Science

Eyewitness 5 – Mercury Capsule, Glasgow Student Charities Week, 1964

by Duncan Lunan

When I wrote up the visit Linda and I made to Orkney in June  (3rd July 2022), I had no idea it would lead on to a mini-series.  But it suggested that I cover my other island topics – South Uist  (10th July)  and Aerial Archaeoastronomy  (17th July), and in the South Uist one I mentioned the Apollo and Shuttle liftoffs, so I covered those and the Discovery landing, which led on to last week’s account of the Shuttle trainer.  There’s one other spacecraft I’ve been hands-on with, then we can get back to astronomy for a while.  This story takes us back to 1964, five years after the South Uist story and eleven years before the Apollo one.

Mercury capsule shape revealed, Daily Express, Aug. 25th 1958

After the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the creation of NASA in 1958, the new Agency took a USAF proposal for a minimalist Man-in-Space project and elevated it to formal programme status.  One-man Mercury capsules were launched on suborbital flights using the US Army’s Redstone booster in 1961, followed by orbital missions launched by the USAF Atlas missile.  The orbital series began with John Glenn’s flight in February 1962, and ended with Gordon Cooper’s 24-hour one in May 1963.  I managed to get the afternoons off school for Alan Shepard’s launch in 1961 and for John Glenn’s, but at that point the Rector of Marr College said to me, “This has to be the last time, Duncan.  You must realise that you will not be able to spend the rest of your life following space missions.”  60 years later, I’m still proving him wrong.

All the piloted launches were successful, but had any of them not been, the capsule was to be pulled clear of the booster by a solid fuelled rocket called the ‘escape tower’. 

Escape tower separation on Mercury suborbital trajectory, c. 1960
Little Joe Launch Vehicle, Mercury capsule escape system test, Oct 4 1959

They were tested with ‘boilerplate’ Mercury capsules, dummies which matched the weight and aerodynamic performance, but didn’t have the exotic materials, controls or electronics of the actual spacecraft.  Boilerplate capsules were also used to practise the astronauts’ entry and egress, the latter first in swimming pools, later at sea.  Once the launcher left the atmosphere the escape tower was discarded, and if there was a problem in the final boost phase, the retrorockets on the base of the capsule would have performed the separation.  Had that happened on an orbital mission, the splashdown would have been in the North Atlantic, in the recovery area of the USAF Air Rescue squadron at Prestwick Air Force Base, in the Prestwick Airport facilities later taken over by the Royal Navy HMS Gannet shore station.  To prepare for an astronaut rescue the USAF would drop a boilerplate Mercury capsule into the Firth of Clyde, place some luckless airman alongside it in a rubber dinghy, and practise winching them both out by helicopter.  The Base workshop produced a wearable dummy spacesuit to be displayed with the capsule at the annual Armed Forces Day.

In April 1962 I joined the Scottish Branch of the British Interplanetary Society, meeting in Glasgow, and became friends with Sandy Glover from Drumchapel, with whom I attended Fresher’s Camp at Glasgow University the following year, both of us going on to study Maths, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy  (i.e. Physics).   At that time the Glasgow Students’ Charities Appeal was the largest of its kind in the UK, taking place in January, and as the BIS Branch had just become independent as the Scottish spaceflight society ASTRA, we wanted to make a memorable contribution.  As Project Mercury had now ended, it seemed possible that the boilerplate capsule might be available – an actual spacecraft to appear in the Saturday Parade.

Encouraged by the success of my 1959 visit to South Uist  (‘Visitor at Uist’, Orkney News, 10th July 2022), I wrote to the Base Commander, and he asked me to come to see him.  I drove over to Monkton on my Lambretta, 17 years old, with short-back-and-sides haircut and in jacket and tie  (I didn’t yet own a suit), and he offered me the free, unsupervised use of the capsule  (valued at £20,000 in 1964)  for the whole of Charities Week, 21st to 25th January.  I have to say, I look at 17-year-olds today and think that even I wouldn’t lend some of them a busfare – but expectations were different then.

Duncan Lunan with Vespa successor to Lambretta,(Mary Young, 1965)

The capsule was brought to Glasgow by Lieutenant Roy Hagen, head of the Prestwick AFB Motor Pool, and was stored in the open within a sawmill at Anniesland where Sandy had worked in summer holidays.  The delivery was inconspicuous, partly to increase the surprise on the Saturday, but also because the Polaris depot ships were still in the Holy Loch, the conflict in southeast Asia was worsening, and not everyone in Glasgow liked the US Forces.  They couldn’t have done much harm to the capsule, but it could have been daubed with peace slogans and CND signs, and we wanted to avoid that.

