NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Michelle Kelly
30 March 1998
[This oral history with Scott Carpenter was conducted at the Sonny
Carter Neutral Bouyancy Laboratory at Ellington Field, Houston, Texas
on March 30, 1998. This oral history was conducted by Michelle Kelly
and Jennifer Buchli for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.]
The first question I wanted to ask you is, how did you actually become
an astronaut, and what made you decide to want to be one?
… President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower decided, along with the powers
that existed at that time in the Soviet Union, that in our ICBM [Intercontinental
Ballistic Missile] technology lay the promise of artificial satellites
and eventually manned artificial satellites. [Brief interruption]
President Eisenhower made a decision that we should try to do this
because it was so important … [to our] international prestige
… that we be preeminent in space… [H]e decided we should
try to do that [put men in space] and that we should take these spacemen
from the ranks of jet-qualified military test pilots. I happened to
be one of those. He also said that these people should have a degree
in aeronautical engineering or related science. I happened to have
that, and I was just in the right spot at the right time.
The Soviets did the same thing, but they didn't take test pilots;
they took parachutists because they [Soviet spacecraft] came down
on their own parachutes. But in any event, that's how it was decreed
that I would be considered. I was ordered to Washington under secret
orders, briefed on the project and asked if I wanted to volunteer.
… as you know, flying a spacecraft, … is a normal extension
of test flying. It is your job in that business to fly airplanes that
go higher and faster, and this was a quantum leap in those directions.
So that's how it happened. I didn't always want to be a spaceman when
I was a boy, because there was no such thing.
You're truly one of the pioneers.
It came out that way.
Can I ask you a little bit about the selection and the astronauts,
I guess the tests that they went through? Can you tell me a little
bit about those and your times?
Yes. The selection was not viewed by the public in its true light.
A lot of people thought it was painful and very hard. And it was not.
There was some hard work. That was the centrifuge. But the rest was
simple, made simple by the fact that all of those tests were so much
fun. They really were, and we learned about our own capabilities.
We learned a lot about the capabilities of the human body in general.
We faced a lot of unknowns in those days that are no longer unknowns,
but that made it even more interesting because outside of the fact
that we were competing with the Soviet Union, which was the driving
force in the earlier days, we were also satisfying a compelling curiosity
about near-Earth space and about the human organism and the human
intellect as well: Can we design a machine that will do this, and
can we stand the ride? It was a fascinating time, because, mainly,
we were making so many unknowns known.
What were some of the most memorable tests that you had gone through,
whether they were funny or difficult or challenging?
Well, the centrifuge is always fun, but hard work. We did all kinds
of treadmill walking and running to exhaustion. We rode bicycles to
exhaustion, but we disproved a lot of theory about human limits and
endurance. The anechoic chamber was fun. That’s the place where
you are isolated, can't hear a thing, can't see a thing. You go in
not knowing how long you'll be in there. Some people told you to expect
being in this environment for two or three days. It turned out to
be an hour or something. So that was fun.
What else? There are so many fun experiences, we'd never get on to
space flight if we went into all of those. But they were all fascinating
experiments trying to find out if the human organism had some weak
spot that would make him, make the organism, unable to withstand space
flight. And they tried hard to find one, but there weren't any.
To your knowledge, were there other scientists or even physicians
who were looking into that data on those tests, to see the limits?
Oh, you mean now?
Yes. Are you aware of them?
Oh, sure. Limits, human limits, are still being explored, and we're
doing that today in terms of long-duration space flight, because that's
one thing we still haven't proved: can we stand weightlessness for
the duration of a Mars flight. And I often thought in the early days
that, … these people … [were] being very undemocratic
about the tests and the suspicions they had of us because we're being
considered guilty of … being [un]able to withstand space flight,
instead of being considered innocent … [at the outset]. We showed
them we … [could] do it, you know.
From what I understand, you broke a few … [records] yourself.
Oh, yes, but that's not important. And those tests, they revealed
a lot of physical capabilities not really important to space flight,
but they do … properly demonstrate perseverance. And, you know,
you can do anything if you persevere. And where I did well, it was
only because of perseverance, and there's a lot of things in space
flight that require … [perseverance].
