Even Shorty Powers became famous. "The voice of Mercury Control," he was called; that, and "the eighth astronaut." Powers was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, a onetime bomber pilot, and all during Shepard's flight he had come on the air from the flight control center at the Cape saying, "This is Mercury Control…" and reporting the astronaut's progress with a baritone coolness of the combat pilot's righteous sort, and people loved it. After the capsule splashed down, Powers had quoted, or seemed to have quoted, Shepard as saying everything was "A-Okay." In fact, this was a Shorty Powers paraphrase borrowed from NASA engineers who used to say it during radio transmission tests because the sharper sound of A cut through the static better than O. Nevertheless, "A-Okay" became shorthand for Shepard's triumph over the odds and for astronaut coolness under stress, and Shorty Powers was looked up to as the medium who communicated across the gulf between ordinary people and star voyagers with the right stuff.
Bob Gilruth's status rose sharply, too. After a solid year of flak and grief, Gilruth had finally earned the eminence of riding in one of the limousines in Shepard's triumphal motorcade through Washington. James E. Webb was sitting next to him, and they were looking out at the thousands of people who were smiling and crying and waving and cheering and taking pictures. "If it hadn't worked," said Webb, "they'd be asking for your head." As it was, Gilruth and Mercury and NASA were, all at once, names that stood for American technological competence. (Our boys no longer botch it and our rockets don't blow up.)
None of this was lost on the President. His opinion of NASA had now swung around 180 degrees. Webb was aware of that. Three weeks before, after Gagarin's flight, when Kennedy had summoned Webb and Dryden to the White House, the President had been in a funk. He was convinced that the entire world was judging the United States and his leadership in terms of the space race with the Soviets. He was muttering, "If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let's find somebody—anybody… There's nothing more important." He kept saying, "We've got to catch up." Catching up became an obsession. Finally, Dryden told him that it looked hopeless to try to catch up with the mighty Integral in anything that involved flights in earth orbit. The one possibility was to start a program to put a man on the moon within the next ten years. It would require a crash effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project of the Second World War and would cost anywhere from twenty to forty billion dollars. Kennedy found the figure appalling. Less than a week later, of course, the Bay of Pigs debacle had occurred, and now his "new frontier" looked more like a retreat on all fronts. Shepard's successful flight was the first hopeful note Kennedy had enjoyed since then. For the first time he had some confidence in NASA. And the tremendous public response to Shepard as the patriotic daredevil, challenging the Soviets in the heavens, gave Kennedy an inspiration.
One morning Kennedy asked Dryden, Webb, and Gilruth to come to the White House. They sat down in the Oval Office, and Kennedy said: "All over the world we're judged by how well we do in space. Therefore, we've got to be first. That's all there is to it." After this buildup Gilruth figured Kennedy was going to tell them to cut the Redstone suborbital flights short and move straight to the series of orbital flights using the Atlas rocket. They were still considering six and possibly ten more suborbital flights, like Shepard's, using the Redstone rocket. Gilruth had thought of moving straight to the orbital flights, although it was a daring proposition, given the problems they had been having on tests of the Mercury-Atlas system. So they were all absolutely startled when Kennedy said: "I want you to start on the moon program. I'm going to ask Congress for the money. I'm going to tell them you're going to put a man on the moon by 1970."
On May 25, twenty days after Shepard's flight, Kennedy appeared before Congress to deliver a message on "urgent national needs." This was, in fact, the beginning of his political comeback from the Bay of Pigs disaster. It was as if he were starting his administration over and delivering a new inaugural address.