But how were we to publicise the coming attraction, if we couldn’t say what it was?  In the previous dry summer there had been several cases where the Army dug up mysterious holes which had opened on farmland, attributed to UFOs, and Sandy knew a farmer out in Lothian who had gelignite left over from blasting operations.  The farmer gave permission for them to blast three craters in the triangle pattern of a ‘typical’ UFO landing, and we planted sightings from the Outer Hebrides all the way to Lothian of a UFO apparently in difficulties, coming in over the Central Belt.  Our intention was to come clean at once and say, “But you can see a real spaceship in the Charities Parade on Saturday.”  There weren’t enough seats in the car for me to go with the blasting party.  But unfortunately the clay soil was very wet and heavy after recent rain, and though each explosion shifted a ton or more of it, it simply made patches of rough ground instead of craters.  No doubt it would have settled into craters after the next rain, but we couldn’t wait for that.  So the landing report was never made;  but we didn’t succeed in stopping all the reported sightings, leading to a small report of the ‘UFO in trouble’ in the weekend press.

On inspection the capsule was badly salt-streaked and weather-stained, and I obtained permission to give it a fresh coat of paint, provided that any changes were corrected before it was brought back.  It was arranged that a chap from Fife called Jim Coombes and I would do the painting on the Friday afternoon, while other members of the team decorated the lorry which we had been allocated. 

This was when things turned bizarre.  The Charities Week Committee had awarded us top priority, but because of the secrecy not all the Committee knew about it, and others had felt free to give away the paint, brushes and other materials we had requisitioned.  The shelves were empty and there was no cash to buy more, so we split up to scrounge what we could.  After visiting several hardware suppliers, Jim and I headed for Anniesland with a huge tin of navy paint  (a special order by a customer who never collected it), and a small tin of white paint with no lid, into which passers-by kept trying to put money for the Appeal.  We got there shortly before closing time and after a short search for brushes, which turned up only small ones, the power was turned off and we were locked in, on a bitter February night.  Thus comes about my claim to be one of the only two people to have painted a US spacecraft by moonlight, in a deserted Glasgow sawmill, with stencil brushes – a claim few can contest, I believe.  It took well over three hours.

Next we had to get out, which was easier said than done because the wall was ten feet high.  We got to the roof of a shed leaning against it, and from there to the top.  When I materialised up there with the huge can of paint, a passer-by was looking up at me.  “Don’t worry, we’re not robbing the place,” I said.  “No, no, I never thought you were,” he replied, and took to his heels as Jim appeared beside me.

The others hadn’t had much luck, so I started phoning round the University Halls of Residence, and went up to Park Circus to collect some paint etc. that we were offered.  I then had to dash for the last train back to Troon at 11 p.m., and with more preparation to do, I got only three hours sleep before starting back to Glasgow on the Lambretta, before trains began running in the morning.

I arrived to find another catastrophe.  Despite our priority and perhaps because of the secrecy, the same lorry had mistakenly been assigned to not two but three groups.  The first to arrive, a group of medical students, had simply ripped all our decorations off and substituted a bed with two nurses in it, before heading off to the Parade.  In near despair we retreated to Pearce Lodge, the HQ of the Students Representative Council, and when I phoned Prestwick AFB, luckily enough I was put through to Roy Hagen.  It was his weekend off, but he had come back into the office to collect something, and his C.O. gave him permission to bring up a lorry for the evening Parade.  We sang The Star-Spangled Banner down the phone to him.

Cathy Donaghy in replica spacesuit, Glasgow University Guardian, Jan 25th 1964

After postponing the sawmill crane driver, who was waiting for the pickup, our group went out collecting.  Cathy Donaghy was the only member who was small enough to get into the replica spacesuit, and it proved particularly effective as a collecting device because the hose of the ‘air-conditioning unit’ was stretched across the pavement and people had to pay to get past.  The rest of us did pretty well in ‘robot suits’ made of boxes stapled together and covered with aluminium foil.  For most people we were ‘daleks’ because Dr. Who’s first encounter with them was running at the time  (and we had actual Dalek costumes the following year, courtesy of DM Plastics in Irvine).  Altogether we filled about 60 cans, and reckoning from my collecting experience at school that each would contain £3–5, it was a day well spent.