You're very modest.
Well, that's as it should be. We were very, very lucky people.
I know that you, I think, were in the class with "Deke"
[Donald K.] Slayton when you were actually going through the tests
at the Lovelace Clinic.
… [we were together at Wright-Pat [Wright-Patterson Air Force
Base] but I think not at Lovelace.]
Can you tell me a little bit about him and what your personal impressions
of him were?
… We [all] went through the same tests … [he did it] like
everybody else did. The one thing that was a standout about Deke was
that he was a non-swimmer, and he didn't tell anybody that he went
through our training with the Navy SEALS, scuba diving and all that,
and he never told anybody [about] that. He couldn't even swim. His
wife used to talk about his practicing at home in the kitchen sink,
inhaling through his mouth and exhaling through his nose. But that
was a measure of his perseverance.
What do you think some of the selection criteria were? Talk about
what the selection was at the time and how they decided they wanted
particular people to go into the Mercury Program. Do you feel that
anything stood out in your mind?
Anything stood out in the test program, you're saying?
Yes, within the tests, when they decided to actually go ahead through
the selection process and advance from those tests into the next round.
Well, we measured the guys very well and in lots of different areas,
and all had some small -all made some contribution and some indication
of suitability for space flight. None of those tests revealed anybody
who was not suited for space flight, but the real critical test was
to be found on the centrifuge. That has direct relationship to space
flight. But everybody did that okay, too. However, you have to realize
that men have certain limits, and we designed the machine and the
flight profile to stay within those limits. We pushed the limits,
because that was necessary for a number of reasons, but the human
was the [major] determinant.
I'd like to go on and ask you a little bit about once you were selected,
what was the training like then? Was it very different than what you'd
gone through as far as the initial test and selection rounds?
No. We continued to do a lot of work on the centrifuge, because now…
the flight profile was better known and being tailored to both the
ballistic flight and the orbital flight. The major difference was
in developing procedures and building machinery and techniques to
do what we decided some time before to try to do, but now we're building
the machinery to do it. And that's fascinating, too.
And were you involved in building the machinery itself?
Sure. We were involved with every phase of the construction of our
spacecraft. I happened to have personal responsibility for navigation
and communications. I had done that in the Navy at the [Patuxent River,
Maryland, Naval Air] Test Center. I also had experience in a Navy
airplane, this photographic airplane, photo recon, that had a big
viewport like this, similar to what we would have in the spacecraft.
So each of us brought past experience to the endeavor, along with
our burning desire to see if we could do it.
What did you do as far as tracking the communication and navigation
Well, I followed the development of the communications system, but
navigation is a misnomer. You couldn't navigate that machine. It was
a bullet, and you could decide when to come down, but after you'd
made that decision, you couldn't aim it. It was already aimed. So,
navigation had some input to the charts we used, but not in getting
from one place to another, except from launch to entry.
How about the communications system? How were you involved there?
Were you working with the McDonnell [Aircraft Corporation] plans?
Yes. We worked with Collins [Radio Company]. They made our radios.
We didn't have expertise in design of communications equipment, but
we were apprised of all the developments, and we had editorial rights.
If we didn't like what they had decided to do, we'd change it, and
they never decided to do anything, really, without checking with the
forces that controlled all of this at NASA.
That's probably very good and… [interrupted]
It was very well handled.
Did anything stand out in your mind as far as your training went that
was actually original or most memorable?
We had a lot of fascinating simulators. You know, the simulation field
started in aviation a long time ago with the Link trainer, but we
really put some fine touches on the Link trainer, and we had some
fascinating machines that allowed us to experience everything we would
experience in flight, everything with the exception – if you
couple it with work on the centrifuge, everything except [prolonged
weightlessness and] the impact with the water. And that was benign,
too. I'm just reminded of a device used in selection. That is a funny
machine, and I wish it could be recreated. It was called "the
panic box." You've heard about the panic box?
No, I haven’t. Please tell me.
It's a little cubicle with a front wall and a ceiling, two walls.