"Now is the time to take longer strides," he said, "time for a great new American enterprise, time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth." He said that the Russians, thanks to "their large rocket engines," would continue to dominate the competition for some time, but that this should only make the United States step up its efforts. "For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world; but as shown by the feat of Astronaut Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful." Then he said: "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
Congress was not about to quibble over expenses. NASA was given a $1.7 billion budget for the next year, and that was merely the start. It was made clear that NASA could have practically as much as if wanted. Shepard's flight had made quite a hit. An amazing period of "budgetless financing" began. It was astonishing. Suddenly money was in the air. Businessmen of all sorts were trying to bestow it directly upon Shepard. Within a few months Leo DeOrsey, who was still the boys' unpaid business manager, had counted up half a million dollars' worth of proposals from companies who wanted Shepard to endorse products. One congressman, Frank Boykin of Alabama, wanted the government to give Shepard a house. Shepard turned it all down, but it did make one stop and think.
If Smilin' Al's experience was any indication, then this astronaut business was becoming even more of a Fighter Jock Heaven than it had been in the first year of Project Mercury. Eisenhower had never paid much attention to the astronauts personally. He had looked upon them as military volunteers for an experiment, and that was that. But Kennedy now made them an integral part of his Administration and included them in its social as well as its official life.
The other fellows had gone along for Al's trip to the White House, but the wives had remained at the Cape. When they flew back down to Patrick, the wives were out at the field to meet their plane. And they all had a single question: "What's Jackie like?"
Jackie Kennedy's exotic face and Sixth Floor Designer Collection clothes were in every magazine… They all had a curious sensation. In one corner of their souls they were still junior-level military officers & wives who saw people like Jackie Kennedy only on the pages of magazines and newspapers. And at the same time they were beginning to realize that they were part of the strange world where Those People, the people who do things and run things, actually exist.
"What's Jackie like?"
Soon enough they would all meet her. They would go to private lunches at the White House, where there were so many servants there seemed to be one behind every chair. They played you like man-to-man basketball. Jack Kennedy was very warm toward the fellows. He courted them. That glistening look would come over his face from time to time. The business of manly honor cut through everything at last, and even the President would become merely another awed male in the presence of the right stuff. As for Jackie, she had a certain Southern smile, which she had perhaps picked up at Foxcroft School, in Virginia, and her quiet voice, which came through her teeth, as revealed by the smile. She barely moved her lower jaw when she talked. The words seemed to slip between her teeth like exceedingly small slippery pearls. Her excitement, if any, over the prospect of lunch with seven pilots and their fraus may not have been great. But she couldn't have been kinder or more attentive. At one point she invited Rene Carpenter back for a private visit, and they talked like any two friends, about all sorts of things, including the problems of raising children in the modern age. One had only to think of any other seven pilots' wives in a squadron… All of a sudden the Honorable Mrs. Astronaut existed on a plateau, upon the upper reaches of American protocol, where the perquisites included Jackie Kennedy.
And for the fellows, it was pure heaven. None of this altered the Edwards-style perfection of their lives. It merely added something new and marvelous to the ineffable contrasts of this astronaut business. Within hours after lunch at the White House or waterskiing in Hyannis Port you could be back at the Cape, back Drinking & Driving in that marvelous Low Rent rat-shack terrain, back in your Corvette spinning out on the shoulders of those hardtack Baptist roadways and pulling into the all-night diner for a little coffee to stabilize the system for the proficiency runs ahead. And if you had switched to your Ban-Lon shirts and your go-to-hell pants, they might not even recognize you in there, which would be all the better, and you could just sit there and drink coffee and have a couple of cigarettes and listen to the two policemen in the next booth with the Dawn Patrol radio sets in their pockets, and a little voice packed in static would be coming out of the radios saying, "Thirty-one, thirty-one [garble, garble]… man named Virgil Wiley refuses to return to his room at the Rio Banana," and the policemen would look at each other as if to say, "Well, shit, is that anything to have to rise up from over a plate of french fries and death balls for?"—and then they'd sigh and start getting up and buckling on their gunbelts, and about the time they would head out the door, in would come the Hardiest Cracker, the Aboriginal Grit, an old guy drunk as a monkey and ricocheting off the doorframe and sliding in bowlegged over a counter stool and saying to the waitress:
"How you doing?"
