13 Little Things NASA Did to Get Alan Shepard Ready for Space

Bacon, an early bedtime, and a few tattoos to mark where the electrodes go
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alanshepard.jpg
Alan Shepard getting pulled out of his capsule

I was digging around the NASA archives when I stumbled upon the flight surgeon's report for the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission, otherwise known as the second flight by a human into space, and the first by an American. Alan Shepard was the man chosen by the United States to leave Earth.

The astronauts were accompanied by doctors at all times. They were fed a strict diet. Their vitals were measured. They were monitored constantly.

But while I've known this in the abstract, it wasn't until reading the surgeon's report that I realized that these flights, from a biomedical perspective, were experiments playing out in the astronauts' bodies. As such, as many variables as possible had to be controlled, while still allowing the pilots to function normally.

Here are 13 tidbits I extracted from William K. Douglas' report detailing the pre-flight ritual.

1. For the three days before the flight, the pilot lived in the Crew Quarters of Hangar "S" at Cape Canaveral: "Here he is provided with a comfortable bed, pleasant surroundings, television, radio, reading materials and, above all, privacy. In addition to protection from the curious-minded public, the establishment of the pilot and the backup pilot in the Crew Quarters also provides a modicum of isolation from carriers of infectious disease organisms."

2. The pilot ate "in a special feeding facility" with a personal chef, "whose sole duty during this period is to prepare these meals."

3. The menu was specially prepared by "Miss Beatrice Finklestein of the Aerospace Medical Laboratory, Aeronautical Systems Division, U.S. Air Force Systems Command. The diet is tasty and palatable." Perhaps, but also boring. Here's a sample, including BACON:

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4. The chef prepared identical meals at each feeding. One was given to the pilot. Several were given to other people "so that an epidemiological study can be facilitated if necessary." And one extra serving was kept in a refrigerator for 24 hours "so that it will be available for study in the event that the pilot develops a gastrointestinal illness during this period or subsequently."

5. NASA asked the pilots to go to bed early, but did not require it, or give them chill pills. "On the evening before the flight, the pilot is encouraged to retire at an early hour, but he is not required to do so. The pilot of MR-3 spacecraft retired at 10:15 p.m. e.s.t."

6. Neither Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, the first two Americans in space, dreamed on the night before their trips. "Their sleep was sound, and insofar as they could remember, was dreamless."

7. Grissom, who flew after Shepard, got to wake up 65 minutes later. That's because they optimized the routine by allowing him to "shave and bathe before retiring instead of after awakening in the morning." (I feel like I used that trick in middle school.)

8. BRUTAL: "No coffee was permitted during the 24-hour period preceding the flight because of its tendency to inhibit sleep. No coffee was permitted for breakfast on launch morning because of its diuretic properties."

9.What were the astronauts wearing right before they put on their spacesuits? "After breakfast, the pilots donned bathrobes." Where are those pictures, NASA?

10. Even the flight surgeon had a little bit of a man crush on the astronauts: "The physiological bradycardia (pulse rate 60 to 70) and normotensive (blood pressure 110/70) state both give some indication of the calm reserved air of confidence which typifies both of these pilots." I bet they smelled good, too.

11. The Mercury astronauts had their electrode attachment locations tattooed onto their bodies! "The sensor locations have been previously marked on all Mercury pilots by the use of a tiny (about 2 millimeters in diameter) tattooed dot at each of the four electrode sites."

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Alan Sheaerd suited up, sitting on a La-Z-Boy

12. As Shepard was strapped in, the flight surgeon hung around the capsule, in part to get "some indication of the pilot's emotional state at the last possible opportunity."

13. Once back from space and in the debriefing facility, the astronauts were examined by (in order) a flight surgeon, a surgeon, an internist, an ophthalmologist, a neurologist, and a psychiatrist. All the checkups had a dual purpose: to check up on the health of the astronaut and collect data on what the (possible) effects of space flight might be on the human body.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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