You sat down in a chair, and all you could see was the inside of this
cubicle, and there were lights and gongs and whistles and indicators,
gauges, bells, everything, control handles of every type, knobs to
turn and indicators that told you if one of the instrument readings
was out of proper range. You had to watch all of these instruments,
and if you saw one reading improper[ly], you had to adjust the handle
to get it back in the right spot.
If any reading – there were maybe thirty or forty separate readings,
each with its own different control that you had to keep centered,
and if one of them … stayed out of its normal range for more
than five seconds, a red light came on and flashed, and if it stayed
out of its normal range for more than ten seconds, a big, loud buzzer
would come on.
It really …[was] sensory overload, because there is so much
to watch and adjust, and you don't have a lot of time, and then you've
got this red light and the klaxon scaring the bejesus out of you.
… I had occasion to watch a fellow, after I had done this, [it
was hilarious]. It's hilarious to see a normally intelligent human
being in there, going crazy. It … [makes you look] like you're
Anyway, you do this at normal speed for a half an hour. After you've
done the box for half an hour, you get pretty familiar with which
control handles which instrument. So then you're given a short rest
and put back in the chair, and this time you do it again for half
an hour at twice the speed. They run a tape through to upset these
readings, but it comes twice as fast. So you're really busy, but you're
still learning how it worked. And then you got a rest period, and
you go back and try to keep ahead of it at four times the original
speed. That was a real challenge, a real challenge.
It was probably very amusing to watch someone.
Yes. But that had direct application to flying, in general. It really
I'll bet you spent a lot of time in simulators when you were actually
assigned as backup for John [H.] Glenn [Jr.]'s flight.
Everybody spends a lot of time in simulators so that by the time you
really fly, everything that lies ahead of you you've done hundreds
of times before, And that is the most valuable training device that
has every been devised, and it's used around the world now, not only
for aviators, but for ship pilots and captains, tanker captains. A
marvelous new science.
Can I ask you about when they actually decided who was going to take
the first flight or the first few flights? When they announced, I
believe, it was Alan [B.] Shepard [Jr.], [Virgil I.] Gus Grissom,
and John [H.] Glenn [Jr.] for the first flight. Now at that time –
you know, it's always been wondered and discussed, did they actually
know who was going first among the seven of you. And did you have
any inkling whatsoever what was going on at that time, or were you
pretty much left out of the loop and NASA… [interrupted]
We were left out of that decision-making. The way it happened was
[Dr. Robert R.] Bob Gilruth selected three guys for the first two
flights, I think. Al was to get – when we all learned this,
Al got the first flight, Gus got the second flight, and John, I think,
was to be backup for both of them. That's all we knew. The other four
of us, Deke, Wally [Walter M. Schirra, Jr.], Gordo [L. Gordon Cooper,
Jr.], and I were sort of odd men out. I think that was not handled
quite right, but it is unimportant. And they flew.
And then John got the first orbital flight, and, of course, everybody
was disappointed that they didn't get the first flight. And Al, of
course, was very pleased that he got the first flight. He had reason
to be, but it turned out that -and we didn't even know that we would
make only two ballistic flights and then go into orbital flight. So
it turned out that the fellow who got the third flight really had
the most heroic mission of them all.
I was named backup for John, and Deke was to take the next orbital,
and Wally Schirra was his backup. But early on in preparation for
Deke's flight, he had that hiccup, a heart problem … –
no more significant than a hiccup, but again, we didn't know. Anyway,
the decision was made since it was so early in the preparation for
Deke's flight and that I had had so much experience through all of
John Glenn's scrubs, that I should get Deke's flight. So that didn't
please Wally very much, but that's the way it went. Wally went ahead
to fly next, and Gordo came after that.
Can I ask you a little bit about something we talked about before?
During Mr. Shepard's flight, the first space flight, you actually
were in an F-106 jet?
Something like that.
I think those were F-102s. Wally and I were chase pilots and in 102s,
and that was because launch operations was run by [Walter C.]Walt
Williams, who had had his upbringing at Edwards [Air Force Base, CA],
where every new airplane, first flight, had a couple of chase planes
to make sure there's somebody there watching what's going on. And
so it sounded reasonable that we should have somebody chasing Al Shepard.
