amount of money involved and so i think all in all we came out about even. half the people thought it was a good deal and half the people thought it was a bad deal. >> i think somebody in houston is looking for information with this next one. would you change any of nasa's current practices in selecting, training, and assigning space crews?
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>> well, you know, that's a very difficult question for me to answer because i'm not involved in the process anymore. i think one has to look at the flights which are being made, at the performance of the crews. the number of delays because of mechanical problems and that sort of thing and using these criteria i would say they're running a good ship. i would say they're running a successful program. there have been obviously no areas which have resulted in loss of life. they have used the crew to control many, correct many problems, remarkable repair of the hubbell telescope.
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of course, that was some years ago but these are the kind of things which indicate to me they're doing a pretty good job. >> i'm thinking now i can't remember a single case of disaster occasioned by pilot error, which speaks well for the group doesn't it? >> yes. >> of course now they're into the broad gamut of flight crews, women, scientists, pay load specialists. >> when you consider the fact you're still -- well i suppose if you say you're still doing basic research into the operation of the shuttle as a shell, as a vehicle, that's probably not true anymore. you've probably reached the operational stage or pretty close to it. >> yeah. recently i guess it was the "columbia" flew its 26th mission if i remember correctly for one
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spacecraft. a remarkable circumstance. >> so i guess you could say they're operational but, still, it's a remarkable record. >> i've asked an awful lot of questions both from my own point of view and those in houston. seems to me it's high time we let you say anything that you'd like if there's something we haven't asked that should have been asked so if so, go ahead. >> chris, it's been a great part of my life to be involved in the space program and even before that as a navy test pilot, had some real, really exciting, satisfying jobs. but i guess i would have to say that it has been a distinct pleasure to be involved in the
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space program specifically and being allowed to make a couple of really recognizable, spectacular, lucky missions. i think the thing that impressed -- has impressed me the most about the whole nasa process is that it has worked so well over the years. when you take a look at a group of civilian engineers and scientists that have to work with contractors who are paid and work with somebody else,
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that also has to work with the military, because you've got military involved, and that things have really turned out remarkably well. now, there have been some heated discussions between the advantages of manned space flight and unmanned space flight because there are parts of nasa as you know totally dedicated to unmanned space flight. there have been some noted discussions and differences of opinion between the engineers on space flight who would like to automate everything, leave the pilots out of there. you know, in the final analysis, i can't remember any of these decisions that were made with an absolute heart over judgment. it seems to me there always has been and still are discussions
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going on to get the best possible answer. when you take a look at the nasa organization, 1958-1959, nobody would have thought what it has done over the years. nobody would have thought that the computers, which took us to the moon and back were the forerunners of today's chips and today's technology because of the money and effort that nasa spent back in the '60s. sure, we would have computers, no question about it. but we wouldn't have advanced. we wouldn't be at the position we are today without that tremendous impetus that nasa had in making the computers. satellites, incredible
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data information flowing back and forth from satellites all springing from the nasa organization. it's remarkable what the organization has done and is still doing. it's just a great process. >> let the record show that that commercial was totally unsolicited. that was alan shepard's own thought. i'm just making that for the record. >> you didn't have to apologize. >> i'm not apologizing. i'm making sure that somebody watching this knows very well that that was pure alan shepard and not roy neil instigating a thought or two or nasa instigating a thought or two. >> they wouldn't accuse you of that, roy. >> no, but this is a nasa tape that we're making. >> i know. >> i want to make sure the people watching it know that came out of the blue and was pure you. that's all. >> well, it's the truth. >> alan, thank you very much. it's been a real pleasure. >> you think you got enough, huh?
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>> well, if we don't, we'll let the powers that be tell us we ought to come back and do it again sometime. >> okay. all right. next, on american history tv, alan shepard talks about his days in the early space program and his career. as the "apollo 15" commander, he was the first astronaut on the moon. this interview is part of the nasa johnson space center's oral history collection. c-span is your unsolicited view, brought to you by cox.
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did you know that all of c-span's programs can be watched online? go to the history and type the show you would like in the search box. all available online at c-span.org/history. susan molinari served as a republican congresswoman from new york. the u.s. house of representatives office of the historian conducted this

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