And she says: "So-so, how you doing?"
"I ain't doing any more," he says. "It's dragging in the mud and it won't come up"—and since this doesn't get a rise out of her, he says it again: "It's dragging in the mud and it won't come up," and she just clamps a burglar-proof look of aloofness across her face—and all this was bound to make you smile, because here you were, listening to the merry midnight small talk of the hardiest hardtack crackers of the most Low Rent stretch of the Cape, and just twelve hours ago you were leaning across a table in the White House, straining to catch the tiny shiny pearls of tinytalk from the most famous small talker in the world—and somehow you belonged and thrived in both worlds. Oh, yes, it was the perfect balance of the legendary Edwards, the fabled Muroc, in the original Chuck Yeager and Pancho Barnes days… now brought forward into the billion-volt limitless-budget future.
The truth was that the fellows had now become the personal symbols not only of America's Cold War struggle with the Soviets but also of Kennedy's own political comeback. They had become the pioneers of the New Frontier, recycled version. They were the intrepid scouts in Jack Kennedy's race to beat the mighty Integral to the moon. There was no way they could be regarded as ordinary test pilots, much less test subjects, ever again.
For Gus Grissom that was a very fortunate thing.
Gus was assigned to the second Mercury-Redstone flight, scheduled for July. He would be in a newer capsule, one in which certain changes had been made—all of them in response to the astronauts' insistence that the astronaut function more like a pilot. It had been too late to renovate the capsule Shepard used, but Grissom's had a window, not just portholes, and a new set of hand controllers designed to let the astronaut control the capsule's attitude in a manner that was more like an aircraft pilot's, and a hatch with a set of explosive bolts that the astronaut could blow in order to get out of the capsule after the splashdown. Nevertheless, the flight would be a repetition of Shepard's, a suborbital lob three hundred miles out into the Atlantic. Gus himself encouraged certain changes in the flight plan. Since he would be taking the next flight, he had sat in on Shepard's debriefing sessions on Grand Bahama Island. Nobody, not even within NASA, was about to criticize Al openly for anything he did, but there was implied criticism of what he did toward the end of the flight when the g-forces built up faster than he expected them to and he was desperately staring out of his two portholes trying to find some stars. Some character from the Flight Systems Division kept asking him if he hadn't left a manual control button on after he shifted over to automatic control. This would have wasted hydrogen peroxide, the fuel that operated the attitude-control jets. It didn't particularly matter on a fifteen-minute suborbital flight, but it could have made a difference if it had been an orbital flight. Al kept saying he didn't think he had left the button on but he really couldn't say for sure. And this character kept coming back in and asking the question all over again. This was the first indication that the fellows had about a major truth concerning space flights. You didn't "take" the capsule off the ground, you didn't bring it up to altitude, you didn't alter its course, and you didn't land it; i.e., you didn't fly it—and so your performance was not going to be rated on how well you flew the craft, as it would be in flight test or combat. You could be rated only on how well you covered the items on your checklist. Therefore, the fewer items you had on your checklist, the better shot you had at a "perfect" flight. Each flight was so expensive there would always be people on the ground—engineers, doctors, and scientists—who wanted to load up your checklist with all sorts of things to try, their little "experiments." The way you handled this problem was to allow "operational" items on your list and growl, gruff, and otherwise balk over the rest. Testing the attitude-control system was acceptable, because that had "operational" written all over it. That was like flying an airplane. By the time he took off, Gus's checklist had been pared down to the point where he could concentrate on the new hand controller that had been installed.
Gus stayed at the Holiday Inn until practically the day before his flight, maintaining an even strain. He cut down a little on the waterskiing, which was his main form of exercise, and on the nocturnal proficiency runs on the highways, in order to avoid getting banged up on the eve of the flight, but otherwise life went on pretty much as usual at the Cape, here in Fighter Jock Heaven.