So Wally and I were there … [flying circles around the pad],
and I think we had radio contact with the count. When Wally comes
down, you can check with him about this, but I don't remember hearing
the countdown, and I don't remember seeing Al one second, because
we're going this way and he's going this way. [Laughter]
I didn't see a thing, … [and] I don't think Wally did either.
So we didn't chase any flights after that. And it's a good custom,
but it had, in the Space Age, outworn its usefulness.
And it was just such and unknown at that time.
Along with many others.
Then when you were acting as Mr. Glenn's, Senator Glenn's, backup,
can I ask you something about some of the things that you did, and
did you train together?
We did everything together, yes, and that went on for quite a while.
We learned so much then, too. We learned so much about what we should
do and so much about what we both should not do and should not have
done. But that's the name of this game. Sure, we were shadows, each
of the other, for a long time.
Do you still maintain a good relationship with him?
Oh, yes. Sure.
I'd like to ask you a little bit about your flight, and I don't want
to go delve into it too much, because there's so much about it that's
written, and I don't what to bore you or have redundant information.
It's no matter.
I'd like to ask you, what did you do to prepare for it? Was it much
of the same training?
The same thing everybody else did. We designed our own flight plan,
and then we put it into an operational schedule and got in the simulator
and practiced, just like everybody else had done. I had spent a lot
of time in the simulator doing John's plan, but then, after he flew,
I got back in the simulator and did my plan. That's fun, too.
Did you learn a lot from his mission?
Well, yes. Of course. We learned a lot from each mission, but it gave
us confidence in the machine and it also opened up the flight plan
for some scientific pursuits that were not just experimental flight-test
objectives, and that was fun, too. I was glad about that.
You were actually probably one of the first in space, actually, to
conduct scientific experiments during your mission.
Well, I guess that's so, but the whole thing is, John's flight was
certainly concerned with science, but it was more inside the machine
than it was outside in the environment, and I was, quite frankly,
more interested in where I was than I was in what got me where I was.
Can you tell me a little bit about that, your experience on your flight?
Well, we didn't know about how a lot of things would behave in zero-G,
outside. We didn't know anything about the slipstream. We didn't know
anything about how well we could see certain celestial phenomena,
sunsets and sunrises and occlusion of the stars at the horizon. There
was just an awful lot of questions that we were asking.
And I have a good curiosity, and I'm always eager to answer and ask
questions. That's what this flight did. It asked a lot of questions
and brought home some new truths, one of which cleared up the mystery
of John Glenn's fireflies. We really didn't – just as in those
days we didn't really know for sure that the moon was not made out
of green cheese, expected it wasn't, but didn't know. John saw these
fireflies just prior to entry and called them fireflies, and we really
didn't know for sure that there weren't some sort of living, glowing
critters out there. A big question mark. It turns out they were ice
that had condensed and adhered to the spacecraft when you hit the
side, and they'd float off. A big mystery. It seems like nothing now,
but it satisfied a lot of curious folks in its time.
So what do you think was the most important thing that you learned
either personally or professionally on that flight?
Personally, it's a spiritual experience for anybody with a soul, I
think, and I got that. It's a religious experience for some, maybe
they've got two or three souls, I don’t know. So, personally,
it was a cherished experience. I feel I got the chance to see the
inner workings of the grand order of things. In the overall scheme
of things, it proves that men can do about anything they want to if
they work hard enough at it, and I knew that I could do it, and that's
a good thought. And that leads, of course, to a strong suspicion that
everybody else can do it if they want to.
May I ask you a little bit about – and this is kind of a touchy
question, so you don't have to answer it if you don't like to, but
if you'd like to set the record straight about your landing and I
know there was a lot of controversy about it, but I'd just like to
ask what your opinion and your take on it is.
Well, okay. There were three contributors to an overshoot. One of
them was – the major one was that the spacecraft was out of
alignment. It is not known how much out of alignment. It was good
in pitch and roll, but yaw, I had faulty yaw indicator readings, and
there's no way you can read yaw by looking at the horizon. But it
had given me some trouble for half an hour or more before retrofire.
