The sky was falling the day Jerry Roberts reported for work at Cape Canaveral.
The newly minted McDonnell Aircraft engineer fresh out of the University of Arkansas noticed other cars pulling over to watch the latest test of a Titan I booster. American rockets had been blowing with alarming frequency as Project Mercury struggled in the late 1950s to get off the ground.
“This Titan got up a couple hundred feet and it blew up,” Roberts recalled in a family history. “It looked like the whole world was one big ball of fire. It came down in the brush and set off a few of brush fires.”
“I thought, ‘Holy cow! I just got here!’” and the American space program was over.
Rather, it was literally a baptism by fire.
“And then I looked around and people who had gotten out of their cars to look at the launch got back in and drove off. No one seemed to pay much attention. A single fire truck came out and put out a few of the little brush fires. Everybody went on about their business,” the wide-eyed engineer observed.
“That set the stage because this happened all the time.”
(Watching Atlas and Titan boosters explode “looked like a quick way to have a short career,” quipped astronaut James Lovell of Apollo 13 fame.)
Roberts first job for Project Mercury was central to the American space program, for getting a man into space and bringing him down. He helped design the Mercury spacecraft autopilot, the Automatic Stabilization and Control System. The spacecraft “literally could have been flown by a monkey,” Roberts explained. “You didn’t ever say that around an astronaut, but that’s true.”
Among his first tasks was designing a console for functional testing of the Mercury autopilot components. The jury-rigged test console was Roberts’ first contribution to Project Mercury, and he recalled with pride that “it worked pretty good.”
The test console represented the seat-of-the-pants engineering typical during the early days of the Space Race—procuring parts from hardware stores in nearby Cocoa Beach, inventing a kluge and figuring out a way to make it work.
Once the engineers validated the design for the Mercury autopilot, the arduous task of installing it in the spacecraft began. The ASCS consisted of a horizon scanner, attitude indicator (pointing down at Earth), pitch, roll and yaw rate sensors.
Roberts’ role in Project Mercury, including a post-flight engineering review with the American hero, John Herschel Glenn, is recounted in an upcoming history of the Space Race by Jeff Shesol. The autopilot incident illuminates the tensions and tradeoffs between the McDonnell engineers and the celebrity Mercury astronauts. The former struggling to get hundreds of thousands of components to work perfectly; the hot-shot test pilots determined to fly the machine, autopilot be damned.
“The [Mercury] astronauts all liked to take the control stick and make it go, make it move around as if they were kind of flying an airplane—they were doing this under very, very tight constraints. But anyway, they liked to do it.”
The post-flight incident with Glenn represents a little-known ding in Glenn’s otherwise sterling reputation as an aviator and astronaut. Or, as Roberts observed, “Maybe our hero [had] clay feet.”
Roberts would know. He was there.
There, in the block house on Pad 5 for the early Project Mercury launches. Among the most memorable was the first flight test of the Mercury-Redstone vehicle that would a year later launch America’s first two astronauts on suborbital hops.
Instead of lifting off at T-minus zero, the pyrotechnics on Mercury-Redstone 1’s launch escape tower ignited. Then the recovery chutes popped out the top of the spacecraft. Another failed rocket test without the usual fire ball. The failure was symbolic of the early American efforts to keep up with the high-flying Soviet space program.
But there was an immediate problem: A fully fueled Redstone rocket was sitting on the pad, and no one in the block house with Roberts that day had a clue about how to disarm it.
Rather than piercing the pressurized propellant tanks with a rifle (yes, this was actually considered), a McDonnell vice president and the union pad foreman drove out to the pad in a cherry picker, carefully opened an access panel at the base of the Redstone, inserted “jumpers” into a connection where an umbilical had been and disarmed the remaining pyrotechnics. The volunteers then opened a valve to relieve pressure and drain propellant—all the while knowing the thing could explode at any moment.
It is often noted that sending humans to the moon and back required the unstinting labors of more than 400,000 engineers and technicians. Roberts was a member of an exclusive group of pathfinding McDonnell engineers known as the Mercury 6.
Decades later, Roberts realized his was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. “I don’t think that you could get a group of men [or women] to do that again today. It still astonishes me and amazes me that we did it then,”
“We were doing something that had never been done. We didn’t even know if it could be done. And there were scientists that said it couldn’t be done. And I guess we were just naive enough to not know that, and so we went ahead and did it.
“But it had a great, great cost [on] our family life.”
Jerry’s wife of 63 years, Sandy, raised their children mostly on her own. They recalled having a “Mercury baby” and a “Gemini baby,” one each for the two early manned spacecraft built by McDonnell Aircraft.
When last we exchanged emails, Jerry was having one of his infrequent good days. The old can-do spirit was back. He vowed to go out kicking and screaming.
Just like the Titan I rocket back in 1959, that is precisely how Jerry Roberts went out on November 2, 2020—a bright flash in the morning sky.
Then, like the remarkable generation of Mercury engineers, we all went back to work.
Jerry L. Roberts of Idalia, Mo., among the last of the Mercury 6 engineers, was 86.
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