Roy Hagen did us proud, turning up this time in a huge lorry prominently labelled ‘US Air Force’ and trimmed with blue and orange lights.  The capsule was to be held down on it with chains, but they blurred its outline and we decided to manage without them, though it meant creeping in along Great Western Road with all the lights on.  Sandy had assembled the team at Pearce Lodge, but with no mobile phones to explain the delay, he was having trouble restraining them from leaving to join the Parade on foot.  Finally he saw the illuminated lorry coming down University Avenue and stormed into Pearce Lodge with a cry of “By Christ, we’ve done it at last!”  A photographer from Glasgow University Guardian captured the chaos as the rest of us clambered into our costumes, and Sandy affixed a Pifco crash lamp with a red flasher on top of the capsule to make it stand out.

USAF driver, DL with robot suit, Janet McNicol, Cathy Donaghy, Sandy Glover with crash lamp, Lt. Roy Hagen (GU Guardian Jan 25th 1964)

With no prior notice the general reaction from the crowds was astonishment – “What the hell is the US Air Force doing here?”, followed by cheering and applause as they recognised what it was carrying.  We had cut it so fine that we were almost at the end of the Parade, giving it a spectacular finale.   There was no media coverage apart from the photo in G.U. Guardian, so its appearance remains unknown to this day:  I met a Glaswegian who remembered it but thought he must have dreamed it, and no doubt there are many more like him.

All was well until we got back to Pearce Lodge, at which point Roy Hagen said to me, “Duncan, have you any idea how I can get this thing back to Prestwick?”  When we took the chains back off the capsule, he and the Air Force driver had forgotten to pick them up.  There was nothing for it but another crawl back out along Great Western Road, and luckily enough the crane driver, who lived across the road from the sawmill, didn’t mind opening up yet again at 10 p.m. to fetch the chains out. 

We had one last duty to perform, and we did it in style.  On our way back into town, we picked up a team member called Janet MacNicol who had gone home to change.  Janet was a popular member of the University’s ‘Corporate Life’, and the neighbours were giving her parents grief about the cars which picked her up or dropped her off after evening events.  That night, at Janet’s request, the curtain-twitchers were faced with a huge US Air Force lorry, ringed with blue and orange lights, carrying a spacecraft with a red flashing light on top.  They never complained again.

After they dropped us at Pearce Lodge, Roy and his driver turned off the lights and the capsule disappeared with them into the night.  I was sorry to see it go:  for just under a week I had lived every boy’s dream of having a secret spaceship to myself, and it wasn’t likely to happen again.

There was one final coda, eleven or twelve years later during the ‘space probe affair’ in 1973-4  (‘Epsilon Boötis Revisited’, 29th May and 5th June).  A UFO researcher who was determined to draw me into his ranks wrote that he had a case which would definitely convince me, ‘because it was in your neck of the woods’.  A UFO had been sighted coming in over the west of Scotland, apparently in difficulty, after which a mysterious set of craters had appeared on a farm in Lothian.  The farmer had obviously been got at by the authorities, because he tried to pass it off as a student hoax.  “And where could students get the means to do that?”  He was furious to be told that it was a student hoax  – how outrageous that we should seek to take in serious researchers like himself – and refused to believe that his sources could be taken in, so the story he’d relayed to me had to be about other sightings and other craters.  It remained on his files, and for all I know it’s there to this day.

Also in 1964, the late pilot, broadcaster and nonfiction author Martin Caidin published his first novel, Marooned, with a cover by his space artist colleague Fred L. Wolff.

 The novel featured a last, imaginary Mercury mission stuck in orbit, and for the 1969 movie starring Gregory Peck and the 1970 book tie-in, the story was updated to an Apollo capsule and a rescue attempt by a Russian Soyuz. 

Martin Caidin’s ‘Iron Annie’, immortalised in his novel ‘Jericho 52’, Dell, 1979

By the time I met Martin Caidin in 1975, he was a best-selling fiction author because of the success of The Six Million Dollar Man.  He played me a record of his award-winning radio broadcasts, and it turned out that his commentary on Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight was the one I’d listened to on that afternoon off school, 14 years before.  But he also showed me the letter from the US Embassy in Moscow, confirming that a showing there of the 1969 film had been instrumental in convincing the Russians that the Apollo-Soyuz Rendezvous Project was genuine – and the launch of that Apollo mission was what we were at the Cape to see, bringing us back to ‘Apollo through Binoculars’ where these ‘Eyewitness’ articles began.

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