So there was that misalignment which made me go too far. They were
late by a second and a half or two because the gyros being not indicating
properly; I had caged them and I had to set them off manually. That
contributed to an overshoot, and they were under thrust, as well.
All of these things made me go too far, and I managed my fuel supply
badly on the second orbit over Australia. There was excessive fuel
use, which scared a lot of the folks on the ground. There was enough.
There was enough for the entry. A lot of people thought there would
not be. And it was anybody's guess.
It was interesting to me to note that on the last part of the entry,
when I was out of fuel, that very fact proved that that particular
aerodynamic shape had the stability that was designed into it, so
that there was reason to believe that you could make a good entry
without any fuel. It's not necessary to try, but it proved the value
of the design.
[to third party] Thank you, I appreciate that. And I also understand
you had some trouble with your suit, your pressure suit, as well.
Yes, it overheated. That was over Australia. That was bothersome.
And did they learn anything from that?
I didn't. I don't know whether that failure was ever pinpointed.
I'd like to ask you a little bit about your recovery. I read your
flight plan from after the flight as well, and you discussed how you
inflated your raft and you basically egressed from the spacecraft,
and you were just on your own, biding your own time, and you mentioned
you were just taking in your surroundings.
Yes. I had sort of a blessing there for the hour after the flight.
Everybody else had been confronted immediately with a debriefing team,
and that's an occupational hazard. Nobody knew where I was, and I
didn't know that. I knew where I was. [Chuckles] But I didn't know
that they didn't know back on shore.
So I climbed out, I got in the life raft, and I had a quiet time to
contemplate what had happened, and I treasure the recollection of
that. Pretty soon – and I wasn't worried, either, because there's
a SARAH [Search and Rescue and Homing] beacon that's sending out signals
to a lot of people listening, and I just didn't even think about it.
But pretty soon a plane turned up. It was a plane I used to fly, and
I waved to it. Then another plane turned up, and there were, before
I was picked up, I think, seven airplanes flying around me, and I
got tired of waving at them. I didn't pay any attention to them.
I was sitting there in the raft, and I heard this calm voice say,
"Hi, there." And three Navy SEALS had jumped out of one
of the airplanes and swam up … [to] me. They had a big raft
[to] put around the spacecraft. So we talked a little bit, and I offered
them some of my survival food. They said they weren't hungry.
What kind of survival food was that?
Well, I don't know. It was in a package that came out with the life
raft, a candy bar and some other high-energy food. Then years and
years and years later, I went to a meeting in [the] San Bernardino
Courthouse. Some people came in, and I stood up, and, … [said,]
"Nice to meet you." This was two decades after that. This
fellow shook hands and said, "We've met before." I said,
"I'm sorry. I've forgotten. Where was it?" He said, "It
was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," and he was one of the
guys who had jumped out.
That’s really interesting.
It was nice to see him.
That's terrific. I guess I'd like to go on and ask you a little bit
about what you did for post flight. I understand that you had to debrief
Wait. I don't understand.
After your flight, you debriefed the press and you debriefed NASA.
What activities did you move on to from there? Were you working still
in the Mercury Program?
Well, yes, but then I got – I'd been following [Jacques] Cousteau's
work all along, and through all the work here in Houston and watching
his films, and being a dedicated diver after my first Navy tour of
duty in Hawaii, it occurred to me that Cousteau's CONSHELF [Continental
Shelf] program might benefit from a lot of the technology that we
were building for space flight.
So I asked Gilruth if I could go suggest a leave of absence from NASA
to Cousteau to work as a NASA representative with his program. He
was speaking at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. I went
up and posed this idea. I met all his divers, including Philipe [Cousteau],
and we decided that it might be a good idea and there might be some
good technology transferred. He said, "You don't speak the right
language, after all, and we can't pay you very much, … [but]
if what you want to do is share the technology, why don't you do it
with your own Navy?"
…[It was] through Cousteau that I learned of the Navy's Sealab
program. Incidentally, it was the United States Navy that first postulated
the techniques that Cousteau was using in CONSHELF. That's a U.S.
Navy idea. And Cousteau just got on the big screen first, but the
work was all done by the United States Navy.
So I went to see George Bond, who had that program, and suggested
that I come as a representative of NASA and maybe get a chance to
dive, and he said fine. I went back and talked to Bob Gilruth. Bob
And so that began a series of transfers back and forth between Mercury
and Gemini and Sealab that ended ultimately in my leaving NASA in
'67, I think, going back to the Navy for Sealab 3, which was underfunded
and hurried, and we didn't have enough time. It was a great idea,
but it was an abysmal failure, and we lost a life, and the Navy canceled
that work from then on. A sad thing, but that happened. [Interruption
- Tape Change]]
The first thing I want to ask you, now that we're on tape again, is
how you came about with the idea of proposing to NASA using underwater
training as weightless training.
Well, we had a lot of tasks to perform in the water outside Sealab,
and the problem in the water is you don't have traction, and it's
because your weight is negated by the buoyancy, by the water. You
need foot rests, something that allows you to stand solidly somewhere
like you do here, and if you're in a buoyant medium like water, you
can't do that. You've got to provide an artificial restraint. That
was done in space flight, partly because of what we learned and planned
to do things like that in the water, and it was a very good transfer
of technology this time from the ocean to space.
Going back to your first response about Sealab and working with Jacques
Cousteau, what type of technology was transferred from the space technology
into this area?
Well, a lot of it came from the semi-closed circuit breathing devices
that we used, and then the closed circuit devices. That's what we
used on the moon and used for EVA [Extravehicular Activity]. There's
a lot of transfer there. The same kind of underwear that keeps you
warm when you're cold and cold when you're hot is worn by [deep sea]
divers … [and men] on the moon … So there was a lot of
It seems like there is a very big difference in the pressure that
you experience in space inside that gear and under water, especially
if you're very deep under water, there's significant…
Well, yes, except it's a different thing. A swimmer in deep water
has an awful lot of water pressure on him, but he doesn't feel it.
He can stand over-pressure much more easily than he can under-pressure.
The space environment outside the Shuttle, for instance, is fatal.
The environment outside a Sealab down to 2,000 feet is fine. We can't
go much below that, not because of the pressure effects on the body,
but because of the body's response to high-pressure breathing mixes
– helium, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen. There's some big unknown
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in Sealab and what
... [Many don't realize that Sealab was not just a sealed submarine
sitting on the ocean floor. It is pressurized and open to the sea
so we could work outside on the ocean floor.] Every man had one one-hour
dive … sometimes two … [W]e did engineering experiments
on salvage equipment; we did marine geology experiments, marine biology,
physical oceanography experiments; we did some agricultural experiments
inside the lab; and a lot of human physiology. We kept people pretty
And is there still, to this day, a lot of transfer between the underwater
program … the space program?
… Space flight tells us a lot about the ocean that we didn't
know before and that we couldn't really learn [before] … The
sensors we carry in orbiting spacecraft can tell us an awful lot about
what's going on on the planet, on dry land, in the water column, and
on the ocean floor that we can't learn any other way…
When you returned … to NASA after your leave of absence, did
you work at all in EVA training?
… [Y]es, but it wasn't known as an EVA trainer. It was neutral
buoyancy, I think we called [it]. … [A] small tank … led
to this. It was [a] humble beginning, but it was very helpful in designing
procedures and equipment for use in Apollo and on the moon and, of
course, in the Shuttle Program.
Can you tell me about the first neutral buoyancy lab?
It was very small, … but about the time it got finished, I left
for Washington … [for Sealab III] I was in it a couple of times
… but I didn't do any space flight analog experiments in it
that I can remember. … [I]t worked well, and Huntsville built
a big one, too. … [I]t turned out to be a very good idea.
I guess so. When you see the size of this… [Brief interruption;
battery change.] So what, then, did you work on after you worked on
the Sealab Program and coming back and working with underwater training?
I understand you worked with some LEM [Lunar Excursion Module] development
at that time.
Well, yes, and I worked with the Grumman [Aircraft Engineering Corporation]
folks on LEM design.
Can I ask, what did you do?
Went to Grumman, talked about cockpit layout, cockpit indicators.
That's where LEDs [Light-Emitting Diodes] were first brought to use.
We were on the cutting edge of technology then, but we look back at
it now, and it's Model Ts, so it was ancient, but fun. That's progress.
Where did you come up with the concept of a cockpit layout for something
that was totally…[interrupted]?
… [The LEM] design … has [been] contributed to by hundreds
of people, but we at NASA had editorial rights … so to speak,
because … [we were] the user, but a lot of good thought from
a lot of people went into [the] final design.
Do you recall any of the people that you worked with?
Yes. Bob Smyth was the Grumman test pilot who I had, and still have,
very high regard for. Neil [A.] Armstrong and I worked a lot with
the cockpit layout. [Edwin E.] “Buzz” [Aldrin, Jr.], too.
A lot of people did that. It was a big team effort, and it was a great
team, and the team effort was so much fun.
And I'm assuming, then, that they had already decided to go with the
LOR, or Lunar Orbital Rendezvous, decision at that time.
Yes. That was decided, I think, in '62, early on, maybe '63. I'm not
sure. A lot of people and a lot of compromises involved in that, too.
And how many years did you work in that area, developing it?
Well, you know, I left in '67. So from '62 on, with the exception
of the time I spent with Sealab, it was … [LEM] and …
neutral buoyancy, the tank.
And then I believe you were also an executive assistant to Dr. Gilruth.
Yes, I worked a while for Bob. I didn't care too much for that, but
I still kept a finger on the pulse of space flight. But it was not
long after that that I decided I would like to continue with the underwater
work. I was fascinated with that, and it's something I hadn't done.
It also was something that – that's sort of a long story, but
I was afraid of the deep ocean open water. I had [a] survival exercise
with my crew in Hawaii, and we were out in a life raft simulating
ditching at sea. We lost our radar reflector over the side, and my
gunner's mate went over for it, and he got it, but he dived into that
water that was, as far as I was concerned, filled with sharks, and
I wouldn't do that. I realized that I had an unreasonable fear of
the ocean, and I was uncomfortable with that … [T]hat was part
of the driving force that made me want to work in the ocean. I wanted
to get rid of that fear. And I did that. A lot of people have done
that since the sixties… [A]s a diving community, [we're not
nearly as afraid] these days of sharks as we once were.
Have you approached any in your recent dives?
Oh, sure. I did that in Guam long before that, and that's where I
learned to be afraid of them, but it's fear of the unknown. They're
known now by most divers. If you keep your wits about you, they're
not nearly as scary as we once thought they were.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work now in the Man-In-The-Sea
We have a school going in Key Largo. We've got a small one-atmosphere
submersible. We've got a bell and a chamber and an underwater habitat
and an underwater lab... It's the only place in the world where certified
divers can learn how to work in the ocean, not just play. It's a fascinating,
What types of things do you learn in working in the ocean?
How to work, how to work with tools, how to make surveys, how to develop
a well head, for instance. Any sort of mechanical work that can be
done in the water can be done in Key Largo. It's unique in all the
Do you think that has any relation to working on the Space Station,
the International Space Station we're developing today?
Oh, sure. You're in a weightless environment both places, so there's
still some application of what is learned in … [one] environment
… to the other.
Do you have any examples of what specifically maybe Space Station
can learn from that?
Tool development. You know, you've got to have anti-torque tools to
work with. That's a necessity for EVA people. It's a necessity for
the diver, too, and there are more similarities that will be revealed
with continual work in both places, I think.
Is there any sort of liaison, or is there any cooperation there at
Any what? I didn't understand.
Is there any cooperation at all between the programs?
Yes. [Although Sealab is now defunct, NASA's currently active Astronaut/Aquanaut]
… Mike Gurnhart … [is pursuing] that. He's currently active.
I am not. I don't have that sort of an association with NASA anymore,
but if there is an application that has use on the other side of the
border, somebody will be there to use it. The format has been established.
Now I'd like to ask you just in the overall sense what you thought
the most challenging part of your career was, either in the Sealab
area or in your space flight.
Oh, gosh. Most challenging. Probably the most challenging work is
designing a spacecraft that will – this is the most challenging
intellectual exercise. That's a product of many fine intellects. That's
a challenge. There is a challenge to be found in the water which I
also cherish having met, and that is the hard work. We've had enough
money and enough talent and enough time to build machines and design
systems and train people to outwit space. It's what we do: we outwit
it. We don't have the time or the money or the talent to do the same
thing in the ocean, and also, the ocean is a much tougher adversary,
and the work you do in it is not glorious like space flight is. It
is cold and it is dark, and it's dirty, and it's mule-hard work. And
that's the physical challenge that separates the men from the boys,
and I have great respect for that.
Who in your mind – and it can be a group of people or several
people, but who in your mind has stood out in your career as being
the most admirable, the most accomplished?
Well, I've got two heroes in my career. One is Wernher von Braun,
because his blinding genius got us to the moon. And Cousteau, he's
my other hero. [John F.] Kennedy, [Jr.,] of course, was important
to lunar flight, too, because it was his charisma that got the nation
behind the idea, but von Braun has my vote in space and Cousteau has
it in the ocean.
What did you find most admirable about those two men?
Those two men? Well, it was von Braun's intellect, but he had a charisma,
too, that was marvelous. Cousteau, because of the work he did in an
area that wasn't nearly as glorified as space was, but where von Braun
had charisma, Cousteau had magic, and both have their value.
An interesting perspective. What do you feel was your most successful
time in your career?
… I have difficulty separating or delineating or evaluating
separately the pleasure … I feel [in retrospect] at having been
a part of the space program and been a part of the underwater program
and having raised a bunch of good kids. They're all important to me.
That’s terrific. Do you think that there's anything in the space
program history that's missing? Do you think there are any stories
that haven't been told or things that should be known that aren't
There are at least a hundred thousand.
Can you share some of them with us?
I wouldn't know where to begin, but there are a lot of funny stories
to tell. There are also stories of mistakes, tragedy, and despair.
You know, men simply are not above error, and we've made some terrible
errors, but we've made some marvelous decisions and discoveries. We've
had a lot of fun doing it all, but not without some mistakes, some
costly ones, but I consider myself fortunate to have been around to
see it all.
You're truly a pioneer in that respect.
It's been fun.
Can you share any stories with us?
Okay. I'll tell you one about space technology transferred to the
ocean. Everybody was afraid of sharks a long time ago. We had evidence
of shark attack on some of our unmanned Mercury capsules that landed
in the Atlantic. We had some heat shields with shark teeth embedded
in them. NASA did not like the idea of losing the heroic returned
spaceman to shark attack, so Houston launched a well-paid study to
develop an electronic shark chaser … Consider it a little stainless
steel sphere that would be automatically ejected from the spacecraft
when it hit the water. Some antennas would go out, and an on/off switch
would be turned on, and the shark chaser would emit electromagnetic
and sonic radiation into the water and scare all the sharks away.
We were afraid of shark attack in Sealab. We built a big shark cage.
We envisioned going out of the lab and hiding inside the shark cage
with a cable and chains on it to make sure there were no sharks outside
before we went out to the work area. So I called Bob Gilruth and …
[asked him to send a copy of] the shark chaser to [Perry Gilbert,
the Navy's consulting shark expert,] and let him evaluate it for both
Sealab and NASA?" He did … it. He sent it back [to Bob
Gilruth] after two or three weeks with his evaluation letter …
[with a copy to me].
In the letter he said – and I'm paraphrasing -but he said, essentially,
"Dr. Gilruth, we have evaluated your electronic shark chaser,
and we find it mildly repellent to sharks in both the on and off position."
[Laughter] I saw that shark chaser not too long ago. It didn't work,
and we don't, to this day, have a good shark chaser, and the Navy
has been trying to find one for three centuries.
Wow. That's interesting. I like that. Any other stories? And Paul
was asking what's your favorite beer. He always wants to ask people
Beer? A Philippine brand called San Miguel.
Rollins: OK, thank you. That's my stock question. I ask everybody.
Would you like to add anything else? I appreciate your time. It's
[interrupted] that you've agreed to talk with us.
It's good. I guess it's going to serve a good purpose.